The Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, evaluates the ability of an individual to use and understand English in an academic setting. It sometimes is an admission requirement for non-native English speakers at many English-speaking colleges and universities. Additionally, institutions such as government agencies, licensing bodies, businesses, or scholarship programs may require this test. A TOEFL score is valid for two years and then will no longer be officially reported since a candidate's language proficiency could have significantly changed since the date of the test. Colleges and universities usually consider only the most recent TOEFL score. The TOEFL test is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and is administered worldwide. The test was first administered in 1964 and has since been taken by more than 23 million students. The test was originally developed at the Center for Applied Linguistics under the direction of Stanford University applied linguistics professor Dr. Charles A. Ferguson.
Policies governing the TOEFL program are formulated with advice from a 16-member board. Board members are affiliated with undergraduate and graduate schools, 2-year institutions and public or private agencies with an interest in international education. Other members are specialists in the field of English as a foreign or second language.
The TOEFL Committee of Examiners is composed of 12 specialists in linguistics, language testing, teaching or research. Its main responsibility is to advice on TOEFL test content. The committee helps ensure the test is a valid measure of English language proficiency reflecting current trends and methodologies.
Since its introduction in late 2005, the Internet-based Test (iBT) has progressively replaced both the computer-based tests (CBT) and paper-based tests (PBT), although paper-based testing is still used in select areas. The iBT has been introduced in phases, with the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy in 2005 and the rest of the world in 2006, with test centers added regularly. The CBT was discontinued in September 2006 and these scores are no longer valid.
Although initially, the demand for test seats was higher than availability, and candidates had to wait for months, it is now possible to take the test within one to four weeks in most countries. The four-hour test consists of four sections, each measuring one of the basic language skills (while some tasks require integrating multiple skills) and all tasks focus on language used in an academic, higher-education environment. Note-taking is allowed during the iBT. The test cannot be taken more than once a week.
The Reading section consists of 3 - 5 passages, each approximately 700 words in length and questions about the passage. The passages are on academic topics; they are the kind of material that might be found in an undergraduate university textbook. Passages require understanding of rhetorical functions such as cause-effect, compare-contrast and argumentation. Students answer questions about main ideas, details, inferences, essential information, sentence insertion, vocabulary, rhetorical purpose and overall ideas. New types of questions in the iBT require filling out tables or completing summaries. Prior knowledge of the subject under discussion is not necessary to come to the correct answer.
The Listening section consists of six passages 3 - 5 minutes in length and questions about the passages. These passages include two student conversations and four academic lectures or discussions. A conversation involves two speakers, a student and either a professor or a campus service provider. A lecture is a self-contained portion of an academic lecture, which may involve student participation and does not assume specialized background knowledge in the subject area. Each conversation and lecture stimulus is heard only once. Test-takers may take notes while they listen and they may refer to their notes when they answer the questions. Each conversation is associated with five questions and each lecture with six. The questions are meant to measure the ability to understand main ideas, important details, implications, relationships between ideas, organization of information, speaker purpose and speaker attitude.
The Speaking section consists of six tasks: two independent tasks and four integrated tasks. In the two independent tasks, test-takers answer opinion questions on familiar topics. They are evaluated on their ability to speak spontaneously and convey their ideas clearly and coherently. In two of the integrated tasks, test-takers read a short passage, listen to an academic course lecture or a conversation about campus life and answer a question by combining appropriate information from the text and the talk. In the two remaining integrated tasks, test-takers listen to an academic course lecture or a conversation about campus life and then respond to a question about what they heard. In the integrated tasks, test-takers are evaluated on their ability to appropriately synthesize and effectively convey information from the reading and listening material. Test-takers may take notes as they read and listen and may use their notes to help prepare their responses. Test-takers are given a short preparation time before they have to begin speaking.
The Writing section measures a test taker's ability to write in an academic setting and consists of two tasks: one integrated task and one independent task. In the integrated task, test-takers read a passage on an academic topic and then listen to a speaker discuss the same topic. The test-taker will then write a summary about the important points in the listening passage and explain how these relate to the key points of the reading passage. In the independent task, test-takers must write an essay that states, explains, and supports their opinion on an issue, supporting their opinions or choices, rather than simply listing personal preferences or choices.
Below is the breakup of the sections.
READING 3 - 5 passages, each containing 12 - 14 questions 60 - 100 minutes
LISTENING 6 - 9 passages, each containing 5 - 6 questions 60 - 90 minutes
BREAK - 10 minutes
SPEAKING 6 tasks and 6 questions 20 minutes
WRITING 2 tasks and 2 questions 55 minutes
One of the sections of the test will include extra, uncounted material. Educational Testing Service includes extra material in order to pilot test questions for future test forms. When test-takers are given a longer section, they should give equal effort to all of the questions because they do not know which question will count and which will be considered extra. For example, if there are four reading passages instead of three, then three of those passages will count and one of the passages will not be counted. Any of the four passages could be the uncounted one.
In areas where the internet-based test is not available, a paper-based test (PBT) is given. Test takers must register in advance either online or by using the registration form provided in the Supplemental Paper TOEFL Bulletin. They should register in advance of the given deadlines to ensure a place because the test centers have limited seating and may fill up early. Tests are administered on fixed dates 6 times each year.
The test is 3 hours long and all test sections can be taken on the same day. Students can take the test as many times as they wish. However, colleges and universities usually consider only the most recent score.
Listening (30 - 40 minutes)
The Listening section consists of 3 parts. The first one contains 30 questions about short conversations. The second part has 8 questions about longer conversations. The last part asks 12 questions about lectures or talks.
Structure and Written Expression (25 minutes)
The Structure and Written Expression section has 15 exercises of completing sentences correctly and 25 exercises of identifying errors.
Reading Comprehension (55 minutes)
The Reading Comprehension section has 50 questions about reading passages.
Writing (30 minutes)
The Writing section is one essay with 250 - 300 words in average.