Understanding the TOEFL format will give you a boost on test day. Read on to learn more about how the test is put together. There are two forms of the TOEFL today: the paper-based test (PBT) and the internet-based test (iBT). In most countries, the iBT is by far the most common test form, so that’s the form we focus on.
The TOEFL iBT is formatted in four sections, each of which tests one language skill. The test isn’t adaptive, which means the questions don’t get harder if you do really well or easier if you get a few questions wrong. Multiple forms of the test exist and they change often, which helps to prevent cheating, but all of the tests are close to equally difficult (for more detailed information about how this works, check out how the TOEFL is scored). You can learn about each of the four sections individually below. For more in-depth information and practice, check out our free TOEFL iBT eBook and our premium video lessons and practice questions. 🙂
The Reading Section
This first section tests your ability to understand academic written English. The material in this section may be different from the English you’ve read before, especially if you read fiction or popular literature, because it is based on material that English-speaking college students are expected to read and understand. So it’s a good idea to get familiar with this style of writing—here is some great advice for finding TOEFL reading practice. The reading passages can cover a wide variety of topics including art, history, science, and social sciences.
You will have one hour to read the three reading passages and answer the accompanying questions. After the full text is printed, questions will be grouped by paragraph, which saves you some time and makes it easier to find the information you need. You will see some unfamiliar words in this section, but that’s OK–if the word is necessary, can’t be figured out from context, and is specific to the topic of the text (not used in normal English), the test may allow you to click on the word and get a definition. Each question is worth the same amount, so don’t get stuck for too long on one question. You will have 20 minutes per passage, including the questions.
The Listening Section
Now that your language skills are warmed up, you’ll move on to listening, which will test your ability to understand both academic lectures and conversations related to university life. Like the reading section, the listening section will last about an hour. Throughout the entire test, you will have the option of taking notes; in the listening section, this will be essential. Practice listening and writing at the same time, because the lectures are 3-5 minutes long, and you will not be able to remember all the necessary information. The conversations will be shorter, but note-taking will still be very helpful. In all you will listen to 4 or 6 lectures and 2 or 3 conversations.
The Speaking Section
The speaking section is the shortest, lasting about 20 minutes. It will involve some independent tasks, which require you to express an opinion briefly (you will have up to a minute to speak), and some integrated tasks, in which you will need to use information from reading and listening in your spoken answers. There are two questions that require you to read, listen and speak, and two that require you only to listen then speak. In all you will answer 6 questions in the speaking section.
The Writing Section
As in the speaking section, you will complete an integrated task (20 minutes) and an independent task (30 minutes). The independent task is a persuasive essay, meaning you should express and support an opinion. The integrated task will give you an excerpt from a lecture, an excerpt from a written article, and a question. Your task will be to combine the information from the lecture with that from the written article in order to answer the question. Manage your time well! On the TOEFL you will use a standard QWERTY keyboard. If you need to, now is a good time to practice typing in English, as you will not want to waste time searching for the right letter on the keyboard.
Bonus: You can listen to all of this information in this video: