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What Is the TOEFL® Test?

 This article covers:
  • What is the TOEFL exam?
  • What are the different types of TOEFL tests?
  • What are the different sections of the TOEFL iBT exam?
  • What types of questions are featured in the TOEFL iBT exam?
  • How is the TOEFL test scored?
  • Resources to maximize student success on the TOEFL exam

If you are working with a student who plans to study in an English-speaking country, they may need to take an English language proficiency test. Tests like TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE demonstrate their language skills for entry to prospective schools. The TOEFL iBT exam is widely accepted around the world. It is very popular with students, universities, and colleges because it helps applicants stand out in the academic world.

TOEFL is a Test of Academic English

It’s important to note that TOEFL is not just an English test. Specifically, TOEFL is a test of academic English. The aim of the TOEFL exam is not to evaluate your student’s general English skills. Instead, the tasks on the TOEFL are meant to simulate the sorts of things students actually do on a school campus. This means that test-takers listen to lectures, read academic articles, and both speak and write about academic materials.

One of the best ways you can help your students succeed on the TOEFL exam is to become familiar with the test content and structure. Remember, both the TOEFL iBT and TOEFL iBT Home Edition have the same content.

Click here to learn more about which TOEFL test is the right choice for your students.

TOEFL Exam Sections

Book stack

TOEFL Reading

Reading is the first section of the TOEFL iBT exam. Your student will read three to four academic articles of 800 words each. These articles may cover a wide range of academic topics. The most common topics have been history, zoology, and physical geography. However, topics could include anything covered in a first-year course. The articles don’t require any background knowledge to excel in this part of the test.

Each article is followed by 10 questions. The first nine questions are multiple choice. These questions test a variety of skills, including the student’s ability to locate specific facts, make inferences, and determine the meaning of a word. Each question will refer to just one paragraph in the article, and the question will identify which paragraph it is connected to.

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The final question for each article will refer to the entire article. This question will require your student to correctly identify the article’s main and supporting ideas. They will have 54 minutes (three articles) or 72 minutes (four articles) to read everything and answer all of the questions.

If your student’s test has four articles, one of them will contain questions that will not be scored. This content is used to ensure that the exam’s difficulty is the same week by week. Encourage your students not to try to guess which questions are unscored.

Laptop illustration

TOEFL Listening

Listening is the second section of the TOEFL iBT exam. Your student will listen to three or four academic lectures. They will also listen to two or three conversations occurring on a university or college campus. The lectures are five minutes long, and cover academic topics from first-year university classes. The conversations are three minutes long and usually involve an interaction a student may have on campus.

The exam will then have six questions about every lecture. It will also have five questions about every conversation. These questions will be multiple choice. The questions will test your student’s ability to understand the main point of a lecture or conversation, to recognize the attitude of a speaker, and to make inferences based on what they’ve heard. This entire section will take between 41 and 57 minutes.

As with the reading section, a long listening section (four lectures and three conversations), will contain questions that are unscored. Again, your student should not guess which questions are unscored.

Check out these tips for understanding the TOEFL Listening section.

Speech bubbles

TOEFL Speaking

The third part of the TOEFL test is the speaking section. This section takes around 17 minutes to complete. Your student will answer four questions.

First is the independent speaking question. Your student will be asked to give their personal opinion on a matter usually related to education, working, or life in today’s world. They’ll then need to speak on this topic for 45 seconds.

The final three speaking questions are integrated tasks. In these tasks, your student will read and listen to a variety of short materials before they speak for 60 seconds. These materials could include conversations, articles, and lectures. Each of their answers must include some details from the provided sources.

All four questions will be graded on their delivery, language use, and topic development.

Learn more about the TOEFL Speaking section and ways your student can improve their speaking practice.

Writing notebook

TOEFL Writing

The final part of the TOEFL test is the writing section. Your student will write two short essays, which will take about 50 minutes to complete.

First is the integrated essay. Your student will start by reading a short academic article (300 words). The article could be about any topic likely to appear in a first-year university course. Next, they will listen to a lecture about the same topic. Finally, they will be given 20 minutes to write a short essay which compares the two sources.

Next is the independent essay. Your student will respond to a short question about a topic related to education, work, or some other aspect of life in the modern world. They will be given 30 minutes to write an essay that states their personal opinion on the given topic.

Both essays will be graded on their ability to plan and organize their ideas. Your student will also be graded on the strength of their grammar and language use skills.

Find out more about the TOEFL Writing section and how your student can improve their writing scores.

TOEFL test score gauge


It will take six to ten days for your student’s score to be reported. TOEFL scoring is fairly straight-forward. Your student will be given a score out of 30 points for each section. They will also be given a total score out of 120 points. Remember that each section has equal weight when it comes to their overall result.

More Information

Here are a few other resources that can help you maximize your student’s success:

Interested in more study abroad resources for your students? Find what you need to know with our guides for studying in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia!