Response to “Study secrets of students who get 26+ on TOEFL® speaking” by Jaime Miller

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Jaime Miller from English Success Academy wrote an guest article for the popular web site Exam English, and in the article, she talks about three things that TOEFLers can do which can help them to improve their speaking fluency: 1) scheduling time to speak a lot of English, 2) imitating high-quality model responses for the independent and integrated speaking tasks, and 3) getting corrected by a experienced English speaker. I will summarize her ideas and respond to each point that she makes in this informative article so that we can further students’ understanding of speaking fluency and how that translates into a high TOEFL speaking score.

Getting Extensive Exposure to English

Speaking English to colleagues at work, communicating with friends, and even speaking English during shopping excursions, Miller asserts, help students improve. In addition, Miller argues that students should designate specific plans to practice English by making responses to independent and integrated tasks, even considering the notion that it may take some of the students 10-15 hours of speaking practice before they improve their TOEFL speaking score by just one point. The point Miller is trying to make is that students who are scoring in the 22-23 point range have significant language delivery, language use, and topic development problems, all of which take time to improve upon, so students should plan on spending more time on their TOEFL speaking than what they may have originally thought.

In addition to what Miller said in her article regarding the importance of speaking as much English as possible, I would like to add two points. 1) Students should also consider volunteering at a business or organization that matches their career interests so that they can practice communicating in English on a weekly basis. For example, someone who is studying English to become a nurse should consider volunteering as an English-speaking hospital so s/he can practice talking to native speakers there on a weekly basis. 2) Students should have a list of independent speaking topics on some note-cards that students can carry around and practice answering out loud while commuting to and from work, school, or other activities. The key here is to talk, talk, and more talk, even if these students have no one to talk to.

Imitating model TOEFL independent speaking tasks

In this part of her article, Miller argues that the most effective way to learn is through imitating and that students will learn faster if the teacher or TOEFL speaking mentor shows students how to create, organize, and develop TOEFL responses that score higher than 26 points. Students should find teachers who have scored 30/30 on the speaking section and should follow the examples speaking tasks that these teachers exemplify. Finally, insisting on imitation as the predominant learning mode of second language acquisition, Miller says that learners’ own responses will copy the speech patterns of the qualified speaking mentor with whom they are practicing.

In this part of the article, Miller, a bit misguided and uninformed, assumes that imitating is the main factor affecting second language acquisition (SLA). Moreover, Miller presupposes that the path between children learning their first language (CLA) and the path that adults take when learning a second language is similar. First of all, while the imitation theory explains part of how adults learn a second language, Miller fails to take into account two key elements: 1) Adults also get extensive input from the environment and then construct the rules of English. In other words, rather than just imitating native speakers, these TOEFL learners are actively engaged in the learning of English as they construct their own version of English as they develop their overall speaking proficiency. 2) Miller also fails to acknowledge that students’ brains have competing cognitive functions going on their brains which may make it hard to develop speaking fluency since students have so many brain functions going on at the same time. Therefore, developing speaking fluency that scores higher than 26 pts. is a lot more complicated than what Miller seems to suggest.

Second of all, the path between CLA and SLA is not similar, as Miller seems to imply. Children have an almost innate desire to pick up a language. It is as if there is some type of language acquisition device that turns on between the ages of 0 and puberty that seems to drive these young learners to excel in and produce language. Therefore, Miller does not acknowledge that adults have a harder time learning and producing language since they have already passed this critical period of language acquisition. To make up for this, in order for adults to master the speaking section of the TOEFL exam, they cannot just simply learn to imitate native speakers who give high scoring responses on the TOEFL iBT exam. Even if they try to do this, these TOEFL students will often sound unnatural, almost as if they are trying to memorize some sort of template they can use to answer the TOEFL speaking tasks. Of course, ETS warns students against trying to imitate or use some sort of template to answer the TOEFL speaking tasks; in fact, those students who imitate, use templates, or memorize formulaic responses and reproduce them during the speaking section will receive low scores. Therefore, TOEFL speaking mentors should help drive their learners through developing spontaneous, natural sounding responses that show how these students have a full range of vocabulary and grammar usage.

Even though it is hard for non-native speakers to develop the speaking fluency needed to score 26+, if they have a higher level of motivation, they will be able to overcome any post pubescent language limitations that they have by practicing a lot of Miller recommendations in the beginning of her article. This is why I suggested the idea of having TOEFL speaking students volunteer at a job that matches their career interests. By volunteering, these TOEFL students will be able to practice English at these sites many hours weekly depending on the type of arrangement they make and what their schedules will allow. Moreover, these non-native speaker volunteers will be able to see their future jobs in person and the type of interaction that they will be making with their customers. Therefore, I believe that the volunteer work will serve as an extrinsic motivating catalyst pushing them toward more and more practice. In order for student to be willing to practice 60+ hours of TOEFL speaking, as Miller suggests, these learners need to a have a reason to justify why they are going through so much pain, frustration, and intensive English practice. The volunteer work can serve as a compelling reason for the hard-working TOEFL students to keep pushing forward with their TOEFL speaking practice.

Receiving qualified correction by an experienced English speaker

In addition to getting exposure and imitating native speakers, Miller asserts that many TOEFLers trying to score higher on the speaking section of the exam often misdiagnose their own grammar and pronunciation inconsistencies. To illustrate, Miller gives an example of a student who thought that s/he had a problem with prepositions, when in actuality, this student had already solved that issue prior. The point Miller is making is that TOEFL speaking specialists can often help students to understand why they are not scoring high on the speaking. However, Miller is a bit vague in how TOEFL iBT specialists diagnose the problems that are holding students back. This is where I would like to expand some of her ideas so that students can see how beneficial TOEFL speaking mentors can be when it comes to diagnosing problems with delivery, language-use, and topic development issues.

First of all, to address students’ delivery issues, I encourage students in my Online TOEFL Course to complete a pronunciation pre-test so I can see specifically, out of the 13 vowels and 26 consonants of American English, which sounds my students are having trouble pronouncing. After my students complete the pronunciation pre-test, I have practice specific video lessons, at the end of which include voice recording exercises that these students can complete and send to me for evaluation. Once the students master the vowel and consonant sounds of American English, they complete my second pronunciation pre-test, this time focusing on syllable division and grammatical word endings, word stress, sentence rhythm, intonation, and thought groups and blending. Like before, I diagnose problems in any of these areas, my students review specific lessons, and then they complete voice recording exercises, and send me audio responses of their practice exercises. Finally, these students will complete a final post-test in which I evaluate students’ proficiency in all of the areas that they study in the pronunciation section of my course.

Second of all, after I evaluate 3 or 4 independent or integrated speaking tasks and if I determine that students have specific language-use problems, I will direct them to focus on vocabulary or grammar parts of my course. To illustrate, those students who have basic vocabulary limitations, I will refer them to complete my TOEFL Vocabulary Lesson 3, a 150 page e-book introducing students to 200 common words through reading, close, matching, grammar, and listening exercises. Or, if students have little or no knowledge of advanced or college-level vocabulary, thereby making it hard for them to summarize the most important points during the integrated speaking tasks, I will refer them to my TOEFL Vocabulary Lessons 4-6. Further, some students may have certain grammatical limitations. For example, some of my students use almost exclusively the simple sentence type during their speaking practice, so I encourage them to use compound and complex sentences more. TOEFL Grammar Lesson 5, 12, 13, and 14 focusing on compound sentences, adjective clauses, noun clauses, and adverb clauses will help my students address these grammatical limitations.

Third of all, the final issue that many TOEFL students overlook is topic development, which is manifested in their inability to coherently organize and develop ideas. Even though Miller’s suggestions of imitating do not often work well when TOEFL students have significant delivery and language-use problems, her suggestions of having students see model responses from their TOEFL speaking mentors will help students to see what it looks like to connect old and new information together. In addition, students can also learn about the type of specificity required in the independent speaking tasks by reading and listening to model responses. When I am listening to and providing audio feedback on a speaking practice test submitted by one of my TOEFL students, I often show them how to create a more sharply-focused topic sentence in the beginning that helps to frame the remainder of their speech.

What happens next

At the conclusion of the article “Study secrets of students who get 26+ on TOEFL® speaking,” Miller acknowledges that students will get their desired speaking scores if they concentrate in the right areas so that they do not get the same scores repeatedly. However, Miller does not make a much needed point. Students who do work with a qualified speaking mentor, when they are consistently scoring 26+, should get an independent opinion from another mentor at another web site, which is why I suggest using ScoreNexus. If speaking mentors from both web sites independently score a student at 26+ after completing the six TOEFL speaking tasks, then that student is ready to register for the official TOEFL iBT exam.

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The author of this article is Michael Buckhoff, the founder, owner, and materials writer for STEALTH, the Online TOEFL Course “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT.” Buckhoff specializes in helping students score higher on the TOEFL exam by significantly improving their academic English proficiency in vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, speaking, and writing.