Teaching for the TOEFL Exam

Students all over the world dream of attending college in the United States or in other English-speaking countries.

Even when they have excellent credentials, sufficient funding, and plenty of family support, many still face one more hurdle: the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. A product of the Educational Testing Service, the TOEFL is required of candidates for every major college and university in the United States, and is accepted as proof of sufficient English fluency to attend college in 130 other nations, too.

Preparing students to pass the TOEFL is a highly marketable skill in many different countries. You can finance international travel with this skill set. There are three things you really need to know in order to prepare students for the TOEFL effectively.


The TOEFL looms so large in some students’ minds that they resist the idea of learning conversational English, and prefer to spend lots of time taking TOEFL practice exams and memorizing things they believe might be on the test. However, it’s worth noting that people who speak, read, and write English comfortably consistently do well on the TOEFL. As much as possible, you should teach TOEFL classes in English, speak naturally to your students, work with authentic written English, and do your best to encourage interaction in English.

If English is your native language, you’ll be able to conduct conversations and practice vocabulary easily. But you may be surprised to find that you can’t easily answer questions about the grammar of your native language. Quick – how do you ask a question in English? If you readily answered that you move the auxiliary to the front of the sentence, preceding it with a question word which takes the place of the missing information unless it’s a yes/no question, then you’re ready. But most of us would say, “Umm … you go ‘Is it raining?'”
Spend some time studying about English grammar before you attempt to teach for the TOEFL. This kind of class requires a higher level of confidence and accuracy with grammar than conversation classes.

Test Taking Strategies

The TOEFL is a standardized test. That means that many of the strategies that work for all standardized tests will help on the TOEFL as well. Share some of these with your students:

  • Answer the easy questions first and go back to any that stump you, if you have that option. If you can’t go back, as is the case for most of the internet-based exam, then be sure not to skip any questions.
  • Eliminate foolish choices from the multiple choice answers. Answers that suggest that trees communicate by waving their branches, that the female speaker plans to lock the male speaker in the office overnight, or other nonsensical ideas will be wrong. Most TOEFL exams contain several answers like this. Students sometimes fear that such a silly answer is a trick of some kind, but these answers can safely be eliminated.
  • If you have no idea at all, choose an answer and move on. You won’t learn anything new while sitting in the testing room, and you can become flustered and make unnecessary errors later, or run out of time to answer questions that you could answer correctly. The best plan is to decide ahead of time that when you cannot eliminate any answers and have no idea which answer is correct, you’ll calmly answer “c” and move on.

The Structure of the TOEFL

There are two versions of the TOEFL: the paper-based exam, and the more common internet-based exam. The paper-based test is now given only where the internet-based version of the test is unavailable. The internet-based TOEFL has four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The paper-based TOEFL has a test of structure and written expression instead of a speaking section.

The Reading Section

The reading section contains several short passages of academic English. The topics are intentionally varied, usually including topics from the natural and social sciences and the humanities. Students are instructed to read the passage and then answer questions.

For most students, reading the questions first gives the best outcome. TOEFL questions are usually given in the order in which the material is found in the reading passage. Students should usually skip the question about the main point of the passage, read and find the answers to the factual questions, and then read the paragraph and answer the question about the main point.

Practice skimming and scanning with students, using English texts. Also practice figuring out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context. It’s also wise to have students practice rephrasing things they read. “What do you think the author meant by that?” or “What is the main point of that paragraph?” should be common questions in your reading practice.

This section of the test also includes questions requiring inference and sometimes questions about the tone or feeling expressed by the writer. Intensive reading and discussion will help students gain an understanding of this type of question.

Students who are taking the online version of the test should be fast and confident at using the mouse for navigation, since this section does allow students to go back and forth among the questions.

The Listening Comprehension Section

The listening comprehension section of the TOEFL contains conversations and lectures in American English, with idiomatic language, spoken at normal speeds. The listening passages are followed by recorded questions. Every listening passage and question is played only once. Questions are asked about specific information in the listening passages, about the meanings of specific phrases, and about the general intentions of the speakers. Only the answers are on the paper or computer screen that the student sees.

The listening section can be very difficult for people unaccustomed to spoken English. In fact, since the speakers have a distinct American accent, it can be hard for those unaccustomed to American English. It’s wise to give students as much practice as possible in listening to American English spoken at natural speeds.  Use recorded voices and guest speakers when possible, so that students have the chance to listen to a range of voices.

Some students find that it’s hard to pay attention to long passages well enough to remember the information, especially when they’re nervous about taking the exam. Listening to recorded lectures or radio programs is good practice. Since students are allowed to take notes, practice this skill in class as well.

The Speaking section

The speaking section is part of the internet-based exam. Students are given a general topic to speak on, and will have 15 seconds or so to prepare and 30-45 seconds to speak. This is an easy skill to practice in the classroom. Put students in pairs and have each student give his or her partner a topic. Time students for 15 seconds while they make a quick outline, have them take turns speaking on their set topic, and then choose students to repeat their performance for the class.

Spend five minutes of each class section practicing this routine, and your students will have the confidence they need to do well on the speaking section of the exam.

Work on pronunciation in class, too. Adults usually have a hard time improving their pronunciation significantly. Part of this is because pronunciation is a physical skill that requires practice, but research suggests that it is also related to the self-consciousness speakers feel about making unusual sounds. Consider playing games or doing acting exercises to help relax the self-consciousness people feel about changing their pronunciation, and drill the sounds that are especially difficult for your population.

The Structure and Written Expression Section

The paper-based version of the TOEFL includes this section. This part of the test is about grammar and usage. Students will be asked to choose the right word or phrase to finish a sentence correctly, and to identify the error in a sentence.

Often, the questions in this section focus on small points of language: the difference between “due to” and “because,” for example, or constructions like “Only a few were successful.” Native speakers often answer these questions right because “they sound right.” If you can explain these things in a more useful way, your students will be better equipped for the exam.

Making a thorough study of English grammar is the best plan, if you want to help students do well on this part of the exam. Still, you may find that there are questions you can’t readily answer.

Try looking at a number of examples together.

“Because he was confident, he did well on the TOEFL.”
“Due to his confidence, he did well on the TOEFL.”
“Because she studied hard, she got a good score on the TOEFL.”
“Due to her hard work, she got a good score on the TOEFL.”

When you compare these sentences, you’ll notice that “because” precedes a complete clause (a subject and a verb), while “due to” always precedes a noun phrase. The process of working together toward these discoveries can be useful to your students and help them understand the grammar point more completely than if they memorized rules, so don’t be shy about needing to go through this process.

This kind of practice is also useful for the writing and the speaking sections of the test; in both cases, grammatical accuracy and correct use of idiomatic expressions improve scores.

The Writing Section

The writing section is like the speaking section: students will be given a writing task, they have some time to prepare, and then they have time to write. A well-constructed paper with few errors is the goal here.

Remember all those things you learned in Comp 1 when you prepare for this section of the test. Help your students decide on a thesis, make an outline, write a clear paper, and proofread it carefully. This is another section where you’ll need to be able to answer your students’ questions about grammar.
On the TOEFL, students will be required to respond to something they hear or read. So you can integrate writing practice into the other kinds of instruction you include in the class. For example, once you listen to a lecture and practice taking notes and answering questions about it, ask students to write their opinion on the subject. Have prewriting conversations – in English, of course – about a writing assignment. Or follow up the speaking practice with an assignment to write about the same topic, using the same outline.

Organizing Your TOEFL Class

While some time in your TOEFL preparation class should be spent with practice tests, research has shown that taking the test or practice exams repeatedly actually lowers scores for many students. It can also be exhausting, and can make some students anxious about actually taking the test.

Consider organizing your class to incorporate a variety of activities, all of which work on skills needed for the TOEFL.

Here’s one possible arrangement for a 50 minute class:

  • 5 minute warm up with new vocabulary or idioms
  • 10 minute pre-writing discussion on a general topic
  • 15 minute individual writing time
  • 5 minute pair work: exchange papers and try to find any errors
  • 10 minute discussion of and practice with an error found in several papers
  • 5 minute speaking practice, as described above

A 90-minute class could use this structure:

  • 5 minute warm-up with a practice test question
  • 10 minutes of instruction on a grammar or vocabulary point
  • 15 minute game to practice the point presented
  • 15 minute group reading and discussion on an academic subject
  • 10 minute listening to a recorded lecture on the same subject
  • 10 minute conversation on the subject
  • 15 minute individual writing practice on the same subject
  • 5 minute pair work: exchange and proofread papers
  • 5 minute speaking practice, as described above

These or similar class arrangements will keep the class lively and engaged, while still covering the necessary skills and information.

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