After eight attempts, Cris finally scores 26 on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT.

Cris looked at his seventh score report in disbelief: (99) R=24, L=26, S=24, and W=25. If only he had scored two points higher on the speaking section, he would have met his physical therapy license requirements. If the iBT human raters had given him scores of 4.0 and 4.0 and independent speaking task 2 and integrated speaking task 4, he would have reached his goals. If the lecture during speaking task four had not been so complex and conceptually dense, he probably would have scored higher. If the independent speaking task two had been easier, he would have scored higher, but, when Cris saw “Compare two musicians. Give reasons and details during your comparison.”, his mind drew a blank for a few seconds after the narrator told him to begin speaking. In fact, Cris was surprised when he saw his speaking score; he actually thought it would have been much lower. After seeing his TOEFL exam results, Cris was at a cross-roads with his dream. Should be give up on becoming a physical therapist in the United States since he had not reached his goal on the speaking section for the seventh time?

It was a very long night for Cris. As he tried to sleep, he thought about all the hard work he had spent improving his academic English. After his unsuccessful fifth TOEFL attempt, he had joined an Online TOEFL Course called “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT,” at which he had been practicing TOEFL iBT speaking for a few months. In fact, in some cases, during some of his speaking practice tests, his iBT speaking mentor had scored him between 24 to 26 points. During this time, Cris solved problems which had made his speaking less organized than it should have been. Therefore, at the advice of his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor, Cris had worked hard at doing several things to help him speak more coherently: 1). He had studied, learned, and started to implement transition words, especially at key junctures in his responses in order to make the connection of ideas easier to understand for his listeners. 2). He had improved his ability to use determiners and pronouns in his TOEFL speaking practice tests in order to connect old and new information together. 3). He had learned the importance of using repetition and rephrase as a way of linking ideas together. In fact, he had found that repetition could be useful at the beginning of the response as a way of rephrasing the question in the topic sentence to frame 2-3 points of his response. 4). He had also learned how to use parallel structures in his speaking practice tests in order to highlight important or related information. He made all of those improvements, but he still had fallen short of his goals. “Is there a God?” Cris thought as he drifted into an intermediate state between deep sleep and consciousness

The next morning Cris awoke with an epiphany. Quickly, he took a 4 x 6 note card out of his backpack and wrote the following sentence: I will score 26 on speaking! He then took that card and taped it on to his vanity mirror in his bathroom, so he could see the sentence every morning after he awoke. Despite his doubts and negative feelings of pity and self-doom, his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor told him that if he remained positive and kept practicing, he would reach his goal. In fact, his TOEFL speaking mentor gave Cris a word to help him stay focused: P.A.C.E. (Positive attitude changes everything).

Therefore, Cris kept telling himself that he would reach 26 on speaking, and, of course, the more he told himself this idea, the more confident he became. Eventually, he started to believe that he could score 26 despite his not being able to do so on seven consecutive TOEFL examinations. This belief changed him in many parts of his life. With a new vigor, Cris, at the advice of his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor, kept posting independent and integrated speaking practice tests daily. Furthermore, Cris started a speaking journal in which he would write down problems he was having with his speaking. He divided the speaking journal into three parts: delivery, language use, and topic development. If his speaking mentor told him that he was having problems with vowels, consonants, syllable division and grammatical word endings, word stress, sentence rhythm, intonation, thought groups, and blending, Cris would write that feedback in the delivery part of his journal. Moreover, if Cris was having problems with his grammar and vocabulary usage, he would write those comments under the language use category of his journal. Finally, if Cris was having problems with organizing and developing his ideas, he would write those comments in the topic development heading of his journal. After completing 12 speaking practice tests in as many days, Cris discovered that his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor mostly gave him language-use comments particularly as they related to grammar. Hence, Cris surmised that, if he could solve the grammar problems that he was having with his TOEFL speaking, then he would be able to reach his goal of 26.

Now, Cris was a man on a mission. He restarted the grammar part of his Online TOEFL Course by taking the Grammar Diagnostic Pre-Test, after which Cris discovered that he needed to solve problems relating to noun clauses, infinitives and gerunds, prepositions, word choice, word forms, and parallelism. He worked hard on his grammar lessons and, after posting his speaking practice tests, he paid particular attention to language-use problems that his TOEFL iBT mentor would point out. For example, in one of his TOEFL iBT independent speaking practice tests, Cris made a response to the following prompt: Your friend is nervous because he has a job interview tomorrow. What would you advise him/her to do?

In framing his response, Cris created the following sentence, “First of all, I would advise my friend he should anticipate and then practice interview questions that he might be asked.”, which, he was informed by his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor, was not a correct sentence.

His TOEFL iBT mentor told Cris that he should use a noun clause within which the subjunctive mood should be used. Moreover, Cris was advised that the verb in a noun clause containing the subjunctive mood should be in the base form and that, when using a noun clause, he would need to use the subordinating conjunction “that.” Unsure of when to use the subjunctive mood, Cris was informed that it usually follows verbs of urging such as require, suggest, advise, recommend, urge, stipulate, and so on. During the audio comments that his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor gave, Cris was then given a correction of how he could recast the sentence in a more grammatically correct manner: “First of all, I would advise that my friend anticipate and then practice interview questions that he might be asked.” Cris appreciated the correction and was even more satisfied when his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor recommended a specific grammar lesson to help him master this new grammar structure. So, this is how it went for a while until Cris was ready to retake the TOEFL iBT for the eight time: he would post a practice test and then get back a score and recommended lessons to review from his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor.

Then the day came and went when Cris retook the TOEFL with great confidence. However, during previous TOEFL exams, he had had similar feelings of confidence but still had not reached his target of 26 on the speaking section. Finally, the day came, when ETS mailed his score report to him. Cris was surprised that it only took about 8 days before getting the letter. Usually, it took ETS 2-3 weeks before they would send the results to him. Nonetheless, in his trembling hands was the letter. Cris was nervous and excited at the same time. Had he finally reached his goal on the speaking section of the exam or would he be disappointed again like the last seven times that he had taken the TOEFL exam. His nerves getting the best of him, Cris could not bring himself to open the letter. At least if he did not know the results, he could not be disappointed, right? In contrast, Cris needed to know if he had passed. Incredibly, Cris waited two hours before he had the courage to open the letter from ETS. Once he decided he would open the letter, he tore the envelope open in lightning speed and quickly scanned to the speaking section.

To his utter joy, Cris had finally scored 26 on the speaking section. In fact, he was pleased with his overall performance: (98) R=24, L=23, S=26, and W=25. No more obstacles stood in the way of his becoming a physical therapist in the United States. A few tears welled up in Cris’s eyes as he thought about the monumental task it had been for him to finally reach his goal: the times he had thought about giving up, the hundreds and hundreds of speaking practice tests and feedback he had gotten from his TOEFL speaking mentor, the countless hours of studying grammar in his Online TOEFL Course, and the seven times he had taken the TOEFL exam without reaching his desired speaking subtotal score. What a struggle it had been! Still, Cris reached his goal, and now the battle was over. There was one more thing that Cris wanted to do after learning about his most recent TOEFL score: he wrote an e-mail to his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor who had spend many months coaching and encouraging Cris to keep at his routine of speaking practice. Cris shared his results with his TOEFL speaking mentor who was estactic about Cris’s success. After all, Cris’s success was his also his success, and his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor and coach was so excited about Cris’s success that he made the following invitation to Cris, who is now currently living in the state of Washington: “If you ever come down to Southern California, please come visit my family and me. We will always have an open door for you and your family. It has been a pleasure to know you and to see how persistent you remained despite all your adversity. There is a God afterall!”

I hope you enjoyed hearing about Cris’s TOEFL speaking journey.

Michael Buckhoff,


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