TOEFL iBT Speaking Practice: Cris’s Epic Battle to Pass the Speaking Section

A resident of Italy, Cris had always wanted to be a physical therapist, but, in order to reach that goal, he would need a lot of TOEFL iBT speaking practice so that he could score 26 on the speaking section of the exam. Even though he did not have a lot of opportunities due his busy work schedule as a physical therapy technician, Cris knew he had to make more of an effort if he wanted to continue his quest to improve his academic speaking proficiency.

Attending Toastmaster’s International Meetings

Cris had heard that there might be an international speaking group in his Italian city, so he searched online and came across a web site called Toastmaster’s International, a worldwide organization designed to help people improve English speaking and leadership skills of its members. After some research, Cris discovered that Toastmasters had a local speaking group in his city which met in a coffee shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays for about an hour each time. “Maybe I should attend one of these meetings,” thought Cris, “to see if I can improve my speaking abilities.” Therefore, since the Toastmaster’s group was less than 5 kilometers from his house, he attended the next meeting on a Tuesday. When he got there, Cris was asked to introduce himself and was surprised to find out that others in the group also wanted to improve their English for professional purposes. In fact, two of the group members were aspiring physical therapists and pharmacists, both of whom, like Cris, needed 26 on the speaking section of the TOEFL exam. The next Thursday Cris started delivering oral presentations based on assigned topics from his group. At first, often stumbling and having many awkward hesitations, Cris was not very confident delivering his presentations. However, other members in the group continued to support him while giving constructive feedback, and Cris knew that the Toastmaster group members were genuinely interested in helping him relax. This realization calmed Cris’s nerves, which also helped to reduce awkward pauses and hesitations in his speeches. Therefore, Cris started making progress as a more fluid, near-native speaker of English.

Getting More Exposure to English

In addition to giving regular speeches at his Toastmaster’s group, Cris knew that he needed more exposure to the English language, for, when he was speaking spontaneous English, he sometimes could not think of the right word or the most correct grammar to express his ideas. For example, in his current job as a physical therapy technician, he was talking to one his clients from the United Kingdom. The client was discussing some economic issues related to the European Union and the United States, and Cris knew what he wanted to say, but he could not find the appropriate vocabulary. This frustrated Cris because he felt he was not able to build a better relationship with his client because he could not fully express his ideas other than at a very superficial level. Later that evening, Cris used his Italian/English dictionary and found the words “socialistic” and “capitalistic,” which were the words he needed earlier that day during his conversation with this client. Writing his the language journal, Cris wrote the following sentences:

The main difference between the economy in European countries with that in the United States is one of socialism and capitalism. Unlike Italy, Greece, Spain, France, and some other European countries, all of which are often characterized as being socialistic, the United States economy is controlled less by the government and more by the private sector, thus making it a capitalistic economy with fewer regulations and lower taxes.

Cris, using his dictionary and then writing down his thoughts, was able to clearly and coherently express what he wanted to say, but it took him a long time to get these thoughts down. He knew that he would need to get more exposure to the English language if he wanted to spontaneously and quickly respond to other people’s ideas in English.

Therefore, Kris embarked on a two-part mission to improve his language use. First, he started reading English newspapers and magazines for about 45 minutes every day. During his daily routine of reading, he practiced taking down the main and most important supporting points of the reading passages. At first, he had trouble catching the main points of the articles, but he learned to pay attention to the first paragraph in which the author usually stated the purposes of the passages. Then, to verify what the main point of the passage was, Cris would read the topic sentences of each paragraph which helped him see how all of the ideas were related. Once he was sure he understood the main idea, Cris would write down the idea on a sheet of paper. Then, he asked himself, “What major details does the writer use to support the main point. Then on a sheet of paper underneath the main idea that he had already written, Cris would write down the most important supporting details. After getting the main and the most important supporting points down on a sheet of paper, Cris would record himself speaking about the reading passages that he was practicing.

Second, in addition to practicing reading on a regular basis, Cris engaged in a regular routine of practicing listening for about 45 minutes at a time. Cris was very depressed when he first started listening to news, history, documentary, and science programs at first because the entire conversations and lectures sounded almost as it they were one long string of words with no pauses. How could be possibly understand the main and important points of these listening passages? But if there is a will, there is always a way, and Cris was very willing to make progress since he knew improving his listening comprehension would help him advance his career from being a physical therapy technician to a full-fledged physical therapist. Of course, that would help him make a lot more money, and, most importantly he would be able to fully engage in meaningful conversations with clients. To help him improve his listening comprehension skills, Cris would record 5 minute news segments, and then he would listen and re-listen to the news segments until he could write down the main ideas on a sheet of paper. This was a monumental listening battle for Cris because he knew that he could not identify the details in a listening passage without first knowing what the main points were. Hence, he practiced, practiced, and practiced. Slowly, he got better listening to and writing down the main points of the listening passages without using close caption. Then, to verify whether or not he had identified the main idea, Cris would turn the close caption on or review the listening transcript to the news segment to check for accuracy. Once he was confident that he could identify the main ideas of listening passages, he then turned his focus to the major supporting details. Cris mainly separated the major from the minor details by asking himself this question, “Which supporting details relate to the main point in this passage?” He made sure that he wrote down the major supporting points, and then using his notes and the many hours of listening practice, he started recording 60 second responses to the listening passages. Since he was already used to recording his voice discussing reading passages, Cris found that speaking about listening passages was not that hard so long as his notes on the listening passages were complete and accurate.

Joining an Online TOEFL Course

Even though Cris had regularly given presentations at his Toastmaster’s group and even though he had a regular routine of reading, listening, and recording 60 second speaking responses, he needed to sharpen his speaking proficiency of American English. In other words, Cris needed a TOEFL iBT speaking specialist who could diagnose particular problems in his speaking relating to delivery, language use, and topic development. Cris knew that he had problems speaking English, but he was not sure what the problems were, how he could solve them, and whether or not they were significant enough to cause him to miss his mark during the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT exam. Therefore, he joined an Online TOEFL Course called “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT,” created by Michael Buckhoff, a California State University professor of English composition, linguistics, and the teaching of English as a Second Language.

After posting pronunciation pre-tests and independent and integrated speaking practice tests, Cris was first advised by his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor that he had some sentence rhythm, intonation, and word stress pronunciation problems. Speaking to Cris through a Voxopop Discussion Group, his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor gave him examples of some of the mispronounced words, phrases, and sentences and how to pronounce them more clearly. Even more, the TOEFL speaking mentor gave him specific lessons on which Cris could focus so that he could speak more clearly. However, that was not all, Cris was also given some good and bad news regarding the TOEFL integrated speaking tasks that he had completed: he typically included a complete and accurate response of the reading and the listening passages, but he had trouble coherently organizing the information in a way that was easy for someone else to understand. Therefore, Cris’s iBT speaking specialist recommended two speaking lessons in his Online TOEFL Course which explained four techniques that Cris could use to more understandably organize his ideas. It took some time for Cris to solve these organizational problems, but gradually he learned how to implement the new techniques he had learned in his TOEFL speaking lessons. Furthermore, one more problem with language use was causing Cris some problems with his academic speaking: consistency with verb tenses. For instance, when Cris discussed the main points in reading and listening passages, he would use phrases like “the author in the reading passage states” or “the speaker in the reading passages claims”, but he, sometimes switching from the simple present to the simple past tense, was not consistent with the verb tenses he used. Consequently, Cris was advised by his TOEFL iBT speaking specialist that he should use the simple present tense when summarizing and paraphrasing academic content. Even though Cris had been corrected several times in this regard, he still found it difficult to stop his inconsistent verb tense switching from the present to past. “What a hard habit to break,” thought Cris. “I know it is wrong, but why do I keep switching my verb tenses when I speak about reading and listening passages?” Nevertheless, Cris’s TOEFL iBT speaking specialist was persistent and constantly corrected him by pointing out this particular error for at least twenty integrated speaking practice tests. Cris did not completely stop making this error, but he minimized the error about 21% of the time, which was progress nonetheless.

Taking the TOEFL Exam

In conclusion, the time came for Cris to take the TOEFL iBT. Unfortunately, not all stories have a fairly tale ending, and Cris did not meet his speaking subtotal goal until the fourth time at taking the TOEFL iBT exam. He just about gave up on himself after the third try because he kept making what he felt were stupid mistakes during the speaking section of the exam. Sometimes, he would get blindsided with an independent speaking task for which he had no response:

Compare two artists. Use specific reasons and examples to explain your comparison.

After seeing the independent speaking task and after the narrator said, “Begin speaking now.”, he stared at the computer screen with the worst brain freeze ever known to the history of mankind. When he finally started speaking, the time was already past the 45 second time limit. In other cases, during an integrated speaking task, he would omit an important point from the listening passages due to his nervousness, or he would sometimes mispronounce a key word so terribly that the iBT human raters could not understand what he was saying. It is not entirely clear what the magic bullet was that helped him attain a speaking score of 26/30 at his 4th attempt at taking the TOEFL exam. Was it his practice giving oral presentations at his Toastmasters group in Italy that helped him improve his confidence with speaking in front of groups? Was it his consistent reading, listening, note-taking, writing, and speaking practice that he did over a period of 5 months that helped him to improve his language use with English? Was it the tutoring he got from his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor that helped him to organize and sharpen his academic English language abilities? Was it his refusal to give up and to keep studying after his first three failed attempts at taking the TOEFL that helped him reach his speaking goals? Only God knows exactly what the secret ingredients were that ultimately led to his succeeding on the speaking section of the test. Cris could not quite figure it out and neither could his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor. A few days after Cris had gotten his results back, a lot of his close friends became aware of his high TOEFL score and high speaking score of 26/30.

One of his friends, unaware of how many times he had failed the test and how much he had to practice before finally reaching his goal, said to Cris, “You are lucky that it was so easy for you to pass the speaking section of the TOEFL with such a high score. Most students have a lot of TOEFL iBT speaking practice before they reach their goal.”

“Yes, they do,” uttered Cris, his crooked smile never leaving his lips. “But it was a real piece of cake for me.”

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