Getting a high TOEFL speaking score: Four things you need to know!

During the speaking section of the TOEFL exam, you will be confronted with two independent speaking tasks. In order to score high, you will need to understand the structure of these two questions, how you should answer this type of response, how these two tasks are scored, and what type of practice exercises you can do to prepare you for this part of the TOEFL exam.

Understanding the Question Structure

With the independent speaking tasks, you will be given topics to speak about and will need no additional material to answer the question. You will have 15 seconds to prepare your response and 45 seconds to speak. The first question will ask you to talk about a person, place, object, or event that is familiar to you. For example, you may be asked, “Talk about an important event in your life. Explain how it has changed you.” The second question will explain two situations to you and ask you choose which you prefer and why. In this case, a sample question will resemble the following: “Some like walking when they want to exercise, whereas others prefer to run. Which form of exercise do you prefer? Explain why.”

Answering this type of Question

When answering this type of question, you should use the 15 seconds of preparation time to jot down some key words that you want to include in your response. Obviously, you will not have time to write down a full response, and the iBT human raters want to hear you speak and not read your response. They will know if you are reading your response. In addition, you should not try to memorize templates from the Internet or from TOEFL prep web sites even if these TOEFL teachers tell you it is a good idea. The iBT human raters can easily discern memorized responses because they sound different, and the content of these responses differ from the natural and spontaneous speech you that should be using.

When approaching this type of speaking, keep in mind the following tips:

Your response need not be organized like an essay.

Speak as naturally as you can and try to use connecting words to phrases to link new and old information.

Scoring Standards

To score high on TOEFL speaking, you should understand what the iBT human raters are looking for and how they will score each question. All six of the responses in the speaking section are scored holistically on a scale from 0 to 4. “Holistically” means that human raters listen for certain characteristics in your response and then give it an overall score based on three categories: delivery, language use, and topic development

In order to perform well with delivery, you need to have clear and fluent speech, good pronunciation, a natural pace, and appropriate intonation. If you use templates or try to memorize your response before TOEFL test day, you will not score high in this category because your speech will not sound natural.

In addition, you need to have good control of your language use, which means that you are using a combination of basic and advanced grammar and vocabulary as you express your ideas. The iBT human raters are looking to see if you can fully express your ideas using whatever grammar and vocabulary that the speaking tasks calls for; therefore, you should not be limited by vocabulary or grammar as you express your ideas.

Finally, iBT human raters will also be looking for adequate topic development, so you should make every effort to fully answer the question by providing examples and details to support your point of view. Be sure to connect your ideas by using a variety of connecting and transition words to link old information to new.

Practicing for TOEFL Speaking

There are a few things that you can do to build the speaking proficiency that you will need for the independent speaking tasks. The most important point is that you get used to speaking continuously for 45 seconds, so you can use a stop watch to time yourself as you practice answering personal experience type speaking tasks.

Find ways to practice English with native or near-native speakers. You can also join or start an English club. As you practice, here are some things that you can do to build your speaking fluency:

Get some pictures from magazines, newspapers, or the Internet and practicing describing the pictures in 45 seconds. Use a variety of adjectives and add details to support your description as you practice.

Think about what you did yesterday or last week or some other occasion in the past. Take about 15 seconds to think about the activity, and then talk about what you did in about 45 seconds. Remember to use past tense verbs and to use connecting type words. Similarly, you can practice talking about some event tomorrow or in the future that you plan to do and use future tense verbs as you talk about this in 45 seconds.

Finally, you can also practice making recommendations on the best way to proceed with something. Like before, make recommendations for 45 seconds and use details and examples to support your point of view.

To sum up, scoring high on the TOEFL speaking section can be challenging, but many students get 26 or higher almost every week that the TOEFL iBT exam is administered. What do all the high scorers have in common? They are comfortable speaking English with native speakers since they have gotten a lot of exposure to the English language. Whether it is watching movies, listening to the radio, talking to native speakers whenever possible, you should find opportunities to use English whenever you can.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,