ETS has announced changes to the TOEFL iBT exam which will take effect from 1 August 2019. There has been a lot of discussion about what these changes might mean for students, so I thought it would be helpful to outline my thoughts.
Overall, I think it’s great that the exam will be shorter. Anything that test-makers can do to reduce the testing time is always good. I think it’s a positive sign that ETS is updating the exam. We know they gather huge amounts of research at each testing session, so it’s good they are using the results of that research to make helpful changes.
Let’s look at each section in turn.
The reading section of the new TOEFL exam is going to be shorter as there will be 10 questions (instead of 13 or 14) for each reading passage. This is definitely an improvement as 10 is psychologically a nice round number and that makes a big difference in a stressful exam situation! Once you’ve read the passage, it’s easy to divide your remaining time by ten and make sure you allocate the correct amount of time to each question.
I’ve seen some people say they hope the reading (and listening) section will be ‘easier’ as a result of these changes. This is very unlikely as ETS say the standards will remain the same. That doesn’t mean ‘easier’ or ‘harder’, it means the same. You may feel less tired or less stressed because you have to complete 30 questions instead of 39 to 42, but the individual questions themselves are unlikely to be easier.
The new test will probably have the same distribution of question types. So while it’s likely that while some factual information and vocabulary questions will be removed (because there are generally more of these types of questions in reading passages), there will probably be the same overall percentage of each question. So, before, with a reading passage of 14 questions, if around 28% were vocabulary questions, then that equals 3 to 4 vocabulary questions. Then in the new reading passages, it’s still likely that 28% or 2 to 3 questions will be vocabulary questions.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PREPARE FOR TOEFL READING? Continue to practice building up your grammar and vocabulary proficiency. Concentrate on phrase level understanding and especially take note of any function word phrases that help with meaning. Make sure you know why the author is writing something. Practice reading complicated texts and then paraphrasing them paragraph by paragraph (by speaking out loud or writing) to show your understanding.
The listening section will be shorter as, in the new TOEFL exam, there will be 3 lectures + 2 conversations (instead of 4 lectures). This is also a welcome change. The removal of 1 academic lecture reduces the listening burden as most students generally feel more confident about the conversations. However, the focus is still on academic listening and the distribution of questions is likely to be the same. It won’t be ‘easier’ but, hopefully by the time you finish the reading and listening sections, you’ll be a little less exhausted than in the old exam!
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PREPARE? Practice listening in the same way you have been doing. Listen to lots of academic lectures on different topics. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every single word, but concentrate on listening for the main ideas and as many details as you can. Get used to listening to different lecturers (with different styles of presentation) and listen for vocal clues that they use to help you e.g. using repetitions and emphasizing important points.
The speaking section of the new TOEFL exam will also be shorter as there will be 4 questions in total, instead of 6. There has been speculation about which speaking questions are going to be removed. ETS hasn’t made any announcement about this yet and until they do, I’m going to restrict my comments to what we know from the official announcement.
Again, the reduction in the number of questions is a good thing. You’re going to feel less tired and hopefully less stressed as a result.
But, do consider a couple of very important factors:
1. The majority of TOEFL speaking questions will still be the longer ‘integrated’ questions - where you gather information from different sources to answer the question.
2. Each speaking question is going to contribute more to your overall score. In the old TOEFL exam there were 6 questions so each one contributed ~17% to your score. In the new exam, there will be 4 questions so each one will contribute 25% to your score. This means there will be less chance to recover if you have a bad question.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PREPARE? Work on sounding natural, fluent and spontaneous. Concentrate on getting a nice clear delivery (accents are fine but you need to be clear). Listen to short academic lectures and practice paraphrasing them. Listen to conversations and practice explaining the speakers’ opinions. Don’t memorize responses but practice being able to explain something in many different ways. This will help you to think quickly and to react to each question in the exam.
The writing section is staying the same in the new exam. However, with the shorter first 3 sections, hopefully you’ll arrive in the writing section a little more refreshed and more able to do your best!
This is a big question - how is my teaching going to change as a result of these exam changes? Well, I’m still going to work with my students on skills-building in the same way as before, to ensure they have excellent foundations in reading, listening, writing, grammar and vocabulary. When we move on to speaking, I’ll definitely take note of any feedback about the new exam but, as always, my focus will be on getting my students ‘performance ready’ so that when they go into the exam room they are calm, confident and able to do their best.