The TOEFL iBT® Test’s Positive Effect on Teaching and Learning

By David Lariviere

ETS Assessment Specialist Phal Vaughter, a teacher at the time, recalls being in a room full of ESL teachers at Columbia University during a presentation just before the Speaking section was added to the TOEFL® test 15 years ago, as part of the transition to the TOEFL iBTtest.

“A teacher in the audience said, ‘this will change everything about language teaching as we know it.’ Everybody in the room sat and processed that for a moment. It was a big moment and a big silence,” Vaughter remembered.

That woman’s intuition proved to be correct as today the TOEFL iBT test is accepted by more than 10,000 universities and other institutions in more than 150 countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S., the U.K. and all across Europe and Asia.

“When the Speaking section was added to the TOEFL iBT test, the current iteration of the TOEFL test, students realized they had to improve their speaking skills and their teachers knew it too,” said ETS Managing Senior Research Scientist Spiros Papageorgiou. “The addition of the Speaking Test section did bring positive washback.” The term “washback” represents the “effect that a language test has on teaching and learning,” he says.

Because speaking is emphasized along with reading, listening and writing, the TOEFL iBT test now is a stronger measure of English-language proficiency skills needed in the real world. But “the biggest differentiator” of the TOEFL iBT test from other tests, according to Papageorgiou, is its “comprehensive coverage of English for academic purposes.”

Papageorgiou explained, “Throughout the TOEFL iBT test, students engage in tasks that closely resemble the kind of real-life tasks you must complete when you go to a university. Students will listen to lectures, read short articles on the same topic, and then explain how the views in the lecture are different from the article. These are very good ways to generate the kind of language students should have when they go to a university.”

“It is much better than asking, ‘What is your favorite food?’ or saying ‘Describe a picture.’ If tasks on the test are irrelevant to those typical in real-life university classrooms, then achieving positive washback becomes difficult.”

ETS Assessment Specialist Pablo Garcia Gomez says teachers recognize how flexible and creative a tool the TOEFL iBT test can be. “Teachers have seen how powerful the design of the test is in so many ways,” he said. “They have seen how the test allows different approaches to teaching like task-based and even project-based teaching, which is much more motivating than tasks such as repeating sentences. They are working on something they like.”

The result was and continues to be liberating for teachers, Vaughter explained, because it “allows students to be able to move away from traditional ways of learning English which may have paired up well with the testing from a different era. That’s good in terms of student interest and teacher interest as it’s a lot more fun and engaging way to learn.”

The more teachers know about the TOEFL iBT test, the better they can build positive washback in the classroom to work for the benefit of their students, according to Garcia Gomez. “When they learn how the test has been designed, how it’s scored, and what performance is expected from them, they actually understand and see ETS’s objectives are similar to their own and they immediately buy in and realize its value.”

Vaughter stressed that teachers want what’s best for their students. “If I see connections with what I’m doing in the classroom to a relationship with the TOEFL iBT test, then that’s going to be the test I recommend. Those are the kind of natural alliances that we like. We all know what our students need.”

Papageorgiou made it clear that the TOEFL iBT test was designed from the beginning to positively impact the classroom. “The way a test is designed matters in order to bring positive washback.” However, he added washback is such a complex phenomenon “because of the plethora of educational and social factors that affect how a test will influence teaching and learning.” This is why ETS and the TOEFL Program invested in research conducted by ETS and non-ETS employees to empirically establish that the introduction of the TOEFL iBT test did result in positive washback.

What isn’t complicated is the answer to a question Papageorgiou receives a lot from teachers. “How can I improve my students’ TOEFL iBT scores?” To which he replies, “It’s a very simple answer — they need to improve their language proficiency.” In other words, it’s positive washback when an English test requires students to actually LEARN English to receive high scores, rather than just rely on test-taking strategies.