Well, I didn’t get invited to the EFL Magazine TOEFL Teacher Summit, but if someone asked me how to be a successful TOEFL teacher, here’s what I would say.

About Success

First, though, a few words about success.

No one has ever gotten rich teaching TOEFL, so maybe there has never been a successful TOEFL teacher. That said,  I’ve never spent a penny on advertising and my website is just a crappy WordPress template… but I’m still really busy.  Maybe that’s a kind of success.

About these Methods

Overall, this article stresses the need to be (and be known as) an expert in all things TOEFL.

Other approaches are possible, of course.  I’ll pass this article on to some other teachers and post a follow-up with their suggestions.

1. Read Everything

You have to do the research. Every month a different TOEFL tutor scolds me for suggesting that students should write more than 300 words in the second writing task.  They insist that that isn’t allowed. But the Official Guide to the TOEFL clearly states that there is no penalty for a long word count. These teachers haven’t even done the most basic research. Additionally, I still see claims like:

  • The unscored reading and listening passages are “experimental” content.
  • Personal examples should not be used in the second essay.
  • There are always 10 questions per article in the reading section.

None of these things are true, but I see them all over the Internet. Even the most cursory research  disproves them. One day I’ll make a recommended reading list, but off the top of my head you should read: the three official books, the TOEFL Insight series, all of the relevant articles from the ETS database, Carol Chapelle’s book on the validity of the test, the SpeechRater book from Rutledge, the e-rater book, and the teacher training manual from ETS.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Bottom line: The point here is that you should become a TOEFL expert. This will make you a better teacher, and will also generate word of mouth recommendations that mention your expertise.

2. Understand Grammar

Don’t be that teacher that says “that’s just more natural” whenever a student asks a question about why you made a certain correction. English has grammar and you should understand it. Know how to use the proper terminology to give explanations.  Sadly, this will require more reading.  Start with Michael Swan’s book.

You won’t be successful as a tutor if you know less about grammar than your students. I’m not saying you need to be a perfect writer.  I make grammar mistakes in all of my blog posts. I’m just saying that you need to have the ability to explain things to your students.

Bottom line:  Be a grammar expert. Grammar sucks, but it is important on the TOEFL.

3. Don’t be Annoying

Write good content and put it on the Internet in a clear and straightforward fashion. Good content that is easy to access will expose a lot of students to you and your work.

Remember that you must not annoy people with a giant pop-over advertising your newsletter.  Don’t force people to submit their email address to get your stuff. Don’t write “SEO rich” content.  No one likes that. Remember how frustrating it was last week when you were trying to find a recipe for french toast?  That’s how your readers feel when they get sucked into your e-mail funnel nonsense. Actually, they feel worse because their search for information actually matters.

Bottom Line: Quality content presented in an easy-to-digest way will let students know you are an expert.

4. Quit and Teach IELTS Instead

Hard statistics aren’t available, but most experts agree that the IELTS is a way more popular test.  My guess is that it has an 80% market share, compared to TOEFL’s 20%. If you want to make money, consider just teaching IELTS instead.

And, meanwhile, the Duolingo is chipping away at both tests.  Not to mention the growing importance of the CAEL.

Bottom Line: You can make more money doing something else.

5. Remember who Takes the TOEFL

If you stick with the TOEFL, remember who is actually taking the TOEFL.  Test-takers are mostly: Chinese + Koreans + Japanese + Pharmacists in the USA.  For the first three categories that 80/20 split is probably reversed.  And the last one is 100% TOEFL. If you want to be successful teaching TOEFL you should figure out those markets.

Bottom Line: Understand your market.

6. Remember that Blogs Still Exist

Word of mouth by way of blog posts can really help your business. This might sound strange to some readers, since blogs died off in the United States more than a decade ago.  But they are still really popular in non-English markets. I’m not kidding!  This is especially true in the aforementioned big three TOEFL countries: China, Korea and Japan. When students from those countries contact me out of the blue I ask how they learned about me, and the response is generally that they read some international student’s blog.

This compares favorably to the trend of getting students to post endorsements on Facebook.  I see a lot of great comments about teachers on the big TOEFL Facebook groups, but those lovely comments all sink down into the algorithm’s black hole within 48 hours. Never to be seen again.

Bottom Line:  Word of Mouth, Damn it!

7.  Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

If your schedule permits, I recommend that you do 30 minutes or an hour of pro bono work each day.  This might mean answering questions on Facebook, or Reddit or even Quora (LOL). This may help to establish your expert credentials, but it will also help you keep up with what students are thinking, and what they need. The latter is quite important but often overlooked – student needs change as time passes, based on the available resources. Emerging ed-tech really changes what students can do on their own, and what they need a teacher for. It is likely that many students nowadays need specialists rather than generalists. 

Bottom Line: Keep up with the changing world.

8.  Don’t Place Your Faith in the Algorithm

It was once possible to rely on Facebook and YouTube for a steady stream of clients. That is still an option, but it is more difficult than in the past. Those spaces are a lot more crowded now, and the demands of the algorithm for constant content can be a bit overwhelming.  If you rely too much on those streams you might burn out.  That’s why point 6 (word of mouth on other people’s blogs) is relevant.  You should also try to maintain  quality static content of your own (I mean building a frigging website). Getting eyeballs that way is a bit more manageable than dealing with the feed-the-beast aspect of social media.


Anyhow, I realize now that this is all “big picture” stuff.  It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty of day to day teaching, technology use, scheduling, marketing, etc.  Hopefully I’ll have a few words to share about those things in the future.

I often hear things like this:

I’ve been speaking English for twenty years, and I only got a 78 on the TOEFL.  The test is bullsh–t.

And things like this:

My crazy uncle Bob is a native speaker, and he only got a 22 in the reading section.  The test is obviously unfair.

But here’s the thing.  The TOEFL is not just an English test.  I know, “TOEFL” is supposed to stand for “Test of English as a Foreign Language.”  But check the ETS website.  They don’t use that name anymore.  You won’t find it in the Official Guide anymore.  These days, TOEFL doesn’t stand for anything.  It’s just the “TOEFL Test.” 

Even though Uncle Bob is a native speaker, it is likely that he’s incapable of functioning in an academic environment.  Indeed, most native speakers aren’t.  I suspect if you pull 100 random people off the street in the USA and give them the same TOEFL reading set, their average score will be quite low.

Keep that in mind before you get frustrated by your TOEFL score.  The score is meant to predict your performance in an English-medium university.  That’s it.  It isn’t a test of how well you communicate in English in general.  

This is what test designers refer to as “validity.”  They argue that you can’t just toss a bunch of grammar and vocabulary questions on a test (like the original TOEFL) and expect the scores to be useful for any real purpose.  The questions need to have a connection to the users of test scores, and be valid for their intended purpose.

In 2008 ETS published a 370 book to make this case (“Building a Validity Argument for the Test of English as a Foreign Language,” Carol A Chapelle, et al).  Ask your TOEFL teacher if they have a copy.

In a more recent book, Chapelle says:

Test developers, researchers, and anyone responsible for assessing human capacities would readily agree that validity is their central concern.  Similarly, teachers, employers, students, parents and researchers want the tests they use to be valid, and they expect professionals in educational and psychological testing to know how to evaluate a test’s validity. (“Argument- Based Testing in Validation and Assessment,” Carol A Chapelle)

This is why the TOEFL is really hard, and this is why the TOEFL is really popular with university administrators.

And this sort of thing is why there are a whole bunch of different tests.  The IELTS General Test is intended to assess language skills needed by immigrants and people in non-academic training.  The TOEIC test is meant to assess the potential of people to function in business settings.

Heck, ETS seems to be all-in on this concept.  They recently purchased Pipplet, which makes boutique language tests.  Including tests for: customer service agents, consultants, retail workers, medical professionals, startup employees… and more!  Some day they’ll have a different test for everyone!

What Does This Mean for Students?

It means that you need to prepare for the TOEFL.  Don’t just count on your amazing English skills. You can’t just prepare for a couple of days and expect an amazing score.  You need to study. 

The Future

Some people think this is an old-fashioned idea.  Maybe they are right. Maybe language tests won’t be so hung up on this conception of validity in the future.

In fact, according to the IPO documents recently published by Duolingo, that company wants its “Duolingo English Test” to be used for university admission, immigration AND workforce placement!  The idea of an identical test for all three purposes seems antithetical to the above definition of validity.  This sort of idea is why the Duolingo folks seem to be able to get a rise out of ETS in a way that the IELTS and Pearson people cannot.