How to Prepare for the Speaking Section of the TOEFL iBT

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Speaking in a second language can be daunting, especially if you have to convey a large amount of information in a small amount of time. Luckily, since the TOEFL always uses the same types of speaking questions, you can analyze and practice for all of them in advance.

Know your question types

There are two types of speaking tasks on the TOEFL: The independent and the integrated.

  • Independent (Questions 1-2): 15 seconds preparation, 45 seconds speaking
    You are given a short prompt (1-3 sentences) to consider and answer based on your personal experience and opinions**.
    • Question 1 is open-ended. Describe an important…What is the most important…who is the best…? Give at least 2 reasons for your answer and examples to go with those reasons.
    • Question 2 asks you to choose. Which would you rather…which do you agree with…? Again, give at least 2 reasons with examples.
    ** If you can’t think of an appropriate personal experience, it’s okay to make something up. Just make sure your answer is believable.
  • Integrated (Questions 3-6)
    Reading + Listening (Questions 3-4): 30 seconds preparation, 60 seconds speaking.
    You are given a short passage to read (for about 45-50 seconds) and a lecture or conversation to listen to. Your answers should be based on information from both the reading and listening passages and not based on personal experience or opinions.
    • Question 3: You read a short official announcement. Next, you listen to a student giving their opinion about the announcement, either alone or as part of a conversation with a friend. Your job is to describe 1) what the student thinks and 2) why they think so.
      → Example: The announcement states that the student activity fee will increase to $100. The student thinks this is unfair and gives three reasons why.
    • Question 4: You read a basic explanation of an academic concept. Next, you listen to a professor giving a detailed example of the same concept. Your job is to 1) explain what the central concept is and 2) describe how the professor’s example helps students understand it.
      → Example: The reading passage defines the economics term elastic good. The professor describes how a Hershey’s chocolate bar is elastic.
    Listening only (Questions 5-6): 20 seconds preparation, 60 seconds speaking.
    • Question 5: You listen to a conversation between a student and another person – it could be another student, a professor, a university administrator, or anyone else the student might meet at a university. The student always has a problem, and the other person always suggests solutions to the problem. Your job is to 1) explain what the problem is, 2) what the other person’s suggestions are, and 3a) what you think the student should do and 3b) why.
      → Example: The student did badly on a test and wants to know if anything can be done to improve their grade. The professor suggests two ways to earn extra credit.
    • Question 6: You listen to part of a university lecture on an academic topic. Your job is to 1) analyze the structure of the information and 2) verbally explain the topic and supporting details in an organized way.
      → Example: A psychology lecture discusses the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning, giving one real-life example for each typ

How to Approach the speaking task


Speak

While pronunciation and grammar are factors in your score, trying to make every statement perfect will result in score-lowering delays and hesitations.

Take notes

This is especially important for the integrated tasks. Not taking notes often leads to crucial details missing from your answer.

  • Try to take notes quickly. Use symbols and abbreviations where possible.
  • Organize your notes. For example, for a Question 5 (“A student has a problem”), you can divide your page into columns to show who said what and in what order:
    Student Friend
    - Not enough $ for choir tour to China
    - Only chance to do sth like this
    - All friends in choir
    1. 0 to sell, people might not want to donate 1. Raise funds by self – Kickstarter? Sell stuff on eBay?
    2. Maybe everyone else will ask too, no $ left 2. Ask choir council for help – student groups have funds
    3. Not sure if parents have enough $ 3. Ask parents for help

Budget your time

Some people find it helpful to mathematically divide their response time. For example, the answer to the example question above could be divided like this:
+ 10 seconds: The student’s problem is that she doesn’t have enough money for her choir’s trip to China.
+ 5 seconds: Her friend makes two suggestions.
+ 10 seconds: The first suggestion is to raise the money herself by asking for donations on Kickstarter or by selling some of her possessions on eBay.
+ 10 seconds: The second suggestion is to ask the choir’s council for help, since student groups usually have funds for problems like this.
+ 10 seconds: The third suggestion is to ask her parents for money.
+ 15 seconds: I think she should take the second suggestion because it will be less work for her and the choir council will be willing to help her because she’s their friend.
→ Total: 60 seconds

Even if you don’t go to this level of precision, watch the clock as you speak, speak at a reasonably fast pace, and use details only where necessary.

Practice


Whether you use a stopwatch, the timer on your phone, or a friend’s help in timing your answers, imitate real test conditions as closely as possible. Audio-record your answers and listen to them. Were you always on-topic? Did you run out of time? What did you do well? What could you have done better?

Use the practice questions offered by ETS. Go to Prepare for the TOEFL iBT® Test and scroll down to Free Test Preparation Resources. Need an expert to listen to and give you feedback on your speaking? scroll down:

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Sally Kim has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. She is an experienced TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) test preparation instructor. She has worked closely with students of many ages and proficiency levels to prepare them for the TOEFL iBT, the SAT, and school writing assignments.


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