Test Preparation For English Exams

CEFR levels test preparation

Council of Europe

Are you thinking about taking an English exam, like the TOEFL or IELTS? Wondering how to get started with your test preparation?

Here is a guide to help you along. This guide includes:
Steps to prepare for your exam
Skills to master before you take your exam
Tips and tricks to study effectively
Things to remember on exam day

Steps to Prepare for your Exam

Making the decision to take an English exam can feel overwhelming. Break down the steps, and take them one at a time:

1.) Start by taking placement tests. A Basic Assessment and a 20 minute test to learn your current CEFR level, and to identify areas you can improve in.
2.) Decide which test is the right option for you. Also think about the type of test that you want to take. IELTS offers a general test that isn’t as demanding as TOEFL or the academic version of the IELTS. Think about your goals, and research the specific requirements that you will need.
3.) Once you have decided on your test, familiarize yourself with the exam format. (See some useful links for the most common English exams below).
4.) Decide what score and CERF level you want to achieve.
5.) Design an effective, realistic study plan, and make a commitment to stick with it.
6.) Learn about and practice the core skills that you will need, apart from English proficiency.
7.) Read as much quality academic material as you can. Keep a list of new vocabulary and review it regularly.
8.) Get some help! Find a study group, join a forum, take a class, and/or work one on one with an experienced, certified English teacher to help you stay on track and study effectively.

Exam Skills to Master Before You Take the Exam

To get the best score possible on your English exam, you’ll need more than just a great English level. There are many other skills that you will want to learn about and practice as well.

Reading Skills

1.) Skimming and Scanning

2.) Be able to identify what words and parts of sentences refer to each other. You’ll need this to answer reference questions and insert text questions. Know your pronouns, and practice identifying what they refer to.

3.) Understand how negative factual questions work, and practice answering these types of questions.

4.) Be able to identify the main ideas and the supporting details within a text. You’ll need these for the prose summary questions. (In the TOEFL, these questions have 3 correct answers out of 6, and you get 2 points if you select all 3 of the correct ones!) Make a chart and use it with various texts to practice.

5.) Have the ability to separate essential and non essential information, and understand the relationship between parts of complex sentences. You’ll need these for the sentence simplification questions, where you must determine which sentence restates the most important information, and understand the cause/effect or evidence/conclusion relationship.

6.) Understand the logical flow of information. You’ll need this for the insert text questions.

7.) Be able to determine what is being inferred, but not explicitly stated in a text.

8.) Understand the rhetorical purpose of information. In other words, you need to be able to deduce the reason an author has included the information.

Listening Skills

1.) Be able to identify the main ideas and the supporting details in a conversation and lecture.

2.) As well knowing what the key points are, you need to understand why they are made. Train yourself to listen for the main reasons someone has for speaking. Get in the habit of asking yourself what else people are trying to express, beyond the obvious meaning. Are they agreeing or disagreeing? Are they confirming or recommending something, or are they questioning it, or maybe complaining about it?

In the TOEFL exam, your first listening question for each activity will either ask you to identify the main topic(s), or the main purpose(s).

3.) Be able to ascertain the function that a comment has within the context of the wider conversation. Imagine that you arrive late to meet a friend, and explain that the sidewalks were very slippery, and you walked slowly to avoid falling. If your friend responds, “I am glad that you took your time”, the function of this response it to reassure you that he or she agrees with your decision, and isn’t annoyed.

4.) Be able to determine what is implied, but not directly stated.

5.) Be able to infer how a speaker thinks and feels about a topic. How sure is the speaker about what he or she is saying? Is the argument valid? One way to practice this skill is the think about tone of voice. What can you infer about a speaker’s attitude from the tone?

6.) Understand the structure and organization of a lecture or conversation. Why does the speaker mention a fact, or use a specific example? Make sure that you are familiar with words that indicate chronology, time, sequence or order, and get used to noticing these, in order to pick up on these organizational clues. (You’ll need this skill for X and if you are asked to identify the steps in a process in a Connecting Content Question.)

7.) Be able to predict what will occur, based on what you have heard.

8.) Be able to summarize the main ideas of a conversation or lecture, and connect ideas that aren’t presented in chronological order.

Speaking Skills

1.) You’ll want to be comfortable stating your preference for one of two options, and support your decision. (TOEFL question 1) The first question in the IELTS will be more general, but it will be something that you might talk about day to day, like your family, hobbies, and interests.

2.) Be able to speak for 2 minutes about your opinion on various topics. Practice presenting your opinion, and defend it with 3 good points. Be able to analyze ideas and speculate about them.

2.) Know your connecting words, and get used to using them in day to day speaking.

3.) Be able to summarize spoken and written content.

4.) Be able to talk about how examples are used to support an argument, idea, concept or term.

5.) To get a good score in the speaking section, work on speaking clearly. This includes your pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and on presenting a logical flow of idea. Don’t aim to eliminate your accent. There’s nothing at all wrong with having an accent.

6.) Integrate your reading, listening and speaking abilities. In TOEFL three of the four speaking questions are integrated with at least one other skill.

Writing Skills

1.) Your ability to integrate different skills will help you in the writing section as well. In the first TOEFL essay, you will read a passage and listen to lecture on the same topic. You’ll need to summarize what you heard, and relate it back to the reading.

2.) For the TOEFL, you need to be comfortable writing around 300 words in 30 minutes. The IELTS gives you more time (40 minutes), and requires fewer words (250).

3.) Be able to write your opinion on a topic, and support it with valid reasons.

4.) Be able to structure an essay into a thesis and supporting ideas, present them in proper paragraphs, and make logical transitions.

5.) Have a command of English spelling, punctuation, and grammar usage.

6.) Know connecting words, which are also called conjunctions, so that you can link your ideas together in a way that is easy to follow and understand.

7.) Be able to read charts and graphs, and know related vocabulary, in order to write about what you are seeing. (In the IELTS exam, there is a 150 word minimum for this task.)

Get a sense of how the writing section is scored, so you know what skills you want to focus on improving.

Tips and Tricks to Study Effectively

1.) Plan, and plan well ahead. Building skills is a journey; it’s enjoyable and worth doing well. Goals are great. However, trying to build skills overnight, and rushing to take an exam is a recipe for stress and failure. Set realistic time-lines.

2.) Build your vocabulary.

Focus on academic terminology, not jargon that is limited to specific fields of study. Keep a vocabulary list, or build a deck of flashcards, and review it regularly.

Another strategy is to learn and practice using affixes and the Latin and Greek root words. This will help you not only remember words, but give you a way to deduce the meaning of words that are new for you.

Expand your knowledge of synonyms and antonyms. If you can’t think of the word you want, it is handy to have others to use in its place. For example, if you can’t recall the word ‘huge’, you can use ‘enormous’, ‘very big’, or ‘not small’ instead.

3.) Learn when and how to take brief, effective notes, and get in the habit of taking notes in English. Some useful types of notes that you write are outlines of what you want to express, the main ideas and supporting ideas in your reading and listening practice, bullet points of chronological events, and ideas that are connected in different types of material.

4.) Study, at least some of the time, in a way that is as similar to taking the exam as possible. This will ensure that you are familiar with the types of tasks you will be doing, and reduce the chances of being distracted when you are writing the exam. In the IELTS, students get to do the speaking section with a person. In TOEFL, students need to speak to a computer. This can feel uncomfortable at first, but it won’t throw you off if you get used to it ahead of time.

5.) Know in advance how long you have for each task, and practice within the same time constrains. In the speaking section of the TOEFL, for example, you will have 15 to 30 seconds to prepare, and then 45 to 60 seconds in which to speak. Practicing this will ensure that you aren’t thrown off by the time limits, or speak too quickly when you are taking the exam.

6.) Some websites and teachers suggest that you memorize or write out responses to likely speaking questions, and recite them in your exam. This is terrible advice. Don’t do it.

7.) Read, read, read! Check out the online library now, and select something. Reading even a few minutes a day will help you improve.

8.) Both active and passive listening will help you learn. Obviously, you need to engage in active listening, in order to hon your skills. But it’s even helpful to have spoken English playing in the background, while you do other things. Find a resource from the listening library, and listen to English as much as you can.

Things to Remember on Exam Day

1.) Get a good night’s sleep the night before, or at least rest for eight hours.

2.) Make sure that you have everything you need, including valid ID, pencils, a pencils and an eraser.

3.) Eat a light, protein based meal, and watch your liquid intake. You won’t be able to use the bathroom until the break, or when the exam is completed.

4.) Stay calm and focused, and just do your best. You got this!

5.) Read each question carefully.

6.) Answer all of the multiple choice questions. Don’t leave any questions blank. You don’t lose points for incorrect answers. Leaving a multiple choice question gives you 0% of getting the point, whereas your best guess gives you at the very least a 25% chance. And then move on. In the TOEFL test, for example, the recommendation is to spend only around 30 second on each question.

Don’t be distracted by the pattern of the answer letters. Obvious, right? But it’s more common than you’d think! People can fall into trying to figure out the psychology of why the answers are three Bs in a row. ‘Is that a trick? Or maybe…’ This type of speculation isn’t useful. Stay on task, and focus on which answer is correct.

7.) Use key words to know where to find the information you need, but don’t assume that the keywords are the information you need.

8.) Be conscious of your time, but don’t rush. Stay focused on the task at hand. Take the time you need to accomplish each task. If you are really struggling with a question, make a note of it, and know that you can return to it at the end if you have extra time.

Useful Links

TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language
-3.5 hours
-4 sections
TOEFL – The official website
TOEFL Reading – Reading and comprehension questions
Writing Questions – Essay topics for 2023, and loads of great resources
Reading Practice – Exam Samples

IELTS – International English Language Testing System
-2 hours and 45 minutes
-4 sections
IELTS – Official website
ESL Lounge – Reading and comprehension practice
Practice tests and resources – Tools to help with preparation
Ted-IELTS – Practice resources
Yuno Learning – Self study support
Videos – Tools to help with preparation

iTEP – Official website

Saber 11:
ICFES Instituto Colombiano – The official website
Practice test – Log in to practice the exam
ICFES preparation resources – Useful links to practice
Saber 3, 5, 7, 9:
General Information