RS: Each year close to one million people around the world take the TOEFL -- the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Since it's required to get into many colleges and universities in America, we get a lot of questions about it.
Listening online or download
Listening online or download
AA: So we turn to Mari [pronounced Mary] Pearlman at the Educational Testing Service, the private organization in Princeton, New Jersey, that administers the TOEFL exam.
PEARLMAN: "It takes about two-and-a-half hours, whether it's paper-and-pencil or computer-based. Students are asked to read relatively lengthy academic passages. Let's say there might be a reading comprehension passage about the greenhouse effect. There might be another reading passage about twentieth century architecture. There might be a third passage about great social movements in Europe from 1860 to 1900.
"Those passages are followed by comprehension questions, comprehension both of the subject matter in the passage -- did they understand what they read -- also did they understand how the language works, did they get the signals. For example, in English, when we qualify an assertion, we use certain linguistic signals. Can they see what those particular kinds of signals are doing."
RS: The TOEFL also tests for listening comprehension. Recordings are played.
PEARLMAN: "Sometimes they sound like lectures in a classroom, sometimes they're conversations between two or three speakers. In either case, students are asked to listen through headphones, and then they're asked comprehension questions about both the content of what was said and how the speakers interacted if it was a conversation."
AA: In another section, students must recognize and correct grammatical errors in sentences. And then there is an essay.
PEARLMAN: "Usually the essay questions are things like this: 'Some people say that young people are the source of all really innovative ideas. Others say that it is only after people have aged and raised their own children that they have true wisdom. Which of these would you agree with? Give two specific examples to support your point of view.'"
RS: Mari Pearlman is vice president of teaching and learning at the Educational Testing Service.
PEARLMAN: "One of the things that is pretty clear to us is that, in the United States, what you want to find out is what people do in response to things they don't know yet. That is, unfamiliar material. Since going to university and graduate school is largely a process of encountering things you don't yet know -- that's why you're there -- this seems like a good measure of certain skills that are important."
RS: Yet in many places in the world, Mari Pearlman says, that is an unfamiliar definition of knowledge.
PEARLMAN: "So, for a lot of students, how to prepare for TOEFL is mysterious, because their whole model of learning is that they just memorize lots and lots and lots and lots, and they expect to see some portion of that on the test. And that's not the way this test works."
AA: Since the TOEFL is a test of academic language, Mari Pearlman says the best way to prepare is to read a lot of high-level material in English. The Educational Testing Service and others sell test preparation materials.
RS: She says another thing to do is to listen to a lot of English. And, once a speaking test is added to the TOEFL next year, it will be important to practice speaking.
PEARLMAN: "That is probably the thing that's most neglected, sounding like an English speaker, which is hard. I mean it's hard for any of us to sound like a speaker of another language. That's the hardest part."
RS: "When it's not our native language. Of course."
PEARLMAN: "Intelligibility is obviously part of what we score, but it's also the key to knowing whether the person can actually address the content as well."
AA: In 2004, the fortieth anniversary of the TOEFL, the Education Testing Service will introduce what it calls the "next generation" of the exam. Mari Pearlman says E-T-S has been working for about ten years with researchers to develop the new test. Instead of testing each language skill separately, the new TOEFL will integrate reading, writing and speaking.
RS: This September E-T-S will come out with a CD-ROM to help teachers prepare students for the new TOEFL. Mari Pearlman says her organization hopes the new exam will have a "big effect" on the teaching of English as a foreign language, to better prepare students for academic life. To learn more about the test, there's a TOEFL Web site; it's TOEFL (that's T-O-E-F-L) dot o-r-g.
RS: You'll find our programs on the Web at voanews.com/wordmaster. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.