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Jane Birkenhead, December 11 2018

Studying for TOEFL? Here are 5 strategies for better studying

There are no short cuts to TOEFL success. The TOEFL exam is hard. In it, you are required to demonstrate many different skills in a short period of time. You have to be able to multi-task and to think quickly. 

But, there are many ways you can help yourself to study better. Here are some ideas.

TOEFL STUDY TIP #1: GET ORGANIZED 

After many years of teaching, I can tell how lessons with a new student are going to go just by how organized they are. It’s true! 

Successful students are organized. TOEFL requires you to do a lot of tasks in a short period of time and you have to be organized to get through it.


What does it mean to be organized in your studying? Think about physical AND mental organization. Here are some ideas (there are some overlaps and probably hundreds more ideas):

Physical Organization: Are your documents arranged in a sensible way? Do you finish your homework in good time so your teacher can review it before your lesson? Do you sort out your flashcards and review them regularly? Do you review your notes from your lesson? Do you make lists?

Mental Organization: Have you got a plan? Do you focus on one thing then move onto the next one? Do you aim to study a little bit every day? Do you start telling a story at the beginning? Do you think before you speak or write?

If you don’t think that you’re naturally organized, then don’t worry. You can learn to be organized. Start with small steps at first. Don’t try to change everything at once. You can also ask other people what strategies they use to organize their work and TOEFL studying, and follow some of those. But make sure you don’t put it off. Start today.

TOEFL STUDY TIP #2: RECORD YOURSELF SPEAKING AND THEN LISTEN

I’ve got so much to say about listening, but let’s focus on one important point for now - listening to your own TOEFL speaking responses. 

When you speak, you don’t really hear yourself clearly. You may think you’re saying something one way, but, until you check a recording, you don’t know for sure. Using a recorder allows you to hear how you sound to other people. 

For example, you may think you’re saying the ends of words - final /s/ sounds, for example - but if you’re missing any of those /s/ sounds then you’re making a grammatical error. That’s something you need to correct if you want to get a good TOEFL score. And by listening to your recording, you can find those missing /s/ sounds yourself. 

If you’re studying by yourself, record some speaking responses. Then listen to them, and make a note of the errors. Repeat your response and try to reduce the errors. If you’re doing TOEFL speaking responses for a teacher for homework, listen to your responses before you share them. Make a note of the errors, then try to reduce them. 

I used to hate listening to recordings of myself - it’s bit of a problem for an TOEFL teacher! - but I’ve got over it, and you should too. It’s a really helpful way to give yourself feedback. 

TOEFL STUDY TIP #3: PRACTICE PARAPHRASING

This is so important for TOEFL. When you paraphrase, you read or hear something, and then explain it in your own words in a shorter and clearer way.

This doesn’t mean just finding synonyms -  that isn’t a good strategy by itself.  You need to be able to rephrase the original text by using different words and probably rearranging it using different grammatical structures. 

So it makes sense that you need to be confident about using grammar correctly. 

Also you need good vocabulary. But this does not mean learning every word in the dictionary (I’ve know students who’ve tried this. Please don’t do it!)

In TOEFL speaking and writing, you take formal sounding texts and paraphrase them into normal conversational language. Being able to paraphrase will also help you to work out reading passages as well.

You can’t do well in TOEFL if you can’t paraphrase. But the good news is that though it’s hard to do at first, you will get better with practice. 

TOEFL STUDY TIP #4: BE REALISTIC

No, this isn’t about timing. There are lots of posts giving advice about allowing enough time to complete TOEFL. This is all about being realistic about what you’re doing.

Being realistic in this sense means knowing when you need to change what you are doing or when to ask for help.

There are no quick fixes to TOEFL success. 

If you need S26 and you keep getting S22 or S23 or S24 and you’ve been getting those same scores for months, then what you’re doing isn’t working. If you keep repeating the same way of studying or practicing over and over again, hoping things will be different “this time”, you’ll be disappointed. Hope, by itself, is not a good strategy for TOEFL. It’s not a good strategy for any exam. 

So be realistic. Find a different approach. Change things up a little bit. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

TOEFL STUDY TIP #5: BE CREATIVE

Don’t use the same materials for practice all the time. It gets really boring, really quickly, and it soon stops being effective.

You’re going to get your TOEFL scores by getting better at English, so do things that help you to practice using the language. Don’t just study from books or websites or past exam questions. Be creative!


Some of my favourite practice ideas (for students in English speaking countries) are shown in the picture. You probably already know about TED talks and podcasts. These are excellent practice areas. Sports games, interviews and comedy shows are great places tor more informal language and practicing delivery. If you volunteer somewhere, that makes you interact with other people, and allows you to practice listening and speaking. 

And museums….my all time favourite idea. Even the smallest museum will have beautifully curated displays with carefully written explanations. This is excellent language practice for all the academic tasks in TOEFL. So, if you’re lucky enough to live near a museum, go along and support it. It’ll be fun and you’ll be practicing for TOEFL as well! 

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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