Guest Post

TOEFL advice on a budget

Yay, it’s English Language Day! A great way to celebrate the English language is to sit down and learn some tips and tricks from Lucas Fink, our Guest Blogger this month, on how to ace your TOEFL exam. Check out his advice on how to prepare for free!

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The TOEFL pays my bills. Even though I don’t work for the company that makes the TOEFL (that’s ETS), it’s my business: I’m a TOEFL teacher. So, in a way, I shouldn’t be writing this, right? Why would I want you to study for free? That’s pretty much the exact opposite of how I get paid.

The truth is, I neither want people to pay nor want them to study for free. Really, I just want students to do what’s best for them. If you can get what you need by preparing for free, that’s awesome. After all, simply registering for the test is already expensive.. (I’ve taken the official test twice and can’t understand how it costs that much. Both times my computers had floppy disk drives. Where is all that money going?)

Since the test itself is so pricey, not everybody can pay for TOEFL practice or special lessons. For those students, I want to make life a little easier, because finding free TOEFL practice is surprisingly difficult, especially if you want to study well.

Two Ways to Improve

Before we talk about specific material to practice, let’s make it clear what studying for the TOEFL actually means. There are two basic ways to prepare: improve English communication or learn how to take the test. Most teachers, books, and websites will work on both, but they can be done separately.

For improving English communication, exposure is everything. The best way to get that practice—and I’m being completely serious here—is to date a native speaker. I learned that one from experience; I dated a Japanese woman for a few months, and I learned more within a few weeks of talking with her in Japanese than I did in three years of intensive university classes. Similarly, a friend of mine who was dating a French man at the same time was able to write half her thesis in French after living with him for a summer. It’s hard work keeping a relationship together (even a happy relationship), and it requires constant communication.

Sadly, that’s not very practical advice, is it? Even if you’re single and know some native English speakers (that’s a rare situation in the first place!), there’s no guarantee you’re going to fall in love… or even like each other. But the point is this: the more you use English, the better. Studying from a book doesn’t make you communicative. To make large, fast English improvements, you need to speak it, read it, hear it, and write it regularly.

That’s one way to improve for the TOEFL, but there’s another. And if you’re reading this, then you’re already working on communication (keep it up!), and I trust you have been studying English for long enough that the other part of preparation—learning how to take the test—is more important for you. So let’s focus on that for the rest of this article.

To learn how to take the TOEFL, you’ll need free material that explains the test.

Free Material

Sometimes it feels like ETS is, well, a little bit evil. They certainly don’t make life easier for most people. But their hearts can’t be completely black: they do give free samples of the TOEFL so you can learn the format of the test without paying a penny.

There are three sources for free, official TOEFL practice:

  1. the Interactive Sampler
  2. the PDF called TOEFL iBT Test Questions
  3. the four PDFs called TOEFL Quick Prep

All of the above explain the format of the test and provide examples, but none give real strategy. Despite the number of resources, there’s not a lot of practice, altogether. There’s no full-length, free practice TOEFL made by ETS. Still, if you review those resources multiple times, you can learn the format of the TOEFL iBT, and that’s the first priority in TOEFL preparation; it’s the first thing I teach my students, and it’s how they make the fastest improvements. Simply knowing what to expect can make the difference between a 24 and a 26 in the speaking section, which can be the difference between getting a teaching assistantship or being rejected.

Pay careful attention to the format of the listening and speaking sections—they are most likely to be new to you. The timer is also key, in particular for the reading section.

…and more!

There are many companies—like mine—that help students prepare for the TOEFL and provide some free options. Generally, there are two types of free TOEFL practice: promotional material and purely free material paid by ads. I suggest caution when using ad-driven free practice. I don’t know of any that is actually accurate. The first time I looked online for free TOEFL practice for my students, I was shocked to find that one of the most popular free resources is about the paper-based test (PBT), not the internet-based test (iBT). Fewer than 3% of people take the PBT. A site that prepares you for the PBT is almost completely useless. That’s like playing cricket in order to improve at baseball. Yes, many of the same basic skills are on both tests. If you play cricket professionally, you are probably not bad at baseball. If you can get a perfect score on the PBT, you will probably do well on the iBT. But why learn the rules of the PBT if you’re not going to take it? It’s much better to learn the rules of the test you’ll actually take.

So if you see that the resource you’re using has a “structure” section, meaning grammar, then leave it. That means it’s a PBT resource. The PBT had a “structure” test; the iBT has only reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

But even if it’s iBT-focused, there are other ways free material can be problematic. The difficulty of questions is usually the biggest problem. In my first year of teaching the TOEFL, I once tried using some new, non-ETS TOEFL reading material with a class, but I didn’t look at the answer key before using it, because, to be honest, I don’t need an answer key—not on official material! I’m a teacher and a native speaker; I can identify the correct answers and explain why they are correct without seeing the answer.

But after the class had answered the questions, I realized that some of my answers were different from the answers in the key. I looked closer and realized that there were often two possibly correct answers for each question; this is the type of problem free material often has. On carefully edited material, the question writers find out if one answer is too close to correct because multiple people edit the question before it’s published. Free, unofficial material is rarely edited. Just because Bob the question writer believes (D) is wrong based on some tiny technicality (e.g. “the text says sometimes, not often!”), that doesn’t mean people taking the test will see the same problem.

Promotional material is a different story. By “promotional,” I mean practice material made by companies that also sell TOEFL practice and lessons. That type of material can be much higher quality, because those companies usually edit their material more carefully. After all, if you don’t trust the quality, you may not buy their material! That’s very different from the free-only sites, who get little or no gain by improving quality.

So start with the free, official material I mentioned earlier, then start exploring the promotional materials.

Real-World Practice

If you surround yourself with language similar to TOEFL English—mostly academic English—you’ll be better able to learn the types of vocabulary and phrases that you’ll encounter on the test. Learning TOEFL vocabulary through flashcards is a great idea, but don’t stop there! The more you see or hear a word in the news or videos, the better you will understand exactly when and where to use it yourself.

That kind of real-world material is helpful for TOEFL reading practice in particular. The other sections of the test don’t look quite like real-world situations. The speaking section, for example, requires you to read a university announcement, listen for three minutes to two students discussing the announcement, and then summarize their conversation into a microphone…all while sitting in a room full of other people who are doing the same thing. Yes, it’s a bit awkward to talk at the same time as 20 other people, all looking at their computer screens. It’s not exactly “real life”—unless you enjoy talking to your computer in public, I sure don’t. But the reading section is largely just a test of your ability to read academic texts. You can practice that while riding the bus.

While you read, make flashcards of new words! These two ways of studying complement each other.  

Do It All!

If you are studying for only a few weeks or less, it’s most important to learn the format of the test and the best strategies. For that, focus on the official material and any promotional material that you trust. Whatever you use, be sure that you know the format of the TOEFL well before the day of your test. Not being surprised means a higher score.

If you are studying for longer, then add in that real-world English practice to keep expanding your vocabulary and improving your grammar. All of that can be done for free or cheap. Keep using English every day, and keep challenging yourself!

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This post was written by Lucas Fink, TOEFL expert at Magoosh. For more TOEFL help, check out Magoosh’s TOEFL blog!

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