TOEFL iBT Speaking Practice: Yousef Overcomes Three Types of Language Use Problems

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Like many students, Yousef needed a good TOEFL score for university purposes. More specifically, he needed to get over 100 on the TOEFL iBT in order to get acceptance into the PhD program at the University of Texas in Austin. Yousef had always enjoyed engineering, and now, after completing his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, he wanted to continue his graduate studies so he could be a professor of engineering at an American University. Yousef was close to reaching his TOEFL goals, but his score of 24 on the speaking section was two points shy of the required subtotal of 26. Furthermore, his overall TOEFL score was 99 so, if he could improve his speaking subtotal score, Yousef would be able to reach his overall score of 100. Nonetheless, before reaching his goal, Yousef needed TOEFL iBT speaking practice to overcome language use problems related to sentence variety, verb tenses, and word forms.

Sentence Variety

Before scoring higher on the speaking section, Yousef needed to have better sentence variety. Instead of using a combination of simple, compound, and complex sentence types, Yousef used mostly simple sentences. For example, when Yousef was explaining whether he liked bicycling or running more as a form of exercise, he used a more simplistic sentence style:

Running is better for me. It is safer and cheaper.

First of all, running is cheaper. I only need shoes, socks, shorts, and a tank top to run. Running apparel is not expensive. Maybe it will cost me about $200. However, bicycling can be a lot more expensive. This exercise requires a bicycle, special biking shoes, an odometer, socks, biking shorts, and a shirt. Buying all the items needed for bicycling could cost more than $1,000.

Second of all, running is safer than bicycling. Runners can reduce their chances of accidents by not running on the road by cars. They can run on the sidewalks, dirt trails or paths through parks. In contrast, bikers do have not that option. Therefore, they must share the roads with cars. This increases their chances of being hit by approaching traffic.

To sum up, I choose running over bicycling. It is a lot cheaper and safer.

Yousef’s TOEFL iBT speaking specialist informed him that, by only using shorter, simpler sentences with typically one subject and one verb, TOEFL iBT human raters would likely score him lower because he was demonstrating limitations with his grammar usage. Therefore, the TOEFL iBT speaking specialist often would revise many of Yousef’s sentences in an effort to show him how to create more complex sentences with better sentence variety. Therefore, the previously mentioned independent speaking response could be revised as follows:

Running is better for me because it is safer and cheaper.

First of all, needing only shoes, socks, shorts, and a tank top to run, running apparel is not expensive, perhaps costing me about $200. However, bicycling can be a lot more expensive in that it requires a bicycle, special biking shoes, an odometer, socks, biking shorts, and a shirt. Buying all the items needed for bicycling could cost more than $1,000.

Second of all, running is safer than bicycling since runners can reduce their chances of accidents by not running on the road by cars. They can run on the sidewalks, dirt trails or paths through parks, but bikers do have not that option. Therefore, they must share the roads with cars, which increases their chances of being hit by approaching traffic.

To sum up, a lot cheaper and safer, running is better fit for me than bicycling.

After Yousef heard his speaking specialist’s modifications of his recorded practice test, he liked how it was more fluid, was more natural sounding, and contained fewer pauses. To help Yousef understand sentence variety, his speaking specialist recommended that Yousef study specific grammar lessons in his Online TOEFL Course: Noun Clauses, Adjective Clauses, Adverb Clauses, Appositives, and Participial Phrases. Gradually, Yousef was able to begin combining some of his shorter sentences to longer, more complex ones.

Verb Tenses

Another language-use problem causing Yousef to score lower on the speaking section of the exam was his inconsistency with verb tenses. Sometimes, he would shift from the past back to the present even when he was talking about an action that clearly had a beginning and an end in the past:

Graduating from pharmacy school was an important event because it allows me to become more financially independent from my parents.

Yousef TOEFL iBT speaking specialist informed him that he needed to use “allowed” instead of “allows” because the event of which he spoke clearly had a beginning and an end in the past. Furthermore, using “allowed” was more consistent with “was,” the simple past tense verb in the independent clause part of the sentence.

Another area of verb tenses with which Yousef had trouble was when he talked about past impossible conditions:

If I did not graduate from pharmacy school, I would not learn how to be financially independent.

Yousef was advised that, when he referred to past impossible conditions, he should use the past perfect tense instead of the simple past. As a result, he could revise his sentence to read:

If I had not graduated from pharmacy school, I would not have learned how to be financially independent.

Word Forms

The final language use issue standing in the way of Yousef’s scoring 26+ on the speaking section of the TOEFL exam was word forms. Four main types of word forms exist in English: nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs–each one with accompanying endings and word orders. Nouns can end with suffixes like -ment and -tion, and they typically occur in subject, object, indirect object, and complement positions in a sentence.

Noun as subject: The experiment conducted by the scientists did not reach a valid conclusion.

Noun as object: The scientist conducted an experiment to see how quickly water could carry a charge.

Noun as indirect object: The researchers explained the class the experiment.

Noun as complement: Whether or not water can carry a sustained electrical charge was the experiment conducted by the scientists.

Adjectives can end in suffixes like -able, and -al and typically occur before nouns and after the “be” verb.

Adjective occurring before a noun: The rational explanation for the fire was that a Christmas tree had burned down on the first floor of the building.

Adjective occurring after the “be” verb: Many pharmacists are intelligent and have acquired a lot of knowledge due to their many years of undergraduate and graduate study.

Adverbs can end in suffixes like -ly and can occur between the helping and main verb of a sentence.

Adverbs occurring between the helping and main verb in a sentence: Larry is always studying for his biology class, especially since retaking the class for the second time.

Verbs can end in suffixes such as -ed, and -s and often occur after the subject at the beginning of the sentence in “Yes/No” questions and imperatives.

Verb occurring after the subject: John Stevens works at the bank in downtown Manhattan.

Verb occurring at the beginning of a “Yes/No question sentence: Are you going to the bank to withdraw money for our vacation?

Verb occurring in an imperative sentence: Take time to complete your biology homework before the due date next week.

Yousef’s main problem with word forms was that he would often not put the correct ending on the word, or he would not use it in the correct position of a sentence. To illustrate how Yousef did not put the correct ending on a word, he said this while completing an integrated speaking practice test from his Online TOEFL Course:

The speaker in the lecture discussions the formation of glaciers in mountain ranges with steep terrain.

Of course, his TOEFL iBT speaking specialist told him to change “discussions” to “discusses” since a verb, not a noun, was needed to complete the idea. To illustrate how Yousef did not use a word in the correct position in a sentence, he said this during one of his independent speaking practice tests:

In order to live harmoniously with someone else, a roommate should have discussions open with his friends.

In this case, Yousef was advised that adjectives such as “open” occur before, not after, the nouns they modify. Consequently, the sentence should be revised to read:

In order to live harmoniously with someone else, a roommate should have open discussions with his friends.

In the final analysis, Yousef re-took the TOEFL exam and surpassed his goal by scoring 27/30 on the speaking section of the exam. However, it was not without adversity. Yousef had completed more than 63 independent and integrated speaking practice tests, and, during that time, had committed 100’s, maybe even 1000’s of grammar errors. He had committed so many errors that his TOEFL iBT speaking specialist recommended that he keep a grammar journal in which he would write down the errors and a corrected version of the sentences. His journal had grown to more than 71 pages by the time he retook the TOEFL iBT exam. Hence, the feedback he had gotten from his TOEFL speaking mentor, reviewing the grammar journal of his speaking language-use errors on a weekly basis, and his constant exposure to newspapers, magazines, books, television, radio, and the Internet, helped him to minimize his errors during the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT so that he could reach the target score he needed. A few tears welled up his eyes as Yousef looked at his score report: (101/120) R=25, L=24, S=27, and W=25. He thought to himself,

What a journey! The many nights of completing speaking practice tests and listening to feedback and recommendations from his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor; studying and reviewing pronunciation and speaking lessons over and over; and taking full-length iBT practice tests in order to mark progress, to build stamina, and to become familiar with the structure and format of the TOEFL exam.

It had been a long and arduous journey, mostly in solving speaking language use issues relating to sentence variety, verb tenses, and word forms. However, Yousef had reached his destination, which was a very good feeling indeed. He had now completed his TOEFL iBT speaking practice.

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