7 Tips for Improving Your English and Scoring Better on IELTS or TOEFL

Scoring Better on IELTS or TOEFL

The International English Language Test (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are two exams that assess your English level if you’re not a native speaker. You might need to take one of these tests to apply for a visa, attend college abroad, or work in an English-speaking country.

It’s possible to improve your score by preparing and practicing. Here are a few tips to help you.

A Brief Overview of the IELTS and TOEFL

It’s important to understand what kind of questions you will encounter on these two tests.


The TOEFL has four different sections:

  • Reading: You will read three or four short passages and answer questions. The purpose of this section is to assess your reading comprehension.
  • Listening: This section is similar to the reading section, but you will listen to short lectures instead of reading texts. The purpose is to assess how well you understand spoken English.
  • Speaking: During this section, you’ll have to record yourself or speak with an examiner. You’ll have to give short answers to questions about yourself or a given topic.
  • Writing: There are two writing tasks on the TOEFL. You’ll have to write a short essay after reading a passage or listening to a short lecture. The second essay is about sharing your personal opinion on a specific topic. The writing section measures whether you’re ready to write in an academic setting.


You will have to choose one of two modules when you register for the IELTS test. The academic module will focus on your ability to understand academic texts and understand spoken English in an academic setting.

You can also take the general training module. This version of the IELTS has a broader focus, and you’ll encounter a broader range of texts.

Both versions of the IELTS test have four sections. These sections are the same as what you’ll encounter on the TOEFL, with a reading, listening, speaking, and writing section, but the types of questions are different.

Seven Tips for Boosting Your Score on the TOEFL and IELTS Test

In 2019, the mean score for the TOEFL was 83 out of 120 possible points. High school students had a mean score of 76. The average score is 6.1 out of 9 on the IELTS for women, while men have an average score of 6.

You can use the following tips to get a score that is higher than these numbers.

1. Improve Your Vocabulary

Native speakers know between 15,000 and 20,000 different word families. We’re not talking about unique words. A word family is a root that you can use to form different words. For instance, learn, learning, well-learned, and learner.

However, the number of words people use daily is much smaller. One thing you can do to score higher on the TOEFL and IELTS is work on your vocabulary.

A good vocabulary will improve your reading comprehension. It will also help you recognize more words during the listening part of the exams. Some questions also ask you to pick synonyms for words that appear in a passage you just read.

Here are a few strategies for improving your vocabulary:

  • Read as much as you can, if possible, above your current level.
  • Get into the habit of looking up words that you don’t know.
  • Learn to recognize common prefixes and suffixes and what they mean. If you recognize a root word and know the meaning of the suffix or prefix attached to it, you can guess what an unfamiliar word means.
  • A vocabulary book can be a good way to prepare for these tests.
  • Start a vocabulary journal where you write down new words if writing helps you remember things. Some students do better with vocabulary flashcards.

2. Familiarize Yourself With Academic Writing and Other Types of Texts

The TOEFL and IELTS use passages from different sources. You’ll encounter academic texts, newspaper articles, extracts from works of fiction, and more. Being familiar with different types of texts will give you an advantage.

However, readability tends to be more advanced for academic papers. You might encounter longer sentences, more complex sentence construction, and words that are less common. Reading scientific articles and academic papers to prepare can improve your reading comprehension.

3. Test Your Reading Comprehension

Both tests expect you to read a text or listen to a short lecture and extract enough meaning to answer some questions.

You will encounter different types of questions:

  • Some questions are multiple-choice.
  • There are vocabulary questions where you have to pick a synonym for a word that appears in the text.
  • You will have to choose the statement that is right or wrong based on the information shared in the text.
  • Some questions ask you to infer a statement based on what you learned from the text.

You can prepare for these questions by reading as much as possible in English. You should take a break after each paragraph and take a few seconds to summarize the important information you learned.

You should also practice taking notes in English. You can do this in class or watch a documentary in English and take some notes. Being able to take notes will help you for the listening portion of the TOEFL and IELTS. You can listen to the short lectures more than once, but it will use up valuable time on test day.

4. Write Some Practice Essays

You will have to write a couple of short essays for the writing section. For those who don’t write in English often, this section can be tricky.

TOEFL and IELTS essays are usually 300 to 500 words long. You’ll have 20 or 30 minutes to write each essay on the TOEFL and 40 minutes on the IELTS.

It’s a good idea to review general tips on how to write essays. Knowing how to structure your thoughts will help you get your point across:

  • Start with a thesis. It can be a personal opinion you want to express or something you learned from the material presented in the writing section.
  • Your introduction should grab the reader’s attention and state your thesis.
  • Break down your essay into different paragraphs. Each paragraph should express an idea or argument.
  • Don’t forget to add transitions between your paragraphs. Transitions will help the reader follow your train of thought.
  • Write a short conclusion that sums up what you said in the essay and repeat your thesis.

You can take essay topics from school and write about them in English. One of the essay topics on the TOEFL is about your personal opinion on a topic, which means you can practice by writing about any topic that is interesting to you.

5. Improve Your Listening Skills

The listening portion of both exams is about listening to a short passage where a native English speaker says something. You will then have to answer questions that assess how well you understood the passage.

The difficulty is that you won’t have a written transcript. Some words might be hard to identify, especially if you’re not familiar with them.

Get into the habit of guessing what unfamiliar words mean. This tip will also help you for answering vocabulary sections. If you don’t recognize the word root, prefix, or suffix, use the context to guess what the word could mean.

Another tip is to listen to English as much as possible and to listen to speakers with different accents. You can improve your listening skills by watching TV shows, movies, or documentaries in English.

You can learn a lot if you pick shows or movies with a plot that is easy to follow. Watch them with subtitles at first and write down words you don’t recognize so you can look them up later. People who tend to watch the same shows and movies over and over in English see their language skills improve.

6. How to Prepare for the Speaking Section

The speaking section can be intimidating. You will have to talk about yourself and answer a few questions about a given topic on the TOEFL. The IELTS includes additional questions where you’ll have to discuss more abstract ideas. Depending on how you take the test, you might have to speak into a microphone to record your answers or have a short conversation with an examiner.

You will have a few seconds to prepare. You can write down a few talking points, but you won’t have enough time to write down complete sentences and read them.

You can prepare by reviewing phonics rules that apply to English. Focus on details like the syllables to stress in a word or learning how the letter that precedes or follows another can determine its pronunciation. There are also a lot of exceptions to phonics rules that you should be familiar with.

There are a few different things you can do to become more comfortable with speaking in English:

  • Some online tutoring services give you the possibility to have one-on-one conversations with a native speaker.
  • A pen pal or online friend can be a great way to improve your English skills if you can talk on the phone.
  • If there are foreign exchange students at your school, get to know them better and chat in English with them.
  • Find other students who are preparing for the TOEFL and IELTS. Meet every week and speak English for an hour.
  • Record yourself speaking. Listen to the recordings and try to find pronunciation mistakes.
  • Practice coming up with answers to questions about yourself and different topics.

7. Take Some Practice Tests

You can find a free practice test on the official TOEFL website. The IELTS website also offers a practice test you can do online. If you sign up for a prep course or purchase a TOEFL book or IELTS prep book, you will probably get one or more practice tests.

Practice tests are important because they give you a better idea of what the exam looks like. You will feel more confident on test day if you take at least one practice test.

Besides, practice tests can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. If you score low on one section or seem to miss a question every time it comes up, adjust your study plan to focus on this area.

Final Thoughts

You can improve your score on the TOEFL or IELTS if you start preparing months ahead of taking the test. Familiarize yourself with the format of both tests, figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and create a personalized study plan to prepare.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.