Everything About TOEFL: Interview With Paul & Rachael from LanguageTrainers.com

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

In this video I’m interviewing Paul and Rachael from LanguageTrainers.com and we’re looking at the following TOEFL related questions:

  1. What TOEFL is all about?
  2. Is TOEFL the American counterpart of IELTS?
  3. When is TOEFL the right option for you?
  4. Is it possible to score a high mark in TOEFL just by improving your overall English skills through full English immersion?
  5. Is writing is the most important skillset necessary to pass TOEFL?
  6. What study tools are the best for practicing reading and listening skills?
  7. What do the speakers sound like in the TOEFL listening section?
  8. How long does the speaking part of TOEFL last?
  9. Is it possible to achieve your target TOEFL score if you’re not orally that fluent in English?
  10. How exactly is the student expected to perform during the TOEFL speaking part?
  11. How is grammar accessed during the TOEFL test?
  12. Is it necessary for students to focus on grammar studies predominantly when preparing for TOEFL?

Links mentioned during the interview:


1. Can you tell us in a few words what TOEFL is all about – just in case some of our listeners mightn’t have heard about it yet?

Girl sitting TOEFL exam

TOEFL means “Test of English as a Foreign Language”, and it’s designed to test your proficiency in English. It’s a 4-hour test that covers four main areas of the English language: Reading, Listening, Writing, and of course, Speaking.

2. I know maybe it’s a gross generalization but would it be fair to say that IELTS is the British test because of its popularity in the Commonwealth countries and TOEFL is its American counterpart?

TOEFL is more popular in the United States

Yes, that’s definitely a fair thing to say. The TOEFL is different from IELTS, most notably in that it doesn’t explicitly test grammar, which I’ll talk about later. But like the IELTS, it’s used by American universities and businesses to assess their prospective students’ or employees’ future language skills.

3. Now, if a foreign English speaker has decided to get their English knowledge and skills tested, in what situations TOEFL is the right option?

There are three main reasons that you would take the TOEFL.

First, if you’re a student who wants to go to school in the United States, you’ll have to submit a TOEFL score as part of your application to US colleges and universities.

Second, if you want to work for an American company, there’s a good chance that they’ll require that you take the TOEFL.

Third, you can take the TOEFL if your English even if you’re not a student or a professional. If you feel like your English is in a good place and you want to get the exam out of the way, that’s another reason to take the exam. But be careful that your TOEFL scores are only valid for two years.

4. Speaking of preparation for the test – is it necessary to prepare for each of the 4 parts – Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing – individually by doing very specific types of exercises, or is it possible to score a high mark just by improving your overall English skills through full English immersion – enjoying all types of media in English and doing some writing on top of that and communicating with other people?

Prepar for TOEFL by immersing yourself in English

The TOEFL is designed to test your overall understanding and fluency in English, and it’s not designed to test a perfect command of grammar. As I said before, there’s not even a grammar section! Therefore, I think that it’s not only possible but actually BETTER to practice through English immersion, rather than studying long lists of vocabulary or grammatical rules. This will help you improve your overall fluency, which will help you earn a higher score in all four sections of the exam.

 5. Would I be right in saying that writing is the most important skillset necessary to pass the test? I mean – you provide written answers to the Reading, Listening and obviously – the Writing part of the test?

Listening is more important for TOEFL than writing

Writing is definitely important, and I know that the writing section is probably the most feared part of the exam – after speaking, of course! However, I would argue that reading and listening are actually more important than writing. In the reading and listening section, it’s almost entirely multiple choice questions, so it’s more important to be able to understand what you read and hear.

In fact, the writing section depends on reading and listening, too – you have to write a response based on a reading passage, as well as an audio of somebody responding to that passage. For that reason, I wouldn’t stress yourself out too much with writing, and instead focus on reading and listening, which will be much more practical.

6. So reading and listening seem to be really important for the TOEFL. What study tools do you recommend for practicing reading and listening skills?

To practice reading, I recommend that you do just that – READ! Read blogs, newspapers, and books in English as much as possible. If you haven’t already, try changing the settings on your phone or Facebook account into English, so you can squeeze in some extra practice when you’re on the go.

To practice listening, I recommend two resources. First, given that much of what you’ll hear is academic speech, I recommend listening to TED Talks, which you can find on YouTube. For those of you who don’t know, TED talks are short academic talks about interesting topics, given by experts in the field. As such they’re a great way to practice listening for the TOEFL.

Another suggestion is taking a listening test online. Language Trainers is a language teaching service and it provides beginner and intermediate English-language listening tests, in which you hear a native speaker and then have to answer multiple-choice questions about what they said. This format is very similar to what you’ll see on the TOEFL, so the score you receive will give you a decent idea of how prepared you are for the exam.

7. In terms of the listening section, what do the speakers sound like? What kind of accents do they have?

What accents are used during the TOEFL listening part?

This is a great question, because in the past couple years, TOEFL has been really expanding the variety of accents that they use in the listening section. Before, they used only American English accents, but now they have started using accents from all over the world – the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

So if you’re used to the American accent, try listening to some British people speak to get acquainted with their accent. A really fun way to practice your ability to recognize different accents is the English Accent Game that’s on Language Trainers, which features real English accents from all over the world.

8. And now I’d like to touch upon the spoken aspect of TOEFL – as all of our listeners are very well aware, my area of expertise is the spoken English fluency and that’s what I’m focusing on my blog at English Harmony! So, the first question is – how long does the speaking part of TOEFL last?

The speaking part of the TOEFL isn’t as long as you might expect – it’s only 20 minutes from start to finish. In fact, you’ll only be actually speaking for 6 minutes – the rest is reading, listening, and planning. There are six speaking tasks in the section. For two of them, you express your opinion on a familiar topic, each with one minute of speaking time. For the other four tasks, you respond to something that you read and hear – also for one minute each.

9. And how important is to be able to speak well in order to pass the test? I mean – whatever you score in the speaking part constitutes only one quarter of the overall score, so considering that speech is actually something that so many foreigners struggle with, is it possible to achieve your target score if you’re not orally that fluent in English?

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you score the top scores in all other parts. You only need to amass 10 points in the speaking part in order to achieve the overall score of 100 which avails you of entry to most top universities in the US!

TOEFL allows entry to top US universities

Unfortunately, that’s not quite true! In order to get accepted to Harvard, you need at last 109 points – so, theoretically, if you aced the other three sections, you could squeeze by with just a 19 on the speaking section.

However, the TOEFL scores are presented by section. So in addition to your overall score, jobs and universities can see the scores that you got on each individual part – including the speaking section.

Therefore, if you get a very low score on speaking, most jobs or colleges won’t consider your application, even if you do well on the other sections.

10. Can you tell us how exactly the student is expected to perform during the speaking part? As far as I’m aware, during the IELTS test, for example, you’re required to use an awful lot of redundant language and also the answers have to follow more or less quite a specific pattern. Is that the case with TOEFL as well?

The TOEFL is more open-ended than the IELTS, and there’s no specific pattern for answering the questions. The speaking section is graded on three areas, which I’ll explain.

First, there’s DELIVERY – which has to do with your flow of speech. It’s okay to make a few minor mistakes, or say “um” every now and then, but to get a good score, you should speak confidently and at a normal pace.

Second, there’s TOPIC DEVELOPMENT, which has to do with how well you answer the question. Make sure that you spend time thinking about WHAT you’re saying, not just HOW you say it! You can get a good score in this section if your response is relevant to the task, and your ideas are clear.

Finally, there’s LANGUAGE USE – this is about vocabulary and grammar. They want to see that you use a wide variety of words, and you use them well. For this section, there are some key words and phrases that you can learn which will help you. These are phrases that can be used to introduce an idea or transition smoothly between arguments — such as “in my opinion”, “for example”, “moreover”, and “in conclusion”. Check out Language Trainers’ post about these transition words!

11. And now I’d like to discuss some grammar related matters. Grammar is the Holy Grail of a lot of English learners but I believe that the best way of going about English studies is practicing your listening, reading, writing and speaking thus acquiring all the necessary grammar naturally!

Don't focus on grammar when preparing for TOEFL

I personally find that if you’re too focused on learning specific grammar rules and then you try to implement them in specific situations, the resulting language is somewhat awkward and artificial. So, how is grammar accessed during the TOEFL test?

As I hinted at before, grammar is NOT directly measured in the TOEFL! Yup, you heard me right – there’s no section devoted to grammar. Instead, grammar is measured by how well you speak, write, and understand – because after all, you have to be at least fairly good at grammar in order to understand other speakers!

I want to emphasize that grammar is NOT the most important part in the speaking and writing sections. Rather, it’s more important to develop your ideas well, and present them fluidly and without pausing. You can actually earn a perfect score even if you commit a few grammatical errors…some mistakes are to expected, even by native English speakers.

12. So, to wrap it all up – do you think it’s necessary for the student to focus on grammar studies predominantly when preparing for TOEFL? Wouldn’t that time be much better used to develop your ability to perform those specific tasks?

For the purposes of the TOEFL, improving overall fluidity and fluency is more important. Of course it’s important to have a good understanding of grammar – otherwise, you won’t be able to write or speak well! – but the TOEFL isn’t a test of how well you know grammar, it’s a test of how well you can communicate. Therefore, think of your goals in terms of communication – the point is to be able to understand and be understood. If you can do that, the TOEFL should be no problem for you.

Paul from Language Trainers

Paul is an English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free English level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact [email protected] with any questions.

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Thanks so much Paul and Rachael for taking your time answering my questions ❗

I hope you find this video useful, and if you’ve any further TOEFL related questions – don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments section below!


Robby 😉

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • Hi Juhapekka,

    The next article is going to be about IELTS and from what I can see, there’s no dedicated grammar section in this test either!

    Seems to me that all these popular tests don’t require you to know specific grammar-related terms; you just have to be able to write and speak correctly.

    Talk to you soon,


  • Juhapekka

    I really appreciate this information, indeed, and I eagerly anticipate the other parts of the series. I don’t know whether I’m going to take TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge exams or whatever tests there might be in the future but it’s really good to know that there isn’t really need to worry about grammar too much because it comes along when I’m taking more holistic approach to improve my overall English fluency and skills.

    Although the answer to the question, whether it’s necessary to study grammar individually or not to pass any possible English grammar test, wasn’t completely clear because this interview was only about TOEFL which would be the test about communication and not about grammar but it’s still implicitly clear, I’d think, and it’s also more sensible option anyway. I try to apply this advice to my English tests in my home country although their nature is much more different because they include the translations between languages and possibly individual sections about grammar. However, the advice is still really valid and even if I needed to study grammar separately, it would be only fine tuning and the emphasis is always on a holistic approach. To be honest, I’m not even now sure how important the individual fine tuning of grammar is but I believe it’ll become clearer when you publish new parts about this topic.