The Test of English as a Foreign Language – TOEFL

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The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL®) measures the ability of non-native speakers of English to use and understand North American English as it is spoken and written in college and university settings. Most people who take the TOEFL® test are planning to study at colleges and universities where the medium of instruction is English. In addition, many government agencies, scholarship programs, and licensing / certification agencies use TOEFL® scores to evaluate English proficiency.

Currently, more than 4,400 colleges and universities, professional schools, and sponsoring institutions accept TOEFL® scores.

The TOEFL® test measures English language proficiency in reading, listening and writing and is offered on computer in most regions of the world. In areas where access to computer-based testing is limited, a paper-and-pencil version of the test is administered.

Salient Features of the new Pattern of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL®) iBT

Educational Testing Service (ETS) has introduced a new version of the TOEFL® Test. The most important change in the exam, now better known as the TOEFL® iBT, is that the test would be conducted via the Internet. The major advantages of this are:

  • The test can now be administered in a standardized manner
  • There would be more centers available for students to take the test in keeping with the demand.

The TOEFL® iBT is an exam that is aimed at testing the students on their skills in English usage. The test is structured in such a manner so as to ensure that there is a match between the actual environment the test taker would face and the students’ skills. The new test pattern focuses on all-round communication skills.

The basic change is in the testing philosophy of the old and the new pattern. The CBT tests the ability of the test taker through questions on grammar and language usage whereas the iBT uses a more direct approach to achieve the same.

The iBT tests the ability of a test taker to deal with the day-to-day situations. It, therefore, aims at testing the test taker’s comfort in using English while communicating in the real world and not academic excellence in English as a subject per se. Keeping this in mind the exam now looks at all aspects of using a language, viz., Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.

The CBT did not have a section on speaking and neither did it include the concept of testing the application of multiple skills simultaneously. These tasks (the ones that require the test taker to use multiple skills simultaneously) are known as ‘integrated tasks’. In the old pattern of TOEFL® test, there were only three sections – Reading, Writing, and Listening. However, the new TOEFL® iBT includes a section on Speaking as well.

The TOEFL® iBT is a linear, as opposed to an adaptive test. This means that the levels of difficulty of the question do not vary as per the abilities of the test taker. Examples of a computer adaptive test would be the GRE® and the GMAT® where the difficulty level of the test varies as per the ability of the test taker as the test proceeds.


  • The writing section has been modified to include an integrated task in addition to the independent one.
  • The new task requires test takers to listen to a short conversation and read a short passage (of about 250 words). The test taker would then be required to write a summary of what was read and heard.
  • Test takers can make notes and use them to respond to the questions.
  • The topics are such that the students may be tempted to take up a strong position either for or against the topic. The trick to performing well in this section lies in striking a balance and constructing the argument logically in simple and direct language.


  • The number of questions in the Reading section is not fixed and could vary.
  • The questions are asked in a multiple choice format. There are about three to five passages with a total of 50 questions for the section.
  • The passages would be of a length of 600 to 750 words and are sourced from diverse fields like Natural Sciences (Botany, Zoology), Social Sciences (History – especially American History), Geography, Physical sciences and so on.
  • The paragraphs have line numbers for easy reference.
  • A glossary feature which helps define uncommon words has been introduced. A new review tool has also been included. These two features help the test taker manage his/her time better. A review of answers is possible and students can check any questions they may have missed out.
  • There are various types of questions including questions dealing with implications and inferences, the overall theme of the passage, the central idea or flow of the passage, how the author has developed the essay, and others. The ability to identify paraphrasing, summarize main points, and identify various elements of the author’s arguments would also be tested. Vocabulary based questions with reference to a meaning of words in the given context could be asked.
  • The reading speed expected would be about 200 words per minute.
  • Answer choices can be changed as long as one is answering questions related to a particular passage but shifting between passages is not possible.


  • The emphasis in the Listening section is on the test taker’s ability to comprehend and analyze what is being said.
  • There would be conversations and talks (lectures).
  • The conversations would recreate a social scenario in about 10-15 sentences and would typically last for 3 – 5 minutes. Social scenarios include situations like a party or a purchase in a supermarket etc.
  • The lectures are of similar length and are on diverse themes where no predefined knowledge is required. Two of them would have comments of students interspersed and two of the talks would be sans the comments.
  • The section includes integrated as well as independent tasks.


  • The major areas that a test taker needs to focus on to do well in this section would be accent, dialect, pronunciation, syllabification (long and short vowels).
  • The ability to speak the language well enough to get across one’s message clearly and effectively is tested in this section.
  • There is a pre-defined time limit for responses in this section.
  • In the speaking section, the test taker would have to speak into a microphone and the responses would be digitally recorded and sent to the ETS Online Scoring Network.
  • There are two independent and four integrated tasks in the section.
  • The first independent task requires the test taker to draw upon his / her existing base of knowledge, experience, and preferences and answer the question. The test taker gets 15 seconds to prepare his /her response and 45 seconds to present it.
  • The second task requires the test taker to choose one of two alternatives and support his / her choice.
  • Two of the integrated tasks test ability to read, listen and speak. The test taker is given material to read and would then be asked to listen to a one to the two-minute conversation on the same topic. Following this, the test taker is asked to summarize what was read and heard into a microphone. 30 seconds are given for the preparation of the response and 45 seconds to speak.
  • In the next task, the test taker is given a 150-word academic passage to read and is then required to listen to a one and a half minute talk on the same. The candidate is then required to present his opinion on what was read and heard. The test taker has 30 seconds to develop his response and 45 seconds to speak.
  • The fifth task requires the candidate to listen to a conversation (of about 60-90 seconds) between two students on a student-related problem and two possible solutions to the same. Having heard the talk, the test taker now needs to speak on the solution that he/she feels is appropriate. The candidate is given 20 seconds to develop a response and 60 seconds to speak.
  • The last of the speaking tasks involves listening to an excerpt from a lecture for about 90-120 seconds. Having heard the lecture, the candidate is required to articulate the main ideas that were discussed. This lecture could be on a concept with examples to explain the same.

ETS offers practice versions of the test along with related learning tools on their website, The practice test scores are also reported to the test taker