How to Succeed on the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section

Is it just me or is the TOEFL iBT harder than it used to be?

No, not really. It’s just got a speaking section. The TOEFL iBT speaking section has added a new level of complexity to the TOEFL in recent years. In the late nineties, preparing people for the TOEFL paper based test (PBT) was a relatively uncomplicated task. A teacher could take a group of willing, hard-working students and work your way faithfully through a fairly dry TOEFL preparation book, set them a number of mock tests then send them in for the real deal after 10-12 weeks. One of the main attractions of the PBT form of the test for the insecure test-taker was the fact that there was no speaking element. Scoring a TOEFL 550 – the equivalent of what used to be the minimum score required by many US universities (about an 80 on the TOEFL iBT ) – was less of a challenge than getting a top score in the IELTS or the other Cambridge exams. For test-takers worried about their TOEFL grades, it was one less skill they had to worry about.

That all changed about 10 years ago with the arrival of the TOEFL iBT (internet based test). Suddenly your ability to speak well in English mattered and people started to worry. To make matters worse, you had to speak to a machine: there was no human interaction, no visual cues, no interpretation of body language. Anyone who has learned a foreign language before will tell you that having a meaningful conversation on the telephone is much more difficult than a face-to-face interaction. Conference calls are the bane of many an executives’ existence. Listening to the radio is more difficult than watching television.

TOEFL iBT Speaking tip: Buy a decent TOEFL book

How then does the modern test taker get to grips with the spanner in the works that is the TOEFL iBT listening section? The first thing one must do is get familiar with the many TOEFL speaking samples that can be found all over the internet. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, an up-to-date TOEFL iBT preparation book will provide you will a plethora of speaking samples to help you model out your answers.

Be careful about using out-of-date and hand-me-down material you get from your friends and acquaintances. It might be tempting to cheap out and download a 300-page pdf, but apart from being theft of intellectual property, more often than not you cannot be certain of its origin or usefulness.

TOEFL iBT speaking tip: Record Yourself

It is a devilish thing to try to self-study this part of the TOEFL test, since meaningful feedback is what will push you away from forming bad habits. In the absence of a teacher or study partner, you must get into the habit of recording yourself and listening back to the result. Most PCs come with pretty decent Voice Recorder software, and Apple users have the same benefits from QuickTime.

Although this is not tested in the TOEFL iBT, you should find articles from academic or scientific journals and read them aloud. Record your efforts then listen back to them. You’ll start to get a good feel for crucial elements that will count towards your score in speaking, such as tempo, enunciation, whether you are mumbling (an easy way to losing crucial marks) and pronunciation. It’s worth noting that makes an excellent app, called E2Pronounce, available to anyone who signs up for one of our TOEFL iBT preparation programs.

TOEFL iBT speaking tip: Book time with a teacher

No one should ever consider getting behind the wheel of a real car without first having some on-road experience. I wouldn’t be happy boarding a plane flown by a pilot who’d done 100 hours on the flight simulator. Similarly, sitting down to do your TOEFL iBT without ever having spoken to a teacher is a risky business! I wouldn’t even recommend a native speaker go into the TOEFL iBT and attempt the speaking section without consulting a teacher.

TOEFL iBT speaking tip: slow it down!

I recently attended a conference where a variety of experienced, international speakers presented. The most disappointing of these talks was given by a middle-aged man – a native-speaker of English – with a very impressive resume who spent 50 minutes talking at such a high speed that almost nobody in the auditorium could keep up. This should stand as a warning to all TOEFL iBT test takers: quality is much more important than quantity.

If you were to reach for a comparison between your real life experience of speaking and the TOEFL iBT speaking section, addressing a group in a public situation would be it. Speak clearly, steadily and enunciate to a degree that feels almost unnatural. It is very important that your audience understand every single word of what you’re saying. Leave aside your usual, chatty tone in favour of the disciplined discourse you reserve for public speaking.

TOEFL iBT speaking
Is talking to a computer easier than talking to a crowd?

It’s also useful to reflect on speakers we have personally found interesting to listen to in the past and mimic their style. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

Have you taken the TOEFL internet test before? What did you do to prepare for the speaking section?


Written by Colin David

The Internet TOEFL (TOEFL iBT): What is it?

The internet TOEFL test, or TOEFL iBT, replaced the very successful computer-based TOEFL several years ago. One of the most important innovations was the addition of a speaking section not seen in its previous iteration or even the one before that, the TOEFL paper test. There are still a handful of TOEFL test locations that offer the TOEFL paper test, but they are soon to be phased out.

Most people take the internet TOEFL for academic purposes, and this is reflected in the nature of the questions you will see in the body of the test. The context for most of the spoken conversations is on a university and the discussions are either about academic topics or are between people on a campus (eg: a tutor talking to a student, two students talking with each other). Nevertheless, there are other uses for the TOEFL iBT. Australia now accepts the TOEFL iBT for migration purposes, leading to a dramatic rise on the number of candidates applying for the test around the world.

There are numerous books for the TOEFL available to purchase on the market, including excellent tomes from respected publishers such as Longman and Cambridge. These preparation books are a handy way to prepare for the TOEFL iBT because they include TOEFL sample essays, genuine TOEFL writing samples and listening exercises on CD roms. Although you will feel the lack of any guided learning from an instructor, you will be able to run through TOEFL test simulations that will help you feel more at ease with the format of the TOEFL iBT test structure.

Since each of the four language skills – reading and listening (receptive) and speaking and writing (productive) – are tested by the TOEFL iBT, the TOEFL grading is organised in a logical way. Each skill is given a mark out of 30, meaning that one’s total score can be anything up to 120. How much you need to get in the TOEFL iBT is decided by the institution to which you are applying. As a guide, you would be hard pressed to find any credible institution of higher learning allowing a student to enrol with an overall TOEFL iBT score lower than 80. Many top universities in the United States and Canada will expect you to achieve no less than 105 out of 120, with a minimum of 26 in every skill.


What is the best way of tackling the speaking? 



TOEFL iBT was one of the first major tests in which the candidate did not interact with another human being. By taking on sophisticated software based on input from language testing experts, model answers and real samples taken from actual test-takers, the algorithms embedded in the system then grade your efforts. 

Many candidates are put off by the absence of another person to talk to, and feel that it makes the task even more challenging. We naturally react to the responses we get from other people, which is why so many learners of English find speaking on the telephone more challenging than having a face-to-face chat. Once you have got over the fact that you’ll be speaking into a machine, it does bet easier. In the TOEFL IBT you are expected to respond speaking out loud after the relevant prompt. This can be something you have heard, read or both (in an integrated activity).

Another factor that tends to make matters worse, is the noise made by all of the other candidates during the speaking section of the test can be hugely distracting. Without the benefit of noise-excluding headphones, you are going to have to learn to cope with this. You can do this by yourself by going to a busy place like a bus station or a cafeteria and record yourself responding to questions into your phone. There is nothing else to do but ignore the chaos around you and focus on the task at hand. Concentrate on your own words and the way in which they come out of your mouth. If you’re doing it correctly, the hubbub around you will become background noise and you can rise above it.


How long do I need to prepare for the TOEFL IBT?


Give yourself a decent amount of time to become familiar with the format of the test. An intensive preparation period of about three weeks is about right for most people, but this will vary according to your level of competence before you start.
There are TOEFL test locations all over the world, and tests are taking place every week of the year, so you can think about booking when you feel you are ready. Some of these TOEFL test locations get very busy at certain times of the year. While you can be fairly confident of being able to sit the TOEFL iBT on the day of your choice, the further in advance that you book your test, the better. If you leave it too late, you may not be able to sit your TOEFL iBT test at the location of your choice. The last thing you want to be doing on exam day is taking a long drive to a far-off location.  



Written by Colin David.