Savvy Tips to Score Higher on the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section

What do you do with a problem like the TOEFL iBT test?

For worse or for better, the TOEFL test remains the standard assessment of English for international students planning to attend American colleges and universities. As a result, many international ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students often adopt the TOEFL test scores to self-assess their own ability in English too.

Of course, standardized exams – including the computer-based TOEFL-iBT – remain unfair to anxious students prone to extreme cases of test anxiety. It also assumes a false equivalency between responses to a computer and responses to actual, live conversations with individuals. (This difference in assessing speaking skills is why I strongly believe the IELTS remains a more authentic test of speaking skills, but the TOEFL remains far, far more popular among American universities as a measure of English language skills.)

TOEFL Scores Matter
Still, the imperfect TOEFL test remains part of current English learning experience for millions. An imperfect standardized test also provides more information to university admissions committees than no standardized test scores. When people have hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applications to sift through, sometimes abstract numbers provide a reassuring sense of objective depiction of student potential. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “standardized testing is the worst possible form of applicant evaluation, except for all the rest.”

Students, even the students that I currently teach in the United States, often seek to improve their TOEFL scores. My standard advice on the speaking section has been practice speaking on a computer, time yourself, paraphrase and don’t parrot question, listen carefully, and videotape your responses. Giving your opinion and providing a short reason in less than 30 seconds remains a practical everyday life skill, and practice can help improve TOEFL test scores too.

Listening to a Friend – and TOEFL Expert
Sometimes friends can help. I met Brent Warner two years ago, and we have had the opportunity to see each other at a number of CATESOL conferences. He’s become a bit of a TOEFL maven between his teaching and tutoring Japanese students for seven years for the TOEFL. He also currently works as the Academic Manager at Kaplan International in Irvine, California and deals with TOEFL headaches and desires on a regular basis. He’s one of my “go to” experts on TOEFL and edtech questions because he’s developed an expertise in an area I prefer to avoid.

Brent is also the author of a useful primer on TOEFL called title=”How to Pass the TOEFL iBT Test: Know What to Expect to Improve Your Score”>(http://www.amazon.com/How-Pass-TOEFL%C2%AE-iBT-Test-ebook/dp/B007Z55G4I/ I asked a simple question: “What else should I recommend students do to improve their speaking scores?”

Know the TOEFL Test: Structure Matters
“Know the TOEFL test; structure matters”, is a quick summary of Brent’s advice. “And read my book.”

His straightforward ebook steers away from countless practice drills. Instead, the book focuses directly on the structure of the TOEFL iBT test. As an English teacher who has never taken the test, I found it quite illuminating. Understanding that structure helps qualified students – and English teachers – save time and move through the test more efficiently and confidently.

Brent argues that understanding the TOEFL test structure allows test takers more time to think about the content of the questions during the test rather than trying to decipher “the best way” to answer. Never forget that the TOEFL iBT remains partly a test of knowledge about the TOEFL iBT as well as English.

Specific TIPS for TOEFL Speaking Section
In consideration of speaking, Brent wisely emphasizes that the speaking sections of the TOEFL test remain limited at best in comparison with natural, authentic communication. Who watches the clock and talks to recorded voices on a computer and pretends this is a natural conversation? Unfortunately, the TOEFL test remains the answer.

• “When the test gives an independent question prompt, you are expected to give an answer. While this is very common in standardized tests, the fact that there is no response may put many testers off-balance. In the real world, even if we are speaking into the screen of our phones, at the very least we can reasonably expect to get an indication that we are being listened to, and more commonly some sort of positive feedback that lets us know we are on the right track.”

• “In integrated question prompts, testers are expected to synthesize information from a listening and a reading passage, then compare and contrast the two and summarize it all in their own words. Admittedly this is a useful skill, especially for college-bound students. In practicing for the test, however, students often feel as though it’s only practical to compare a lecture with textbook passages and they quickly lose motivation to continue. It’s important to take these skills outside of academics and show how they can be used in daily life by talking about the news, movie reviews in comparison to your own opinions, and any of the myriad ways we might need to synthesize information. Making these skills practical and applicable outside of the realm of the test is hugely important to teachers, and should be integrated into the core of the TOEFL test as well.”

• “Speakers sometimes get so caught up with trying to give a perfect answer that they often forget there is a human being on the other end of the test. A light and breezy style focusing on being easy to understand rather than structurally perfect may provide a much welcome relief to the test grader. Remember that they may have been listening to similar answers for hours before they get to your response, so anything you can do to stand out from the crowd will only help you.”

A Quick Primer
I remain skeptical of the TOEFL test’s validity as a real measure of authentic English-speaking skills. However, Brent’s book demonstrates how English language learners can take back some control by deciphering the TOEFL test structure. His advice on understanding what ETS wants by their own definition of a “high quality” answer helps reduce the stress and confusion surrounding the controversial, highly influential test. Numbers do, after all, often provide precision and clarity. Warner’s ebook serves as a quick primer for TOEFL iBT test takers and English teachers working to help students improve their scores. And I would remember that practice seldom makes perfection, but it does make progress.

Bottomline:
Some problems, like the TOEFL iBT test, can best be handled by preparation and practice. Brent’s ebook helpful in both understanding the TOEFL and deconstructing its inner logic. I like his sensibility and trust his judgements, especially on the test’s strengths and limitations. International students facing the TOEFL iBT test might also find it a valuable resource as they seek a target TOEFL score. Reading this ebook is one way to manage the TOEFL iBT problem. You can read more on Brent’s thoughts and reviews on TOEFL resources at www.toeflibtbook.com . I learned from it; you might too.

Finally, let’s hope more dedicated international students and English language learners reach their target TOEFL score!

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