Let's Tackle the TOEFL (student version)

Let’s Tackle the TOEFL!


Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in this article and in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.


Note: This is an adapted version of the TOEFL Teacher's Guide used by Magoosh tutors and instructors. It's got a lot of information that's also useful for students.
Original guide written by Pete Rossman and David Recine


Table of Contents 

Click any line in the Table of Contents to jump down to that part of the article.


First, a few bullet points about the test (copied from the TOEFL iBT Test Logistics page from the Zendesk Guide):



Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL):
TOEFL Basics

  • The TOEFL is a language proficiency test for non-native English speakers planning to study at English-speaking higher education institutions.

  • TOEFL is also used for admission to and exit English-language learning programs, application for certain scholarships and certificates, and application for certain visas.

  • Most students take TOEFL “ibT” (Internet-based test). The paper-based version of the TOEFL (“PBT”) is not as widely available.

  • The iBT and PBT have some significant differences. Magoosh TOEFL supports the iBT, but not the PBT.



Structure of the TOEFL

Everything you and your students need to know about the setup TOEFL sections, questions, tasks, and time limits.




4 hours (includes mandatory 10-minute break)



4 Sections

  • Reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions)
    • Read 3-4 academic passages and respond to questions.

  • Listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions)
    • Listen to lectures or classroom discussions and respond to questions.
  • Speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks)
    • Speak about familiar topics into microphone. Discuss material you read about/listen to.
  • Writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks)
    • Read a passage, listen to a recording, and write a response.



Additional Notes about Test Structure

  • TOEFL is administered on a standard English-language (QWERTY) computer keyboard.

  • Reading and Listening sections may contain several unscored questions used to gather information for future tests.

  • Listening, Speaking, and Writing sections can potentially feature accents from North America, Australia, the U.K., and New Zealand. However, the vast majority of audio tracks feature North American accents, and it is possible to take an entire TOEFL exam without hearing non-American English.



TOEFL Scoring Scale

The TOEFL is scored on a scale of 0-120 for the whole exam. Below is a breakdown of scores for individual sections of the exam.




Reading & Listening

Scored by a computer, 0-30 per section. (Different questions carry different point weight. For more information, see the the scoring subsections of "All About TOEFL Reading" and "All About TOEFL Listening" in this article.)




Each of 6 tasks rated 0-4 in 0.5 point increments; sum is converted to scaled score, 0-30.

    • Each speaking response is scored by two trained human TOEFL raters, and the task score will be an average of the two individual scores.
    • If the scores of the raters differ by more than one point, a third rater will also give a score, and the final score for the task will be an average of the three individual scores.




  • Each task is rated 0-5 in 0.5 point increments; the sum is converted to a 0-30 scaled score.

  • Writing is scored for: organization of ideas, grammar, vocabulary, accuracy, and overall writing quality
    • Writing is scored both by a trained rater and a computerized eRater, and the final score for each task is an average of the two.
    • If the scores of the human rater and the eRater computer are different by more than one point, a second human rater gives an additional score, and the final score for the task is the average of all three scores.

  • No “passing” or “failing score”: each college or university sets its own score requirements.

  • The score report includes “performance feedback,” a summary of a test-taker's strengths and weaknesses.




  • Registration is open until 7 days before test date (available online, by phone, or by mail).

  • Late online registration is open until 4 days before test date, with a $40 fee.

  • Unlimited retakes are permitted, but test takers can only take one TOEFL examination per 12-day period. So students have to wait at least 12 days after their test date before they can take the exam again.

  • Registration fees vary by country. Students can find their TOEFL fee if they look up registration by country on the ETS website.



Rescheduling & Cancellation

  • Full refund for cancellations made within 7 days after registration, provided cancellation is made more than 4 days before the test date (see below).

  • Refund of half of registration fee for cancellation made up to 4 days before test date.

  • Rescheduling fee: $60.



Preparing for Test Day

  • Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before test start time.

  • You must bring:
    • Registration confirmation
    • Valid, acceptable form of I.D.

  • Test center will provide scratch paper and pencil.




Receiving & Sending Scores

  • Scores posted online about 10 days after test date

  • Designate score recipients at time of registration (up to 4 score reports)

  • $19 fee for each additional score report or ANY report requested after registration

  • Option to cancel your scores at the end of testing session if you don’t want them on permanent record
    • $20 fee to reinstate canceled scores if received within 60 days after test date

  • Scores valid for 2 years after test date.




All About TOEFL Reading




TOEFL Reading Section Structure

  • Number of Passages: The TOEFL Reading section can have three or four passages. If it has three passages the section will be 60 minutes long, and if it has four passages the section will be 80 minutes long.

  • If the section does have four passages, it means:
    • One of the passages is experimental and will not be graded.
    • The Listening section will not contain any experimental questions, and will only have two groups of two lectures and one conversation (for a total of four lectures and two conversations).
  • Number of questions per TOEFL Reading Passage:
    • Each Reading section will have 12-14 questions.




TOEFL Reading Section Organization

  • The questions are ordered by how they appear in the passage, so the first couple questions will ask about the first paragraph, the next couple about the second, and so on.

  • The two exceptions are the the last two questions.

  • The second-to-last question will always take a selected paragraph from earlier in the passage, and ask test-takers to place a new sentence in the most logical place in the paragraph.

  • The final question always asks about the passage as a whole.

  • The reading section is the only section where a student can review previous questions. Students are able to navigate freely back and forth between all of the questions, and can re-visit previous passages.

  • The passage remains visible at all times. Initially, the passage takes up the whole screen. Then, the questions appear on the left, with the passage still accessible on the right side of the screen.



TOEFL Reading Section Question Types
(and points per question)

  • Multiple choice questions have one correct answer and are worth just one point.
    • This includes the sentence placement question that appears second-to-last.

  • Summary questions can appear at the end, have 3 answers, and are worth 2 points.
    • The test-taker must select and organize ideas that summarize the passage. (For a full example, see the Magoosh TOEFL Blog’s summary question post.)
    • Summary questions are worth 2 points, and have three answers.
    • 0 or 1 correct answer earns no points.
    • 2 correct answers earns 1 point.
    • 3 correct answers gets the full 2 points.
  • Categorization questions can also appear at the very end of the question set. They have 5 answers, and are worth 3 points.
    • Students are asked to select and categorize ideas from the passage. (For an example, see the Magoosh TOEFL Blog post "TOEFL Reading Question Type: Categorization".)
    • 1 or 2 correct answers earns 0 points.
    • 3 correct answers earns 1 point.
    • 4 correct answers earns 2 points.
    • 5 correct answers will get a student the full 3 points.
  • Summary and Categorization: Does Order Matter?
    • Many students ask if it matters what order their answers are in.
    • Usually, this doesn’t matter.
    • When order does matter, TOEFL Reading instructions will specifically and explicitly state that the ideas should go in a certain order.




All About TOEFL Listening



Listening Section Structure and Organization

  • “Pods”
    A “pod” contains one of each of three types of TOEFL Listening audio tracks:
    • conversation between one male speaker and one female speaker
    • A lecture where only the professor speaks
    • A class discussion, where the professor speaks, but one male student and one female student also participate
    • Usually, a TOEFL Listening section contains just two pods.
  • If a section has 3 pods, it means: 
    • One of the sections is experimental and will not count toward the final score.
    • The Reading section will only have three passages, and will not contain a fourth experimental passage.
  • A student can NOT go back and review previous questions. Once a question is answered and the student moves to the next question, the previous one can't be reviewed.


  • TOEFL Listening questions: Organization
    • Each conversation is followed by 5 questions.
    • Lectures and class discussions are each followed by 6 questions.
    • There are 17 questions per pod, and 34 questions in a normal-length TOEFL Listening section.
    • There are 51 questions (34 + 17) in an experimental TOEFL Listening section.
    • Questions may include a short, replayed clips from the audio track.

  • Questions usually follow the order of things that were said in the audio, with three exceptions:
    • The first question will always be a “main idea” question that involves summarizing the whole audio track.
    • Questions with a replayed clip from the audio track. These may jump back or jump forward to an out-of-sequence part of the conversation, lecture or discussion.
    • Categorization questions sometimes follow the order of the ideas in the audio track, but sometimes require the student to summarize ideas from the whole track, or from a few different parts of the track. (See TOEFL Listening question types below.)




Listening Section Question Types

  • Multiple choice questions, one answer
    • Worth 1 point  
  • Multiple choice questions, two answers
    • Students must choose two correct answers instead of one
    • Worth 1 point
      • Both correct answers = 1 point
      • 1 or 0 correct answers = 0 points 
  • Categorization questions
    • 3 answers
    • Worth 2 points
      • 0 or 1 correct answer = 0 points
      • 2 correct answers = 1 point
      • 3 correct answers = 2 points




Timing on the TOEFL Listening section

  • The TOEFL Listening timer will not run while audio tracks are playing.

  • It will only run when students are answering questions.

  • The software in the TOEFL Official Guide shows the clock ticking during the audio tracks. This is incorrect, does not reflect real test conditions, and sometimes confuses students.

  • Students should spend an average of 30 minutes per pod, or an average of 10 minutes per question set.




All About TOEFL Speaking



Speaking Structure, Organization, Task Types, and Timing

On the TOEFL Speaking Section, structure, organization and timing all revolves around the 6 different TOEFL Speaking tasks.

Tasks 1 and 2: The TOEFL Independent Speaking Tasks

  • Task 1 
    • Question about the student’s personal life or personal experiences

  • Task 2 
    • Question about the student’s personal opinion regarding a social issue 
  • Timing for both Tasks 1 and 2:
    • 15 seconds to prepare
    • 45 seconds to speak

Tasks 3 and 4: TOEFL Integrated Speaking (Reading, Listening, and Speaking)

  • Task 3 
    • Students will read a short campus announcement, and listen to a conversation where two people on campus discuss the announcement (one male speaker, one female speaker). One speaker will have an opinion about the announcement.
    • Students must then explain the speaker’s opinion about the announcement. 
  • Task 4
    • Students will read a short academic passage, and then listen to a lecture that expands on the ideas in the passage.
    • Students will then summarize the ways in which the lecture adds to the the ideas in the passage.
  • Timing for both tasks:
    • 45 seconds to read
    • Timer does not run during the audio
    • 30 seconds to prepare
    • 60 seconds to speak

  • On these tasks, the student can only view the passage once, at the very beginning of the task. After the 45 seconds of reading time, the passage cannot be accessed again.

 Tasks 5 and 6: TOEFL Integrated Speaking (Listening and Speaking)

  • Task 5
    • Students will listen to a conversation between a male speaker and female speaker who are discussing a problem, and ways to solve it.
    • Students will summarize the problem and the proposed solutions. Students will then say which solution they prefer and why. 
  • Task 6
    • Students will listen to a lecture given by a professor.
    • Students will summarize the main points in the lecture.
  • Timing for both tasks:
    • Timer does not run during the audio
    • 20 seconds to prepare
    • 60 seconds to speak

Additional note: Once a Speaking task is completed, it's not possible to go back to it, either to review the content or re-do the task.



TOEFL Speaking Scores

Students frequently ask questions about how their Speaking will be scored. Here are some links from Magoosh and ETS that you can show to students.



All About TOEFL Writing



Writing Section Structure

There are just two tasks in the TOEFL Writing section: Task 1, also known as Integrated Writing, and Task 2, also known as Independent Writing.

  • The Integrated Writing Task (Task 1)
    • Test-takers read a passage, and then listen to a related lecture.
    • The lecture will challenge the main points in the passage.
    • In the essay, the student will summarize the ways that the lecturer disagrees with the writer.
    • Test takers get 3 minutes to read the passage.
    • The clock doesn’t run during the lecture.
    • Test takers get 20 minutes to write the essay.
    • During the essay writing time, the passage remains accessible in a sidebar on the righthand part of the screen.

  • The Independent Writing Task (Task 2)
    • The student will be given a question about a social issue.
    • The essay prompts vary, but will always ask a student to take a side, or to agree/disagree with a position.
    • The student will give and justify their opinion on the issue.
    • Test takers get 30 minutes to write the essay.
    • This task is like:
      • IELTS Writing Task 2 (almost exactly the same as it!)
      • A more complicated, written version of TOEFL Speaking Task 2
      • A simpler version of the GRE AWA Issue Task

Once a TOEFL Writing Task is done, it's done. After Task 2 starts, students can't revisit Task 1 to review or revise it.



TOEFL Writing Scores

The Differences Between Magoosh TOEFL and the Real TOEFL

Students often want to know how "TOEFL-like" their Magoosh practice is, how similar Magoosh TOEFL is to the real thing from ETS. 

There are some obvious differences. For example, on the real test, students won't be able to pause, rewind or replay any audio clips. In addition, Magoosh TOEFL Listening allows students to go back to earlier questions, but that can't be done on test day. The same goes for the ability students have to go back to the passages in Magoosh TOEFL Integrated Speaking Tasks 3 and 4; this just isn't possible on a real exam.

Beyond that, Magoosh TOEFL is designed to have the same difficulty level as the real thing from ETS. And the timing is the same on Magoosh's full mock TOEFL exams. The timing found in individual TOEFL sections from ETS can also duplicated in Custom Practice settings.

The major difference between Magoosh TOEFL and a real TOEFL test from ETS is the visual interface. Magoosh TOEFL questions have a very different physical appearance from that of the exam screen students see when they take the test itself.

For a quick look at what the real TOEFL looks like, compared to Magoosh TOEFL, Magoosh students and tutors alike are encouraged to download the free TOEFL Interactive Sampler from ETS. This light, easy-to-install software shows what the real TOEFL looks like, complete with some practice questions and an answer key.

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