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Introduction to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

A starter guide to the TOEFL, including information about the Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing sections, plus resources to help you study.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) iBT is a computer-based test. It confirms that a student has the English-language skills necessary to succeed in an academic setting. That’s why it’s the most highly regarded and widely accepted test in the world. More than 8,500 colleges, universities, and agencies in 130 countries accept TOEFL scores, so test takers have the flexibility to use their TOEFL test scores worldwide.

The TOEFL iBT test has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing.

Here is a breakdown of each section, including types of tasks and questions and the amount of time allotted for each.

1. Reading

  • Number of questions: 3–4 passages, 12–16 questions each
  • Timing: 60–80 minutes

2. Listening

  • 4–6 lectures, 6 questions each
  • 2–3 conversations, 5 questions each
  • 60–90 minutes

3. Scheduled break

  • 10 minutes

4. Speaking

  • 6 tasks: 2 independent and 4 integrated
  • 20 minutes

5. Writing

  • 1 integrated task (20 minutes)
    1 independent task (30 minutes)

Now let's take a brief look at each TOEFL section. We'll go over what each section includes and where you can find additional resources for each section.

TOEFL Reading section

The reading section is the first section of the TOEFL iBT. It tests your ability to read and answer questions about passages. It contains three to four passages, and each passage is followed by 12–14 questions for a total of 36–56 questions. Each passage is generally from 600 to 700 words long. You have 60–80 minutes in which to finish this section.

What's different about the Reading test compared to the other TOEFL test sections is you can skip answers and come back to them later. Once you get to the end of the Reading questions, go back and review your answers, but if you're unsure, stick with your first choice—it's more than often correct.

In addition to free online Reading TOEFL test questions, you can also prepare for your Reading test on the go without an internet connection by using BestMyTest’s free TOEFL Reading practice test PDF download. It includes a complete reading passage with questions and answers. Access it here.

TOEFL Listening section

The Listening section is the second section of the TOEFL iBT. It contains two to three tasks that each contain the following:

  • 1 conversation: 2­–3 minutes between two people
  • 2 lectures: 4­–6 minutes of either a professor delivering a speech or a professor interacting with students

Each Listening audio will follow with a set number of questions:

  • Conversation: 5 questions
  • Lecture: 6 questions

There are a total of 34–51 questions in the TOEFL Listening section with about 17 questions in each Listening task. You will have 10 minutes in which to complete these 17 questions in each task. This does not include the time you spend listening to the lectures or the conversation. The entire Listening section (including time spent listening) will take between 60–90 minutes to complete.

On the Listening test, once you submit your answer, you cannot go back to it like you can on the Reading test, so you may need to guess an answer if you get stuck. You can’t afford to spend too much time on one question as you may run out of time and potentially miss easy questions. So if you do get stuck, unfortunately you’ll have to move on.

Preparing with TOEFL practice tests will definitely help improve your Listening test skills to the point where if you do need to make a guess, you'll be making a fairly accurate educated one. You can find a Listening practice test here.

TOEFL Speaking section

The Speaking section is the third section you'll face in the TOEFL iBT, and it takes about 20 minutes to complete. There are a total of six speaking tasks: two independent Speaking questions and four integrated Speaking questions. Take a look below for details about each task.

Independent Speaking Question 1

You are asked a general question about your life.
Preparation: 15 seconds
Response: 45 seconds

Independent Speaking Question 2

You are asked to choose between two options and explain your preference or state your opinion on a topic.
Preparation: 15 seconds
Response: 45 seconds

Integrated Speaking Question 3

You read a campus announcement or a student letter and then hear two students discussing their opinions on the written notice. You then state one student’s opinion and explain the reasons he or she gives for having that opinion.
Reading time: 50 seconds
Preparation: 30 seconds
Response: 60 seconds

Integrated Speaking Question 4

You read a passage from a textbook or academic article about a general concept. Next, you hear a lecture about a specific example of this concept. You then summarize the reading and lecture and discuss the relationship between the two.
Reading time: 50 seconds
Preparation: 30 seconds
Response: 60 seconds

Integrated Speaking Question 5

You hear two students discussing a problem that one of them has and two possible solutions to this problem. You then summarize the problems and explain which of the two solutions you prefer.
Preparation: 20 seconds
Response: 60 seconds

Integrated Speaking Question 6

You hear a lecture and then summarize the main points of the lecture.
Preparation: 20 seconds
Response: 60 seconds

You can find free Speaking test questions to practice with here

TOEFL Writing section

The writing section is the fourth section of the TOEFL iBT and takes about 50 minutes to complete. Below are details about each task.

Integrated Writing Task

You are given three minutes to read an academic passage. After reading the passage, you then listen to a lecture on the same topic. You then write an essay summarizing the lecture and the reading passage and showing the relationship between them. You should not express your own opinion of the issues, and you should not bring in any information from outside the passage and the lecture. 
Reading: 3 minutes
Writing: 20 minutes

Independent Writing Task

You read a prompt (a topic) and express your opinions in your response. Your response is based entirely on your own knowledge and experience. 
Writing: 30 minutes

When you complete your TOEFL, your writing must be evaluated. This is done by a combination of human readers and a computer program called e-rater®. Each of your essays is given a score from 0 to 5. Your combined essay scores are converted to a section score of 0 to 30.

Let's see how the TOEFL raters and e-rater® determine your score for the TOEFL Independent Writing Task. There are four basic criteria on which your essay is evaluated:

  1. How well you address the topic
  2. How well you develop and support your ideas
  3. How well you organize the essay and connect your ideas
  4. How well you use the English language, including grammar, vocabulary, and writing conventions

Writing conventions are the special rules of writing in English, including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

As for the TOEFL Integrated Writing Task, there are four basic criteria on which your essay is evaluated:

  1. How well you select important information from the lecture
  2. How well you relate the lecture points to the reading points
  3. How well you organize the essay and provide details
  4. How well you use the English language, including grammar, vocabulary, and writing conventions

A great technique to improve your Writing skills is to compare your essay with high-scoring essays to see how they're structured and answered the same question. Your goal should be to model these sample essays, but that is easier said than done. You can find free Writing sample essays and lessons here.

View the entire BestMyTest TOEFL Practice Test Guide here.

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