A funny thing is happening to me this week.
After eighteen years of giving TOEFL classes and helping students on three continents pass three different iterations of the TOEFL test (pen-and-paper, computer-based and internet-based), I am going to go down to the local test centre with my colleague Jamal and actually sit the TOEFL iBT. That’s right, I’m dedicating four-and-a-half hours of my precious Sunday afternoon to find out first-hand just what it is that my students have been making such a fuss about all these years.
I should point out that Jamal is much keener on this than I am. To start off, she loves doing tests. (Just between us, I think she might be a bit soft in the head!) It’s not that I’m afraid of the TOEFL iBT – heaven knows I’m more familiar with this test than anything else I’ve ever worked on – but now my knowledge is being put under the microscope. I’m getting butterflies just thinking about returning to the office with a lower than expected score. How on earth would my ego cope?
So, which areas of the TOEFL iBT am I most worried about and why? It’s a question that does not have a simple answer. Broadly speaking, I’m a little worried about all of it, so I’ll touch on a few things in each section that are going to make the next few nights a bit more restless than they ought to be:
1) TOEFL Writing
I am a fairly confident writer, though being a pedantic fellow, I am happier to proofread other people’s texts. Small grammar mistakes bother me to an irrational extent. For example, at my daughter’s school there has been a sign offering “Hot Meat Pie’s” since the start of the year. It’s all I can do to stop myself from spray-painting it out. I’ve complained to the administration, to no avail.
My concern about the writing in the TOEFL iBT is time management. There are two pieces of writing to get through in a total of 45 minutes. How will I manage the planning, writing and proof-reading under such pressure? I have been timing myself this week under virtual test conditions and I can see some improvement, but I am still dissatisfied with the quality of my essays.
2) TOEFL Listening
The TOEFL iBT is more “international” than its predecessors. In a previous post I wrote about how it’s being accepted by the Australian immigration authorities as an alternative to the IELTS or the PTE. This means that there are now a wider variety of accents being heard in the test itself. Still, it is undeniably a North American test which is chock-a-block with North American accents. Exposed as we are to such accents through television, movies and music, it is not the biggest challenge to understand what they’re talking about. Even so, I am a native speaker of The Queen’s English (the capital letters are intentional!) and can find some ‘Americanisms’ both confusing and annoying.
The TOEFL iBT listening section includes conversations between two or three people, so I’m a bit worried that the way they speak to each other might cause me a few headaches.
3) TOEFL Reading
I have been out of the university system for quite a few years, and this test is very much academically-focused. The reading for the TOEFL iBT is fairly extensive – each text is around 700 words in length – and it goes into quite a lot of detail on a wide range of topics. There’s no denying that, in order to do well in the TOEFL iBT, you have to be a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades.
Someone who is used to the reality of university life where lectures, seminars and research are a part of their day-to-day routine would not be overawed by the prospect of reading through page after page of different articles. Needless to say, I have already taken a TOEFL practice reading test online, and plan to do so again before next Sunday.
4) TOEFL Speaking
Like most native speakers who find themselves taking a high-stakes English test, we almost resent being asked to prove how well we speak our own language. I mean, really! Talk about adding insult to injury. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, though, I can see the trap that so many of my peers stumble into. More often than not they fail to speak to the test. What does this mean? In the TOEFL iBT it means addressing the topic, referring to the theme throughout and speaking in a manner that is clear and comprehensible to anyone listening in possession of a reasonable level of English.
On top of this, there is the added anxiety of having to talk to a machine. I have every sympathy for test-takers who complain about this aspect of the test, but in truth it is a valid skill. Think about how many times we have to communicate over the phone or leave recorded messages. I’ll do my best to come over well in the speaking, but I am already starting to squirm at the thought of how silly I’m going to sound.
I’ve been taking my preparation for the test seriously. In fact, I have been going over a TOEFL mock test paper this very evening. Also, with all of my professional experience, I am very familiar with what I need to study for the TOEFL iBT. Referring to our E2Language.com TOEFL materials doesn’t hurt either!
So think of me next Sunday as I head down to the TOEFL test place with my colleague: I promise I’ll let you know how I get on (even if it’s bad news!).
Written by Colin David.