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The TOEFL iBT® (Test of English as a Foreign Language, internet-Based Test) is a language assessment required for admission to universities in more than 130 countries, including the U.S. The test is administered via computer; test takers wear noise-reducing headphones, speak into a microphone to record responses to speaking tasks, and type responses to writing tasks. The worldwide recognition of the TOEFL means that any international student who wishes to study abroad, especially in English-speaking countries, must take the TOEFL to be considered for admission. The test was initially launched in 1964 and has had several major revisions since then. The first computer-based version was introduced in 1998, and in 2005 the TOEFL became entirely internet-based.

Changes to the Test

The 2005 revision made significant changes: eliminating a multiple-choice grammar section and emphasizing use of English in an academic context. The changes came in response to complaints by American students and parents that many foreign teaching assistants did not have adequate English skills to communicate with students, culminating in a widely read New York Times article in 2004.

A Fair Test

Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the test, asserts that they have a rigorous evaluation process to maintain the fairness of the exam. However, there have been extensive critiques of the TOEFL-iBT over the years. They include:

“The topic effect”: Selections in the reading section focus on technical, detailed writings from specific academic disciplines, such as science, architecture, or history. Since reading sections are timed, someone familiar with the particular topic may find it much easier to read the selection than someone with no background on the topic, thus providing advantage to those test takers with prior knowledge of the reading topic.

Cultural bias: The 2005 changes placed emphasis on how English is used in the Western academic setting, especially the ability to construct an argument supported by logic, evidence, and rhetorical devices. Bruce Stirling, an American university professor and TOEFL prep book author asserts, “The TOEFL iBT is an excellent test, not of English but of basic Aristotelian logic and rhetoric at the first-year college level.” This means that students who have perfect English skills, but lack an understanding of Western academia and the Socratic method, may find themselves at a disadvantage without preparation in these academic practices.

How Would You Fare On The TOEFL?

Want to experience what it’s like to take the TOEFL? You can find sample questions for each section of the test below. 

Read The New York Times 2004 article about the TOEFL here (paywall).

Click here for TOEFL sample questions.

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Educational Testing Service. TOEFL® Research Insight Series, Volume 1: TOEFL iBT® Test Framework and Test Development. 2020. 

Stirling, Bruce. “These are the Reasons the TOEFL is not an English Test.” EFL Magazine: The Magazine for English Language Teachers. January 20, 2016. 

Toker, Deniz. “Topic Familiarity Matters: A Critical Analysis of TOEFL iBT Reading Section”. TESL-EJ: The Electronic Journal for Teaching English as a Second Language, May 2019.