This blog will help you understand the structure of the TOEFL test.
What is the TOEFL test structure?
This blog post is meant for people who are just beginning their TOEFL journey and feel intimidated. There is so much to learn! First and foremost: What is the test actually like?
First thing’s first. The cost varies by location, but as of 2022, it costs $245 USD to take the test once. Two things to note: This price only applies to those taking the TOEFL test within the United States. Also, fees go up all the time, so this may change without notice. The test takes about three hours. Please note it will take an additional thirty minutes to complete your check- in at the test center.
The TOEFL test is scored out of 120. Each section is worth 30 points. I will write a future blog about how each section is scored.
The exam has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing.
The Reading Section
Reading comes first. Each passage is approximately seven hundred words. You will be given three or four passages NOTE: If you get four passages, one is not scored.
Each passage has ten questions. You have eighteen minutes to complete each passage, so the time of this section is 54-72 minutes. Please note you are given this time in TOTAL—That means if you take more than eighteen minutes on a passage, you will have less time to complete the other passages.
The reading section is multiple choice. The question types are as follows:
VOCABULARY- one to two per passage
FACTUAL INFORMATION QUESTIONS- two to five per passage
NEGATIVE FACTUAL INFORMATION QUESTIONS- one to two per passage
PURPOSE QUESTIONS – one to two per passage
INFERENCE QUESTIONS- one to two per passage
SENTENCE SIMPLIFICATION (OR THE PARAPHRASE QUESTION)- zero to one per passage (in other words, some passages do not contain this question)
INSERT SENTENCE QUESTION- one per passage
SUMMARY QUESTION – one per passage (WORTH TWO RAW POINTS)
Lastly, there is a question type called “Reference questions.” You may get one or two on the ENTIRE test, but they are increasingly rare.
TOEFL passages are excerpts from college textbooks or articles that would be used in a college classroom. You do not need any background knowledge of the subject (although sometimes it helps, I have found.) By far the most common topic on the TOEFL reading section is history. These passages usually deal with ancient history or ancient civilizations. The second most common is zoology: these deal with animals and their behavior. Other possible topics are geography, biology, and ecology. Among the least common, but certainly still possible, are architecture, astronomy, sociology, education, anthropology, art, and paleontology.
This blog is not meant to be a thorough overview of each section. I did write a book about the Reading section, which you can purchase here for only $9.99 USD
The Listening Section
The TOEFL listening section gives you 41- 57 minutes to answer all of the listening questions.
You will either get: four lectures and three conversations (LONG FORM)
Three lectures and two conversations (SHORT FORM)
Note: If you get the long form, ONE of the conversations and ONE of the lectures will not count towards your score.
Each lecture or conversation is approximately four to five minutes long. They are meant to represent natural conversation, so they may include features such as false starts (“The rabblesnake… oh sorry! I meant rattlesnake….”) or natural “Uh, umms… “ that are commonly said in natural speech. You can (AND SHOULD!) Take lots of notes.
Conversations are either “office hours,” (a student speaking to his or her professor) or “service encounters,” (a student speaking to a university employee)
Lectures are either one professor speaking, or a professor speaking and allowing questions and comments from the students. Common lecture topics are art, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences.
There are SIX questions per lecture and FIVE questions per conversation.
The questions types are:
UNDERSTANDING A SPEAKER'S ATTITUDE
Questions are multiple choice, but some require you to click more than one answer, or even to check boxes in a chart. If a question is worth more than one point, it will be indicated in the directions.
Note: There is a mandatory ten-minute break before the speaking section.
The Speaking Section
This is the biggest challenge for those who need a score above 24 in this section. It consists of four tasks, and takes approximately 17 minutes. Each answer is scored on a scale of 0-4 and then converted into a score out of thirty.
There are four tasks:
1. The independent task: This task asks you about a personal preference. You have 15 seconds to prepare, and 45 seconds to speak. DO NOT MEMORIZE ANSWERS. Here are some typical questions:
Some people prefer to study alone. Others prefer to study in a group. Which do you prefer, and why?
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Video games offer no benefits to children.
Your town has decided to build a football stadium. Do you think this is a good idea?
2. The Announcement – Discussion Task: (also known as the “Campus Situation” task) This prompt gives you an announcement or proposal to read for 45-50 seconds. It is approximately 150- 180 words. Then, the reading disappears and you do not see it again. Next, you listen to a conversation between two students, a man and a woman. The conversation will be 60- 80 seconds. One student will either support or not support the reading. The question asks you to summarize both the reading and the opinion of one student about the reading. You have thirty seconds to prepare and sixty seconds to answer.
3. The Definition- Example Task: (Also called the “General to Specific” Task) This prompt gives you a reading that defines a term. You have 45-50 seconds to read it and take notes. The reading disappears and you do not see it again. Then you listen to a lecture that is between 60 and 90 seconds which provides one or two examples of the term. You must combine the important information from both the reading and the lecture.
4. The Summary Task: You will listen to a lecture that is 90- 120 seconds long. The lecture briefly explains a concept and then gives examples to illustrate the concept. You must summarize the lecture. You have 20 seconds to prepare, and 60 seconds to speak. You must demonstrate your ability to repeat and summarize key information from the lecture.
The Writing Section
There are two tasks in the writing section. The first is the integrated task, and the second is the independent writing task. Each task is given a raw score of 0- 5 and then converted into a score out of 30. I will make a future post about how essays are scored. It will take you about an hour to complete this section.
Note that the essays are typed, not handwritten, on a QWERTY keyboard. Improving your typing speed will really help.
The integrated writing task is given first. You will read a passage about an academic or social topic that will appear on your screen for three minutes. DO NOT WORRY—It will reappear after the lecture.
This passage will have an introduction and then THREE arguments about a topic. It will disappear from your screen after three minutes, and then you will listen to a lecture. The lecture will be structured in the same way as the reading and in the same order- but will make three arguments from a different perspective.
Your job is to write an essay that is approximately 225 words summarizing the perspective of the writer and summarizing how the lecture contradicts it. You may write more words than this.
AS A SIDE NOTE, MANY TUTORS TEACH YOU TO START WITH THE LECTURE. I do not. I believe better essays start with a summary of the reading, and then show how the lecture contradicts the reading. Contact me for more information about this.
ANOTHER SIDE NOTE: As I mentioned, the reading will appear on your screen as you write, but DO NOT COPY IT. Your job is to summarize it in your own words. You will lose points if you copy it in the exact same words.
The second and final task of the TOEFL is the independent essay. You are given a question and you have thirty minutes to write an essay in response. DO NOT USE MEMORIZED EXAMPLES OR COMPLEX TEMPLATES GIVEN TO YOU BY A TUTOR. You will lose points or even have your test cancelled with no refund! You have thirty minutes to type your response.
Here are typical questions:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Childhood is the best time of a person’s life.
Your teacher has given you a long assignment you must complete in one month. Would you rather work on it a little each day, or wait and work hard on it a few days before it is due? Why? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
If you could meet one famous person, who would you meet? Why would you choose to meet that person? Use specific reasons to support your choice.
Of course, there is a lot of variety in the independent writing questions. This is one reason you should NOT memorize answers—raters can quickly and easily identify memorized information.
AS A SIDE NOTE, most sources say these essays should be 300 words, but I have noticed fully developed essays are usually 350 words or more. THERE IS NO WORD LIMIT. You can write as much as you want. However, MORE does not mean a better score – I have given scores of 2/ 5 for essays that were 700 words!
In a future post, I will talk in more detail about how the test is scored. Hopefully this gave you an overview of the structure.
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And as always.......... good luck on your test!