How Many Words Do You Need to Know for the TOEFL

This seems like a very simple question, but in fact it’s incredibly hard to answer. We don’t need to analyze the question too much to see the problem. Let’s just look at a small example to show why counting words isn’t very practical.

Counting Words Is Extremely Hard

Take the word “place, ” for example. Maybe you already see a problem: there are two different words I might be talking about, one a noun and one a verb. We have two separate meanings in these two sentences:

  • Noun: Where’s the nearest place I can buy a coffee? (Meaning “location”)
  • Verb: Please place your pencil on your desk after you finish writing. (Meaning “put”)

But that separation is clear enough. There are two different parts of speech and two different meanings. So we can just say they are different words, right? The problem is that there are still other uses of “place”:

  • Noun: Do you want to have dinner at my place this weekend? (Meaning “home,” informal)
  • Noun: My car was hit in three places during the accident. (Meaning “points on the car,” not three different roads or towns)
  • Noun: I didn’t win the competition, but I came in second place. (Meaning “ranking”)
  • Verb: Although small, the new company is well placed to make major changes in the market. (Meaning “prepared,” in a way—with the right resources and abilities)

And there are even more. We can conjugate the verb, too, into “placing” or “placed.” Or we could consider the words that come out of “place,” such as “placement” or “placeless.” Or we could look at idioms such as “out of place” or “take place.” When does it stop being the same word? How many words are we really talking about here?

Many, many words in English, as in all languages, have multiple uses. Sometimes they have completely different meanings as different parts of speech, such as the adjective “exact” and the verb “exact” (meaning “demand and take”), but sometimes the different parts of speech are closely related, as is true of the verb “export” and the noun “export.” Meanwhile, sometimes the almost-separate words are the same part of speech, and the meanings are so similar, we might consider them just one meaning of one word (e.g. “place” to mean “home” or “location” above). It’s complicated!

That said, there are ways that linguists use to count numbers of words, so you can find articles about “how many words are in English,” etc. But none of those ways to count words are perfect, because language isn’t so simple. But none of that matters for the TOEFL. Here’s the important lesson for now:

Counting vocabulary words for the TOEFL is at best difficult, at worst harmful.

Learning Words in Lists Is Not Really Learning English

Above, I say “harmful” because counting words creates a way of thinking that doesn’t match how the test works.

Imagine, for example, I start working with an alien from another planet as a student. This alien knows zero English words, but he has a Babel Fish (a fictional fish that lives in your ear and translates any alien language, from the book The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy). Now, I go through a TOEFL test from the official guide, and I make a list of every single word in test. I then give the alien the list, and he memorizes all the words and their translations. Then, I give him that TOEFL. How many questions will he get right in the reading and listening sections? Some, probably, but definitely not all, and not enough for university admissions. Understand a sentence is more than just memorizing definitions of words. It is knowing meanings of phrases, idioms, grammatical structures, and more.

That’s part of why translation programs are so bad at translating Chinese to English. They know the definitions of words, but they don’t always know which definitions are best in context, nor what the larger phrases mean. Language in dictionary definitions is very different from language in use.

And if you start thinking about the number of words you should learn for the TOEFL, you are preparing to be that alien, taking a test with incomplete English experience. Yes, flashcards help. But don’t think about “how many.” Think about how well you truly understand each word. If you want to improve that understanding, read, read, read. Never stop reading. And use the flashcards to start your knowledge of a word, not to complete it. Once you know the basic meaning from a flashcard, you can really learn the meaning through usage. The more you read and listen to challenging English, the better prepared you will be on the TOEFL.

What to Do Instead

Maybe now you’re thinking about a different question: how hard is the TOEFL? And while that’s not an easy question to answer either, it’s a bit more helpful than thinking about the number of words. Since the TOEFL is about English in use, we can compare its difficulty to other English in use.

And finally, if you still want to know how much you should focus on learning TOEFL vocabulary, then the best place to start is with some official TOEFL practice material. After doing some reading and listening, if you find that the vocabulary is causing trouble for you, then start studying the academic word list (and reading more, of course!). Use your experience with TOEFL material to know how much vocabulary you should study. Don’t trust a number—nobody can tell you “how many words” confidently and correctly.

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  • 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.