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TOEFL Vocabulary Testing

by Nadia Archuleta

University students listen to the same lectures regardless of country of origin, necessitating at least a similar level of English proficiency. The Test of English as a Foreign Language assesses non-native English speakers' level of language in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Vocabulary is not a separate test but rather integrated into the four skills.

TOEFL Vocabulary

TOEFL is an assessment of college-level language, so the vocabulary is academic in nature. Part of the reading section involves students' abilities to understand content-specific academic language in context, for example by inferring the meaning of a science word. Similarly, part of the listening test features college-level lectures with the attendant vocabulary. During the speaking and writing tasks, English language learners are expected to use academic and idiomatic language accurately. Therefore, vocabulary study is an integral aspect of TOEFL preparation.

Words in Context

At the most basic level TOEFL tests vocabulary in context, meaning students must use the surrounding text to discern a word's meaning. Sometimes the words or sentences around the term give a synonym or antonym of a word. For example, a sentence could read, "I admire Arun's candor, but sometimes he is too honest." Students should identify that "honest" is a synonym for "candor" and detect candor's meaning that way. Sometimes commas indicate an appositive, meaning the term has been directly defined after its usage. Students learn to recognize these clues to show proficiency in the vocabulary questions of TOEFL testing.

Word Families

An efficient way to study vocabulary for the TOEFL is to study word families. Greek and Latin roots make up a large percentage of the English language, especially in the realm of academics. By learning root words, students gain a tool for deciphering the meaning of unfamiliar words. The meaning of the root words changes by the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Therefore when students learn the root "cred," meaning "believe," and the suffix "-ible," meaning "able to be," they can arrive at the definition, "able to be believed" for credible. With that knowledge they can identify more words with the root "cred" and other words with the suffix "-ible," thereby increasing their vocabulary.

Confusing Words

Tricky areas for non-native English speakers are idioms and homonyms. Idiomatic expressions are those whose meaning evolved over time so that, as a phrase, the meaning is completely different. For example, someone saying he was "tied up" at the office does not mean bound to a chair but rather delayed. People taking the TOEFL must be able to discern this meaning and even use idioms accurately. Homonyms refer to words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Season, for example, can mean a time like autumn or to add a flavoring such as salt. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently, such as "great" and "grate." TOEFL tests for both of these in the reading section.

About the Author

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.

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