Any good test preparation teacher should know the test they help students prepare for, and that means actually taking the test occasionally. So on November 22nd, I did just that. I took the TOEFL in order to share my experience and thoughts with students.
Yes, I’m a native speaker, and no, I didn’t need to take the TOEFL for the same reason the other test-takers did. So yes, some people looked at me questioningly when I gave my U.S. driver’s license as my identification and spoke with an American accent. And no, I didn’t speak with a fake Italian accent all day.
The main point was to do some experimenting. On your TOEFL, you won’t want to do anything experimental. You should have done plenty of practice questions already, so that you know exactly what you’re doing and why you want to do it. But for me, taking the test was a learning experience, not a real exam, so I had the opportunity to try some different techniques and get more information about how ETS scores the test.
I was also there to get more information on what types of questions the TOEFL asks. There are plenty of official practice tests you can buy, but I’ve already seen all of those, and many of them are old. I wanted to see ETS’s newest version of the TOEFL. Nothing changes with tests like this, normally—and there were no changes to the test this time either—but it’s worth checking and getting even more experience.
Let’s go over what I tried and what I noticed in each part of the test.
Before the start
You’re supposed to arrive 30 minutes (or more) before the scheduled start of the test. Surprisingly, many of the test-takers arrived only a few minutes before the start, and they had to hurry to finish paperwork and have their picture taken. The paperwork is just copying a paragraph and signing your name, but it takes a couple of minutes. Arrive early so you’re not rushed like that. I’m sure they started the test feeling stressed from the beginning.
Many of the students there brought a lot with them: phones, backpacks, study materials, drinks, snacks, books, etc. None of this can go into the testing room. Bring the snack and drink for the break, of course, but don’t bring much else. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving your phone in a room that other people will be walking in and out of, don’t bring your phone, either. ETS isn’t responsible if it’s stolen. It’s not a good idea to sit and stare at your phone before the test, anyway. Looking at a small screen like that can make you nervous and unconfident. You want to sit back, hold your head high, and maybe talk a little bit with other test-takers to feel more comfortable and confident before you start.
I was given a long reading section with 4 passages (there can be from 3 to 5). For the first three, I tried three different strategies. I’ve done all these before, but it’s always good to reconfirm.
The first strategy was reading the whole passage carefully before starting the questions. This is one of the better strategies. It generally takes longer than the other strategies, as it did this time, but it’s the best for getting correct answers. You should definitely use this method in the beginning of your studies.
The second strategy I tried was reading only the first and last sentence of every paragraph, then moving to the questions. I have heard this recommended many times, and I used to recommend it to students, but nowadays I really do not think this is a good strategy. It’s hard to understand the structure and main points of the passage from only a few sentences, and reading these first/last sentences takes time. In the end, this was just as confusing as the third strategy–going straight to the questions–but it took a longer time.
The third strategy of going to the questions immediately is something I did not used to believe was a good strategy. Over time, though I have seen it be successful, and my test last week was a good example of this. Going to the questions first was four minutes faster than reading the whole passage first.
But I’m native, and it’s easier for me to deal with the confusion this can cause. If you have more trouble understanding the meaning of sentences, then reading while answering questions can be too confusing. I only recommend this if you’re a very experienced reader who has time problems. Otherwise, take your time and use strategy #1.
I spent most of my time looking at the wrong answers and thinking about how they are written. It was similar to what you see in the official books, of course, but I’ll write more about that in another blog post. 🙂
In both the reading and listening tasks, I answered one question wrong on purpose to see if it would bring me under a score of 30. The test results are scaled, so this will be different for different versions of the test, but it’s always good to get a bit more data. Most of the practice tests in the official guide give a 29 if you miss one question. In this case, the one incorrect answer didn’t affect my score. I still got a 30 on the reading.
For the listening section, I experimented with different amounts of notes. I have said many times that you have to find the right balance, and my recent test experience just supports this idea.
For me, taking too many notes was actually the most challenging method. It’s difficult to hear all of the important details if you are too busy writing. Many TOEFL guides seem to forget this point, and their sample notes are much too long. Don’t try to write down every single detail you hear. Taking no notes was actually more comfortable for me, personally. It’s not a good idea, but it’s better than taking too many notes, in some ways.
Taking structural notes has always been the best for my students, and it was the most comfortable for me, too. It was easiest to remember the answers to the questions when I had a few short notes—just 5 or 6 main ideas in a few words each.
This was also a good reminder of how much information each listening passage presents. Conversations change topics completely within only 2 or 3 minutes. Lectures explain ideas that could take a half hour or more in just 5 minutes. You have to really be listening carefully to hear everything that is said. Be ready and pay close attention!
As for that single incorrect answer, it did affect my score in the listening; my score was a 29.
At the break, it was clear that not enough people realized they could bring snacks. Some people had food, but many didn’t. It really helps to have a small snack during that ten minutes, so be sure to bring something to keep you energized.
A Note on Timing
Something very interesting happened before the break: a few people finished their listening sections and started their breaks five or ten minutes before me. (I used all of my available time, analyzing how the questions were written so I can create similar questions for students.) These people probably hurried through both the listening and reading sections, spending even less time than they are given. So when they came back to do the speaking section, they were the only ones speaking. Listening to them talk, I could hear that they were uncomfortable. Many other people were still working on the listening section, but those who started the speaking section had to talk out loud in a small, crowded, mostly silent room.
It’s true that speaking while other people are also talking can be difficult—it’s hard to concentrate—but speaking when everybody else is silent is very awkward. It feels like everybody is listening to you.
But the opposite problem happened to the people who finished their reading and listening sections later; they were speaking while most other test-takers were trying to write essays. But at least those people had the opportunity to write their essays in silence. The people who finished early had to write while other people were speaking, which is, again, hard to do.
Altogether, it seemed worse to finish early. And that’s especially true because it’s easier to get right answers if you don’t hurry through the reading and listening. Don’t rush any more than you have to.
On the speaking section, I decided to have a little fun. I answered all the questions like a bored native teenager who didn’t care about the instructions and didn’t listen very closely to the recordings. I paused for a long time, repeated myself, used many vague words like “stuff,” “things,” and “whatever,” and didn’t structure my answers.
But I also used a lot of idioms, phrasal verbs, complicated grammar structures, and quick, natural speech to show that I was clearly a native speaker.
In short, I did a bad job answering the questions, but I spoke native English.
And the result? Even I was surprised: ETS gave me a 29. This makes the very interesting point that you don’t have to give a perfect answer to the question. Your pronunciation, vocabulary, and comfort level while speaking are much more important.
Now, I’m not going to say that the structure is a bad idea. Again and again, I have seen students who are completely lost and very confused while speaking improve by a lot when they use a set structure. It can help you to be more confident and more communicative, which is incredibly important. But in the end, the TOEFL is a test of speaking experience. If you sound experienced and comfortable, the scorers will reward you.
And notice that even though I was definitely a native speaker, they didn’t give me a 30. In a way, that’s a little strange, isn’t it? The TOEFL is a test of how well you can manage in an English speaking environment. Clearly, I can do that. But without that structure and without giving good answers, I couldn’t get a perfect score. So even if it’s not the the most important thing, structure is an important part.
The writing section was even more interesting. On both essays, I did the same thing that I had done in the speaking task; I answered the questions badly, but I made it clear that I was a native speaker by using many idioms and difficult vocabulary, referencing a lot of American culture, and generally writing the way an unskilled American teenager might.
I also wrote a lot. ETS recommends writing about 350+ words for the independent task. I wrote closer to 1,000 words.
Well, it seems that structure and content are more important for writing than they are for speaking, because I got a 27 on the writing sections. So when you hear people tell you that longer essays score higher, remember that’s only part of the story. You need good structure and focus. Writing anything that comes to mind for 30 minutes (independent task) without editing is not a good idea. If you’re not native, it won’t get you a 27. If I wrote a better, shorter essay with fewer mistakes and more focus I would have gotten a 30.
After the test
There’s a moment of enormous importance at the end of the test: your choice to send scores or cancel them. Be aware of this, and be very careful. Do not cancel your scores without good reason. If you didn’t perform well, you can always take the test again another day. Don’t panic and hit the cancel button!
Hopefully all of this gives some extra insight into how the test is given and scored. If you had any similar experiences or any that were very different, tell us a bit about it in the comments below!