Six Tips for Doing Well on the TOEFL® Speaking Test

The Speaking section of the TOEFL® may be one of the more nerve-wracking sections. You have 20 minutes to complete six tasks, including expressing an opinion on a topic and speaking based on reading and listening tasks. The idea is that the test questions replicate the kind of speaking you will need to engage in within an academic setting, when both expressing personal opinion in casual conversations and participating in class discussions while using references to what is heard or read about in class.

Here are some tips to help you do well on the TOEFL® Speaking test:

1. Practice. A lot.

Most test-takers don’t practice regularly or don’t practice with fluent speakers who can give them advice and feedback about their speaking ability. While speaking with other non-native speakers can increase your comfort level, that kind of practice may not provide opportunities for helpful feedback that will help you grow and improve your speaking skills. Because you will be assessed on your delivery and your use of language, it’s important to not only practice what you say, but how you say it. Good pronunciation, natural pacing, and appropriate intonation patterns are just as important as your diction, the thoroughness of your answer, and how coherently you address the topic.

Some ways you can practice include:

  • Collecting a list of generic topics or pictures from a magazine and randomly picking one each day for practice. One of the tricks of the TOEFL® Speaking portion is being able to “think on your feet,” which is to say that you can think quickly and formulate a thoughtful response without having a lot of time to prepare. The speaking questions all provide preparation time and then response time, so practice by setting a timer and thinking about the topic for 20 seconds and then talking about it for 1 minute.

  • Reading an article that interests you and sharing the article and your opinion about it with a friend. This is good practice because it requires you to summarize the main points of the article for someone who hasn’t read it and to give your opinion about it with evidence to support why you feel as you do.

  • Finding a textbook (for any subject) that is written in English and has study questions at the end of each chapter. Try answering those questions aloud.

  • Video chatting (think Facetime®) with friends or family.

Practice using language for:

  • Giving your opinion (“I think/I believe ___ because…” and then tell the story of the experiences you have had that have led you to this opinion)

  • Describing a problem and offering a solution (“X is a problem because ___. It should be addressed by… because…”)

  • Comparing and contrasting

  • Transitioning from one idea to another

2. Record and assess yourself.

As uncomfortable as it may be, or as silly as you may feel doing it, recording yourself speaking is one of the best ways to improve your speaking skills. Often, we hear mistakes more easily than trying to identify them in any other way. So, record yourself speaking and then listen to those recordings. As you listen, ask yourself:

  • Did I completely address the question?

  • Did I speak clearly with good enunciation and pronunciation?

  • Did my speech sound natural and conversational as opposed to forced or robotic?

  • Did I make any grammatical errors or use the wrong word?

  • Were my ideas organized and did they flow in an order that makes sense?

  • Did I use the time effectively?

  • Did I speak at a good pace without pausing too often or for too long?

Based on your answers, you can make adjustments and improvements, increasing your skills. To grow and improve, focus on your weaknesses. Tweaking small things will yield great improvements and help you achieve fluency. However, don’t try to fix everything at once. Focus on one area to address at a time rather than trying to fix multiple issues all at once.

3. Time it!

The Speaking portion is very picky about the length of time you have to respond and how long your responses should be. Even when we think we have been babbling on for a really long time, it’s usually much shorter than we think. Make sure to practice for the Speaking section by timing your responses to questions. If you find you run out of things to say before your 45–60 seconds is up, consider:

  • expanding your answer by providing specific reasons or examples. Use more adjectives and descriptions as you talk about a topic. This may also help you sound more engaged with the topic so that you sound less robotic and automatic in your response.

  • incorporating storytelling into your response, since telling a story usually helps a speaker feel more comfortable about speaking and it gives you more to talk about. Just make sure your story addresses the topic and that you don’t go on for too long!

  • taking a deep breath and slowing down. Even native speakers tend to speed up when they speak in a stressful situation, and the TOEFL can certainly be classified as a stressful situation!

If you find your answers are too long, consider cutting down on the number of examples you provide, the stories you tell, or the descriptions and adjectives you use. Make sure that your answers stays on-topic and you don’t let your words wander as you respond. Taking some quick notes during the reading and listening tasks in this section can also help you stay focused on key words, phrases, or ideas that you want to make sure you include in your response.

4. Practice speaking by listening.

You can pick up a lot about how to speak by listening to others. Intonation (where you place the stress or emphasis in words) and pronunciation can be listened for by listening to audiobooks or the radio, watching TV or a movie, or just engaging in conversation with fluent speakers who can help you practice the natural pauses, stresses, and intonation that English speakers use in their daily conversations. In the TOEFL® assessment, they want to hear you speak naturally, in a tone that mimics a conversation, not a robotic speech or recitation. Listen to how others modulate their voice.

Listening also gives you the opportunity to hear idioms and to increase your vocabulary. Broadening your vocabulary and learning synonyms for commonly used words can help you sound less repetitive in the speaking portion.

5. Prepare your response.

You will have 15–20 seconds to prepare for each response. Make the most of that time by jotting down main points you want to include in your response. Do not try to write yourself a script to read. It will sound forced and you won’t have time to write it all out anyway. But do think of some examples or evidence you can use to support your answers and extend your speaking time.

6. Sound confident.

Even if you are really nervous and the butterflies are swarming in your tummy, take a deep breath and try to remain in control. Speak at a steady pace—not too fast because you are trying to cram more into the allotted time and not too slow with long gaps in your response. Speak at a normal, steady, conversational pace (or slightly slower because nerves will probably speed you up a little despite your best efforts). This is where recording and listening to yourself comes in handy. Trust in your preparation, trust in your answers, and hear your voice come out steady and confidently.

Incorporating even some of these tips in your TOEFL® preparations should help you do well on the Speaking portion. Good luck!

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