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What to Focus on for TOEFL Prep

Maureen St. George

You know how sometimes it’s harder to tell if the teacher or student is more excited for the weekend? Well, it’s the same for TOEFL prep, except swap “excited” for “soul-crushingly bored.” At several points, you’ll both be trapped in a dimly lit room while the sun sparkles outside, going over just why the student on the recording opposes the new campus sports complex for the fifth time.


But while TOEFL prep is undeniably boring, there are some ways to make it slightly more animated. You can think of it like weight training: it’s good to switch it up throughout the class. As much as the student may want to hammer away at just one section, it’s best to do a pre-scheduled amount of time on each section, or to switch between long and short sections of one skill.

That being said, there are some skills I push more than others. The majority of the students that I’ve taught have felt most confident with reading and listening and less so with writing and speaking. Once I had a good sense of their strengths and weaknesses, I devised a new schedule. In almost every case, we did short and long speaking activities every class and put the other three skills on a rotation.

What you will need
First, make sure you both have a timer (an old-school kitchen one, so neither of you get distracted by your phones), a bottle of water, different-colored highlighters, notecards, pens and pencils, a dictionary and thesaurus, and something that will play the accompanying audio.

Start it off
The first few minutes of my TOEFL prep classes go like this: turning phones/tablets on silent or off, getting a rundown of what the student practiced or reviewed since the last class, going over homework and then setting out the list and timetable of what we’re doing that class. It’s a lot quicker than it sounds!

Time limits, vocabulary and analytical skills are the most important things to focus on. In order to have students ease into time limits, time them speaking about their weekend, a family member or even how they handle pressure (which you can remind them of later!); basically, anything that will have a minimum of “uhs” and “ums.” This will help them feel just how long 30, 45 or 60 seconds is. You can also have them sit in silence and have them tell you when they think the allotted time is up, for another way to feel out them time. From there, thought organization is the game – which I prefer to do together the first few times, then give them a relaxed time limit that I shorten with each following attempt.

majority of the students feel most confident with reading and listening and less so with writing and speaking

Whether from the book or another source, pushing reading from context is a must. Asking students to rephrase paragraphs from the reading or what the questions are actually asking (a good exercise for all sections) will force them to take on a more active participation and to read from the top down, i.e., from the big idea to the supporting details.
To hopefully keep students engaged in their homework, I usually assign readings from newspapers that can be found for free online along with some questions that will encourage an analytical point of view, or ask them to take notes, list new vocabulary and think about the framework of the piece and position of the author. It may be the same old exercises, but dressing them up in an article that actually interests them will breathe new life into the thankless preparation.

Additionally, the listening section is a good way to teach details vs. the big picture. Students may stumble when they hear a word they don’t know and then fall behind on the rest of the listening, so it’s best to take it slow. Play the recording in full the first time and just have students listen, then ask about the general gist and what specific details they remember. If they’re struggling, do the listening in chunks and when going over the questions, make sure they recognize which questions focus on details and which ask about main ideas. NPR’s listening archives and TED videos are two excellent resources for extra listening practice.

Writing can be fun because the TOEFL book contains some writing samples from previous test-takers. These samples are good, average and atrocious, and students love to get judgmental when their work is no longer the focus. As teacher, you can choose to focus on the grammar structure, organization, whether the writer answered the question completely or if it even made any sense. Reviewing one or two of these before going to the writing section gives the student a good mental checklist of dos and don’ts. After they finish their task, they can compare it with the samples.

When it just gets too much and eyelids start to droop, stand up and do something else. Go outside, get a drink, share some food, gossip, do some stretches together. When the frustration mounts (and it will), close the books and help the students concentrate on their breathing, and remind them to do this during the test. Have them sit up straight, close their eyes and breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth for 5 counts each for at least 30 seconds. It’s a good release for the student and the teacher!

What are some of your go-tos when teaching TOEFL preparation?

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.