Module 4

Speaking

1. Speaking Section Strategies

The speaking section of the TOEFL exam tests your ability to speak, communicate, respond, and express yourself. If you cannot carry out these tasks, you will not gain admission to any English-speaking university. Communication and participation are essential aspects of university life.

We have split up the speaking section strategies segment in the following manner:

Section 1: General advice for preparing for the speaking section
Section 2: Forming answers based on how the examiners will rate them
Section 3: Learning about the types of questions in the TOEFL speaking section
Section 4: Combining everything into a step-by-step checklist

Section 1: General advice for preparing for the speaking section

Quiz yourself

Before anything else, ask yourself whether you can complete these simple tasks.

Go through this checklist to determine whether you are able to:

Respond properly to questions
Participate properly in discussions
Orally summarize what you read or hear
Express your views effectively
Speak casually
Communicate in different places and situations

In the exam you will be asked to speak about:

Personal experiences
Campus-based situations
Academic content

Stop for a minute and test yourself on each of the above categories. After you speak for approximately one or two minutes on each category, tick the box and move on to the next. Use the table as a tool to identify which categories you are weak in, and, therefore, which categories you will require more practice in. This checklist will help you see your weak points and overcome any difficulties you face while speaking.

Also, continually engage in discussions to improve your fluency in speaking. You will have to make lots of effort in these regards.

Aim to speak with native speakers as much as possible, even if this can only be done online.

Record yourself

The best way to practice for your speaking component is to record yourself. This helps you practice while building your confidence. During the exam, the computer will record the speaking component.

Recording yourself at home will prepare you for being recorded during the exam. This is helpful for most students, especially those who feel uncomfortable when they are recorded. You will be acclimating yourself to exam conditions in the comfort of your own home. In addition, when you record yourself, you will be able to identify and correct the mistakes you made.

As a general rule, duplicate the exam conditions as much as possible, as this will give you an advantage over others who did not expose themselves to such conditions during their preparations. When you practice in a realistic exam-like setting, you will eventually be able to achieve a relaxed state that will help you get a better score on your exam.

Writing notes to organize your ideas

For the speaking section of the exam, you will have time to prepare before the recorder starts recording. This is a perfect time to organize your thought process.

List the major points you are planning to talk about. Do this is to avoid disturbing your thought process, and to reduce any nervousness while you are speaking. As you already know, you will receive only a short time to answer. Thus, it is a good idea to list all the major points you plan to speak about so that once you start talking, you will simply be expanding on what you have already listed.

In addition, keep in mind that long pauses will not create a good impression in the examiner’s mind about your level of English fluency. So, make sure you practice speaking smoothly without pausing for too long.

Also, be sure to communicate your thoughts clearly so that the listener can easily follow you and not misunderstand or misinterpret what you said.

Do not write full answers for your notes!

While taking notes for the speaking section, do not write the full answer. If you do, you will be criticized for having memorized your answer because it does not sound natural. You will not have time to do that, anyway. Anything you write should be no more than one sentence. Therefore, write a couple of words (the main idea) quickly, either in short form or using abbreviations.

Remember, you will hardly have time to think, so do not waste your time writing full answers. This section tests your ability to speak English fluently. It does not test how well you can read the answers you have written during your preparation time.

Section 2: Forming answers based on how the examiners will rate them

What are raters looking for in the speaking component?

You must satisfy the examiner by meeting the following expectations:

Good delivery:

Your speech must be clear and fluid with good pronunciation, natural pacing, and correct intonation patterns. You can acquire these skills only through lots of practice in natural situations with native or near-native speakers. Simply put, this process takes time; you cannot achieve it overnight.

Do not memorize your answers, as the examiner can easily determine whether you have done so. In addition, if you sound nervous or speak too quickly, the examiner might believe that you are delivering a memorized answer, even if you really aren’t. Therefore, remain calm, and pause often (though don’t make your pauses too long, as this, too, comes across as staged, or at the very least gives the examiner the impression that you cannot connect your thoughts effectively). Pause in a natural manner.

Language Use:

Convey your ideas effectively by using good vocabulary and grammar. The more you read and speak, the easier this task will become. Stick to the daily program that was mentioned Module 2.

Also, complex sentences will enhance your speech, so avoid simple sentences that make your speech sound too bare, or that fail to link sentences and ideas. To form effective complex sentences, create flash cards with transitions that connect your speech effectively. However, do not overcomplicate your sentence structure and vocabulary in an unnatural way, or in a way that will cause you to make unnecessary mistakes.

Find someone with whom you feel comfortable talking to, and who will be able to help you practice inserting these transitions into your speech. After a month of practice, you will notice a difference. 

Topic development:

After you deliver your answer, the examiner will grade you according to how well you develop your topic. You must deliver an organized response.

Learn to develop your speech on a given topic by establishing relationships between your ideas and progressing from one idea to the next as clearly as possible. Quick and effective notes will help in this regard.

Also, support your answer once you make a point. If you have stated a description or offered information about something, try to provide detail as well.

Section 3: Learning about the types of questions in the TOEFL speaking section

Question types

The speaking section includes an independent and integrated speaking task. An independent speaking task requires that you use your own concepts, opinions, ideas, and experiences. An integrated speaking task requires that you integrate your English language skills. So you will either have to integrate the listening and speaking skills, or the listening, speaking and reading skills.

The speaking section contains six question types: two independent and four integrated. Here are some tips you can follow for each question:

Question 1

Question 1 will be a personal question. This question will ask you to describe something like an important event, provide reasons why the event was important, state why the activity is a favourite of yours, state how the person influenced you, etc.

While practicing for this question, you might want to talk to someone in English about your memories, important places you have been or events you have attended, or a personal experience.

Avoid overly long descriptions because they will reduce the time you have available to elaborate on the rest of your response.

Provide reasons and include key details. In the exam, you will receive 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to talk.

Use the 15 seconds to organize your thoughts and make brief notes. Jot down a few bullet points and expand on them once you start speaking. Practice doing this quickly and efficiently.

Question 2

Question 2 is similar to the first question. However, for this task you will be presented with two possible situations, actions or opinions. You might be asked questions similar to these examples.

  1. Should first-year college students live in the dormitory or live off campus in apartments of their own?
  2. Do you think it is better to do your homework in your dormitory or at the library?
  3. Should teachers only have to teach a course, or should they also have to act as tutors, too?

Stating your opinion is not enough; you must accompany it with sufficient support. Also, make sure your ideas are well organized. Notes will help you organize your ideas. Practice by developing opinions about what you hear and read.

When you are answering an opinion-based question, the examiner will expect you to use certain expressions in your answer.

Study and practice these words and expressions, which are commonly used to express opinions:

Showing agreement

I absolutely agree.
Yes, I agree.
I do think it’s true.

Showing disagreement

I don’t agree with…
That’s not entirely true…However…
On the contrary…
That’s not the same thing at all.
I’m not so sure this is the case…
It’s unjustifiable to say that…

Showing personal perspective

In my experience…
As far as I’m concerned…
Speaking for myself…
In my opinion…
Personally, I think…
I’d say that…
I’d suggest that…
I’d like to point out that…
I believe that…
What I mean is…

Some might wonder whether a test taker should purposely use up his or her full reading and listening time, with the sole objective of allowing other students to proceed ahead with the exam’s speaking component. This strategy would let the test-taker, during his or her 10-minute break, listen to other students’ speaking questions and become familiar with the subject matter.

Without going into the ethics of this strategy, we must point out that it contains a few flaws. For example, compared to other exams such as IELTS, anyone who wants to master the TOEFL iBT already has a huge list of tactics to keep in mind. Planning for the possibility that you will hear others answering a question that you think might be asked may unnerve you in the middle of an already complex procedure.

Most importantly, this strategy would work only if the test-taker were listening to question 2 of the exam’s speaking component, as this is the speaking component’s only universally asked question. Other questions in the speaking component differ from person to person. Thus, properly planning this strategy would present a challenge and distract you from carrying out the much more important ‘clean’ tactics we have outlined in this e-course.

Instead, use your 10-minute break to relax your mind and calmly map out what you have already planned for in your preparation. Use this break period constructively.

Questions 3 & 4

The task in questions 3 and 4 is integrated with listening, reading, and speaking.

You can expect to read a relatively brief text based on a university campus associated topic. An audio passage will follow, in which either one or two people will discuss a subject. You will be able to discern what their opinion about it is by listening carefully.

You will then be asked about what you have just read and heard.

The general topics include university policies, rules, or procedures; university plans, campus facilities and quality of life on campus. Pay attention to the description of the proposal (what has been proposed, planned, changed, etc.), and the arguments for or against the proposal. This will help you understand what the two speakers are discussing as you listen to their conversation.

Keep in mind that this question type is not probing you for your view or opinion on the topic. You are only to relay the view or opinion of the speaker, as well as his/her reasons for having formed that particular view.

Practice by outlining the major points in an internet article, then summarizing them orally.

More details about question 3

  • You will hear one or two speakers – usually students – speaking about the same article (or letter or announcement) you have just read.
  • This task will test your ability to integrate information from two sources – the reading and listening passages – and to summarize an aspect of what you have heard.
  • It is therefore important, as you listen to the discussion, to determine the speaker’s opinions of the proposal and to understand the relationship between what the speaker is saying and what you have learned from the reading passage.
  • Also, try to determine the speaker’s true viewpoint by listening for linguistic nuances such as stress and intonation. This might be more challenging for non-native speakers, so try to practice listening to native speakers having normal conversations in order to be able to pick up on these linguistic nuances.

More details about question 4

  • Question 4 will entail you reading a brief text about an academic topic, which will be followed by an audio passage of a professor giving a short lecture on the same topic you just read about.
  • You will then have 60 seconds to provide your spoken answer in relation to the text and audio passage.
  • The topics for this question come from a variety of fields, including life science, social science, physical science, and the humanities.
  • You will be given a reading passage, which is usually between 75 and 100 words in length.
  • You will need to integrate and convey key information from both sources, the passage and the lecture.

Practice for these two questions by finding listening and reading material about topics in which you are interested. The reading and listening material can portray a similar or a different view. Take notes and create outlines to organize your thoughts. Use your notes and outlines to orally summarize the information and ideas from the listening and reading materials.

Questions 5 & 6

Questions 5 and 6 do not have an associated reading passage.

Question 5

  • Question 5 will have you listening to a brief dialogue about a university-related issue. You will usually hear two people discussing a problem, and some conceivable solutions to the problem.
  • You will then be asked to briefly describe the situation that was discussed in the conversation. You will have 60 seconds during which to give your spoken response.
  • Usually, the topics for this question focus on everyday issues in college or university life. Examples include scheduling conflicts, unavoidable absences, unavailable resources, student elections, and financial difficulties.
  • You will be asked to first describe the problem the speakers are discussing, and then to clarify which of the two solutions you deem to be correct. Finally, you will be asked to explain why you prefer that solution.
  • Your response will be rated not on what solution you choose, but on how well you.
  • 1. Describe the problem
  • 2. State the solution
  • 3. Explain the reasons for your opinion.
  • Remember, there are no right or wrong opinions. Concentrate on doing numbers 1, 2 and 3 effectively.

You must practice suggesting, convening, or refuting opinions and subjects. This is one of the hardest tasks a non-native speaker will encounter when learning English, so get started practicing now.

Question 6

For question 6, you will first listen to a brief excerpt in which a professor speaks on an academic subject. Then you will be asked a question about what you have heard.

The professor will begin the lecture by defining a concept, highlighting an issue, or introducing a phenomenon, and will then discuss important details about the topic. You will have 60 seconds during which to give your spoken response to the question.

The topics for this question stem from a variety of fields within the life sciences, social sciences, physical sciences, and humanities.

Notes are the best way to tackle this because the scenario is similar to what you might experience in a college lecture. Follow the tips we have already given about taking effective notes.

As you can see, questions 5 and 6 are very similar. You must practice your conversational speaking skills as much as you can. You can do this by joining an English language conversation club. If such clubs do not exist in your area, perhaps you can start your own and, if possible, invite native speakers to join.

Find different ways to communicate with native speakers, whether in your daily life, or online. Conversations with native speakers will help you become more comfortable with the English language and excel on the speaking component of the TOEFL exam.

Are you ready to put everything together, now? Here we go:

Part 4: Combining everything into a step-by-step checklist

Step 1: Collect enough paper to take notes. Use one piece of paper for each recording. The reason for this will be explained below.

Step 2: Read the given passage and listen to the recording (for questions 3 to 6). Immediately identify the main topic (usually stated at the beginning of the recording).

Step 3: Once you have identified the main topic, find a keyword that best describes the main idea and write it down at the top of the page. To record the remaining details as the recording continues, use the outline method for note taking, which was mentioned in the previous section (reading and listening).

Step 4: As soon as the question appears, identify the question type. Recall the requirements for answering each question type. Obviously, you need to have practiced this skill sufficiently before writing the exam, so that it is done without effort, excessive thought or stress.

Step 5: Look for the question’s main keyword. While the question is being read to you, skim it to find the main keyword. After you have spotted the main keyword, write it down in your notes.

Some believe that the students should do some part-time jobs or summer internship to determine their future career. Do you agree or disagree with the opinion and why?

So, for example, in the question above, the main keyword would actually be two sets of keywords, being “part-time jobs” and “summer internship.”

Remember that you have the question in front of you, so try not to waste too much attention on listening to the speaker reading the question.

Start preparing immediately. If you do this efficiently, you will have time to brainstorm the answer. You will receive an extra 15 to 20 seconds to prepare.

If having the question read to you again distracts you, put your headphones down. Every second you receive can help you prepare for your answer. Thus, it is wise to use your time carefully.

If this is from questions 1 or 2, you will have to base your answer on your own opinion or knowledge.

However, if it is from questions 3 to 6, you will base your answer on the previous recordings (or reading passages) that were played to you before the given questions.

Here are how your notes should look:

For questions 1 and 2, use the following note-taking structure:

The image below shows an example of how your notes should be structured for the speaking section. The arrows we have made in the image below are the actual points you will think of in your head. The sentences in the sample page next to the arrows are the abbreviated form of what you have thought up (as represented by the arrows).

Therefore, you need to practice the skill of abbreviating your thoughts in this manner:

For question 3 and 4, use the following note-taking structure:

When answering questions 3 and 4, use only one piece of paper. This will keep your work organized and accessible, especially during a stressful environment such as the exam. Divide the page as seen below.

For questions 5 and 6, use the following note-taking structure:

When answering questions 3 and 4, use only one piece of paper. This will keep your work organized and accessible, especially in a stressful environment such as the exam. Divide the page as seen below.

As with anything we spell out for you in this e-course, make sure that you practice each and every aspect of it now until it becomes second nature for you on the exam. The same goes for these various note-taking techniques. If you fail to do so, you will have wasted your time and money, and will not do as well on the exam.

Step 6: Record yourself so that you can correct your answers later. Obviously, this is not intended to be applied on the actual exam, as there is of course no opportunity for practice when writing the test. Rather, this should be part of your TOEFL preparation that you do before you sit the exam.

After you complete the speaking tasks, replay the recording and refer to the rubric below. Write down any shortcomings you notice about your speech, and try to avoid those mistakes during your next speaking session.

Step 7: Refer to your answer checklist to ensure that you have met the requirements for a good answer.

Clarity of speech and sounding natural
Speaking confidently at the right pace
Using correct grammar while speaking, and focusing on correctly applying the rules for articles and prepositions
Good pronunciation
Use of strong verbs such as the following:

analyze apply argue assess categorize compare complicate conceptualize  
contrast convey create demonstrate develop differentiate disappear distinguish  
examine expand explore focus generate highlight ignore illustrate  
initiate investigate involve isolate justify maximize minimize organize  
portray promote propose prove resist respond result show  
strengthen support sustain threaten transform translate weaken construct  

Easy-to-follow response that shows the organization of ideas
Connecting your ideas using transitions

For ordering and listing points:

  • First
  • Second
  • Third

For additional points:

  • In addition to
  • Another
  • Related to
  • Also
  • Furthermore

For countering points:

  • Nevertheless
  • However
  • Even though
  • On the other hand

For cause and effect:

  • Thus
  • Therefore
  • As a result of
  • Consequently

Wide use of vocabulary such as being able to use synonyms effectively
Elaboration on the topic