English Learner Article TOEIC Exam Problems and Solutions

Summary: Suggestions for problems that TOEIC students often ask about.

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I can get the score I need when I do TOEIC practice tests at home, but in the real test I am so nervous that I do really badly

First of all, make sure that your practice test conditions at home are really like the test: completed in the set time with no breaks, no background music, no snacking etc. Doing a practice test in a class or a public library, rather than at home can help in making it more realistic. You can also try to reflect the extra difficulty of a real exam by setting the time limit for the practice tests at slightly less than the exam time. Any techniques you can use to cope with stress more generally can also help, e.g. getting used to stressful situations like public speaking in a debating club, competitive chess or acting. Learning relaxation techniques like deep breathing could also help, as could making sure you eat the right foods and get the right amount of exercise and sleep in the days before the exam.

I'm so tired by the time I reach the final reading section of the TOEIC that I can't concentrate and get almost no marks in this section

Apart from making sure you leave no blanks and therefore guess whatever questions you haven't had time to do in the last couple of minutes of the test, the solution to this problem can be different for different people. One solution is simply to do the reading paper in reverse, doing the long reading sections at the end of the TOEIC Reading paper when you have the power and leaving the shorter language based questions at the beginning of the paper until the end. The problem then could be that you run out of time before you get to do all of the sections near the beginning, and so miss out on some easy marks. If you are a lower level student, it might be best just to concentrate on the questions near the beginning and just take any extra marks you get from the later sections as a bonus, always remembering that some of the questions are designed to be impossible for all but the very best students and so are best just to guess and move on.

I always run out of time during the test

Don't worry- most people have this problem! There are, however, some techniques that can help you do more of the test before you have to just guess the last few. One thing is to know how much time you should spend on each section, and to discipline yourself to move on after that time and come back later. A more difficult skill is to learn to spot the questions that are far too difficult for you and should be skipped, and which ones you will be able to do if you spend a little time on them. One way to practice this at home is to take a quick look at all the questions in one section of a TOEIC practice test and try to guess which one is easiest. Try that question and check your answers. Continue in the same way with all the other questions, and check whether the ones you chose first because you thought they were easy were actually the ones you got right.

I always run out of time during the last section of the TOEIC Reading paper

This is a common problem! The most vital skill for this section, and something that can really help you read English in your working life, is to be able to quickly find the part of the text with the information you need to answer that question, and then read only that part. You can practice this by underlining the important parts in the text when you check your answers after doing a practice test.

I miss half the listening questions because I am still thinking about the previous question

This is easy to do but very important to avoid. Although you might be able to find the time to think about the answers to previous questions at some points like when the tape is explaining instructions you already know, there are no second chances on actually hearing the listening text. When the next listening text starts, mark clearly that you are leaving the last question 100% until later by, for example, turning the page or putting your pencil on the question you are about to listen to. To make sure you still remember any questions you were unsure about when go back and think about them again, make sure you have made some notes such as question marks next to the two questions you need to choose between (strictly, writing on your question paper is not allowed in the exam, but in practice students never get told off for doing it- just write as little and as lightly as you can).

I find the TOEIC Listening section is much more difficult than the Reading section

If you want to develop your listening skills and bring them up to the level of your reaching skills, the first thing you need to do is work out what part of listening is the most difficult for you. Do you understand, but too slowly to answer the questions before the next listening text starts? In that case, you need to revise the language you already know and speak English as much as possible. When you read the tapescript after doing the listening, do you find that you can understand it perfectly when you read it? If so, you need to learn the pronunciation of the words you know and study how words are linked together in fast speech. When you read the tapescript, do you find there are one or more words that you don't understand at all that stop you answering the question? If so, you need to expand your vocabulary by reading something written for someone of your level like a graded reader, and checking words with a dictionary after you finish- making sure you also learn the pronunciation by writing it in phonemic script or listening to the CD of a graded reader.

I find the beginning of each TOEIC paper okay, but by the end I am getting almost no answers right

Don't worry- the test in designed to become more difficult as you go through it, and so most of the questions that are written especially to be impossible for someone of a lower or intermediate level will be near the end. All you can do on the day is try to pick out the questions you do have a chance of answering, and guess the rest. For some people, however, it is more a case of lack of energy and concentration at the end of the test than language knowledge. If that is the case, make sure you have plenty of practice sitting through a whole timed test and that you eat and drink things with lots of complex carbohydrates (e.g. starchy things like potatoes and pasta) before the test, rather than sugars that will give you a boost at the beginning but whose energy will be used up long before the end.

In the multiple choice questions, I can narrow the options down to two but then I just have to guess

First of all, for many people getting 50% of the multiple choice questions right is enough, so it might not be a big problem depending on the score you need and you are certainly using the right technique in eliminating the answers you know are wrong. As one of the answers is usually obviously wrong (you can even sometimes guess it is incorrect without reading the text), getting it down to two or three is fairly common. Sometimes the final choice of a right answer depends on vocabulary that you don't know, and there is nothing to do but guess. However, there are some things worth looking out for that could help:

  1. Does one of the options refer to something in the wrong part of the text, e.g. in a different part of the text to the other 3 options? In that case it is probably not the right option.
  2. Is the meaning of a word in one of the options different to the meaning of the word in the text, e.g. "have" in the text means "have got" and "have" in the question means "take" as in "have/ take a break"? In that case it is wrong.
  3. Can you guess the meaning of the word you don't understand from its use elsewhere in the text? Even if you can't understand it completely, you might be able to see if it is positive or negative; if it is a noun, adjective, verb etc; if it is a kind of document, machine or workplace etc. This could help you when you guess the answer.

I can find the right information in the reading texts, but I still can't understand it and answer the questions

Although this can occasionally be due to not fully understanding a grammatical form (e.g. the difference in meaning between the Present Simple and the Present Continuous), for most people their understanding of grammar is much better than their ability to produce it and the main thing holding them back in the reading is vocabulary. You will need to spend at least a few months improving your General English and Business English by reading, studying a textbook, joining a class etc.

My score increased suddenly but now has gone flat

It may be that the initial boost in your score was due to learning a few exam tips or suddenly remembering all your English because you started studying it again after many years. Unfortunately, there is no way to learn new language as quickly as you remember old language or to give a whole year of useful exam tips and exam training. Instead, you will need to put move onto putting in the time and effort to get your English up to the next level. On the bright side, many students find their English can take another unexpected jump up after many months or even years at only improving at a modest rate, for example by reaching the level where you can read newspapers or understand English songs for the first time and so boosting the amount of English you have access to. If your problem is that the level of materials you are studying are not high enough to boost your level but the next level is too high and makes you tired and confused, try alternating, for example, materials written for native speakers and materials written for language learners.

My score increased suddenly but now has gone back down

Having a temporary drop in your English level despite studying a lot can often be because your mind is busy learning new language and so is slowed down when trying to access old language. If you have at least 3 months before your next test this problem usually sorts itself out naturally and you are probably doing the right thing to get to the next level in the long term by pushing yourself. However, you might want to try one of these things:

  1. Check that you are actually studying something at the next level, rather than studying something that you should leave until next year. For example, are you really ready to read and/ or listen to books, radio etc. for English native speakers, or would you learn more from studying something at an Upper Intermediate level like a graded reader first?
  2. Try taking a break from the new stuff and just revising or just completely resting for a while, and you will find you can use the language you know much more fluently than when your head was tired and confused with lots of new language
  3. Maybe general mental alertness is your problem. Time spent sleeping, exercising, eating healthy or doing brain training exercises might be just as beneficial in the short term as studying more language

My TOEIC score keeps on jumping up and down

If the change is only around 30 to 40 points, this may simply be because you have been lucky or unlucky in the questions that have come up or the ones you have guessed. If you have taken 4 or more TOEIC tests, you should still be able to draw a graph to show you whether the general trend is up, flat, or even down. Apart from sheer luck, things that can have this effect and you can control include:

  • Tiredness from excessive work, cramming before an exam, studying too many other subjects at the same time as TOEIC, lack of general health, too much or too little exercise etc.
  • Sleepiness in the exam due too much or too little food, time of day etc. If you are a morning person or an evening person, time of day in particular can have a big impact.

By the time I hear the listening questions I have forgotten what they said

Even some native speakers have to concentrate in order to not have this problem when trying TOEIC exam questions. Especially for students with quite a high level who can lose concentration if the questions are too easy, it is worth spending some time on developing your short term memory of language, and your short term memory more generally. Techniques include listening to a TOEIC listening without the questions and writing down as much as you can of what you heard and then checking it against the tapescript, then seeing how much of that listening you can still remember after doing the same with the next question. General brain training on your Nintendo DS can also help, but make sure you are doing this outside the time you have put aside for English practice.

By the time I hear option C I have forgotten what option A was

Although you are not supposed to write on the question paper, making some kind of mark to remind you of each option as you hear it can be a good idea, e.g. marking a cross or a question mark depending on what you think about how likely it is to be the correct answer. It you are nervous about being caught writing, you can just make an indentation with an automatic pencil with the lead inside and so not touching the paper.

If you have any more questions about or problems with the TOEIC exam that you would like us to answer here, please use our forum.

Copyright © 2008

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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