Seated in vertical rows, each consisting of twenty-two occupants, were eighty-eight TOEFL testers, some eagerly working through the different sections, others staring at boredom and distraction, and all being judged on their ability to use academic English. How well they score may rest on a number of factors: preparation, amount of time using English, and motivation.
A TOEFL teacher since 1994, I have taught more than 2,000 TOEFL students, some of whom scored unbelievably high. Why do some of my students score higher or lower than others? To help answer this question, I regularly interview TOEFLers who score higher than 100/120 on the TOEFL iBT. A surprising pattern emerges: these high-scoring TOEFLers rarely study TOEFL for more than two or three months. How is it possible that a non-native speaker can score so high on the TOEFL iBT without having studied TOEFL for more than a few months. The answer seems to lie in the amount of time the student spent using English BEFORE beginning his/her TOEFL iBT preparation studies.
Amount of Time Spent Using English
Consider Teresa, a 17 year-old German student who scored 109/120 on the TOEFL iBT. During my interview with her, I found out that she had studied TOEFL for three weeks before taking the test. Before that, however, she spent three years studying English in a high school. Also, she had some native-English speaker friends with whom she had regular conversations; she read books, magazines, and newspapers in English whenever she had free time. Finally, a fan of classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s, she listened to American music and not only listened the lyrics of the songs but analyzed the social, psychological, political, and feminist issues present in the songs. She kept a journal in which she would document her feelings about the different songs to which she had listened. All of her preparation before her three week stint of TOEFL iBT studies seems to be the key in her scoring so high.
Teresa also exhibits the quality of motivation, the final ingredient needed to score high on the TOEFL. She genuinely is motivated to learn English. I also interview students who, unlike Teresa, struggle learning English. In these cases, these students do not improve their TOEFL iBT scores, and, in some cases, their scores worsen even though they live in the United States. The first question I always ask these students is, “Why do you want to learn English?” Lacking motivation, they often cannot answer this question. Sometimes, they are studying English in the United States to avoid having to join the military in their country; others study English because their parents sent them here against their wishes. Unmotivated students have a tendency to suffer from goal disjunction in that they may not have set any academic or professional goals (i.e., What major or job do you want when you grow up?). Or, their goals may be different from what their parents have set for them.This disharmony can cause psychological conflict, thus preventing the TOEFLer from being able to follow a focused and consistent study plan.
In conclusion, as I proctored the TOEFL test with some of my colleagues today, I noticed one particular tester, a middle-eastern male from Saudia Arabia who, at the beginning of the quarter of our Intensive English Program, tested into pre-Level One. Despite his limited English proficiency, he worked ferociously hard during every section of the test and did not put his pencil down until the last second that I uttered the words, “Put your pencils down.” Motivated and tenacious, this student, although lacking TOEFL preparation and sufficient exposure to the English language, has only one of three ingredients needed to score high. But it will not be long before he gets the other two.
“Why do you want to study English?” I ask. “Why do you want to get a high score on the TOEFL iBT?”