The Internet TESL Journal

A Review of TOEIC

Susan Gilfert
sugi_ngo [at]
Aichi Prefectural University, British-American Studies Dept.

What is a TOEIC? What does it test? Is it useful? How is it used? What do the scores mean? Are the scores comparable to TOEFL in any way? These and other questions will be answered in this paper. Knowledge of the background of this test will help users understand it, so a short history will be provided; followed by a general structure discussion with examples of question types, subsection by subsection. A brief discussion of how results of the exam are used or misused finishes this review.

History of TOEIC

The TOEIC came from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry requests to the Educational Testing Service in the middle 1970's. It is "designed to measure the English-language listening comprehension (LC) and reading (R) skills of individuals whose native language is not English. The TOEIC is used primarily by corporate clients, worldwide." (Wilson, 1989). Most examinees are in their mid-twenties to late forties, and working for a corporation. However, TOEIC test-takers have recently included many university graduating seniors, because corporations are requiring TOEIC scores for new employees more and more often. From its beginning nearly 20 years ago, the use of TOEIC has spread from Japan throughout Asia, and it is becoming more frequently used throughout Europe and South America.


The TOEIC is a multiple-choice instrument designed to measure an examinee's receptive English skills, and is increasingly becoming considered a reasonable predictor of these skills. The general register of the TOEIC is "real-life, business-type English.." The TOEIC was created by Educational Testing Services in Princeton, New Jersey, but is now entirely owned and operated by the Japanese TOEIC office in Tokyo. The structures of the TOEIC is not radically different from the TOEFL (see Figure 1). The topic treated in each test, however, is different.

In the listening subtest, visual stimuli (in the form of photographs) is first used by ETS for English-language testing purposes. Another relatively novel section is the response section, where no stimuli other than the voices on the tape are given. No printed information whatsoever is given in this section. Other sections include listening to conversations and listening to short talks, like many other English-language tests. The type of questions asked within the Listening comprehension section (main idea, vocabulary, idioms, minimal pairs, or inference) is similar to other English-language tests.

In the reading comprehension subtest, two subsections evaluate the testee's ability to use English grammar in a relatively formal manner. The TOEIC uses business letters, short news items, and advertisements as stimuli in the readings. However, the type of questions asked in the Reading comprehension section (main idea/ topic, inference, attitude/tone, vocabulary, idioms, or details/ application within the passage) is similar to other English- language tests.

Specific Comparison of Listening Comprehension

Section 1 of the TOEIC tests the ability of the examinee to recognize vocabulary in the context of the photo prompt (see Figure 2). The test-takers see a photo and hear four sentences describing the photo. Examinees tend to feel that the photo prompt, providing visual context, is reassuring, even though both the question and possible answers are only heard, not printed.

Section 2 of the TOEIC assesses the examinee's ability to listen to a prompt and choose the appropriate response (see Figure 3). Some Japanese examinees have commented that this section seems to be mostly a structure test, listening for the grammatically correct response. Most examinees feel that this part of the TOEIC the most difficult part of the listening component since both the prompt and the possible answers are only heard, not printed.

Section 3 of the TOEIC is listening to short conversations (see Figure 4). This section follows the pattern of Speaker A:, Speaker B:, Speaker A; and the question and four possible answers are printed in the test booklet. Examinees tend to feel that the TOEIC is relatively easy to understand in this section because both the question and possible answers are printed in the test book, which provides examinees more context into which to fit the conversation. There is only one question per conversation.

Section 4 of the TOEIC is the longer conversations section (see Figure 5). The TOEIC "short talks" subtest tends to have short talks (1-1.5 minutes) and asks 3-5 questions per talk. The content of the TOEIC are typically extended conversations (5 or 6 extended exchanges) between two people talking about office matters, or single speakers giving a news report or other information. Idioms and vocabulary in context are tested extensively in this section. Examinees tend to feel that the TOEIC material is comparatively less difficult than other tests, since both the amount of spoken language and the number of questions are limited.

General Comments on the Listening Section

There are 100 questions on tape in the TOEIC; testing time is about 50 minutes. Timing of questions is roughly 30 seconds per question. There is a "thinking gap" of about 10 seconds per question on the tape. Vocabulary and idioms in context are evaluated throughout the test, as well as grammar. The general register of the TOEIC listening subtest is "business," with a high frequency of idioms being spoken and relatively few polysyllabic words.

Reading Comprehension

The next two subsections of the TOEIC, Incomplete Sentences and Error Recognition, assess the examinee's knowledge of English structure, or grammar. These TOEIC subtests are supposed to "measure ability to recognize language that is appropriate for standard written English," (ETS, 1993).

The example in Figure 6 tests demonstrative pronoun usage. The example in Figure 7 tests word order. This section of the TOEIC is not unusual; in fact, it is practically the same as the comparative subsections of the TOEFL.

The example in Figure 8 is a news report. The types of reading comprehension questions are not unusual: main idea, details, inference, and/or author's attitude. The TOEIC tends to have 3-4 questions per passage, and about 6 or 7 reading passages on each test.

There are 100 questions in the Reading Comprehension section; 60 questions in the Grammar subtest and 40 questions in the Reading subtest, with a total time of 75 minutes. The Grammar and Reading Comprehension sections are timed together. Examinees should allow about 25 minutes (or less) for the Grammar questions. If an examinee can quickly (and accurately) go through the Grammar section, then more time is left for the Reading Comprehension questions.

Purposes of the Tests

The stated purposes of the TOEIC is to show the examinees some general measure of their English ability. However, some institutions misuse the tests for purposes which should not be measured on these tests.

The TOEIC is correctly used to assess a examinees' overall English proficiency in a business context. TOEIC scores are increasingly being required by corporate employers of either entering employees or of employees who are being considered for promotion and/or overseas assignments. Employers use TOEIC scores as a screening device, hiring only those who meet a certain pre-determined TOEIC score (see Figure 9). As a result of this practice, Japanese colleges, universities, and tertiary-level vocational schools are now offering TOEIC-preparation courses in greater numbers than five years ago. TOEIC-preparation courses have already been offered by language schools throughout Japan for many years now. Some corporate employers use the TOEIC incorrectly, by requiring their domestic employees (who do not use English on a regular basis) to obtain a certain score for promotion or raises.

Score Usage

Many researchers and students of testing believe that the TOEIC shows the differences between low-beginner-to-high-intermediate levels very well. A TOEIC score of 450 is frequently considered acceptable for hiring practices, with the understanding that the employee will continue English studies. A TOEIC score of 600 is frequently considered the minimum acceptable for working overseas. Domestically-based engineers who have a TOEIC score of 500 are considered reasonably proficient in English . If the same engineer is being considered for a posting overseas, he or she must usually try for a TOEIC score of about 625. A domestically-based desk-worker with a TOEIC score of 600 is considered reasonably proficient in English. For the same desk-worker to go overseas, she or he must usually have a TOEIC score of 685.

What do the Scores Mean?

The TOEIC office in Tokyo, Japan has published a comparison between the Oral Proficiency Index (the OPI is used by the U.S. Foreign Service), TOEFL scores, TOEIC scores, other tests, and the Japanese Eiken1. All these tests assess English reading, listening, and grammar proficiency. The OPI and Eiken series further test speaking ability. The Oral Proficiency Index is considered one of the best tests since it provides a means of testing the examinees' productive language skills, as well as their receptive language skills. However, due to time and cost considerations, the OPI is an impractical test to administer for large numbers of people. The Educational Testing Service also administers the Test of Spoken English (TSE) and the Test of Written English (TWE). Of the 12 "official" (International) TOEFL tests administered every year, 5 include a TWE in addition to the regular TOEFL. The TSE has its own testing schedule, since it requires making an audio tape. Many schools do not require these additional tests for much of their admissions procedures, although non-native English speaking graduate students who wish to become Graduate Teaching Assistants are increasingly required to pass the TSE in order to get their assistantship.

Both TOEFL and TOEIC test receptive skills (listening and reading) rather than productive skills (speaking and writing). It is possible for students to score very high on the TOEFL, but not be able to use oral or written English in context . Many examinees become expert in taking language tests, but do not learn how to use the language. Therefore, the authors maintain that TOEFL and TOEIC tests operate in an "artificial reality." The tests, when used alone, are valid and reliable in themselves, but not in a larger sense. Examinees who score well on these tests may have self-confidence in the language classroom, but using their language skills in the real world may be quite a different thing.

In theory, an examinee with a score of 650 would be expected to operate in a English-speaking business context better than a examinee with a score of 600. In the real world, examinees will be reading and generating faxes and reports, listening to and making presentations, and using the telephone. Examinees who excel in taking paper tests, yet are unable to use their language productively, will be at a loss in the real world.

Comparing TOEFL and TOEIC Scores

What is the difference between the TOEFL and the TOEIC? Can they be compared?

The scoring system is different and the number of questions is different, as is the amount of time needed to take each test. The register is also different ("Academic English for TOEFL and "Business English" for TOEIC). The reasons for taking each test (the examinees' motivation) can be different (except perhaps in the area of securing employment), and the ways of using the results of the tests are different. The vocabulary in the two tests has areas of similarity, but there are some noticeable differences due to register of English tested. Many examinees feel that the TOEIC is easier than the TOEFL. Many students of testing consider that the TOEFL is a more accurate discriminator for higher-level examinees, and the TOEIC is a more accurate lower-level discriminator.

The tests were both created by Educational Testing Service, and test American English. ETS has calculated a number of reliability and validity checks on both tests, so they are both considered accurate and useful when used within the guidelines published by ETS. The grammar subtests of both tests are quite similar and the types of questions asked in the Reading Comprehension subtest (main idea, details, inference, and/or author's attitude) are similar.

In short, with proper understanding of the TOEIC, it can be useful, but it must be used properly, with full knowledge of its limitations.


Figure 1: General Comparison of Tests

TOEFL                             TOEIC
3 major subtests;                 2 major subtests;
  5 subsections                     7 subsections
150 questions                     200 questions
scaled score ranges from 200      scaled score ranges from 10      to 990      
                   to 990
examinees tend to be students     examinees tend to be    
  (18-25 yrs)                       corporate-level employees
                                    (25-50 yrs old)
results tend to determine         results tend to determine
  schools to be attended and        overseas postings and
  academically related matters      other business related

1. Listening Comprehension      1.  Listening Comprehension
                                   I.   One photograph, spoken
                                        sentences (20 qs)
                                   II.  Spoken utterances,
                                        spoken response (30 qs)
I. Short conversation (25 qs)      III. Short conversation (30 qs)
II. Short talks (25 qs)            IV. Short talks (20 qs)

2. Structure & Written          2.  Reading Comprehension
III. Incomplete sentences          V.  Incomplete sentences
      (15 qs)                           (40 qs)
IV.  Error recognition (25 qs)     VI. Error recognition (20 qs)

3.  Reading Comprehension
V. Reading comprehension           VII. Reading comprehension       (30 qs)    
                  (40 qs)

Figure 2: Question Example: Listening Comprehension

I. One picture, spoken sentences (Gilfert & Kim, 1996):

a photo of two men talking across a table. An unused computer is in the background.

(A) The two men are computing.
(B) The computer is having a meeting with the men.
(C) The two men are talking.
(D) One man is buying a computer.

(C) is the correct answer, since it is closest in meaning to what is shown in the photo.

Figure 3: Question Example: Listening Comprehension

II. Spoken utterances, spoken response (Gilfert & Kim, 1996)

Hello, I'm John.

(A) Hi, John. How are you?
(B) Who's John?
(C) Good-bye, see you later.

The correct response is (A), since it is the most likely response to this greeting.

Figure 4: Question Example: Listening Comprehension

III. Short Conversation, Four printed answers (Gilfert & Kim, 1996)

A: May I help you?
B: Yes, do you have this shirt in size 12?
A: Certainly. I'll get one for you.

Where is this conversation most likely taking place?
(A) in a hotel
(B) in a department store
(C) in a post office
(D) in an airport

The correct response is (B), since the conversation appears to be happening between a sales clerk and a customer

Figure 5: Question Example: Listening Comprehension

IV. Short Talks: (Gilfert & Kim, 1996)

Sunshine is forecast for today after two damp days. Westerly winds will freshen by afternoon and chilly air will be transported across the metropolitan area. Clouds will overtake clear skies by morning. Chance of rain is thirty percent today and forty percent this evening. Highs in the low sixties; that's in the high teens Celsius; and lows in the mid forties Fahrenheit or just under ten degrees Celsius today.

1. How was the weather earlier this week?
(A) Sunny
(B) Cool and dry
(C) Damp
(D) Chilly

2. What kind of weather is expected tomorrow?
(A) Cool and cloudy
(B) Sunny and dry
(C) Damp and windy
(D) Cold and sunny

3. What is a likely high temperature today?
(A) 10 C
(B) 17 C
(C) 42 C
(D) 63 C

For question 1, (C) is the best answer. The announcer notes that the last two days have been damp.

For question 2, (A) is the best answer. The announcer notes that "chilly air" is expected overnight.

For question 3, (B) is the best answer. It is within the range of the "high teens."

Figure 6: Question Example: Reading Comprehension

V. Incomplete Sentences: (Gilfert & Kim, 1995)

_____ girl over there is my sister.
(A) This (C) Those (B) These (D) That

(D) is the answer that is grammatically correct.

Figure 7: Question Example: Reading Comprehension

VI. Error Recognition: (Gilfert & Kim, 1996)

In today's (A) class middle, both (B) parents have to work in order (C) to pay all (D) their bills.

(A) is an error in word order, making it the correct answer.

Figure 8: Question Example: Reading Comprehension

VII. Reading Comprehension (Gilfert & Kim, 1996)

Questions 1-3 refer to the following news report

LOS ANGELES (NNN)--Rains, accompanied by high winds, closed a number of roads and schools on Monday, but the storm was welcomed here in southern California because it brought some relief from a fifth straight year of drought. Fire cautions remain high, however.

1. Why might the rain close schools?
(A) California schoolchildren want to go outside to study rain and flooding.
(B) California parents don't want their children to get wet.
(C) The roads were closed because of flooding and the school buses couldn't drive through.
(D) The rains and winds damaged the school buildings.

2. What has the weather been like in California for the last five years?
(A) wet (B) windy (C) dry (D) mild

3. Why might people welcome rain?
(A) California people enjoy walking in the rain.
(B) California roads need relief from the sun.
(C) California schoolchildren want to study rain.
(D) There has been no rain for five years.

The correct answer for Question 1 is (C). This is the only possibility mentioned specifically in the report.

The correct answer for Question 2 is (C). "Drought" means a time of no rain, and therefore very dry.

The correct answer for Question 3 is (D). See Question 2.

Figure 9: TOEIC Score Level (Matsumoto, p. 9-11)

This is an estimated chart, using TOEIC scores and company recommendations from various sources in the Tokyo area.

TOEIC Score - Level - Comments

990-860 A level

Ability to communicate on a variety of topics, both personal and professional, with native speakers. Vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation are reasonably accurate and understandable. Senior office staff posted overseas.

860-730 B level

Ability to communicate with success in various situations where the testee has some expertise. Vocabulary, grammar &c. may not always be the best choice or completely accurate, but testee will be understood. Junior office staff posted overseas.

730-470 C level

Ability to communicate about everyday matters and daily news, although limited in business- matter communication. Fluency is not rapid but not a major hindrance. Senior domestic office staff dealing in English matters. Engineers posted overseas.

470-220 D level

Ability to communicate at the lowest level on everyday matters. Fluency is slow; changes conv. subjects with difficulty. Uses simple grammar structures & vocabulary. Junior domestic office staff dealing with English matters. Engineers dealing domestically with English matters.

220-10 E level

Ability to communicate in English is very limited.



1. The Japanese Eiken is a 6-part series of non-standardized tests produced by the Society for Testing English Proficiency (STEP), published in Tokyo, Japan. The STEP test levels are level 4 (low beginning), 3 (high beginning), pre-2 (low intermediate), 2 (high intermediate), pre-1 (low advanced) and 1 (high advanced). STEP is offered by pre-registration at a relatively low cost (2,500 -3,000 per person per test) twice a year in Japan. There is no limit on how often a person can take the test.

In contrast, the International TOEFL is available, by pre-registration only, 12 times a year, anywhere in the world. The cost of taking a TOEFL is U.S. $42 on a Friday administration or $35 on a Saturday administration, payable in U.S. (or Canadian) funds only. Five times a year, the TWE is part of the TOEFL at no extra cost. The International TOEFL is the "official" TOEFL; the scores are sent at the examinee's request to examinee-selected schools. Five of the International TOEFL administrations are Disclosed. Examinees can choose to give a self-addressed envelope and postage for 43 grams from the U.S. to the test administrators. The examinee's test booklet will be mailed a week or so later to the examinee.

There are other versions of the TOEFL, called Institutional TOEFL. Institutions may choose to purchase and offer the TOEFL to their students or employees at any time they wish, as long as that date does not conflict with an International TOEFL. These scores are used within the institution which offers the TOEFL; the scores do not leave the institution for use in applying to schools in the U.S. or Canada.

The TSE is offered at other times, for U.S. $80 (for TSE-A) or $110 (for TSE-P).

The TOEIC is offered, by pre-registration only, 6 times a year for 6,500 per test, payable in Japanese yen or the equivalent in local funds. Institutional TOEIC administrations can be arranged at other times by institutions, as in TOEFL above.

This information may change. Please check the latest bulletin of information for the latest prices, test dates and availability. Bulletins are available free of charge at many bookstores and university or college campuses in the U.S. In Japan, there may be a small charge for test information at bookstores.

2. In Japan, engineers are generally considered to need fewer language skills than other workers, since engineers tend to communicate in formulae and numbers, transcending linguistic limitations. This may not always be true; in fact, limited communication ability may cause progress to be slowed or to come to a stop.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 8, July 1996