Tips for the TOEFL Speaking Section

The speaking portion of the TOEFL test can be a nerve-wracking moment even for near-fluent English speakers. However, with the right preparation and strategy, you’ll enter the exam with greater confidence. Here are some tips to boost your score and oral skills for the test.

TOEFL Speaking Test at a Glance

The TOEFL test is about 20 minutes in duration and consists of two parts: independent speaking and integrated speaking.

Independent Speaking – A question is asked, and the student provides an answer. The questions don’t have a right or wrong answer and are opinion-based. The student performs the independent speaking test twice. Each test is 60 seconds, with 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to respond.

Integrated Speaking – The student listens to a brief audio clip or reads a snippet of text, then answers some ensuing questions based on the material. The student takes the integrated speaking test four times. Each test is 90 seconds, with 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to respond.

With this in mind, here are some tips to help refine your speaking ability and maximize your score. These tips apply to both independent and integrated speaking.

Fully Pronounce Each Word

Some TOEFL students tend to try to emulate native English speakers. Native speakers speak relatively quickly without fully pronouncing each word before moving on to the next.

As a TOEFL student and especially during the test, make a conscious effort to fully pronounce each word. Keep in mind that your answers are recorded and reviewed, and the instructor will not be able to see you. With no facial cues to rely on, it’s more important to form each word completely so you’re more comprehensible to the listener.

Slow Down Your Speech

One way to help you pronounce each word fully is by actively slowing your talking speed. Do not try to speed up your talking speed to sound more like a native speaker. Try to speak about 25% slower than you normally would.

Think about how you speak in your native tongue when talking to a foreigner who is just learning your language. Do you speak at your normal pace? No, you slow it down to make yourself easier to understand to the non-native speaker. Slow down the same way during the speaking test.

Use the Full Time

Remember, you have 45 seconds to speak for the independent test and 60 seconds for the integrated test. Use the full time allotted. If you finish before the time is up, fill the rest of the time by expanding on your answer. There shouldn’t be any silence while the clock is running.

Here’s a useful tip to ensure you use the full 45 or 60 seconds: feel free to lie and make up completely untrue scenarios. You are being evaluated on your English speaking ability, not the merit of your story or opinion. If making up stories or opinions helps you fill out the clock, then by all means do so.

Practice Speaking for Long Periods

Spend time speaking on the fly and for at least 60 seconds in duration without pausing. A good way to practice is to have a partner ask you a random question or an opinion on an issue. You then have to respond within 10 to 15 seconds. Once you start, you have to speak for 60 seconds straight without long pauses in between. This will condition you to learn to speak for longer periods with minimal preparation on the question or topic.

Improve Your Vocabulary

Having an expanded vocabulary helps you articulate your thoughts. It’s helpful to learn synonyms of common words. With this in mind, however, you should strive to use simple language. You’re not going to get extra points by using the word “ecstatic” instead of the more simple “happy.”

Keep the language simple and at an eighth-grade level. If you need to expand your thoughts, then you can use your extended vocabulary to express yourself without using the same words too many times.

Speak More Often

English learners should strive to speak the language more often with both native speakers and fellow students. Before the test, aim for at least two to three hours each week of real-world conversation with other people. Gradually build up your output until you speak English as often as you use your native language (a 50/50 split).

Learning a language is about repetition. Speaking English as a regular habit is the only way to get better and boost your confidence during the speaking test.

Look for at least three speaking partners for regular conversations. The more partners you can find, the better. Different people have different tones, pronunciations, etc. Being exposed to varying speaking mannerisms helps your listening comprehension and ability to respond.

Read Excerpts or Watch Videos of Sample TOEFL Tests

You can find excerpts of sample tests or watch videos of actual students taking the test. TOEFL actually has its own YouTube channel. Some of its content includes students taking both the independent and integrated speaking tests. After the exam, the narrator gives the student a score and provides feedback. The evaluation includes a detailed analysis of:

  • What the student did right
  • What the student did wrong (e.g. wrong pronunciation, long pause) that led to a drop in score
  • Areas for improvement

Watch as many of these videos as you can. This will give you a better idea of the expectations and the parameters for a higher score. Closely examine the speaking patterns and mannerisms of the high-scoring students. Compare it with those that got an average or below-average score.

Learn About English-Speaking Cultures

Learning English goes beyond the language. It’s also about immersion in the customs and cultures of English-speaking countries. To learn about Western cultures, watch TV shows or movies that interest you with subtitles. Over time, you’ll learn more about the rich culture as well as pick up on new phrases and colloquial terms. You may also learn pop cultural references that you can incorporate into your speaking test.

When picking shows and movies, aim for genres that genuinely interest you. Ask yourself if this is a program you would watch in your native language. The more entertaining it is for you, the less it’ll feel like studying.

Take Notes

You have 15 seconds to prepare for the independent test and 30 seconds for the integrated test. Use this time to jot down notes. Since you have only a few seconds, only include the main points you would like to discuss. You won’t have time to write everything down. You may take notes in either English or your native language or even a combination of both, whatever helps.

Avoid writing in full sentences. Just write short phrases, and feel free to use symbols or abbreviations. For example, you can use “U” for “you” or “+” in place of “and.” If you’re familiar with shorthand writing in your native language, then stick to that. If your notes include English, then study some common symbols in English shorthand writing.

Use Bodily Gestures

During the test and in practice, make full use of hand and other body gestures as you speak. No one will be watching you speak during the test, so no one will see these gestures.

However, using your body language will help you become more expressive. It may help you come up with the right words in case you experience a brain freeze. A study shows moving your hands aids in remembering complex words and phrases.

Maximize Your Break

Between the listening portion and the speaking portion of the test, there’s a 10-minute rest period. Use those 10 minutes wisely. With the speaking test just minutes away, you may become increasingly nervous and experience heightened anxiety. Here are some ways to calm your nerves:

  • Take deep breaths
  • Get a drink of water to clear your throat
  • Get up from your seat and move around to dissipate some of the nervous energy
  • Reassure yourself that your months of preparation will pay off
  • Listen to some classical music

Practice Introductory Phases

Many TOEFL test takers have commented that the first sentence to kickstart their response is always the hardest to come up with. Once they get going, however, it becomes easier to chain sentences together and keep the momentum going. Practice will help get the first sentence going. Learn the different ways of beginning a conversation or sentence in varying contexts. Some introductory phrases include:

  • I believe/feel/think that…
  • I have to say that…
  • Here’s my opinion about…
  • I never thought about this before, but…

Summing It Up

The speaking portion of the TOEFL test may be the most intense moment for most test-takers. Even so, if you adequately prepare, then those 20 minutes of the test become more manageable. In essence, the more you prepare and study, the better you’ll fare with clear and succinct verbal responses.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.