Steve's Corner, The importance of TOEIC, TOEFL, and IELTS

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TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) is the most widely used international test of English skills, with 4 million test takers world wide. TOEIC measures the ability to answer multiple-choice questions after reading and listening to English. The TOEIC test was developed by ETS, the same firm that developed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). TOEIC is used mostly by corporations and is particularly popular in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. It is growing in popularity in Europe and elsewhere. TOEIC has the advantage of being inexpensive, objective and fast. It is reasonably accurate.

TOEFL is used to test university students and covers a wider range of vocabulary than TOEIC. TOEFL has multiple-choice questions similar to TOEIC, but also tests writing and speaking ability. This means that TOEFL takes longer to write and to correct and therefore is more expensive. The evaluation of writing and speaking adds ...

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TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) is the most widely used international test of English skills, with 4 million test takers world wide. TOEIC measures the ability to answer multiple-choice questions after reading and listening to English. The TOEIC test was developed by ETS, the same firm that developed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). TOEIC is used mostly by corporations and is particularly popular in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. It is growing in popularity in Europe and elsewhere. TOEIC has the advantage of being inexpensive, objective and fast. It is reasonably accurate.

TOEFL is used to test university students and covers a wider range of vocabulary than TOEIC. TOEFL has multiple-choice questions similar to TOEIC, but also tests writing and speaking ability. This means that TOEFL takes longer to write and to correct and therefore is more expensive. The evaluation of writing and speaking adds an additional dimension to the TOEFL English expression, but makes the test more subjective. IELTS, put out by Cambridge University in the United Kingdom is similar to TOEFL in scope and method.

How accurate are these tests?

How useful are they?

How does one best prepare for them?

Who should take them?

How accurate are TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS?

ETS has published studies showing a close correlation between the TOEIC test results and results from alternative ways of evaluating English speaking skills, such as interviews. There are other independent studies which resulted in a lower level of correlation between TOEIC results and results from other measurements of language skills. Obviously any evaluation of language skills cannot be absolutely accurate. In comparing the results of two different language tests, at best we can measure the correlation between two imprecise evaluations.

ETS claims that TOEIC is designed to be a good predictor of writing and speaking skills, even though those are not tested in TOEIC. Perhaps this is so. However, even with TOEFL, which does measure writing and speaking skills, people with similar scores will often have quite different abilities to speak and write English. There are criticisms that some students with high TOEFL scores cannot communicate well in English and do poorly at English speaking universities. Similarly, studies of IELTS results and academic success show a surprisingly low level of correlation between test scores and academic results. See TL Forum 1999: Dooey.

A number of corporate language trainers in Japan and Korea have pointed out the limitations of TOEIC as an accurate predictor of language skills within a corporate environment. Obviously employers eventually need to run their own tests, or interview employees or potential employees directly to evaluate their English. However, this supposes that the employer has the necessary English skills to do this. In addition such interviews are time consuming and necessarily more subjective than standard tests.

So in the end TOEIC for the corporate world, and TOEFL and IELTS for the academic world, while only partial indicators of language proficiency, do have the advantage of being convenient to implement and widely recognized.

How should TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS be used?

These commonly used tests of English are probably sufficiently objective to be useful as a minimum or qualifying standard when trying to evaluate the English language skills of a large number of people, such as employees in a large firm or potential students. An employer or university admissions officer should still do additional tests to determine whether English language communication skills meet their specific needs. It is not reasonable to expect these test results to fully reflect the ability to function in English at work or in an academic environment. There are simply too many other factors that come into play, including each applicant's full range of personal skills and the ability to continue to improve in English.

The widespread requirement for these tests serves as a catalyst for many people to apply themselves to the study of English. However the usefulness of this stimulus is reduced if the focus of English language study is on learning the techniques of taking the test. Studies have shown that the higher the level of the learner, the less benefit is obtained by "studying for the test". It would appear that some familiarity with the nature of these tests is useful, but beyond that the benefit of more and more "studying for the tests" is questionable.

The test-taker is usually better off trying to improve overall language competence. "Studying for the exam" often represents an inefficient use of time in terms of the eventual objective, English language fluency. People with good English skills will do well on standard tests. People with poor English skills, the greatest beneficiaries of "studying for the tests", probably should not be taking these tests in the first place.

What is the best way to prepare for TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS?


The best way to prepare for these tests is to concentrate on learning activities which:

Increase English reading and listening speed. Increase English listening comprehension. Increase English vocabulary. Create familiarity with English phrases.

This will lead to improved results in TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS. Not only will these input skills improve, but output skills will also improve.

Led by the pioneering work of Stephen Krashen there is a greater realization today that intensive practice in listening to and reading comprehensible and interesting English input has a powerful effect on increasing overall language competence. As pointed out by Yukio Noguchi in his best-seller, Choo Eigo Hoo (Super English Method) anyone who can easily comprehend English spoken at normal speed, will learn to speak well.

Listening, reading and vocabulary practice are mutually reinforcing. Reading English is an effective way to increase vocabulary. Listening to English audio material helps improve reading speed, if the learner practices reading the same content as he or she is listening to. Audio books are already used to increase literacy and reading speed even amongst English native speakers. See "A Bridge to Literacy" by Denise Marchionda.

Reading and listening speed is critical to success on these tests. Test takers complain that time constraints were their greatest challenge. For the listening questions, they are usually only given one chance to hear each excerpt. The written questions need to be read several times. Speed is of the essence. To improve reading and listening ability, learners should regularly read and listen to content that they largely understand, thereby developing fluency and confidence. They should read and listen often to the same content, focusing at times on meaning, and at other times on the construction of key phrases.

In addition to training reading and listening skills by focusing on content with few unknown words, it is also necessary to study content which contains key academic and specialized vocabulary. As is pointed out below, vocabulary level is a good indicator of success in these standard tests. New vocabulary is best learned from interesting and comprehensible content, especially on the computer and with the help of an efficient online dictionary and vocabulary acquisition system like The Linguist (www.thelinguist.com). The person wanting to take TOEIC or TOEFL or IELTS needs to do a lot of reading and listening on a wide variety of subject matter, including, in the case of TOEFL and IELTS candidates, academic content.

Who should take the TOEIC, TOEFL or IELTS exams?

Often an employer or university requires a learner to take one of these tests. However, many test takers simply want to have a high TOEIC or TOEFL score on their resume. It is not useful to take these tests if a poor result is anticipated. Anyone taking these tests should have a minimum goal in mind, and should only take the test if he or she is confident of achieving the desired level. Many learners in Japan and Korea take TOEIC more than 4 times according to the 2004 Report on TOEIC Test Takes Worldwide. This is wasteful of time and money and a distraction from the main task of improving basic English skills.

Results in TOEIC, TOEFL, and other tests correlate closely to vocabulary levels, see Measuring Vocabulary Levels of English Textbooks and Tests by Kiyomi Chujo. This correlation holds especially true if the vocabulary has been acquired through a sufficient volume of listening and reading, rather than just by cramming.

A system like LingQ is ideally suited to improve the skills required for success on these standard tests. There are hundreds of hours of listening and reading content. All content is available in both audio and text so that learners can read along as they listen and thus work on increasing reading speed. A statistical record is kept of vocabulary levels and this can be a good indicator of when a learner is ready to take a test like TOEIC or TOEFL with success. Learners can then just focus their energies on the most effective language learning activities and monitor the growth of their vocabulary and language skills. They can then proceed to take these standard tests with confidence, since they will know that the level of their language skills will assure them of a good result.

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