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The Test of English as a Foreign Language

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Most native speakers of English will never hear anything about the TOEFL-Test, although some people's use of English makes you think they should. This is because the TOEFL-Test is a Test of the use Of English as a Foreign Language (so it should really be called the TOEFL, rather than the TOEFL-Test). The test is offered by TOEFL having been developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to test people's ability to use the English language.

It was originally developed in the United States to test the ability of people from non-English speaking countries to use the American version of the English Language. Since the test's beginnings in 1963-64, it has developed into the most well-known measure of English language proficiency. A large number of organisations and institutions now accept a TOEFL score as an indicator of English ability.

Who Is it for?

Due to the international nature of modern education, the test is mainly taken by pupils or students who want to study in an English-speaking country. Schools and universities often impose a certain degree of familiarity with the English language as an entry requirement. The idea behind this is that exchange students would have a hard time both in class and in social life if they lack the ability to communicate with their peers and their teachers.

What Is it like?

The following is a description of the process involved in taking the Computer-Based TOEFL-Test. This is by now the most common, having replaced the Paper-Based Test in most testing locations.

During the test you will be placed in front of a computer fitted with headphones. The first thing that will happen is you put on the headphones and work through an introductory sequence that will teach you how to use the equipment during the test. This introduction cannot be skipped because they have to be sure you know how to answer the questions. After you have completed the introduction the actual test will start.

The test is broken down into four sections and each section has a set amount of time in which to complete it. This means there is nothing to be gained from rushing a section because it won't give you any time advantage later on. Keep this in mind and work through each section at a steady pace.

The sections of the test are as follows:

  • Listening
  • Structure
  • Reading
  • Writing


This part of the test starts off with testing your ability to understand spoken English. You will have to answer 30 to 49 questions, getting 15 to 25 minutes respectively to answer the questions. Listening time is not included, so the total length of this part is about an hour.

Now, if you did not prepare with an audio CD you will be surprised to learn that English in this context means the American version of English. While the speakers speak clearly, they will use American peculiarities of speech. This could mean you have problems with the test because there are a variety of subtle differences (as well as major ones) between UK English and the American version. So be sure to familiarise yourself with American usage of the English language before the exam.

The first part of the listening section will be taken up by short conversations, consisting of a statement and a reply. One will be by a woman while the other will be by a man. The questions following each listening section run along the lines of 'What does the man/woman mean?'. You will be presented with four possible answers of which you are to choose one.

The length of the conversations will increase as will the number of questions asked about the particular exchange. Each conversation will only be played once, so listen closely.

The computer-based TOEFL-Test is adaptive ie, the difficulty of the questions is varied according to your performance.


The structure part of the test will pose 20 to 25 questions relating to sentence construction and grammar. These are to be answered in 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the number. The questions will either ask you to select the word or part of a sentence which correctly completes the sentence. Or they will ask you to identify the incorrect word or part of the sentence. You will not have to type the answer but to choose one of the four possibilities.


In this part of the test you'll be faced with a text and questions relating to the text. You can expect the text to be about half an A4 page in length. You will generally start off with a question along the lines of 'What is this text mainly about?'. Again, four answers are at your disposal. It is advisable not to try to memorise the whole text as you can see it when you answer the questions. Rather, read to get an overview so that you know the structure of the text. This will enable you to go to the paragraph the question relates to. Read it again, keeping the question in mind to answer it. There are 11 questions for each text and a total of 44-55 questions to be answered in 70 to 90 minutes.


This part is optional with the paper-based test and mandatory when taking the computer-based one. The computer will randomly choose a subject for you to write about. The subject will be politically correct and so, for example, won't touch on religious matters. So it is not the aim to necessarily present your own opinion. Just write a nice, logical and error-free essay of around 300 words. For this you are given 30 minutes. You may choose between typing the text on the computer or writing it by hand.


For each part the maximum score is 30 points. The score for most of the sections will be given to you right after finishing the test.

For the purpose of scoring the Structure and Writing parts are combined. As the written section is scored by two humans rather than the computer a final score for the Structure/Writing part will not be available to you at that time. Instead you are given a score range based on zero points and full points for the essay. This means if you make no mistakes the highest possible score for the Structure/Writing part is 30 points.

You will also be given a total score, which is indicated as a range depending on the quality of your essay.

The organisation or institution demanding the TOEFL will indicate what they consider a passing score. The TOEFL itself cannot be failed. For post-graduate courses offered by universities, for example, you can expect to need 267 out of 300 points. See the 2001 Test and Score Data Summary for further information.

How you Can Prepare for It?

First of all, download a copy of the current official Information Bulletin. It should inform you about the latest changes and procedures.

A lot of people make a lot of money from selling preparatory material for the TOEFL-Test, including the TOEFL organisation itself. If money is not a concern for you, go and buy a recent copy of any of the books offered. Make sure that a CD-ROM containing some simulated tests comes with the book. Also, take a look at the book itself; is it written in a style that you like and can understand easily? Does it use the same names for grammatical constructions as you?

A slightly cheaper way is to have a look at your local testing centre as people who took the test recently may offer to sell their study materials there. Another way would be to get a book or two from your library.

Take a couple of weeks to study the material and keep in mind that it is highly unlikely that you will be asked these specific questions. Rather, familiarise yourself with the different kinds of questions and how to answer them. This will save a lot of time during the actual test, as you will not have to read through the instructions, but can recognise the type of question by its layout.

Now, good luck with the test and remember not to panic.

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