Kathy Spratt recently sent me an M.A. thesis by Zhi (Stone) Chen of Iowa State University. The thesis investigates some of the TOEFL preparation behaviors of repeater test-takers in China, and is the best investigation of the TOEFL I’ve seen in recent years.  Everyone should check it out. Reading about test-takers in China is of particular importance as Chinese test-takers are kicking ass nowadays.  Their scores are going up and up.  In 2020, the mean score in China increased by six points. 

I want to highlight and comment on a few of Chen’s findings.

General Findings

  • The literature review suggests that TOEFL coaching and preparation schools are ineffective. That comes as no surprise to me.
  • Nowadays, online communities are more popular.  Again, this is no great surprise.  Self-directed learning is probably the best way to tackle the TOEFL.
  • The most popular preparation method?  Using the TPOs.  It is unfortunate that the TPOs are only widely available within China.  I know that some are available for people outside China,  but the difference in availability is notable: 69 sets for free in China vs five sets that cost $40 each in the rest of the world.  I hope ETS acknowledges this disparity some day. The thesis includes quotes from test-takers who raved about the usefulness of the TPOs.  At the end of the day, I suspect that easy access to TPOs is the “secret” to score increases in China.  But that’s my conclusion, not the author’s.

New Preparation Techniques 

Chen mentions a few preparation techniques not discussed in existing literature:

  • The article describes how many students use “speed listening” to prepare for the speaking section. Basically, they grab the audio from a sample lecture (TPOs, I guess) and listen to it at normal speed.  Then the listen at 1.2 speed.  Then they listen at 1.4 speed.  The goal is to be able to understand every word at 1.4 speed, so that on test day the lectures sound like they are in “slow motion.”  I suppose they repeat this process with dozens of lectures.  One student mentioned doing this with the “60 Second Science” podcast from Scientific American.
  • The article also describes how a “new” preparation method is getting feedback regarding their practice essays.
  • Dictation and shadow-speaking are also mentioned.

I do encourage you to check out the thesis for yourself to explore which preparation methods were deemed most effective overall, and in each section of the test.


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