Jane Birkenhead, September 27 2022

TOEFL Preparation: Skills-Building Exercises for Language Proficiency

TOEFL is an English language proficiency exam. That means it tests your English language skills by asking you to read, listen, speak and write. Students who have very good language skills will get high scores in the exam. So, it makes sense to keep practicing and improving your language skills. 

Skills-building for language learning doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time, but it's essential if you want to improve. 

If you only ever practice exam questions, you don’t build skills to improve. You just practice at your current level.

So, if you’re someone who takes the TOEFL exam every couple of weeks, just to check your level, or if you keep practicing old exam questions but don’t do anything else, you’re not giving yourself the tools or the opportunity to improve. Your level stays the same. 

Here then, are 8 suggestions for skills-building for each section of the TOEFL exam. That’s a total of 32 skills-building exercises! 


1. Focus on a specific question type that you find difficult. Read strategies about how to tackle that question type. Practice all the questions of that type you can find. 

2. Find a reading passage and paraphrase every paragraph. Focus on giving a clear explanation using your own words as much as possible. 

3. Do scanning and skimming exercises. These are essential skills for reading.

4. Phrasal verbs are widely used and incredibly important in English. Find a reading passage and identify all the phrasal verbs. Make sure you understand them.

5. Find a reading passage and find all the pronouns. Make sure you can identify the nouns they refer to.

6. Practice speed reading to increase your confidence. Focus on phrase level understanding.

7. We all have topics we find difficult in reading passages. Choose a reading passage about one of these topics and read for understanding. Look up any new words and phrases. Make flashcards for them. 

8. Often function word phrases related to dates make reading passages difficult to understand. Find a reading passage that is about events in the past. Identify all the phrases about dates for example, as long ago astoward the end of,  prior to and make sure you understand exactly what each one means.


Here, when I talk about a lecture or a conversation, I’m referring to those passages in the listening section.

1. Listen to a conversation or lecture, and take no notes at all. Trust your memory! Focus on listening and understanding. Try answering the questions and see how much you remember.

2. Listen to a conversation or lecture, and notice when the speaker stresses an important word. Speak some of the sentences out loud, and copy the speaker's word stress pattern.

3. Listen to several lectures and notice the phrases that speakers use to introduce examples or further explanations. Write these phrases down and learn them.

4. Listen to a conversation and write down all the phrases the speakers use to prompt each other. Notice how they don't always use complete sentences when they do this. Practice using these phrases in your own speaking.

5. Notice the verb contractions (words like doesn't, won't, might've, should've) that speakers use in conversations or lectures. We use verb contractions a lot in modern spoken English, and you should get used to hearing them and quickly understanding what they mean.

6. Learn to separate main points from details. Play a lecture twice. Play it the first time and take notes on ONLY the main points. Then, get a different colour pen and play the lecture a second time. This time, take notes on details ONLY. Notice how much you’ve written each time. 

7. Find the transcript for a listening passage and follow it as you listen. Highlight any new words or phrases or expressions. Make flashcards for them and learn them.

8. Understand why professors use examples in lectures. Listen to a lecture. Notice when the professor gives an example, then explain why the professor is using the example. Start your explanation with to, then add a verb. For example, to illustrate, to argue, to point out.


Of course, you can practice different parts of each speaking question for skills-building practice in the speaking section. But I thought it would be much more interesting to consider how you can use familiar resources in a different way for skills-building speaking practice. That's what I’ve focused on here. 

1. Find the transcript for a T4 speaking question. Read it out loud, pretending you are the professor. Make sure you emphasize the important key words so your students will understand you. 

2. Find a T1 question that asks you to choose an option. Answer it, then IMMEDIATELY choose another option from the same question, and create a response for that option.

3. In T2, practice using different expressions to say agrees with or disagrees with the proposal or announcement. Don’t just find synonyms but listen carefully to the conversation and try to rephrase the speakers' words.

4. Read the text for a T3 question and see how many different grammatical features you can identify. For example, verbs in different tenses, passive voice, uncountable nouns, pronouns, articles. Make sure you understand how they are all used.

5. Listen to a T4 lecture on a subject you dislike or find difficult. Fully summarize it, using your own words as much as possible. You’ll probably need to take longer than 60 seconds, but for this exercise, that’s okay.

6. Practice using word stress and intonation. Listen to a T2 conversation. Play it a sentence at a time, and copy the speakers. Try to use the same word stress and intonation patterns as them.

7. Practice giving your opinion for T1 questions. Think about something that’s changing in your neighbourhood. This might be a new school opening, a change in public transportation or a new residential development. Give your opinion to the change, and explain why you think that way.

8. Choose a T3 question and read the text. Make sure you can identify the concept and then practice explaining what it is, in a straightforward, clear way. Use your own words as much as possible. Allow about 12 seconds to give your explanation.


1. Improve your typing speed by retyping old essays. This improves muscle memory as your fingers get used to the specific phrases you need to type for TOEFL.

2. Practice thinking and planning. Choose a broad essay topic like education or the environment. Take a blank piece of paper and write down all the words and phrases you think about when you think of that topic. Do this quickly and don’t judge yourself. Then, look at what you’ve written and imagine the kinds of essay prompts you could use these ideas for.

3. Find an essay prompt that asks whether you agree or disagree with a statement. Choose the OPPOSITE option of the one you’d normally choose. This is good practice for dealing with difficult essay prompts where you don't have many ideas. Plan an essay with a thesis statement and 2 supporting arguments for this option.

4. Find an integrated essay reading passage. Read it carefully and notice the author’s use of articles or singular and plural nouns when talking about the main subject. Write a paraphrase of the passage using your own words as much as possible, and concentrating on using articles and nouns in the correct forms. 

5. Choose an essay prompt and plan your essay by speaking out loud. Start with the thesis then move onto your supporting arguments. Keep repeating as you keep adding more information. Imagine you’re explaining it to a friend.

6. Practice using clear, descriptive verbs to describe the author's and professor's opinions in the integrated essay. DON'T use formal or archaic verbs that are now reserved for legal writing! Practice using more commonly used verbs but make sure you understand the slight difference in meanings between them.

7. Choose an essay prompt, then quickly decide your opinion (your thesis) and your 2 supporting arguments. Choose 1 supporting argument to write about. Set a timer for 10 minutes, then start typing your body paragraph. Don’t stop to look up anything, just keep typing. Stop after 10 minutes and review and edit what you wrote. 

8. Find an integrated essay lecture. Listen to the lecture but pause the audio after every 2 or 3 sentences. Paraphrase what the professor has just said, using your own words as much as possible. If you don’t understand something, play that bit of the audio again and look up the word or phrase you don't understand.

These skills-building exercises will help improve your language proficiency much more effectively than practicing old exam questions all the time.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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