What is the TOEFL&Reg;?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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The Test of English as a Foreign Language™ (TOEFL®) has been administered to non-native speakers of English since 1964. It is designed to measure English proficiency to determine whether or not a student will be able to succeed at the college level. Many educational institutions in English speaking nations require TOEFL® scores from foreign students who have not satisfied other requirements, such as studying at the college level in an English speaking country for at least two years. Once the TOEFL® is taken, the scores remain on file for two years before they are discarded.

English as a Second Language (ESL) students are sometimes at a profound disadvantage in a college classroom. The TOEFL® is designed to address this issue by ensuring that all students have reached a baseline knowledge level of the English language. Like other standardized tests, the TOEFL® is criticized by some educators for an assortment of reasons, and the TOEFL® alone should probably not be used as a measure of English ability.


The TOEFL® is a trademark of Educational Testing Service (ETS), a standardized testing company which administers examinations such as the SAT® for incoming college students and the PRAXIS™ for prospective teachers. ETS offers three versions of the TOEFL®, although two of them were being phased out as of 2006, and were expected to be discontinued altogether. The first is the paper based test, a four hour long examination in which students are given examination papers. The second is the computer based test, which uses an interactive computer format to administer the test. The preferred method is the Internet based test.

The four hour long Internet based TOEFL® tests four aspects of English communication. The test taker must successfully defend a written argument, indicating ability to communicate in written English. In addition, the test taker will read selections and answer questions, demonstrating reading comprehension. The test taker will also listen to recorded English sentences and respond to them, and the test taker will record spoken English. The score combines performance on all four aspects of the examination, and is believed to serve as an accurate reflection of the student's abilities.

The speaking portion of the TOEFL® has been criticized by test takers, who say that it makes the test taking environment rather chaotic. For the listening phase, test takers typically wear headphones, so that they will not distract other test takers. The Educational Testing Service has had difficulty addressing this issue, as the TOEFL® is administered in standardized test centers which would be difficult to reconfigure just for the TOEFL®. Seating has been made more limited, which helps, but also frustrates test takers because it can be difficult to register for a TOEFL® seat.


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