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The Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL, pronounced "toe-full" or sometimes "toffle") evaluates the potential success of an individual to use and understand Standard American English at a college level. It is required for non-native applicants at many English-speaking colleges and universities. A TOEFL score is valid for two years and then is deleted from the official database.
The TOEFL test is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and is administered worldwide. The test was first administered 1964 and has since been taken by nearly 20 million students.
Formats and contents
Since its introduction in late 2005, the Internet-based test (iBT) has progressively replaced both the computer-based (CBT) and paper-based (PBT) tests. 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 demand for test seats remains very high even after almost a year after the introduction of the test: Candidates have to wait for months since short-term test dates are fully booked. The four-hour test consists of four sections, each measuring mainly one of the basic language skills (although some tasks may require multiple skills) and focusing on language used in an academic, higher-education environment. Note-taking is allowed during the iBT.
- After each academic reading passage (out of 3–5), questions are posed about content, intent of the author, and ideas inferred from the passage. New types of questions in the iBT require paraphrasing, filling out tables, or completing summaries. Generally prior knowledge of the subject under discussion is not necessary to come to the correct answer, though a priori knowledge may help.
- Questions refer to the content and intent of the phrases, as well as to the speakers' attitude and meaning, either in short conversations or in lectures.
- New to the iBT, this section contains questions relating to personal experiences or preferences, as well as tasks that also involve reading passages and listening to short conversations and lectures. Test takers are expected to convey information, explain ideas, and defend opinions clearly, coherently, and accurately.
- One task requires test takers to defend a position relative to a specified general topic. In the other task, a reading passage and a lecture are presented, and test takers must answer a question relating the main points of both the passage and the lecture.
(Detailed descriptions and samples are available at the official website.)
The computer-based test (CBT) was abolished on September 30, 2006. It is divided into four sections, measuring language proficiency in listening, structure (grammar), reading and writing. Note-taking is not allowed.
- Listening Comprehension (45–70 minutes)
- Type of Questions: Conversations between two or more people in academic environments. Short conversations between students and lectures may be possible conversations. Questions are basically of the who said what type.
- Structure (grammar) (15–20 minutes)
- Type of Questions: Identify the erroneous word(s) in the sentence. Fill in the blanks using the appropriate word.
- Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary (70-90 minutes)
- Type of Question: Questions are posed about content, intent of the author, and ideas inferred from each of the 3–4 passages given.
- Essay Writing (30 minutes)
- Type of Question: To write an essay on a given general topic and take a position toward it, e.g., "Is stem cell research necessary? Explain your stance."
The Listening and Structure sections are computer-adaptive, meaning that the difficulty level of each question depends on the correctness of previous responses.
Three subscores are obtained, each of which is given on a 0–30 scale: Listening, Structure/Writing (combined), and Reading. These subscores are averaged to obtain the final score, which is on a 0–300 scale. The Writing score is reported separately, on a 0–6 scale.
In areas where the iBT and CBT are not available, a paper-based test (PBT) is given. The PBT tests essentially the same skills as the CBT, albeit with some differences, noticeably the number of questions (which is higher in the PBT) and the score scales. The final PBT score ranges between 310 and 677 and is based on three subscores: Listening (31–68), Structure (31–68), and Reading (31–67). Unlike the CBT, the score of the Writing section (referred to as the Test of Written English, TWE) is not part of the final score; instead, it is reported separately on a scale of 0–6.
ETS has released tables to convert between iBT, CBT and PBT scores.
TOEFL, like many standardized tests, has come under increasing scrutiny as a measure of the ability to use English effectively. There is an increasing number of major English speaking universities that now only accept alternate tests [How to reference and link to summary or text]or their own test as a measure of whether a student will be capable of using English in an academic milieu. Some of its weaknesses:
- Because English exhibits some orthographic patterns (such as the use of -ing on the end of many verbs), test takers can be taught strategies to look for the patterns without having an understanding of the underlying grammar involved.
- Native speakers of English who take the test often find themselves with mediocre results, even in multiple choice questions. Ideally, a test for English proficiency should be simple and straightforward for a native speaker. Instead, such tests often focus on obscure rules of grammar and "proper" uses. For example, the use of "can" and "may" does have a formal rule, but native English speakers not only ignore the formal use on most occasions, they are never confused when another speaker switches the two.
- Until 2005, TOEFL did not test the ability to speak English. In most environments, the ability to speak intelligibly and without undue delay is vital. Because TOEFL did not measure this, learners may neglect this part of their education to focus on the skills the test does measure. As a result, many universities request incoming teaching assistants who are not native English speakers to take additional tests (such as the Test of Spoken English or university-administered tests) to ensure their ability to communicate with their students. The TOEFL iBT, which does test speaking skills, attempts to address this issue.
- Candidates complain about the TOEFL iBT, mainly because of the high noise level during the speaking section: Everyone is responding orally to six questions at the same time. In addition, the number of seats available is limited (usually filled four months before deadline date)[How to reference and link to summary or text].
- List of admissions tests
- Educational Testing Service
- English as an additional language
- UBELT (University of Bath English Language Test)
- ETS Official TOEFL Site
- Official ETS Europe TOEFL website
- Free TOEFL study guide and test information
- DMOZ listing of TOEFL related sites
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