TOEFL iBT Speaking Practice: Letha’s ETS Score Report Reveals Three Speaking Weaknesses

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“19/30 points is a long way from 26/30,” thought Letha as she looked at her official TOEFL iBT score report: (89/120) Reading =22, Listening =23, Speaking =19 , and Writing = 25. Letha had put in her best effort but did not understand why she had received the score she did. However, as she read the score descriptors in her TOEFL report sent to her from Educational Testing Service, Letha discovered that she indeed would need TOEFL iBT speaking practice to overcome some problems relating to delivery, language use, and topic development.

First of all, according to the score report, Letha had problems with word stress, intonation, and pacing, all of which had affected her overall intelligibility. Letha had had some word stress shifts with several key words during the two independent speaking tasks. For example, when she was asked about what environimental changes could help her hometown, Letha mispronounced the word “air conDItioner” by pronouncing it “air CONditioner.” In addition, sometimes, when completing the integrated speaking tasks, particularly integrated speaking task 4 (reading, listening, speaking: academic) and 6 (listening, speaking: academic), Letha tended to speak in a monotone voice, which was not unlike the tone she used when speaking her native language from India. However, since English consists of function and content words, Letha should have put more inflection and stress on the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs and less stress and inflection on helping verbs, prepositions, and determiners, thereby helping her to create a more natural sounding rhythm and ultimately a more varied intonation of English. Finally, Letha had problems with pacing, especially with the integrated speaking tasks in the sense that she would often pause before saying certain key words from the reading passage or the lecture. The fact that Letha would mentally pronounce a word in her head before speaking because she was unsure of how to pronounce it caused her to pause often in her responses. However, Letha would need to recognize that she would need to group ideas into thought groups consisting of 4-5 content words. Each of her thoughts should be followed by a pause with a half-pitch rise in her tone, and, when she got to the last thought group in a sentence, Letha would need to end the thought group with a slightly longer pause along with a half-pitch drop in her intonation. It would not be easy, but Letha would need to make improvements with her delivery in order to score higher on the speaking section of the TOEFL exam.

Second of all, Letha’s score report also revealed problems with language use. Her report said something about her being limited in her grammar and vocabulary proficiency or not having automaticity of language. Her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor was able to confirm, like the score report had stated, that Letha used rather simplistic grammar and vocabulary. For example, in an independent speaking practice test answering the prompt, “What quality is most important in a co-worker? Use reasons and details to support your response.”, Letha showed some limitations in her grammar when she said:

Employees should be hard working. This is the most important quality.

Firstly, a supervisor will not allow lazy or unproductive workers to remain as part of the work force. However, hard-working employees are often rewarded with promotions. Maybe they will inspire me to be more productive. Then I will have a better chance of being promoted in that company.

Secondly, hard-working employees are less likely to interfere in the private lives of others. These employees are so concentrated on their jobs. He or she is less likely to ask me too much personal information. So, I will be able to get along well with a hard worker.

To sum up, a co-worker should definitely be hard-working.

Letha’s TOEFL iBT speaking mentor gave her a revised response of how she could answer the question, this time combining some of her shorter, simpler sentences into longer, more complicated ones:

Many qualities are important for employees, but, if I have to work side by side with someone, I would hope that he/she is hard working

Firstly, a hard-working employee is an important quality since the supervisor will not allow lazy or unproductive workers to remain as part of the work force. However, hard-working employees are often rewarded with promotions, so they will inspire me to be more productive. If I can be more productive, I will have a better chance of being promoted in that company.

Secondly, hard-working employees are less likely to interfere in the private lives of others since they are so concentrated on their jobs. Thus, most likely , I will be able to get along well with a hard worker because he or she is less likely to ask me too much personal information, which would distract me from my job.

To sum up, a co-worker should definitely be hard-working.

After getting feedback, Letha knew that she needed to improve her knowledge of sentence structure, so her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor recommended several grammar lessons in her Online TOEFL Course to help her understand basic sentence structure, including recognizing how and when to use simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex sentences. In addition, Letha was instructed on how and when to use transition words in order to cohesively tie ideas together. For a while, Letha struggled as she tried to advance her sentence structure in speaking. It just did not come natural to her, so her iBT speaking mentor recommended that she write out some of her speaking responses completely before recording them. The point was for her to get used to using a combination of basic and advanced grammar, and eventually, instead of having to write her responses, the new grammar lessons that she had studied became more natural in her speaking responses. This was important since her score report stated that Letha lacked automaticity of language, and now she was starting to use natural, more automatic sounding language.

Third of all, the score report indicated that Letha had some problems with topic development. One main area of improvement needed in this area was how she organized her ideas. Letha would sometimes stray from the purpose of the speaking task the further she got into her response. Her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor had also told her about this problem after she had completed 14 independent and 8 integrated speaking practice tests in her Online TOEFL Course “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT.” To solve this issue, Letha was instructed to restate the speaking task in her topic statement as a way of framing her responses, helping her to maintain a tight organization. For example, when answering the independent speaking task, “What do you think is better: working for a large company of working for a small company.”, Letha was instructed to begin her response like this:

In choosing between working for large or small companies, I prefer to work for large companies.

In addition, her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor told her to add two key words at the end of her topic statement so that she would be to restate those key points in the body of her response, hence giving her a coherent organization. Then, her topic statement was revised in the following way:

In choosing between working for large or small companies, I prefer to work for large companies because they offer more opportunities for promotion and friendships.

Likewise, when answering integrated speaking tasks, she was also told to restate the question while stating the main point of the reading or listening passages. For example, after Letha read a reading passage about cooperative learning and after listening to a lecture which gave an example of cooperative learning, Letha was asked the following question: “How does the information in the listening passage relate to the information in the reading passage?” Her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor advised that she restate the speaking prompt by saying:

The reading passage discusses cooperative learning, and the listening passage gives an example to illustrate the concept.

The specific and clearly framed topic sentences that Letha learned to create were important in helping her to stay organized. Moreover, Letha was coached to restate the key points in her topic statements in the body of her responses so that she would continue to stay on topic. Therefore, as she got into the body of her independent speaking task discussing whether or not she would work for a large or small company, she was instructed to organize it in the following way:

In choosing between working for large or small companies, I prefer to work for large companies because they offer more opportunities for promotion and friendships.

First, I want to work for large companies because they will offer more opportunities for promotion. For example, if I get hired as an accountant for the automobile company Ford, since it has more than 80,000 employees, there will be more areas of advancement in my area of expertise.

Second, I also prefer to work for a large company because I can make more friendships. For example, my father works for a large accounting firm in India, and he has been able to create some long-lasting friendships with some of his co-workers.

Therefore, large companies are a better fit for me. Who knows? Maybe I will be able to become a Chief Financial Officer at a large company and have a lot of friends.

After seeing the focused topic statement plus its two main points and the restatement of them in the body, Letha was starting to understand what it meant to speak coherently. It would not be easy for Letha to frame her independent and integrate speaking responses this way, but her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor assured her that creating these types of unified speaking responses would come more automatically the more she practiced. Little did Letha know that she would have to complete more than 193 speaking practice tests before she would be able to overcome the topic development weaknesses indicated in her score report. But she did overcome them!

In conclusion, as it usually is with TOEFLers needing to score over 26/30, Letha’s TOEFL iBT speaking practice was filled with many ups and downs. In fact, it was not until the fifth time of taking the TOEFL exam that she finally reached her TOEFL goals: (95/120) Reading = 21, Listening =24, Speaking =26, and Writing =24. “Wow, what a long and hard road that was!” thought Letha as she contemplated the blood, sweat, and tears she had put into her studying. Her TOEFL journey had been more than six months and was preceded by years and years of studying English in her middle school, in high school, and in an intensive English program at California State University, San Bernardino.

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