Lucas Fink

How to Teach the TOEFL

New TOEFL teachers are from one of three camps: those who primarily have ESOL experience, those who have taught other standardized tests more, and those who’ve taught little or none of either. The most common of those three, as far as I’ve seen, is the first group, so this post will focus primarily on that aspect. In other words, we’re not going to address the more general issues of teaching ESOL here; I’m assuming you already have some background in teaching English.

The question here is how the teach the TOEFL, specifically.


Usage, not Rules

Put the fill-in-the-blanks worksheet away. Sure, grammar exercises are a great way to learn the rules, but they’re a stepping stone toward a much larger goal—correct grammar in communication—and the TOEFL is an advanced test. Your students should already have seen the vast majority of the basic rules of English before.

In other words, your students will generally need practice using English more than they’ll need to learn about how to use it.

That doesn’t mean you should shy away from teaching grammar entirely, but as much as possible, focus on correcting student-generated written and spoken mistakes. Let the students guide their own grammar improvement by revealing where their weaknesses lie. If they honestly haven’t learned a grammar point before, then yes, it’s worth breaking out that workbook. But if they’ve studied the third conditional multiple times, there’s not that much point in bringing it back in the same old way. Instead, remind students of the rules when they make mistakes, and fix the issues organically.


The Four Skills

As is always true in ESOL, most students have a weak area or two. They may have a lot of experience speaking with coworkers or friends but no real experience writing in academic English. Or it’s possible that they’ve studied English entirely through grammar- and vocabulary-based exercises and are completely uncomfortable with speaking.

The TOEFL, then, will present a challenge or two for most students; they’ll have to use their weakest English skill, and they’ll have to do so under pressure. Know your students and know what they need. If speaking is a source of stress, be sure to give your students time in class to practice it. Remember that a straight lecture is boring and relatively unproductive. You need to give students the opportunity to speak, write, and correct themselves in order to really engage them and get some effective practice.

Practice for your TOEFL exam with Magoosh.

One of the better ways to get that experience is to do practice TOEFL questions constantly. After all, the TOEFL isn’t just a test of how well students can get by in real world situations; it’s also a test of how well they can deal with the specific format of the test itself.

But if you have longer, more intensive lessons, be sure to break up that TOEFL-specific practice with other formats to keep your students engaged. Formal debates are a great way to get everybody speaking and set up a friendly competition. Chain stories (with peer proofreading and required vocabulary words!) offer a fantastic creative outlet and help break from the eternally dull 5-paragraph essay that students should be practicing for the essay. There are tons of ways to get students using English and having fun—don’t be afraid to break from the test and use them every now and then.


Test Strategy

And now, we come to the elephant in the room. Teaching the TOEFL is more than just teaching English. To an enormous extent, it’s about learning the test. In order to be a really outstanding teacher, you have to know every detail about how the test is built so you can relay that on to students.

To that end, the first thing you should do is get to know the official material. Do every single ETS practice test you can get your hands on. And as you work through those tests, think carefully about two things:

  1. How a student would understand and answer a question (including where they might go wrong)
  2. How ETS wrote the questions, passages, and recordings

Getting in the heads of both students and test-makers is the best way to understand good test strategy. Don’t blindly trust whatever you see in a text book. There will be times that a book recommends something that’s not a good idea, either for a specific student or in general. You need to know when that’s the case and why, and the best way to do so is to learn the test inside and out.

Once you know the test very well yourself, then it’s time to consider the advice in books.


Appropriate Material

Clearly, not every classroom will be equally set up any material. In some cases, each student has a computer. In others, the students don’t even have their own book, and the teacher hands out photocopies. As is true for all ESOL classrooms, be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of different material formats. Photocopied handouts are great for off-the-syllabus work on specific skills that you notice your students lack, but students will inevitably lose them, and they’re bulky, expensive, and time consuming to do regularly. Books are great for getting large classrooms all on the same page, but you have to know when to use and when to skip material within, and they can be expensive for students (TOEFL books in particular). Online practice material is fantastic for assigning homework and monitoring students’ progress easily, but it’s not always possible to use during class time if you don’t have a connected classroom.

If you’re planning on using a book, be aware that some unofficial books have false information or material that doesn’t simulate the actual TOEFL well. So you shouldn’t be getting all of your test knowledge from unofficial books, but even so, the right TOEFL book will help a lot in teaching test strategy—you’ll find good ideas that you might not have thought of on your own, and you’ll have a wealth of exercises for students to practice the smaller skills necessary for the TOEFL.

If you’re teaching a single student or a small group, you’ll want a book with step-by-step exercises, one that focuses on those skills and specific question types. To that end, I highly recommend you own either Cambridge or the Complete Guide (ideally you should have both to pull from!).

But if you’re teaching a classroom, you need more than that. You also need group and/or pair exercises and a little bit more variety to keep people engaged. Oxford’s book does that well. You can also come up with those classroom activities yourself, of course, or draw from non-TOEFL materials.

And finally, it’s absolutely vital that you bring some official material into the picture, too. In the course of their studies, every TOEFL student should see the majority of the official practice tests available at least once. Nobody creates TOEFL practice quite like ETS does.


It’s Not So Different

A TOEFL classroom is only partially devoted to the TOEFL itself, in the end. The test asks for comprehension and communication above all else, and that’s the same exact goal that any other ESOL lessons have.

The biggest difference is that you’ll often be teaching that English through the lens of TOEFL-specific practice. And when you do that, be sure to know the test’s intricacies well, ready to guide students through the exact motions they’ll want to take on test day.



  • 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.

More from Magoosh