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 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Be careful about using out-of-date and hand-me-down material you get from your friends and acquaintances.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 E2Language.com 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 understands 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.
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!
Written by Colin David