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These Are the Reasons TOEFL is Not an English Test

In September, 2005, ETS, the New Jersey-based company that designs and administers the TOEFL test, introduced an updated version of the TOEFL test and called it the TOEFL iBT (herein TOEFL). The updates included a second writing task (the integrated writing task) and a new speaking section. To make room for the speaking section, ETS eliminated the structure section. The structure section, with its multiple-choice grammar questions, was an English-language test in the truest sense. So why did ETS eliminate it? For myriad reasons.

First, college-level test-takers (TOEFL’s main market) are expected to know parts of speech. Second, many test-takers were scoring high on the structure section. This boosted their final TOEFL scores yet those scores were a false-positive, for when enrolled in U.S. colleges, many non-native English-speaking students and graduate assistants demonstrated poor verbal skills. This issue came to light in the June, 2004 New York Times article Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said.

The TOEFL iBT, with its new speaking section, was ETS’s response to the issues raised in the New York Times article. Finally, ETS eliminated the structure section because it wanted the TOEFL iBT to be a truer reflection of the American college experience. Understanding the American college experience, and how TOEFL reflects it, begins with Aristotle.

The Greek Model

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and scientist. He wrote the book on those subjects which are the foundation of the American educational system. Those subjects are ethics, physics, politics, biology, medicine, linguistics, poetry, theater, music, and, for our purposes, logic and rhetoric. Rhetoric, combined with logic, is the art of argument development and analysis. If you’ve written an essay, you can thank (or blame) Aristotle.

His work remains the definitive source on how to argue. And that is what American college students do. From the day they enter college to the day they leave, they engage in verbal arguments as a means of intellectual inquiry. They attend lectures (verbal arguments), they summarize homework (verbal arguments), they debate issues (verbal arguments), and they give presentations and dissertations (verbal arguments). By doing so, they are applying not only Aristotle’s theories on rhetoric and logic but also Socrates and the Socratic method as well.

Applying the Greek model of education is what the university experience is all about, not only in America but in all western countries. Paris and Oxford, the first western universities, were built on the shoulders of Aristotle and Socrates. Western universities today carry on this tradition. So do the six speaking tasks on the TOEFL test. Yet for the test-taker on test day, developing and delivering six, 60-second verbal arguments is not a true test of English proficiency. Far from it.

It is, instead, a measure of the test-taker’s ability to apply basic Aristotelian rhetoric and logic.

It is, instead, a measure of the test-taker’s ability to apply basic Aristotelian rhetoric and logic. A test-taker can have perfect English grammar, an excellent vocabulary and flawless fluency, all indicators of English proficiency, but if she grew up in a non-western country that did not espouse the Greek model of education, if she can’t apply basic Aristotelian logic (claim, evidence, conclusion), if she can’t develop a succinct verbal argument that demonstrates organization, progression, development and unity, if she can’t identify and apply the rhetorical strategies of illustration, compare-and-contrast, and cause-and-effect, among others, then a low speaking score is guaranteed.

If it were a challenge for a native speaker such as myself, a TOEFL author and university professor, imagine what it is like for a non-native English-speaking test-taker

By definition, a true English test does not measure the test-taker’s ability to apply rhetoric and logic when developing and delivering verbal arguments. Not so the TOEFL speaking section. It is Aristotle from start to finish, and hard. If you doubt this assertion, then you should take the TOEFL test. By doing so, you will experience firsthand what it is like to try and knock off six pithy arguments in a high-stress test environment.

If it were a challenge for a native speaker such as myself, a TOEFL author and university professor, imagine what it is like for a non-native English-speaking test-taker who never learned how to develop a basic Aristotelian argument (claim, evidence, conclusion), and was told that a good vocabulary and proficient grammar were the key to a getting a high speaking-section score.

Inherent Cultural Bias

Suffice it to say, there is an inherent cultural bias in the design of the TOEFL test, one that is skewed toward those test-takers whose educational systems are based on the Greek model. Scoring high on the speaking section, and on TOEFL overall, is evidence of this bias. Witness the students in my TOEFL classes. Those from western countries (i.e., Germany, France, Spain) have no problem quickly mastering rhetorical strategies specific to the task.

being proficient in English is not enough to score high. This is true not only of the speaking section but of the writing section as well.

The results are higher practice and test scores whereas those students from non-western countries need, from day one, a crash course in basic Aristotelean rhetoric and logic. Even then, their scores lag behind their western counterparts.

That said, if a test-taker, no matter the country of origin, can’t organize his ideas logically, or manage every second of his time in a high-stakes test environment, then knowing the core elements of English (grammar, syntax, etc.), will be of no avail. In short, being proficient in English is not enough to score high. This is true not only of the speaking section but of the writing section as well.

Rhetoric-Based Tasks

The TOEFL writing section is comprised of two rhetoric-based tasks. The integrated writing task is designed to measure the test-taker’s ability to summarize in writing two opposing arguments (one written, one verbal) while the independent writing task measures the test-taker’s ability to write a personal essay (opinion argument) by stating a thesis (claim) and supporting it with examples (evidence) that lead to a general statement (conclusion).

To score high on the integrated writing task, the test-taker must be able to identify the logic and the rhetoric in the two contrasting (read: pro-con) arguments and summarize them objectively. To score high on the independent writing task, test-takers must use personal experience to develop a coherent (logical) argument that utilizes rhetorical strategies as a means of persuasion. Once again, those test-takers from western countries who were taught basic Aristotelian logic (claim, evidence, conclusion) and rhetoric (illustration, cause-and-effect, etc.) predictably score higher.

Those who weren’t, more often than not, score lower and are left wondering what happened. What happened is that they were told that TOEFL was an English test, and that proficient grammar and a good vocabulary were the key to TOEFL success. They are not. Contrary to popular belief, TOEFL is not an English test. It is a test of basic rhetoric and logic with roots stretching back to the Lyceum, Aristotle’s school in Athens.

The reading and listening sections also employ rhetoric-based tasks for testing purposes. Once again, proficient grammar and a good vocabulary are not enough to maximize scoring on test day. Indeed, many test-takers score low on these sections not because their English lacks proficiency but because they do not know how to analyze the structure of the reading passages (written arguments) or how to visual the structure of lectures and conversations (verbal arguments).

As a result, they can’t locate or anticipate the answers thus waste time searching and guessing while scoring low in the end. These two sections do have discrete English questions—such as the vocabulary-synonym questions in the reading section and the dialogue-repeat questions in the listening section—yet, when viewed as a whole, the majority of the tasks in the reading and listening sections, and on TOEFL itself, are rhetoric-based tasks. And for good reason.

As stated, ETS designed the TOEFL iBT to reflect the American college experience, and that experience, that curriculum, is Greek in origin with grammar and vocabulary no longer main proficiency descriptors but discrete functions of the argument development process. In that process, the test taker’s ability to organize ideas logically and to support them rhetorically trumps grammatical and vocabulary proficiency every time.

Moreover, because the official TOEFL writing and speaking raters are trained to rate responses holistically (read: close enough is good enough), grammar and vocabulary issues are often given a pass. Not so in the old structure section. If the test-taker selected, for example, the noun object of a preposition as the main subject noun, then that answer was wrong. There were no near-misses in the old structure section.

The Secret to TOEFL Success

Am I arguing for the return of the structure section? I am not. I believe that the TOEFL iBT is an excellent test, not of English but of basic Aristotelean logic and rhetoric at the first-year college level. And it does it well. I know because I teach first-year American college students composition (essay writing). I am also a TOEFL instructor. By straddling both class types, I have a front-row seat on how TOEFL integrates, and reflects, the first-year college experience. The tasks my American college students perform are all rhetoric-based and do, in fact, mirror the tasks I teach my TOEFL students in preparation for the test.

No. I am not arguing for a return to the old. Instead, I am shedding light on the true nature of the TOEFL test and illustrating how that design fits into the tradition of the American educational system. And that system is Aristotelian at heart. Knowing this, test-takers and instructors should rethink their strategies to maximize scoring on test day. I have done just that. My TOEFL books, Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT and Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide, are premised on the belief that proficient English is not enough to score high on the TOEFL test. Test-takers must also have a fundamental knowledge of Aristotelian logic and rhetoric commensurate with that of first-year American college students. That is what my TOEFL books teach. That is how test-takers maximize scoring on test day. That is the secret to TOEFL success.

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7 Responses

  • Guy Cihi

    Excellent article. Equal parts informative and instructive.


  • johnny Briggs

    Paris and Oxford were not the first Western universities.


  • Rob Howard

    Wonderful article. Here in Brazil at least, they spend months teaching students that this is indeed an English test. They try to prepare test-takers for the speaking and writing sections focusing only on grammar and vocabulary and totally miss the importance of forming a clear, organized and defined argument leading to a proper conclusion. As a result, most have been unable to achieve higher scores despite having an advanced level of English proficiency.


  • Irina Lutsenko

    Well, the assessment criteria give you the idea of what is expected of the test-takers' response. "Language Use" (grammar and vocabulary) is only 1 criterion out of 3 in Speaking and 1 out of 4 in Independent Writing. The assessment criteria are available online to everyone on the official website of the test. If people don't do this basic website-search of the test they are going to take, maybe they deserve to be misled. Bruce is not giving away any inside or classified information. He is explaining the information everyone can have access to, but doesn't bother to look. Which, of course, doesn't diminish the value of the point he is making.


  • Adam Plotkin

    Very interesting article! I am a firm believer in Bruce's material, but if you are looking for the latest tech-ed regarding the TOEFL, I highly recommend EduSynch. It is an adaptive multi-platform software for both web and mobile devices, and provides human interface for Writing and Speaking corrections (internationally certified evaluators.) Please check out and see for yourself!


  • Bruce Stirling

    Hi Adam - I regularly poll my TOEFL students regarding their preferred TOEFL study aids. Year in, year out, my students prefer paper-based books. Few, if any, use apps.


  • Sean Kilachand

    Hey Bruce, Henry Ford said it best: "If I asked people what they wanted, they would've said faster horses." While your students may prefer paper-based books, such a small sample does not represent the vast majority of students prepping for this exam around the world. Additionally, we must consider the possibility that the apps they have downloaded to date simply were not sufficient based on their individual needs. However, it must be said that given the fact that the TOEFL iBT is, in fact, done on the computer, I also find it quite hard to believe that students would prefer to do their preparation in an environment unlike the actual exam....and this too only concerns a web-based platform. When it comes to mobile apps, research has shown time and time again that as traditional, print-based didactic materials are ported to a digital format, not only does the material become more effective, but students are more engaged and learning outcomes improve (this obviously depends on the UX/UI implemented and varies widely from app to app). Not to mention that hundreds of thousands of students who are preparing for this exam may not have the money readily available to purchase textbooks that cost anywhere from $30 to $100 and contain a limited amount of training material. This is especially true in growth economies, where students who may not have shoes will, most likely, have or have access to an Android device, allowing them to consume digital content even given limited access to print content. The proliferation of smartphone technology in these growth markets simply cannot be ignored. In the case of EduSynch, we have reached over 20,000 students in 181 countries through our Android app which provides adaptive training and full-length simulations for 1/4 of the price of a traditional service...and all this in only 4 months. We routinely receive messages from students all around the world thanking us for helping them reach their dream score. While the students you have polled prefer print-based content, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of students preparing for this exam would disagree.