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TOEFL Speaking

If you want to get a degree from a native English speaking university or pursue a career in a native English speaking country, you must be able to speak English fluently. You won't get far if you can't get your thoughts or questions across to people. The Speaking section will test your ability to communicate effectively in a variety of situations.

The IBT test Speaking section has 6 tasks. There are only 3 kinds of question formats though. It will take about 20 minutes in total to complete the Speaking section. Each of the questions is given a mark of 0-4. Your total score is then scaled to a value out of 30. For a decent score you must get at least 3 out of 4 for all 6 speaking tasks.

What score you get from 0-4 for your speaking responses is based on 3 factors: delivery, language use and topic development. Delivery means how well you are speaking. Do you speak clearly and with few pauses? Does it sound natural? Your pace also can't be too fast or too slow. Language use means how well you can use grammar and vocabulary. Do you use the same words over and over or have variety? Did you use the right word? And don't use any slang or swearing. Do you use more than one kind of sentence strucure? Or are your sentences all basic like, "The banana in the basket is green." Topic development refers to how well you answered the question. Is your answer coherent? It should go from one idea to the next logically. It should be easy to understand, not confuse the grader to death. Your answer should provide reasons – more than one – with details or examples to support the reasons you give. Below is a guideline of what grade to expect for a response.

TOEFL Speaking Grades:

Score Reasons for Score

  • Didn't say ANYTHING
  • Spoke in your own language
  • Gave an answer that was completely off topic

  • Said something somewhat related to the question
  • Lots of pauses between words and sentences
  • Very hard to understand

  • Answered the question somewhat
  • Lack reasons and details and/or got them wrong
  • Problems with pronounciation, intonation, pacing
  • Limited use of grammar and vocabulary

  • Answered the question reasonably well
  • Need to expand on ideas or details a bit more
  • Speech is fairly clear and natural
  • Some problems with pronounciation, intonation, pacing
  • Variety of grammar and vocabulary used

  • Reasons with excellent support provided
  • All the important details are given accurately
  • Presented the information in an organized manner (it made sense!)
  • Speak clearly with little hesitation, good pace
  • Effective word choice and complex grammatical structures used properly

The only way you'll get scores of 3 or 4 is to practice, practice and practice more. Watching movies or TV shows in English won't help much. To improve you have to talk and talk lots. Ideally you have a native speaker you can talk to, or hopefully some friends or fellow students that are also studying English. Ask them anything, and get them to ask you questions. Weather, sports, health, economy, love problems, whatever. Grab some topic from an online newspaper like the L.A. Times or Chicago Tribune or CNN. Get used to talking in English!

You don't have to give a lengthy speech or talk in front of a whole room of people for the Speaking section. You need to be able to speak well into a microphone for a minute at most without a written down answer prepared beforehand. Of course you can't talk about anything, you have to stay on topic and answer the question as accurately and completely as possible. A score of 4 doesn't necessarily mean you speak flawlessly, as if you were born in the United States, but you do sound like you've lived there for several years.

In the Speaking section you do the 6 tasks in order. You finish the first one and go on to the next one. Keep your headphones on at all times. There will be audio instructions from the narrator, you will hear the questions, and 2 of the formats require you to listen to a passage. What you should expect for each task is covered below.

TOEFL Speaking Question Format: Familiar Topic

The 2 speaking questions for this format require you to answer a question using only what you know and have experienced. After you hear the question – the question text is also seen on your screen – you will have 15 seconds to prepare your response and 45 seconds to speak. The first question will be about a familiar topic that you answer based on personal experience. The second question will also be about a familiar topic that you answer by giving your opinion.

The first speaking question will ask you to describe something as well as to give reasons and details. It could be a place, a person, an object or an event in your life that you are asked to describe. Besides describing it, you'll be asked a "why" question about it. With 15 seconds to prepare you won't have time to write anything out, you have to quickly decide what your answer will be and what details you'll include.

Sample prompts:

What would you like to accomplish over the next five years?
What was your favorite movie of the last year? Use details and examples to explain what you liked about the movie.
What is your favorite academic subject and why do you like it? Give details and examples to support your answer.
Describe the qualities that you think makes someone heroic. Use specific examples and provide details to support your explanation.
What are some of the advantages and/or disadvantages of having three or more generations of family living together in one house?

The second speaking question is similar to the first task, but now you will be asked to give your opinion about a familiar topic. The question always presents you with 2 choices, 2 possible actions, or 2 opposites sides of something. You must choose which of the 2 you prefer and be able to support your choice. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. It's a test of how well you can express your point of view, how convincing an argument you can present.

Sample prompts:

Some people prefer to live in a cool climate while others prefer to live in a hot climate. If you had the choice, where would you prefer to live and why?
Some companies require people to dress in suits or ties. Others allow casual dress. Which one would you prefer? Use examples and personal experiences to support your answer.
Many universities offer exchange programs that allow certain students to complete a portion of their studies in a different part of the world. What do you think the value of such a program is? Would you take part in an academic exchange if given the opportunity?
Some college and university students believe it is important to focus solely on their academic studies, while others see extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports as a valuable part of their educational experience. Which approach do you think is best?

To do an actual question of this type, go to the speaking sample in our IBT demo.

TOEFL Speaking Question Format: Read, Listen, Speak

The second speaking question format gives you 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak. For each of the 2 questions you read a short passage and then you will hear and watch (like in Listening) a talk related to the same topic of the reading. You will then be asked to answer a question that will be related to both what you read and heard.

The first question's passage and talk will be about some aspect of campus life. A change to a university's policies, rules or procedures, some change at a facility, or an aspect of student life are typical topics. Even if you are not familiar with the topic, from what you read and hear, you can answer the question.

You will usually have 45 seconds to read the passage of 75-100 words in length. You won't see it again so it's best to write down some notes. The short (60-80 seconds long usually) talk will involve 2 people discussing what you've just read about. Usually one speaker has a strong opinion and gives their reasons for having that opinion. The opinion may agree or disagree with what was presented in the reading. Again, to help you answer the question more easily, take notes while you listen.

Read and listen to the question carefully. You will not be asked to give YOUR opinion about the topic. The question will usually ask you to state what one of the speaker's opinion is and why that speaker feels that way. Sometimes the question will ask you to describe both points of view about the topic. A good response will combine information from the reading as well as the talk. If someone, who hasn't read or heard what you have, listens to your answer, they should be able understand everything: the situation presented in the reading, the speaker's opinion and their reasons for that opinion.

Sample prompts:

The woman expresses her opinion regarding the lab rules. State her opinion and the reasons she gives for holding that opinion.
The female student expresses her opinion regarding the smoking ban. State her opinion and the reasons she gives for holding that opinion.
The professor expresses his opinion regarding the decision to tear down the historic administrative building. State his opinion and the reasons he gives for holding that opinion.

The second question of this format is similar to first task, but the passage and talk will be on an academic topic. Any of the sciences, arts or humanities could be a topic. The reading serves to introduce you to general concepts and ideas of the topic, to get you ready to understand the talk that follows.

The talk will be on the same topic as the reading and you will only hear one speaker, a professor. What you hear will usually go into one specific area of the topic. You might hear an extended example, an opposing view, or an application of the concept presented in the reading. Again, even if you don't know anything about the topic, you can answer the question based off of what you read and hear. As well, remember to take notes to help you form your response.

Sample prompts:

Explain how the professor's description of sonar expands upon the reading.
The professor describes the behavior of Arctic Terns in migration. Explain how their behavior is an important adaptive strategy for the species.
Summarize the life and works of Samuel Clemens, and briefly discuss the reasons for his continuing popularity.

TOEFL Speaking Question Format: Listen and Speak

The third speaking question format gives 20 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak. For the first question, you will hear and watch a conversation between 2 speakers (2 students or a student and a faculty member). For the second question, you will hear and watch an academic talk. The talk will usually be 60-90 seconds in length. For both, you will answer a question based on what you heard. Even if you are not familiar with the topic, from what you hear, you can answer the question.

The topic of conversation between the 2 people you hear in the first question of this format is taken from everyday conflicts, problems or situations that can happen while at university. For example, a student with a schedule conflict, a student unable to find something they need to finish something, or a student with financial troubles. You will learn what the issue is and then generally you will hear the speakers discuss 2 possible solutions. The situation might affect one speaker or both.

As you will only hear the conversation once, make sure to note what the problem is and what solutions are suggested. You will be asked to provide this information as part of your response. The question will also ask you which of the 2 solutions you prefer and why. In giving your reasons for your choice, you can include what you have learned from being in a similar situation. You do not just have to use the information given in the talk. There is no right or wrong answer. What you are being tested on is your ability to describe the problem, the 2 solutions, the solution you would pick and your reasons why.

Sample prompt:

The students discuss two possible solutions to the woman's problem. Describe the problem. Then state which of the two solutions you prefer and explain why.

For the second question, the last Speaking section question, you will hear part of an academic lecture by a professor. Any of the sciences, arts or humanities could be a topic. Again, all you need to know about the topic will be in the passage. Only one main topic will be in the talk. Ideas, definitions, concepts, illustrations, details, applications, or functions related to the main topic are then discussed. In your response, you typically have to explain what the main topic is and use whatever aspects were also provided in the lecture to help you.

Sample prompts:

Using points from the talk, describe Al Capone and his career.
Using points from the talk, describe monarch butterfly migrations.
Referring to the passage, describe the characteristics of a tornado, including how they are formed and the speed at which they can rotate and travel.
Using points and examples from the talk, explain why early childhood creativity and reading skills may be negatively influenced by TV.

To show Speaking question examples is a bit difficult. You can get a good feel for what the different types are like if you do all of our free mini-TOEFL tests. So be sure to check them out. You might even win yourself an iPod.

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