The TOEFL is a big test. It’s hard to study for, because it includes all types of grammar structures, a lot of rare vocabulary, and all four communication skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. And what’s more, if you want to get very high TOEFL scores, or at least the highest that you are able to, then you need to learn about the format of the test, too. The TOEFL has a very specific, very unique structure which takes time to learn, but studying and practicing that structure helps improve scores.
Regardless, there are many other ways you can improve your English (and specifically, important skills for the TOEFL) other than using TOEFL preparation books, videos, or practice questions.
Here are a few.
1. Read Educational Material
When I say “educational,” that could mean several different things. I don’t only mean a high-school chemistry textbook (although that could help a bit). A newspaper can be educational, for example. Wikipedia can be very educational. For that type of reading, I highly recommend aldaily.com. It may be difficult, but it’s good practice.
The goal is to read somewhat formal, native English. Don’t read things that are written specifically for English practice. Even this blog post you’re reading now is written for a TOEFL student, a non-native speaker. This article is not the best training. Instead, read things in English that you might normally read in your native language. Generally, that is the level of English that is in TOEFL reading. The only exception is poetry, novels and stories (fiction). Those may be interesting to read in English, but they’re not very good TOEFL reading practice. Instead, use non-fiction. Focus on sciences and history.
2. Listen to Lectures
Of course, any advanced listening is good for TOEFL preparation. But unlike the texts in the reading section, the recordings you’ll hear on the TOEFL listening sections aren’t exactly like real-world lectures and conversations: they’re a little bit easier.
Regardless, real-world listening is great practice if it’s the right source. Many students want to watch comedy TV shows and American movies, but those aren’t usually very TOEFL-appropriate. They do help with general English listening and learning, but they’re not related to the types of topics you’ll get on the TOEFL, and the pace and formality is often very different, depending on the show or movie. It’s better to listen to TED talks or other lectures. Many universities offer podcasts of lectures—those are also a great idea.
3. Summarize Everything
The TOEFL asks you to summarize or explain what you hear and read in four speaking questions and in one essay. (There are also specific questions in the reading and listening sections which ask about large structures and ideas from the material, but they don’t require you to use your own words.) It really helps to practice summarizing, because many common phrases, vocabulary words, and grammar structures are used when you summarize. Here are a couple of quick, easy examples to show what I mean:
- According to the text…
- The most important point is…
- Next / Secondly / Finally…
- The student believes that…
The more you say and write them, the more natural they will be on test day.
4. Talk to Yourself
How do you summarize a text if you’re sitting at home, alone? It’s easy. You just have to talk to yourself. It’s best if you do that out loud, not in your head, but sometimes that’s not possible. For example, if you’re eating lunch at work and reading an article, and then you want to summarize the article, of course it’s better to do that in your head, silently. But even then, you can imagine saying the words—try to hear yourself talking, and think through each word one by one.
It’s possible to improve your speaking skills while never speaking and completely alone. Whether it’s in the car, in the shower, or in bed as you’re falling asleep, there’s always an opportunity to get even better at the type of speaking you’ll do on the TOEFL.
5. Write and Edit
Similar to the previous point, it’s possible to improve your writing skills at home, alone. Again, summarize what you read or listen, but this time, do it on the computer. Write your response. (Be sure that you write with a QWERTY keyboard, because that’s what you’ll use on the TOEFL.)
Every summary you write should be a minimum of 200 words. If you can write more, then that’s great. Try for up to 500 words, depending on how much material you’re summarizing. A long article and a short article will not be summarized at the same length.
And after you write the summary, edit it once, quickly. Don’t spend very long doing this. The whole writing and editing process should be under 45 minutes. But then come back to the summary a few days after, possibly a week later. Edit any errors you can find, and add sentences to make it clearer. Keep doing this. Write more summaries, and edit them often. Study or review a bit of advanced grammar, too, so you can edit well. And, as always, learn from your mistakes. The more you write in English, the better!