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Is the TOEFL Hard for Native English Speakers?

toefl hard native english speakers

“Even a native English speaker would have trouble with the TOEFL!” I get this complaint from students. But is the TOEFL hard for native English speakers?

Is the TOEFL Hard for English Speakers? My Personal Experience

So… True story: I’m a native English speaker, and I’ve taken the TOEFL twice. Well… more accurately, I’ve taken two mock TOEFL exams from ETS.

I took my first official mock TOEFL exam when I first became a TOEFL tutor back in 2010. (It was a test from The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT.) The result? I scored almost as badly as my one student. My TOEFL Reading score was in the low 20s. My TOEFL Listening score was an even 20. On several of the TOEFL Speaking tasks, I drew a blank and didn’t know what to say. And, to top it off, I ran out of time during both of my TOEFL Writing tasks.

I had a bachelor’s degree from an American university when I took the TOEFL for the first time. And I am—as I said—a native English speaker. The TOEFL is supposed to measure whether someone has the native-like English abilities required for study in the USA. So what is going on here? Well….

The TOEFL Measures More than Just English Ability

The TOEFL is a measure of language, yes. But the TOEFL also measures proficiency in university-level academic skills. And, just as you can lose your English ability when you don’t use it, academic skills can fade over time.

I’d been out of school for five years when I took my first mock TOEFL. By 2010, I had “un-learned” the skill of reading as quickly as I could, because I had lots of assigned readings. I hadn’t heard a university-style lecture in quite a while, much less taken notes on one. And I hadn’t given a short academic speech or written a short university essay in a long time either. As a native speaker, I had the “English proficiency” aspect of the TOEFL mastered. But my “academic proficiency” component was missing.

Still, I probably would have done badly on the TOEFL even if I had taken it while I was still in university. Why? Well….

The TOEFL Defines Academic Proficiency in Very Specific Ways

As an undergrad, I didn’t succeed in school by taking good notes on lectures. In fact, I tended to be somewhat inattentive when my professors spoke. I paid a lot more attention to textbooks, handouts, and online group discussions. In most of my classes, this made up for the fact that I wasn’t really a “lecture person.” In classes where most of the information was in the lecture, I struggled, but still managed to pass.

My academic experiences with reading, listening, and speaking didn’t exactly line up to the TOEFL either. I could often skip less-essential readings and still do well in class. None of my courses required me to give 45-second or 1-minute speeches. Any speech or presentation I gave in class would be at least five minutes long, often longer. And I’d have days to prepare for any speech. Then there was writing. Whenever I had to write a short 200-500 word essay (the range of essay length on the TOEFL), I spent at least an hour writing. That’s a lot longer than the TOEFL time limits for essays.

So, Does the TOEFL Define Academic English Proficiency Inaccurately?

It’s probably not fair to say that the TOEFL misrepresents the English skills you need on an English-language campus. The TOEFL tests every skill you might need in any given class or school activity: academic reading, the ability to listen to school-related lectures and conversations, and the ability to summarize information and express your opinions in speech and writing.

However, your experiences in your future studies won’t always line up with the TOEFL. This is one of the reasons that very few universities require a TOEFL score above 100. There’s an understanding that you can succeed at an American school with a TOEFL score below 100, and maybe even a TOEFL below 80.

Of course, if you understand exactly how the TOEFL measures both English ability and academic skill, you can get a very high score indeed. The second time I took the TOEFL, much more recently (through TOEFL Practice Online), I got 30s in Reading and Listening and did quite well in Listening and Writing.

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