Changes to the TOEFL in 2019

(updated September 13, 2019)

The TOEFL changed on August 1, 2019. Major changes to the reading, listening and speaking sections began on that day. Most of these changes have been well-publicized, but some of them are a bit "secret."  Here's what you need to note.

Reading Section

You will still get three or four passages to read.  If you get four passages, one of them will be an "experimental" passage that is not graded.

Each reading passage has only 10 questions, instead of 12-14. You will be given 54 minutes (three passages) or 74 minutes (four passages) to finish the reading section. This means you will have about 18 minutes per passage and 105 seconds per question (instead of 90 seconds like on the old test). Note that you may be required to achieve increased accuracy, so it is not safe to say that this change makes the reading section "easier."

The articles are the same length and difficult level as before. The same types of questions are used. Note that the "fill in a table" and "pronoun reference" questions have not been used much by ETS over the past two years.  You are unlikely to get one of these on the new test.

Listening Section

You will listen to two or three sets of listening materials.  Each set consists of either one conversation and two lectures (long set), or one conversation and one lecture (short set).

The long set includes 17 questions and you will be given 10 minutes to solve them. The short set includes 11 questions and you will be given 6.5 minutes to solve them.  Note that the clock does not run while you are listening.  This means you have about 35 seconds to solve each question, which is the same as on the old test.

Note that if you are given three sets, the third will be an additional short set.  In this case one of your lectures and one of your conversations will not be graded.  These experimental passages could come from any of the sets.

Note also that the length of the passages is unchanged, and the difficulty level is unchanged. All of the same question types are being used.

Speaking Section

Speaking Question 1 (personal preference) and Speaking Question 5 (campus situation) have been removed from the test.

It now takes 17 minutes to finish the speaking section, instead of 20 minutes.

Your score is now determined by one human rater and the SpeechRater software.  This is called "Enhanced Speaking Scoring" by ETS.  Previously, your score was determined by two human raters.  You can hear more about this change in my video on the topic.  Now, the human grader will check your language use and topic development while the SpeechRater software will check your delivery.

 I have created a series of videos about each question on the new speaking section, but note that in the first six weeks of the new test, ETS has not used any "multiple choice" and "advantages/disadvantages" style questions in the independent speaking section. 

 

Overall

It now takes three hours to finish the test, instead of 3.5 hours (not counting administrative tasks and your break).  The test is still scored out of 120 points, and each section still has equal weight.

Some of this information comes from the ETS website.  Some details have not been publicly acknowledged by ETS, but have been confirmed privately.

Changes to the Score Report 

Good: MyBest Scores

Your TOEFL score report now contains a separate section referred to as "MyBest Scores."  This line  combines the best result from each section of the test you have gotten over all of your attempts over the past two years.  For example, if you take the test three times it will combine the best individual writing, speaking, reading and listening scores you achieved on all three attempts.  Note that some schools may not accept these scores and will continue to accept single test scores as usual. So far, most schools are not accepting these scores, but you can see my (incomplete) list of which schools accept them over here.

Bad: Less Specific Scores

In the past, students received overall speaking and writing scores, as well as specific levels (limited, weak, fair, good) for each of their writing tasks and for pairs of their speaking tasks.  This indicated which parts of the test they did well on, and which parts they did poorly on.  Those levels have now been removed from the score reports.  Students only get overall scores now.  You can read more about this on my blog.

 

New Official Test Prep Resources

ETS has not announced plans to publish a new version of the Official Guide to the TOEFL or new versions of the Official iBT Test Collection books to match the new format. That bothers me.

However, they have provided a new free sample test which used modified versions of the old TOEFL Quick Prep sets.  They have also provided some new question PDFs which you can read about on my blog.

The "TOEFL Interactive Sampler" has been removed and not replaced with anything.  That is unfortunate.

Changes to Score Review

According to ETS customer support reps, it now takes 1-3 days to complete a score review of either section.  This isn't publicly stated anywhere, however.  Note that since the SpeechRater is now used in both the writing and speaking sections, your chance of getting a higher score after a review is lower. 

Recent TOEFL Trends - 2018 and 2019

To quickly summarize, there are six main trends we've noticed in 2018 and 2019 that are separate from the announced changes described above:

  1. Independent writing question prompts are getting longer.
  2. A warning to "not used memorized examples" is sometimes displayed in the independent writing section.
  3. In multiple-choice independent writing questions, students are sometimes told they can choose more than one option.
  4. Independent speaking question prompts are getting longer.
  5. Advantages/Disadvantages (speaking) questions are a bit more confusing.
  6. It is now possible to get 25 points in the speaking section.

These changes are summarized in the following video, or you can read on.

 

Changes to the TOEFL Writing Section

1.  Multiple choice independent writing questions are getting longer and more confusing. 

These days, the independent writing questions are getting really long.  In the past a question prompt might have been just a single sentence.  Now you might read three long sentences.  Likewise, in multiple choice questions the options themselves are full sentences instead of single words or fragments.  Note that the 30 minute timer will start as soon as the question is displayed, so you will lose some time as you read it.

Here's a sample preference style question:

“Often we are required to participate in group projects at school or work.  Sometimes we must work with people who share our opinions and ideas. However, sometimes we must work with people who have completely different opinions than us.  

Which do you prefer?  Use reasons and examples to support your answer. Do not use memorized examples.”

Here is a sample multiple choice question:

We all face difficult challenges in our lives. They can occur at home, at work or even at school.  When you are dealing with a serious problem in your life what do you feel is the best way to handle it?

-Asking someone with more experience for advice.

-Looking for potential solutions using the Internet

-Taking a long time to think about the problem

Use details and examples to support your choice.  Do not use memorized examples.

How to Solve these New Questions

The good news is that you can solve these questions using the same method as before. Nothing has changed... you just have to pay more attention to the actual prompt.

2.  The independent writing question somtimes displays a warning about plagiarism. 

The independent writing question now sometimes ends with the following:

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

This is just to warn you that you should not memorize your essay even before you take the test.  It is still okay to use personal examples to support your argument!

3.  In multiple-choice independent writing questions, there is sometimes a note in the prompt that it is okay to choose more than one option.

I am not exactly sure how this is phrased, since it is quite new, but keep an eye out for it.  Let me know what you spot.

Changes to the TOEFL Speaking Section

1.  The independent speaking questions are longer than before.  You might now have to read three or four sentences before answering the question.  Here's a sample:

Which of the following companies  would you prefer to work for?

A company that offers you challenging and interesting projects but very few vacation days.

A company that offers you a job with very boring work each day, but very long vacations each year. 

Include details and examples to support your choice.

Here's another sample:

Imagine that you have just begun studying at a new university. Which of the following do you think would be the best way for you to learn about the new campus?

  • A second-year student gives you a personal tour of the whole campus
  • You are given a detailed map of the campus designed by the student services department
  • You join a group tour of the campus together with all of the other new students

Include details and examples to support your choice.

2.  Advantages/Disadvantages questions are getting tricker than before

Sometimes the prompt will describe two or three options, and you will be required to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of only one.  Here's a sample:

Some teachers prefer announcing their quizzes in advance, while others prefer to give surprise quizzes.  Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of surprise quizzes. Use details and examples in your answer.

Note, however, that advantages/disadvantages questions have been quite rare since August 1, 2019.

3.  You can now get 25 points in the speaking section. 

Previously, this was impossible.  Indeed, you can get any possible numerical score in this part.  I think that it is now possible for students to get fractional scores for their individual answers (which round and scale to whole numbers).  it is also likely that test scores are adjusted based on how difficult the test is on a given day.  That is, if scores are abnormally high, a penalty is assigned to everyone.

Summary

ETS may deny it, but I do think the test is getting more difficult.  Your job is to keep up with changes to the test so you aren't surprised.  Keep watching this page.