The other day, someone asked:

I’ve got twelve months to prepare for the TOEFL, and I need 100 points.  What should I do?

The good news for that student is that they have time to really improve their English fluency instead of just learning TOEFL tricks and strategies.  I know it sounds crazy, but the best way to increase your TOEFL score is to become more fluent in English.

 

Here’s how I responded:

  1.  Get a good grammar book like “English Grammar in Use” (also called “Grammar in Use – Intermediate” in some countries).  I read about a dozen TOEFL essays every day, and I see that most students suffer from grammar and language use problems.   Reduce your error rate and your writing score will go up.
  2. Find someone to practice speaking with.  To improve your score you need to speak fluidly.  You need to eliminate pauses, “umm breaks”, and repetitions.  You need to pronounce vowels and consonants properly.  You need to reduce the effort required to understand what you are saying.  Regular practice will help with this.  You don’t necessarily have t pay big bucks for a special TOEFL teacher to do this.  You can probably find an affordable tutor on a service like italki for this.
  3. Take accurate practice TOEFL tests.  There are 15 official ETS practice tests available (Official Guide x 4, Official iBT Tests x 10, website x 1) plus some PDF junk on the website.  You should work through all of those.  Fortunately, you have time to buy all of the books!  Switch to unofficial material only when you run out.
  4. If you have a year to prepare you can also improve your reading and listening skills in a general sense.  Spend some time reading good non-fiction books and articles (I like Science News, and National Geographic).  Make use of your local library, if they have an English section.  For listening, try Khan Academy, or podcasts like 60 Second Science.
  5. Towards the end of your preparation period take one of the scored practice tests from ETS to gauge your current level and see how to use the last few months most effectively.

 

And, yes, along the way you should devote some time to becoming familiar with the test.  Read the Official Guide cover to cover (a few times).  Read some of the guides on this website and watch some Youtube videos.  Review sample writing and speaking responses.  Just don’t get bogged down in “strategies” if the test is still a year away.

According to ETS, both the lectures and conversations in the listening section are “approximately 4-5 minutes long” (source: Official Guide to the TOEFL, 6th edition, page 119).

For what it’s worth, the fifth edition said they were “3-6 minutes long.”

Note that the entire listening is 41-57 minutes long, depending on how many questions you get (source).

Updated Story:  It has been confirmed by ETS   that students now get their TOEFL listening and reading scores at the test center, at the end of the test.  They say:

You can now view unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on screen immediately upon completing the test. These scores can give you an early indication of your performance and help you make a well-informed decision about reporting your scores before leaving the test center.

Note that these are “unofficial” scores, which mean the final scores could be different.  I will try to gather data to see how often this happens.  

Note, also, that these are “scaled” scores, which means they are on the same 1-30 scale as your final score report.  They are NOT “raw” scores.

Update 2:  After five months, it seems that the instant scores match the final scores almost all of the time.

Original Story:

If you go to the ETS page on getting scores (https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/scores/get/) and look at the page source, the following was added sometime in January, but was “commented out” so it doesn’t actually appear:

“At the end of your test, you will see your unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on the screen. This gives you an idea of how you did on the test and helps you determine whether to report or cancel your scores.”

I assume this  means that in the future ETS will provide scaled reading and listening scores at the end of the test, but that they will not be adjusted for the difficulty level of the test that week.  This means the scores given will usually be accurate… but that the final (official) score could be plus or minus one point.  If this is confusing to you, just note that ETS adjusts everyone’s score some days if the questions are deemed too easy or too hard after everyone has taken the test.

While this remains hidden (we aren’t supposed to see it) my guess is that this is a change that will be announced in the coming weeks. I just hope they don’t frame it as helping students determine if they should cancel their scores, as that should only  be done if they are planning to make a test center complaint (in my opinion).

My overall grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test – Listening and Speaking: A

I like this book! If you’ve been reading all my TOEFL book reviews you might think I hate everything, but I really appreciate what Collins has managed to do with it’s “Skills…” series in general, and the entry focusing on listening and speaking in particular.

Just note that I’m only reviewing the speaking section of the book. The chapters focusing on listening look okay, but that isn’t really my area of expertise.

The biggest strength of this book is its concise organization. It doesn’t waste time on a lot of “skills building” activities. I guess the authors looked at a lot of other books and came to the conclusion that such content is confusing and a waste of time. Instead, they focus on breaking down the structure of each question type so that students are as comfortable as possible going into the test.

In the book is a short chapter on each question type. They flow as follows:

  • Quick Guide (describes the question and answer requirements)
  • Walk through (a sample question, sample student notes, and a sample answer)
  • Get it Right (one page of concise tips)
  • Progressive Practice (three sample questions and a template)

At the end of the book there is a sample test with one question of each type.

And that’s it. But it really works. In about ten pages per question students get an accurate depiction of how each question is structured, and a fairly good template they can use to answer the question on test day. The sample answers are complete, and sufficiently long (unlike, say, the answers in Cracking the TOEFL).

I really want to draw attention to how rare it is to find such accurate questions. Most major books I have looked at (Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton, etc) all contain inaccurate questions which make student study time EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT. The authors of those books don’t even seem to have taken the test, and so their work makes students confused and frustrated.

When students study accurate questions they can avoid wasting time. That is the strength of this book.

It is clear that four questions of each type might not be enough for students to master the test, but once they have a decent understanding of how the questions are put together they will be able to supplement this book with content from the Official Test Collection books (10 questions of each type, in total).

Just note that starting August 1 of 2019 this book will be somewhat out of date because the TOEFL will change.