Efficient preparation for the TOEFL test: the lexical aspect

An efficient strategy for TOEFL preparation is the one that helps to achieve the highest score with the least amount of effort. Overall, TOEFL results depend on many factors. However, in this article, we’d like to focus on the role of your vocabulary and efficient vocabulary-building methods. A limited vocabulary can result in the following situations:

  1. You incorrectly answer tasks in the Reading and Listening sections since:
    • you don’t understand the question, and, therefore, your answer is based on an incorrect understanding of the task;
    • you don’t precisely understand all answer options, and, as a result, you select the wrong one;
    • you miss important semantic details from the text or audio.
  2. You cannot demonstrate the breadth of the vocabulary expected by the test in the Writing and Speaking sections:
    • you need more time to express yourself when speaking.
    • you have to write longer and more complicated sentences, reducing clarity and increasing the likelihood of grammatical mistakes.

All such cases will have an impact on your final score. To help avoid them, we’ve prepared recommendations on how to increase your vocabulary effectively. At first, however, we’d like to quickly remind you of the TOEFL test structure.

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The structure of the TOEFL test

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The TOEFL iBT test consists of Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking sections. Each section is scored in the range between 0–30 points, leading to the total score of up to 120 points.

  • In the Reading section, you are reading three or four passages of about 700 words each and answering questions regarding each of them. It takes about 60 minutes.
  • In the Listening section, you listen and provide answers to six audio samples. It takes about 50 minutes.
  • In the Speaking section, you express an opinion about a familiar topic, and then answer three integrated tasks based on what is read and heard. This section takes about 20 minutes.
  • In the Writing section, you write two essays: one based on what is read and heard and the other to support your opinion on a certain topic. This section takes about 50 minutes.

How TOEFL tests your vocabulary

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The test was primarily designed to evaluate a potential student’s ability to operate in the academic settings of the US. Therefore, all TOEFL sections imply the presence of diverse complex words from scientific journals, news, medical texts, and peer reviews. Furthermore, the official TOEFL Performance Descriptors state that you should comprehend a range of low-frequency vocabulary and know less common meanings of words. In addition, exam takers may encounter ambiguous words with double meanings, especially in the TOEFL reading section.

Complex vocabulary is found in each TOEFL section and affects the score in these ways:

Reading section

To get the highest score, it is necessary to understand less common meanings of words. For example, the word ‘harbor’ can mean both the place where ships can anchor (noun) and to provide a shelter (verb). Furthermore, you need to be aware of low-frequency academic or specialized vocabulary (e.g., ramifications, archetype, aberration). As it can be observed from sample tests, TOEFL texts for advanced levels can play with the double meaning or include the words you will never come across or guess the meaning. It is true, however, that we can find out the meaning thanks to the context here:

“While having a job interview, do not show any overt signs that you are feeling uncomfortable or nervous. Don’t shift in your chair, shake, or stutter”.

In the text, the word “overt” means:

  • confident
  • obnoxious
  • obvious
  • subtle

At the same time, the reading section includes tasks, where it is necessary to know the meaning of the answer words and those from the text. For example, the TOEFL usually includes a great number of tasks on finding synonyms. In such a task, it is important not only to know the meaning of the word in question but also the synonyms in the answer choices:

Indicate the synonym for the word “abdicate”:

  • alter
  • encourage
  • relinquish
  • heighten

If you don’t know the meaning of the word in the question or those in the options, it would be almost impossible to guess the right answer.

Here is another example of the case described above:

“The hypothalamus can also trigger vasolidation and vasoconstriction in blood vessels near the surface of the skin. Using these processes, the amount of heat lost to the environment can be controlled to a degree. When a mammal enters a cold environment, the blood vessels near the skin surface constrict. This lessens the amount of blood that flows into those regions. As such, heat loss resulting from the flow of blood can be reduced.”

According to the paragraph, how does vasoconstriction help regulate temperature?

  • By forcing cooler blood closer to the surface of the skin.
  • By increasing the flow of blood underneath the skin.
  • By narrowing the blood vessels underneath the skin.
  • By narrowing blood vessels near the surface of the skin.

Without the knowledge of the words “constrict”, “constriction”, and “vasoconstriction” choosing the right option can be challenging. Comprehension is the key element in this section since even one word can change the entire meaning.

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Listening section

To prove that you possess advanced listening skills, you have to understand main ideas and important details introduced both explicitly and implicitly. In this part, it is essential to pay attention to the knowledge of synonyms and antonyms, as well as the art of paraphrase. The awareness of advanced vocabulary will ensure that you can derive the exact meaning from complex, conflicting, and even misleading information presented in the audio.

Speaking section

To get a high score, you need to demonstrate overall good intelligibility and speak without any hesitancy on general and academic topics in a well-structured and logical manner. This list of requirements also includes the ability to use appropriate grammatical structures and lexical units. Of course, the inclusion of sophisticated academic and low-frequency words will impress the examiners and result in a higher score. However, you will need to be 100% that you used the word in the appropriate context. A considerable amount of learned academic words will also assist you in understanding the task and materials.

Writing section

Exam takers need to produce a well-organized and coherent text, demonstrate a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures. Writing and speaking sections of TOEFL are graded both by automated artificial intelligence robots and a number of trained human raters. The AI technologies are programmed to calculate the quantity of different roots presented in your answers and then make a conclusion about your English fluency and richness of your vocabulary. It is important to use the learned words of the advanced level. At the same time, avoid vague or incorrect uses of the learned words since it might lead to losing points.

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Words lists: how they help improve your score

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Word lists are a practical solution for meeting the lexical requirements. High-quality lists take into account the frequency of words appearing in TOEFL materials (TOEFL texts, samples, tasks of previous years, and preparation textbooks). These words lists assist in reviewing and filling the lexical gap to meet the TOEFL requirements mentioned above. A broad vocabulary is shown to be correlated with high TOEFL scores. Therefore, if you want to be confident in your vocabulary, you should leverage TOEFL vocabulary lists in your preparation.

Free TOEFL vocabulary resources

TOEFL-words lists can be found on a great number of different websites and platforms. Among the available online sources, we can recommend you the following:

  • Prepscholar: TOEFL Vocabulary List Number: includes 357 words. Features: definitions, examples of usage.

  • Exam Word: 5000 Words List Number: includes about 5000 words. Features: meaning, games (Word Meaning Matching and Interactive Spelling Games)

  • Quizlet TOEFL Sets Numbers: depends on a set. Features: flashcard platform for self-study and revision, opportunity to buy Premium sets/add free sets made by other learners/create yours own. It is up to you to choose.

  • Anki TOEFL Sets Number: depends on a set. Features: flashcard platform based on spaced repetition, the ability to add audio and images for free. You can use the existing sets or create yours.

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Preparation strategies overview

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Efficient TOEFL preparation means that a person can get the maximum result in a shorter period of time. Among all the possible ways to prepare for a TOEFL on your own, we selected the ones worth your attention. To excel in TOEFL, you need to follow at least a few of them:

  1. Take a sample test at least several times before your exam

    Working through TOEFL preparatory provides many benefits:

    • you will get more familiar with the structure of the test and what is expected from you in each section;
    • you will get used to the time pressure and develop time-management strategies;
    • you can identify the underdeveloped sections of your vocabulary, such as a medical vocabulary (loin or flank, viscera, abdomen) or a juridical one (affidavit, arbitration clause).
  2. Read as much as possible

    Reading expands your vocabulary. Force yourself to go beyond the sphere of your typical interests. The TOEFL includes from a broad variety of subjects, such as medicine, IT, law, and so forth.

  3. Create sets for unknown words that you encounter

    Reading itself is a useful source of new words. However, reading alone is usually a passive learning activity unless you analyze the structure of the text and purposely write down all unknown words to go back to them later. You may create sets on flashcard platforms (Anki, Quizlet) to work out these words later.

  4. Listen to podcasts

    The TOEFL listening section will obviously include several audios recorded by native speakers. It is better to get accustomed ahead to their manner of speech by listening to podcasts. Furthermore, diverse podcasts available online are quite similar to the format of the audio emissions found in TOEFL. You might try the following podcasts: 6 Minute English, D2B English, Business English Pod.

  5. Learn to take notes effectively

    Most TOEFL audios are played only once. As a result, the ability to take detailed and comprehensible notes will increase your chances of retaining more information. Having enough details will come in handy while answering the test questions. To take comprehensible notes very quickly, check out the methods of note taking developed by professional consecutive interprets.

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Preparation strategies for different time budgets

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TOEFL preparation requires dedication and time. The latter is often very limited. Therefore, we present TOEFL preparation tactics for all time budgets.

One week

  • Take a sample test to familiarize yourself with the overall structure of the test and identify the areas of improvement.
  • Focus on the areas that can provide the biggest improvement to your score while taking into account what’s realistic to adjust in one week.
  • Learn answer templates to structure your answers in the Speaking and Writing sections.

You can find some answer templates in 240 Speaking Topics: with Sample Answers.

One Month

In addition to the recommendations for last minute preparations, we recommend you to:

  • Create cards for at least one 500+ words TOEFL list and revise them every day.
  • Get familiarized with GRE analytical writing.
  • Read at least one article per day on academic topics, business, and news.
  • Work on your note-taking skills.

3 Months

In addition to the recommendations above, we suggest to:

  • Take a sample test every week and adjust the focus of each week based on the results of the sample test.
  • Start learning a larger 1000+-words list.
  • Write at least two practice essays every week.

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The cost of pronunciation mistakes

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It is not enough to know the meaning of rare words: your TOEFL score depends on pronunciation as well. In the Speaking section of the exam, you need to pay attention to the clarity of your articulation and pronunciation, the logical structure of your answers, and the presence of relevant speech patterns. As a consequence, getting a high score depends on your pronunciation. Quite often new words are acquired through reading and without consulting a phonetic dictionary, leading to incorrect pronunciation. Therefore, adding a pronunciation dictionary to your browser’s bookmark list and regularly practicing pronunciation are necessary to get a high score in the Speaking section.

10 TOEFL words you are likely to mispronounce

Accent Hero team has selected 10 words from the TOEFL vocabulary that students often mispronounce. Test yourself. If you cannot pronounce all of them correctly, you can benefit from spending some time on pronunciation practice.

  1. Cohesion
  2. Eloquent
  3. Erroneous
  4. Technical
  5. Incessant
  6. Irascible
  7. Incongruous
  8. Voluminous
  9. Scrutinize
  10. Permeate

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Final Recommendations

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By now, you should better understand the impact of your vocabulary on the TOEFL score. Although building your vocabulary is a tedious process, there is no way around it. So, a more practical question is how to push through it efficiently. Here, we’d like to recommend spending some time on researching modern online services for language learning. The technology has made some drastic progress over the recent years, so ensuring the your toolbox contains best tools for the job is a worthy investment of your time.