i'm new to teaching the toefl. where should i start?

Whether you have been assigned to teach the TOEFL for the first time, have been asked to begin incorporating TOEFL prep into a class you've been teaching for awhile, or have just finished your own classes and are brand new to the teaching profession, here is where you should begin.


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Is there a way to make test prep exciting?  I think so.  Get your students fired up about studying so they go into test day confident.  How?  Steal tried and true ideas (and many freebies) straight from my own classroom.


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New to Teaching the TOEFL? Here's Where to Start

If you are an ESL teacher who has just been given your first TOEFL teaching assignment, you might initially feel as overwhelmed as the students.  The TOEFL is a long, high-stakes test and you want to make sure that you are serving your students well.  Most natives speakers have never taken the exam themselves, so make sure that you get comfortable with the specifics of the exam before your first class.  

Make sure you are thoroughly familiar with the format.  Many of the test prep books start with a brief introduction to all parts of the exam, and you can also find an outline of each section here on my website.  Students will want to know the specifics, so make sure you know the order, timing, and scoring for each section.  Giving this information to your students in the form of a handout and/or placing a poster detailing this information around the room makes for a great resource.  Students can use this as a reference sheet, keeping it as the first page of a binder or folder.  This also prevents you from needing to memorize this additional information right away, allowing you to focus on the bigger issues.

Anticipate the questions you will be asked.  Consult FAQ pages here on my website and from ETS.  This will help you prepare for the questions you will inevitably get.  Those types of questions could be tricky for new teachers who are new to the TOEFL, but knowing what students want to know will ensure that you do not get caught off guard.  Taking a practice exam yourself can also help give you some first-hand experience that you can draw on.

Learn the patterns.  In each section, you will encounter repeated patterns, just as you would on any other type of standardized test.  Knowing these big patterns, like the commonly used questions for the independent essay, will help you show students how easy it can be to prepare for the exam.  This will help them build up their confidence and make them feel like they can take on this tough test.

Select a book that works well for your students.  All TOEFL books are not created equal.  Make sure you choose the one that is appropriate for your students.  Some books are more challenging than others.  Some books have more advice and even question by question breakdowns while others are just a collection of practice test.  If your school already has a book that is used, make sure you review it so you know what needs to be prepared and what the book is good for.  Don't just rely on the book, especially if there are students mixed into your class that . aren't taking the test.  Academic English and TOEFL prep goes hand in hand and is often more interesting when it takes place outside of the test prep book.

Clearly tie an English focused lesson to a test prep lesson in order to maximize efficiency.  If you are an ESL teacher who has just been given your first TOEFL teaching assignment, you will have to prepare your classes a little differently than what you are probably used to.  Instead of having . a thematically or grammatically organized curricula, you will probably need to rearrange your thinking somewhat, focusing on a particular type of question for each lesson (or set of lessons) and then working backward to think about the skills that go into solving that type of question.  For example, if you are teaching the detail question (sometimes called the factual information question) on the reading section of the TOEFL, you will want to spend several days letting students practice with just this style of question.  The English skill necessary to tackle this type of question is paraphrasing, so have one day focused on finding synonyms, another lesson focusing on changing parts of speech to rephrase a sentence, etc.

 As with all standardized tests, the exam does change.  Whether the change is designed to better reflect accents of all English speakers, to combat cheating, or to utilize evolving technology, instructors need to keep up with the most current version of the test.  Check in with ETS's website regularly.  They also produce content for YouTube, so check there, too!.  Stay up to date with changes made to the TOEFL.

How To Check Test Prep Homework

Checking homework for the TOEFL or any other standardized test seems really easy.  In fact, many students have the answers right in the back of their test prep book.  In order to make sure that students are truly getting the most out of their homework and that the score they received was based on skill and not luck (which does happen from time to time on multiple choice tests), make sure you go beyond calling out a letter for each question.

When going over Reading or Listening homework, have students volunteer to put their notes up on the board.  Outlining and note-taking are important skills for success on the TOEFL and in college programs, so these abilities should be monitored regularly.  Are students using the topic sentences to find the main points or writing down the terms that the professor defines?  Students who have mastered these skills are likely to get more questions right.

If you decide to go over the answers one by one, make sure you ask students why something is the right answer.  If it is a detail question, ask the student which sentence in the original text paraphrases the answer, for example.  

If students are handing in a writing assignment that you will comment on, make sure you plan for time in class for students to look over the corrections and suggestions you've made.  Some students might be too nervous or shy to ask you about things alone after class, but if you have a short conference with each student while the others work to implement your suggestions, students will actually read your comments and feel more comfortable asking for additional clarification or examples.

Speaking homework is a little more complicated to assign, but students can record their responses using their phones and email it to you or play the recordings in class.  Students are often uncomfortable speaking into the microphone on the computer, but having them get used to it by speaking into the microphone on a computer or smart phone will put them more at ease.  If you are personally listening and recording feedback for the students, make sure they have actually listened to it by requiring that they write down your suggestion and tell you how they will incorporate this into their next round of speaking practice.  Now you know that they have listened to your advice, understood what you meant, and they have set a measurable goal for their next assignment.  If you listen to the student recordings together as a class, make sure that the students receive a lot of positive feedback from their classmates first. 


Attitude Is Everything

Attitude is contagious.  Students look to the teacher to set the tone for the classroom.  Considering how few people get naturally excited about test preparation, it is even that much more important to bring energy and and enthusiasm to the classroom when working on test prep.

Foster the right mindset

Because TOEFL prep often takes such a long time, it is important to keep moral up in the classroom.  Start by helping students set appropriate goals from the very beginning.  Too many students set their goal score arbitrarily or without actually knowing their starting score.  By scheduling class time or creating assignments that allow students to understand where they are and where they need to be, students will be able to see their path more clearly.  This will also allow you to help students locate and celebrate victories and milestones during their TOEFL test prep process.

Tie Test Prep to Language Skills and Real Life

Explain how outside resources can be used.  So many students don't realize that practicing English is practicing for the test.  By reiterating that they do not have to be sitting in front of a test prep book, some students will instantly become less resistant to the idea

Technology is a part of the everyday fabric of our society.  Instead of fighting technology by seeing it as a distraction, embrace it, and have students do the same.

Key takeaways:

  • Use technology & social media
  • Use current events & culture, timely 
  • Focus on the English lesson rather than the test strategy alone



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