Page 1 Speaking Study Guide for the TOEFL®

How to Prepare for the TOEFL® Speaking Test

General Information

The Speaking section of the TOEFL test requires completing six speaking tasks in about 20 minutes. You have between 15 and 30 seconds to prepare your response to each prompt, then between 45 and 60 seconds to deliver your spoken response to each.

The listening portions of the tasks are delivered via headphones and you must read the passages on your computer screen. You will be allowed to take notes throughout the Speaking test.

Test Content

The tasks on the TOEFL Speaking test are similar to speaking you would do while in a college setting, including casual conversations and more formal academic responses. The prompts for the tasks vary and may include listening and reading. Here is a description of each task you will encounter on the test.

Independent Tasks

Personal Preference: Tell about a personal choice you would make among things in a category and why you would make that choice.

Choice: Choose between two actions or behaviors and tell why you would choose that option.

Integrated Tasks

Campus Situation (Fit and Explain): Read a short passage about a campus situation and listen to a short recording about the same topic; then tell about the speaker’s opinion as it relates to the passage.

Academic Course (General/Specific): Read a short passage on an academic topic and listen to a short recording on the same topic; then tell the important information gained from both.

Campus Situation (Problem/Solution): Listen to a conversation between two students about a problem and two possible solutions; then explain the problem and choose a solution.

Academic Course (Summary): Listen to part of a lecture on a topic that includes examples; then tell about the concept and how the examples relate to it.

Scoring

Speech varies so widely among people. You may think it would be hard to score a person’s responses to these tasks. TOEFL Speaking scorers are highly trained, however, and they are looking for very specific things in the responses. They are not looking for perfection in any area, though—just proof that you are basically competent in speaking English.

You will be given a score of 0 to 4 on each of the six tasks, resulting in a total of 0 to 30. Then, this score will be converted to a scaled score, using the formula found here.

The only way to earn a score of 0 on a task is to either fail to respond at all or to not speak to the topic presented. You can see the various levels of performance and their designated score level on pages 77–79 of this document.

Here are the points scorers are trained to assess.

Delivery

The speaking section will not only be scored on the content of your answer, but also on your delivery—how you speak. There are two areas that the scorer listens for when evaluating your answer:

Clear Speech

The first thing to remember when starting the Speaking section is making sure the microphone is positioned properly in front of your mouth. If it is too high, your breathing will interfere with what the scorer can hear. Place it too low and the scorer won’t be able to hear you at all. Follow the directions of the test proctor on where to place the headphones and microphone during this section of the test.

To get an accurate score, the scorer needs to hear you clearly. Once you have the microphone placed correctly, use your regular tone of voice. Speak normally and clearly. Do your best not to use filler words or pauses (e.g. um, er, ah) because they give the impression that you are having difficulty producing language. Taking notes during your preparation time is critical because it will help you keep your thoughts organized and your reponse flowing smoothly. Your response should be sustained and the pacing even. You will be evaluated on whether you are able to sustain your speech for the full time without repeating yourself. Keep your volume consistent and “talk” to the screen. Talking as if you are reading will reduce your score.

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is very important. Don’t worry about your accent. Nearly every test taker has an accent; however, if the scorer has difficulty understanding your words, you may end up with a lower score. Don’t be brave and use words that you’ve never spoken out loud before and make sure that the words you use are pronounced correctly. Saying a simple word correctly is better than “trying out” a new word and pronouncing it incorrectly. For example, look at the following statements:

“The Dean reprimanded (rep-ree-MAN-did) the student.”
“The Dean reprimanded (ree-PRY-man-did) the student.”

The second example was pronounced wrong and affected the understanding of the sentence. Because of this, the pronunciation may result in a lower rating.

Intonation is also important when giving your speaking response. The scorer will rate you on how you say things, not just what you say. They will listen for rises and falls in your tone, which give the scorer a good idea about your familiarity with spoken language.

Remember, the most important goal is to make yourself understood, not to sound exactly like a native speaker.

Language Use

Scorers will consider two major areas: grammar and vocabulary. When evaluating the test taker, the scorer understands that there may be minor errors. They take that into consideration and, as long as the language use doesn’t interfere with understanding or obscure the meaning of the sentence, there won’t be any significant penalties.

Grammar

The scorer will rate your ability to use grammatical structures and a high level of accuracy. You need to consider a couple of things:

  • Use only one type of English in your response. You can use British English or American English. Either is okay, but you must be consistent in your use of grammar in your response. You shouldn’t flip between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE). For example, “I prefer to stay in Main Street (BrE) on the weekend (AmE). In this case, both American and British grammar structure was used. This type of grammar mixing may affect your score.

  • Keep your responses in the same tense. Make sure that if you are speaking about the past, your verb tenses remain in the past. Do not mix tenses in the same idea or thought. Take a look at this example:

Incorrect: The girl told him that he can stop by after lunch and she’ll be happy to help him.
Correct: The girl told him that he could stop by after lunch and she would be happy to help him.

Word Usage/Vocabulary

Word usage and vocabulary are one of the elements scorers listen to when evaluating your response. The scorer will tune in to the words you use and determine if they best express your response. Is the language rich or simple? Does the speaker use a variety of sentence structures (i.e.simple, compound, complex)? Your responses should be concise. They should include appropriate transitions and colorful descriptions. For example, this is a grammatically correct expression:

“The student wanted to know about the new increase.”

However, this example is richer, more colorful, and more expressive:

“The biology student inquired about the amount of increase in lab fees the university will be adding to the total tuition.”

Start now to practice increasing the level of vocabulary you can use correctly.