All You Need to Truly Ace the TOEIC Test
TOEIC, the Test of English for International Communication, is probably the most widely taken test of English language proficiency in the world. TOEIC is taken by around seven million people every year, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal.
It is my observation that most people who take TOEIC, especially in Japan, focus too much on trying to ace the exam or even outsmart the exam. They focus their energies on studying previous examples of the exam. They buy books with lists of TOEIC vocabulary. They would be better off to improve their overall language skills, including reading speed and listening comprehension. If their overall language ability improves, they will be able to complete the TOEIC exam comfortably in the allotted time and end up with good results.
Let me first explain what TOEIC is and then provide my recommendation of how to do well in this exam, a necessary evil to many learners of English.
Just what is TOEIC?
For a long time, TOEIC only tested listening and reading skills. In 2006 speaking and writing sections were added. However, the original listening and reading tests are usually what are referred to when we speak of TOEIC and TOEIC results. This is the case with the 2016 Report on Test Takers Worldwide, put out by ETS, the organization that produces TOEIC. I cover this survey further below.
ETS describes the TOEIC test as follows:
TOEIC test questions are based on real-life situations that are relevant to global organizations. Test content is developed from real examples of spoken and written English collected from around the world.
The reading section consists of incomplete sentences, text completion and reading comprehension tasks. Content in this section could be from a memo, e-mail, brochure, announcement, review, notice, letter, form, newspaper or magazine article or advertisement.
The listening section is in four sections:
- Photos: 20 questions
- Question – Response: 30 questions
- Short conversation: 30 questions
- Short talks: 30 questions
Here’s what TOEIC scores mean when we combine the reading and listening tests:
- 905 – 990 International Proficiency
- 785 – 900 Working Proficiency Plus
- 605 – 780 Limited Working Proficiency
- 405 – 600 Elementary Proficiency Plus
- 255 – 400 Elementary Proficiency
- 185 – 250 Memorized Proficiency
- 10 – 180 No Useful Proficiency
For most working or educational purposes, a combined score of 785 or better is required. That is the ultimate goal of people taking this test.
Why take TOEIC?
TOEIC is not the only popular test of English skills. IELTS claims to have close to three million test-takers worldwide. Eiken is another test that is almost as popular as TOEIC in Japan, and there are many other similar tests.
It is important for any test-taker to be clear on his or her goals for taking these tests. Considerations include where you live, where you want to live, what your goals are, and which test your prospective employer, school, or immigration destination prefers. However, to a large extent, the reasons to take these tests and the best ways to prepare for them are essentially the same.
Let’s look at TOEIC. ETS, the company that puts out TOEIC, did a Report on Test Takers Worldwide in 2016. The report is full of interesting information about who takes TOEIC and why. It’s well worth reading. I believe the results would be similar for other English language proficiency tests. Here are some highlights:
- TOEIC is taken mostly by post secondary, in other words, college students (55%) and company employees (35%).
- Most test takers world-wide do not live in an English speaking country.
- The purpose of taking TOEIC is either “to learn”, in other words to improve in English (30%), to get a job (28%) to graduate from college (22%) or to get a promotion at work (10%).
- The age group that had the best results were between 26-30, while the youngest group and oldest group did most poorly.
- 45% of test-takers had studied English 10 years or more, and another 35% had studied English 6-10 years.
- 44% of the people who responded to the questionnaire had taken the test three times, and 26% had never taken it before.
How to improve your score on TOEIC
It is easy to Google and find a large number of websites with advice on how to do better at TOEIC. Much of this advice deals with the details of the test itself and strategies for getting better at taking it. These are important. Any test-taker needs to be familiar with the kind of questions he or she will get, and how to plan his or her time during the test. Reviewing old tests, or even taking the test a few times, will only improve the chances of good results.
I will not go into more detail on this, since these are subjects that have been widely researched and reported on. A review of existing articles will provide all the tips you need. Obviously the more familiar the test-taker is with the test itself, the better the results will be. That is why the largest group of in the 2016 Report on Test Takers Worldwide report having taken the test three times, and the second largest are people taking the test for the first time. In general, the more often people take the test, the better they do.
I prefer to focus on the question of how to improve your English so that you are more “TOEIC ready.” There are two reasons for concentrating on this aspect of improving TOEIC scores.
First of all, if we look at the reasons why test-takers are taking the tests, it is mostly because they want to improve their English. Their answers either stated that specifically, or implied it. There is no point in improving one’s TOEIC score in order to study or get a job, and then find out that your level of English is, in fact, not good enough. In other words, people don’t want to just pass TOEIC and then fail in school or at their job.
Just as important, improving your English skills is the best guarantee of a good TOEIC score. If you can improve your English level, and on top of that become familiar with the test and the best tricks and tips, you are guaranteed success. Improving your English skills is the core task, and involves the most effort. Learning details about the test and the tricks and tips for success are, by comparison, relatively easy. They are the icing on the cake, so to speak.
TOEIC is a test of our language skills, and quite a good one, otherwise it would not be so widely used by schools, employers and test-takers. As with language learning itself, the key tasks in TOEIC preparation are to acquire vocabulary and a greater familiarity with English.
It is easy to find lists of the words most likely to appear in TOEIC, just by Googling. These lists may be 500 words long or 5,000 words long. There is an abundance of books with these lists, often with sample sentences using them.
There are problems, however, with trying to learn these words from lists, even with sample sentences provided. First of all, even sample sentences, not to speak of lists, provide little context. This makes it difficult to remember the words, and to really appreciate how these words are used.
If we learn words from more ample context, content of interest that we can read and listen to, we achieve much more. We not only have a better chance of remembering the words, we also acquire a broader sense of how these words are used from the many different contexts where we find them. Looking at lists with a few sample sentences is simply not enough.
However, there is another point. If we pursue the task of expanding our vocabulary through massive reading and listening, through meaningful input, as advocated by leading language learning expert Stephen Krashen, we not only learn words and phrases, we also increase our familiarity with the language. Through extensive input, we get more of a natural feel of what is normal usage in the language, and this is very important when taking TOEIC. We can then more naturally feel which grammatical forms are correct or incorrect, without trying to remember rules, or guessing.
That is not all. If we read a lot, we will learn languages faster, including English. This is essential if we are going to have enough time to complete the TOEIC test. We will be able to quickly read test questions and have time to make appropriate answers. Furthermore, if we listen a lot, as we should, our listening comprehension will improve and that is also essential to success on the listening portion of the test.
Preparing for TOEIC is all about improving in English
It has been my experience that, in learning languages, it is essential to spend most of our time on meaningful content, listening and reading. Since most TOEIC test-takers have been studying English for many years, they probably have had a lot of exposure to grammar explanations. It is not grammar explanations that they are lacking, but sufficient exposure to English.
I usually like to spend at least 80% of my language learning time listening and reading, and up to 20% of my time working on details of the language. This is what is behind LingQ, where I do most of my language learning, and a learning system ideally suited to TOEIC preparation.
LingQ has an enormous library of interesting content in English, always with audio and text. In addition, learners can import anything from the Internet to use at LingQ. There is no limit to the content people can learn from. Members can save words and phrases to their personal database for review, and they can tag words and phrases to make it easier to focus on special types of words and phrases. This kind of nuts and bolts study can be particularly useful for preparing for TOEIC.
It is possible to search the LingQ library for keywords related to business, politics or other subjects likely to appear on the TOEIC test. One could even search the library for words from any of the above mentioned TOEIC vocabulary lists.
LingQ TOEIC courses
LingQ has even prepared a LingQ TOEIC course.
The intermediate course is for those with a current TOEIC level of 500-600 aiming to achieve a score of 700-800. The Advanced course is for learners at a TOEIC level of 600-700 who want to achieve a score of 800-990.
These courses will have you test-ready and confident in less than half the time it takes in traditional programs. Instead of going over and over old test papers, the LingQ TOEIC courses have you learning from interesting, real-world content.
Using LingQ’s unique vocabulary acquisition system you will quickly build up and remember new words and phrases. The words and phrases you’re learning will be turned into fun activities, and you can check on your progress at any time with the LingQ tracking system. You will pass the test and be a able to use the English you’ve learned afterward.
How can Japan get better results in TOEIC?
Japan is the country with the highest number of TOEIC test-takers, about two million annually. That country also has amongst the lowest average score, in 44th place out of 48 countries, and I will comment on that below. Over 80% of test-takers, including in Japan, have studied English for more than six years.
Japan does quite poorly at TOEIC for two main reasons, in my view. First of all, Japan has far more TOEIC test-takers than any other country. In Japan, taking the TOEIC test is almost like a form of study. Many of those who take TOEIC and do poorly would be better off spending their time on other forms of study, including the LingQ TOEIC courses mentioned above. Only once their vocabulary level has reached a sufficiently high level should they start taking the test. They would achieve better results, on average.
The second reason for poor results from Japan is that English language instruction in the country doesn’t spend enough time on comprehensible input. When Japanese learners are given a chance to spend more time on comprehensible input, their results improve quite quickly, as this report out of Shitennoji University shows.
An excerpt from the report is indicative:
“Mr. Tanaka” is an adult who attended a class based on story listening and carried out a personal reading program over one year with the author’s guidance. At no time did he “study” English, and at no time did he attempt to speak or write English. He gained 180 points on the TOEIC test in one year, the equivalent of about 63 points on the TOEFL, far more efficient than students in traditional EFL and ESL programs.
Elevate Your English
TOEIC is a relatively inexpensive and widely used test of English proficiency. It serves a practical purpose and is likely to remain important for millions of people around the world every year.
To “ace” this test, don’t just spend your time on short-cuts, even though some of these may be helpful. Elevate the level of your English through massive input, lots of listening and reading. You should consider using TOEIC relevant lessons from LingQ, along with the learning functionality that LingQ provides, as a major part of your preparation strategy. LingQ TOEIC courses may be your path to success at TOEIC.