Lucas Fink

Conversational Vocabulary on the TOEFL

While the TOEFL is a test of your ability to communicate in an academic English speaking environment, not all of the language in the test is purely academic. Yes, most of the test is made of more formal English—including the reading passages, the recorded lectures, and your essays—but there are also a few times when you must be comfortable with some informal phrases and words.

That doesn’t mean the test will include slang (very informal words that are popular in specific areas or among some groups of people but not others). There is no slang on the TOEFL iBT. But commonly spoken phrases that don’t appear so often in writing will absolutely be on the test. This is what we mean by “conversational vocabulary.”

This means that reading academic textbooks alone is not enough to have the perfect vocabulary for the TOEFL. If all of your English practice in the past has been academic, then you might need to supplement your studies by studying some idioms and phrasal verbs, for example.


Where You Find Conversational Vocab on the TOEFL

Informal phrases are much more common in TOEFL listening than they are in any other part of the test. Specifically, they’re more common in conversations. There’s a reason we call it “conversational vocabulary,” clearly.

Meanwhile, lectures are more often a little bit formal, but that doesn’t mean that any professor you hear on the TOEFL will avoid phrasal verbs and idioms. Conversational vocabulary does appear in the lectures, too.

All in all, you may hear this type of vocabulary during any recording on the test, including those recording in the listening, speaking, and writing sections. But it is most common in the conversations in the listening section (two or three of recordings) and speaking section (in the third and fifth tasks).

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Questions on Conversational Vocab

In the listening section you may get a couple of questions that ask about the meaning or function of an idiomatic phrase. For example, here are a couple lines of conversation.

Professor: You’ll have to rewrite some of the essay, I’m afraid. 

Student: Should I just start again from the beginning?

Professor: No, no. I wouldn’t go that far.

In the questions, you would be asked something similar to this question:

“What does the professor mean when he says this: ‘No, no. I wouldn’t go that far.’?”

When you hear a question like that, know that the phrase is probably an idiom or a metaphor. In my example, the professor doesn’t actually mean that he would not move; “go” is metaphorical. Instead, he simply means that the student’s idea is too extreme. Starting from the beginning is too much work; the professor recommends only rewriting part of the essay.

So to answer questions that ask about the meaning of an idiom if you don’t know that specific phrase, think about the intention of the speak. What they probably mean based on the context can be a great help.


Studying Conversational Vocab

One of the best ways you can improve your informal vocabulary is to listen often to native English speakers. Radio and TV documentaries are a great help, but even comedy movies in English can be effective. Be sure to surround yourself with as much spoken English as possible.

Look out for phrasal verbs, too (such as “look out” or “take off”) and be sure you understand exactly what they mean. Any time you hear a phrase that includes words you already know but doesn’t make any sense, look it up online! It may be an idiom, and that’s always good to know.

Of course, the TOEFL iBT includes far more academic English, so that’s more important. But spend at least some of your study time reviewing phrasal verbs, idioms, and any other conversational words you learn, too.


  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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