Whether you are fresh in the tutoring business or an old hand at teaching English as a foreign language (EFL), you may have been wondering if preparing students to take the tests like the TOEFL IBT® or TOEIC® is a hard task. Having talked to ELT professionals and test takers over the years, below is some advice we recommend you consider before running your next 1:1 test preparation course.
1- Evaluate the feasibility of goals
The first question to ask your potential student is what test score they need and how much time they have to prepare.
If this will be the student’s first go at the test, it’s key to determine what their overall current level of English is, ideally confirmed with the official practice test score.
If that’s not possible, then at least ask for some kind of trustworthy CEFR-mapped credential that the student may have—and that does not apply to the student’s own gut feeling about their level. Try to gauge the potential proficiency and skill gap that may need to be bridged during your preparation course. The more experienced you are with the test and test preparation, the easier this estimation will be.
Looking at the time available and the gap that most likely needs to be filled, you will be able to evaluate the feasibility of the target score. It may happen that the individual has already attempted the test and needs to significantly increase their score in a very short time. In such a case, you may want to give it a second thought before you agree to take on the challenge. It’s not like you have a magic wand, or do you?
2- Conduct needs analysis
After you evaluate the overall feasibility of the target score goals, you need to take a deep dive into your student’s specific language needs and plan accordingly. Knowing the overall number of hours you have at your disposal, you need to divide that time into study units that focus on exactly the type of skills the student needs to develop to move forward with clearly identified learning objectives. Some students need a specific total score to reach while others want to focus on increasing scores in selected test sections—only in Speaking or Writing, for example. All this information needs to be considered to make the best use of the time available.
Again, in an ideal situation you would already have some diagnostic feedback, based on which you could design your course syllabus. That could either be your student’s previous test score report with performance descriptors or the sample test performance feedback. What you could also do is have the student take the official free practice test and carefully analyze their answers to see which specific question types and tasks pose challenges.
3- Gauge student’s commitment
It’s no secret that in the case of tutoring, it takes two to achieve success.
When you discuss how many hours a week the student can dedicate to bridging their language skills and performance gap, that should include face-to-face time with you but also their homework and self-study. During your first meeting, agree that the responsibility for achieving your goals is mutual. Prepare a written contract in which you don’t only agree on your rate per hour but, more importantly, you list both the rights and responsibilities of each party. All of this is key to determining how serious your candidate is about their preparation journey and whether they understand that it will take the two of you to achieve desired learning outcomes. If you feel their expectation is rather for you to find some kind of magical solution or tricks to help them “crack” the test without them putting any effort, you may want to back out since this job assignment is not likely to give you anything more than headache and frustration.
4- Prioritize learning objectives, skill-building, and feedback
Preparing for a test is a process that should involve continuous monitoring of progress made to ensure you are moving forward. After you have set your learning objectives based on a needs analysis and divided them into study units (or lessons), you need to think of related skill-building activities that would help in meeting the objectives and, therefore, close the proficiency or skills gap. On the one hand, you cannot spend too much time working on the same objectives, but on the other hand, you need to ensure the student’s competence actually improves. The way to facilitate that improvement is by providing students with feedback. Effective feedback has proven to be “one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007:81). However, it needs to be clear, specific, and exactly what a student needs at that moment to improve.
One of the reputable feedback frameworks recommends providing feedback on three levels in parallel: task level, process level, and self-regulation level. It also claims that just giving praise for work well done is not effective. If that sounds interesting, you can watch the recording of a webinar discussing possible ways of providing feedback in the TOEFL iBT prep class context.
5- Use trustworthy prep materials
Whether you teach face-to-face or online you won’t be able to work effectively without trustworthy resources. Even though it may be easy to find free materials online, you want to make sure their quality was verified by the organization that designs the test. That is why it’s worth relying on official preparation materials. You can start with free sample questions, but if tutoring for the test is something that you want to continue offering as part of your professional portfolio, then we recommend investing in paid materials that will give you plenty of classroom material to work on. This way you also ensure that the sample questions you provide your student with are reflective of the kind of questions they will later get in the actual test.
Other resources you may want to equip yourself with are those that help expand general academic (for TOEFL), or general business (for TOEIC) vocabulary and materials that help refresh basic and more complex grammatical structures.
Why not incorporate authentic materials, such as excerpts from magazines and textbooks, especially if they thematically fit in with the topic of your lesson? You can read more about using authentic materials for test prep in this article.
Finally, students may ask you to organize a mock test session. Such tests are useful as they help get familiar with the assessment format and test-taking strategies but be cautious about trying to predict final test scores with mock tests. This is virtually impossible, unless you use official sample tests that offer automated scoring, and even those ones will only be able to provide students with an estimated score range.
6- Upskill yourself
Even though with time you will approach test preparation classes with more confidence and will spend less time on planning, you should still dedicate time to learn about the developments related to the test as well as listen to advice from more experienced instructors and preparation experts. The tests formats do not change often but it may happen from time to time. A good example are the recent enhancements to the TOEFL iBT test – shortening most sections and the introduction of the new Writing for an Academic Discussion task—all of which became effective as of July 26, 2023. As a prep instructor, you should stay on top of all such developments and adjust your preparation strategies accordingly. A good way of making sure you do not miss any important updates and that you review and adjust your preparation strategies is by following the webinars and workshops offered by ETS and ETS Global representatives. It is also a good idea to follow our LinkedIn account for event announcements.
7- Consider washback and satisfaction
Lastly, before you commit to offering test preparation courses as part of your permanent teaching offer, consider what is in it for you as a teaching professional beyond just getting your hourly rate. Do you yourself value the test you are preparing the students for? Are you just teaching test-taking hacks, or are you convinced that you develop language skills for effective performance in real-life situations?
The good news is, for language assessments like the TOEFL iBT or TOEIC you teach many of the same skills the student will later need to thrive in an English-speaking classroom or his or her future workplace. The assessment, therefore, provides positive washback because you adjust your lessons’ content, teaching materials and preparation strategies to ensure students can meet the demands of language use in the real world. All of this can be a source of your professional satisfaction. Is there a better non-financial reward for a teacher than knowing you helped your students succeed?