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The Test of English as a Foreign Language Gets a Makeover

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the new TOEFL.

RS: TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language. It's required by many colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere as a measure of a student's proficiency in English. There are sections in reading, writing, listening and, from now on… speaking.

AA: The Educational Testing Service or ETS, just debuted its new Internet-based TOEFL test in the United States. Over the next year the computer version will replace the paper exam in testing centers around the world. At the test site students are given a headset with built-in microphone to record their answers, which are then sent to graders via the Internet.

RS: As students who take the free practice test on the Web site will see, some of the questions require students to integrate their language skills. For example, a student has to read some material and then listen to a speaker before answering. Eileen Tyson, associate director of the TOEFL program at the Educational Testing Service, gives us this example:


EILEEN TYSON: "In one of the integrated questions you'll see on the Web site, the students read a short academic passage about domestication of animals. And it lists what factors make it easier or more difficult to domesticate animals. Then students listen to a short lecture from a professor where he takes those two principles that are defined in the reading and applies them to horses and antelope."

PROFESSOR: "So we've been discussing the suitability of animals for domestication... particularly animals that live together in herds. Now, if we take horses, for example... in the wild, horses live in herds that consist of one male and several females and their young. When a herd moves, the dominant male leads, with the dominant female and her young immediately behind him. The dominant female and her young are then followed immediately by the second most important female and her young, and so on. This is why domesticated horses can be harnessed one after the other in a row. They're "programmed" to follow the lead of another horse. On top of that, you often find different herds of horses in the wild occupying overlapping areas-they don't fight off other herds that enter the same territory.

"But it's exactly the opposite with an animal like the antelope... which... well, antelopes are herd animals too. But unlike horses, a male antelope will fight fiercely to prevent another male from entering its territory during the breeding season, ok-very different from the behavior of horses. Try keeping a couple of male antelopes together in a small space and see what happens. Also, antelopes don't have a social hierarchy-they don't instinctively follow any leader. That makes it harder for humans to control their behavior."

EILEEN TYSON: "And then the students are asked to describe how these factors affect horses and antelope, and the response must be based on what they've read and what they heard."

AA: "How long do they have to answer?"

EILEEN TYSON: "They have a minute. Now, they're allowed to take notes throughout this, so as they're listening or they're doing their reading, they can take notes. And then we give them 15 seconds or 30 seconds, depending on the question, to gather their thoughts and then they have a minute to respond to the question."

RS: "How was the test tested? How did it come out when it was tested? Did the students feel comfortable with it?"

EILEEN TYSON: "We did field testing of the test in 2003 and 2004. We tested 3000 students in 30 different countries, so we could be sure that we were getting a good sample that's typical of the TOEFL population. In fact, many of the students told us that it was actually fun. Now we all know that standardized testing, and high-stakes testing in general, is not typically a fun experience. But what they found was that it really tapped their abilities in a way that they had never had before.

"So the responses we got were on the whole positive. But what people did say was, you know, we're not going to be able to just know a lot of vocabulary and do well on this test. We're really going to have to know how to use English, which is the purpose of this new test. It focuses the ability to communicate in English and not just on knowledge of English."

RS: "Well, what impact is this going to have on teaching?"


AA: "Especially in the countries where spoken English is not emphasized so much in the classroom."

EILEEN TYSON: "Now that TOEFL is requiring students to use English for communication, teachers will want to include communicative English in their curriculum. We have teacher professional-development workshops to help teachers think about ways to include communication and using English in their curriculum. So we think that this is going to have a very positive impact in language education. And, in fact, E.S.L. teachers around the world have been telling us that this is something that they're looking forward to."

RS: Be sure to listen next week, when Eileen Tyson from the Educational Testing Service will talk more about the new Internet-based TOEFL and how to prepare for it.

AA: That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And our segments are on the Internet at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.