All posts by Michael Buckhoff

About Michael Buckhoff

I am an ESL and Linguistics professor at California State University, San Bernardino, California. Besides having a passion for teaching, I have a passion for long distance running. Google me and see how fast I can run--even at my age of 46.

Stop re-taking the TOEFL exam! Here is why….

ETS has a huge industry with all of the tests that it offers, and, of course, students hand over loads of money each time they take one of these standardized admissions tests. Therefore, ask yourself a question before you fork over another $200 to take the TOEFL exam: “Am I ready to take the TOEFL iBT exam?”

Some students figure they can simply re-take the test over and over until they pass, each time spending $200. For instance, a student who joined my course last year had taken the TOEFL exam twelve times over a twelve month period and still had not “passed” the TOEFL exam.  Another TOEFLer I corresponded with online had taken the test three times over three months scoring 75, 71, and 68, all inadequate of the 80+ for which she was looking. Other students simply complete dozens of reading, listening, speaking, and writing practice tests either online or from a TOEFL textbook and often find themselves “spinning their tires in the mud.” When they take the official TOEFL exam, their scores far short of their dream scores.

The problem with both of these approaches to preparing for the TOEFL exam is that these students still have not addressed the main issues preventing them from reaching their TOEFL target scores–they have not meaningfully improved their academic English proficiency. Simply taking a whole bunch of practice tests or taking the official TOEFL exam repeatedly will not improve their overall academic English proficiency.

First of all, if students are scoring lower in the reading section, they need to solve the problems holding their speaking scores back. For example, many students score lower on the reading because of their limited vocabulary knowledge. Therefore, instead of taking a lot of practice tests, these students need to engage in a regular routine of building their vocabulary over several months so that they will be able to read proficiently. In addition, another problem holding students back is that they have slow reading speeds of 50-100 words per minute.  Slow reading speeds makes it difficult for these students to complete the TOEFL reading passages before the time limit, and slow reading speed fosters more distraction, less concentration, and lower comprehension. Overlooking these vocabulary and reading speed limitations by simply taking practice tests or by re-taking the official TOEFL exam will only cause frustration.

Second of all, many students score lower on the listening section because they have not created an efficient system of taking notes on the main and most important points of the lectures, academic discussions, and campus-related conversations. Students also are not used to hearing spoken English and are not familiar with how words are pronounced; thus, these listeners cannot recognize the words when they hear them. Consequently, instead of just taking practice tests or re-taking the TOEFL exam, these students will need to develop an efficient and abbreviated system of taking notes, and they will have to spend time watching television or radio with a focus on news, science, documentary, and history programs. It often takes several months of daily exposure before students will have faster-enough ears for the listening section of the TOEFL exam.

Third of all, the shortest but perhaps most difficult part of the exam, the speaking section also can frustrate students who are trying to get 26 points or higher. These TOEFL speakers will do almost anything in order to score higher, so they re-take the TOEFL exam over and over, sometimes even paying to have the speaking section re-scored–only to find out that they have fallen short once again. Many of these students have not reached 26 points because of delivery problems. Hence, before they will score higher, these students will need to pinpoint exactly what delivery problems are causing them to score lower. For example, are these students scoring lower due to problems with vowel or consonant sounds? Or, are they scoring lower because of problems with syllable division and grammatical word endings, word stress, sentence rhythm, intonation, and thought group and blending? A lot of exposure over a year or two in terms of speaking a lot of English to native or near-native speakers will address this problem, or a shorter term solution is that these students hire a TOEFL iBT speaking specialist who is qualified to help them address their intelligibility issues.

Finally, the writing portion of the exam poses its own sort of challenges, and students who get stuck at 21-22 points may overreact by taking too many practice tests or by simply re-taking the TOEFL exam. However, have they solved the language issues that are preventing them from scoring 24+ points on the writing section? The answer is no! TOEFLers who are stuck at 21-22 points have language-use issues. First, they may be using grammar that is too basic. For example, these students may be using too many simple sentences without also using compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences in their writing. In other words, to advance their writing proficiency, these students will need to understand how and when to use all four of these sentence types. Further, to understand complex sentences, these aspiring undergraduate and graduate college writers will need to learn how to form adjective, noun, adverb clauses, and no number of practice tests will teach that information. In fact, students with fundamental writing deficiencies should consult a TOEFL iBT writing specialist who can read their independent and integrated writing tasks and diagnose what specific problems are holding these students’ scores back.

To sum up, students should make sure that they have solved whatever issues they have that are preventing them from reaching their reading, listening, speaking, and writing target scores. Then and only then should they register to take the official TOEFL exam.


The author of this article is Michael Buckhoff, the founder, owner, and materials writer for “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT.” If you are ready to address the issues that are preventing you from reaching your dream TOEFL score, join his course by going to

As one of his Online TOEFL Course students, you will be able to submit pronunciation, speaking, and writing practice tests all for one low monthly price, and you have unlimited access to more than 700 vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking skill-building lessons and practice tests to help you improve your English so that you can get the dream TOEFL score for which you have been searching.