Want to get a high score on your TOEFL Speaking exam? You’re in the right place! In this study guide, we’ll share with you the best tips and strategies to improve your test score fast. We have also given examples to help you understand these tips in the context of the exam. Let’s dive in!
You need good fluency in English to get a high score on TOEFL Speaking. Fact!
However, not all fluent speakers get a top score. Why? This is where knowledge of the test is important. In English, we call this “exam technique”.
Below we have created a list of the top strategies for successful candidates. You can use this as a checklist before your TOEFL Speaking exam. Remember to give yourself plenty of preparation time before the test. This will help you achieve the best result.
15 tips to improve your TOEFL Speaking score fast!
1. Know the test structure 100%
TOEFL Speaking tests your spoken English for university entry. This section of the exam is 17 minutes long. There are a total of 30 points available. A “high score” would be 26-30 points. Your university will tell you in advance what score you need.
TOTAL AVAILABLE POINTS: 30
Good: 26-30 Fair: 18-25 Limited: 10-17 Weak: 0-9
The TOEFL Speaking exam has two parts and 4 tasks to complete. The first is “Independent Speaking” (x1 task). The second is “Integrated Speaking” (x3 tasks). These tasks try to simulate real-life situations inside and outside the academic classroom. Let’s take a closer look…
Task 1 Independent speaking
Task 2 Integrated speaking
Task 3 Integrated speaking
Task 4 Integrated speaking
Explain a choice
PART 1: “Independent Speaking”
In this section, you will answer one question using your own ideas, opinions, and experiences. There are three main types of questions:
i) Good/bad idea ii) Paired choice iii) Agree or disagree
You should always support your opinion with relevant examples and give as much detail as you can. You may also contrast your chosen answer with an alternative viewpoint. In this section, you’ll have 15 seconds to prepare and your speaking time is 45 seconds.
Let’s look at 3 examples of these questions and how to give strong answers to them:
Good/bad idea example
Q. Some companies have rules that forbid employees from using personal cell phones during working hours. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
A.I personally think this is a really good rule. I know that most people are addicted to their cell phones these days, but I can tell you that I constantly see people around me missing important information in our classes because of this addiction to their phones. I know that my grades definitely suffer every time that I allow myself to become distracted in class by my mobile.
I am also sure that companies could easily improve production and efficiency by banning the use of personal phones in offices. When the power goes out, we all suddenly become much more aware of our surroundings! And we have to remember that we can still relax and connect with others without these distracting devices.
Paired choice example
Q. Some people think they can achieve more when they work with other people. Some think they are more productive when they are alone. What is your opinion? Explain why.
A.I don’t think there’s a very clear answer to this one. For example, I believe it can be beneficial to have other people around when trying to achieve a goal, like for example to lose weight. When I was trying to lose weight, I went to group sessions. It was really helpful because we got together to do exercise and to record our weight loss. We would be there for each other when someone lost motivation or when someone was falling into temptation.
On the other hand, in high school, getting together to finish an assignment often turned into a party rather than a workspace, and I knew I was wasting my time. Other people can often be a major distraction! I think it all depends on what needs to be achieved and how disciplined you are. I think if I’m honest with myself, I’m probably more productive when I just lock myself in my room.
Agree or disagree example
Q. State whether you agree or disagree with the following statement. Then explain your reasons using specific details in your argument. “Teachers should assign daily homework to students.”
A. I think that the concept of homework is debatable, and I can definitely see both sides of the argument. But, if I had to make a choice, I’d have to agree. I know that most students hate homework, but I think there are two very positive aspects to daily homework.
As humans, we definitely need repetition in learning, and seeing the concepts only once in the classroom may be limiting. Going over ideas again at home creates repetition, and if we get used to doing this, I think we have more chance of success in the future.
I also believe that homework allows children to bond with their parents. When I was young, my parents really helped me when I had questions or doubts about my homework and it really brought us closer together.
PART 2: “Integrated Speaking”
Questions 2, 3 and 4 on the TOEFL Speaking test are “Integrated Speaking” tasks. ‘Integrated’ simply means that these tasks combine reading, listening and speaking skills. For example, you may need to listen and respond orally, or to listen, read and then respond orally.
This section focuses on campus and academic–related topics. In questions 2-4, you’ll have 15-30 seconds to prepare your answers. Your speaking/response time for each question is 45-60 seconds.
Let’s look at an example for each topic and how to give a strong answer:
Directions: Read the passage and then listen to the audio. Finally, answer the question.
Part A: READING
The geology department is aware of the problems surrounding group work and its unpopularity among students. We realise that in some cases students do not contribute and thus gain marks they do not deserve, while stronger students are frustrated at being held back by weaker students. Similarly, it is very difficult for tutors to award marks for group projects, as it is unclear who is responsible for each part.
However, the department feels that there is a great deal to be gained from group work in terms of self-organisation and communication skills. To this end, we plan to introduce a system whereby the group work itself is not formally assessed. Each student will undertake an individual piece of work based on the group project. This will be designed to ensure participation in the project.
Part B: LISTENING
(Male student) Thank goodness the department has made changes to the way they assess group work! I had a nightmare last term with our geology project. I couldn’t bear going through that again!
(Female student) Why, what happened?
(Male student) Well, there were three of us in the group. One guy worked really hard, but he didn’t trust anyone else to do anything. He just wanted to do it all himself.
(Female student) It sounds like you were freeloading.
(Male student) Well, I wasn’t! I offered up plenty of ideas, but he kept saying they were no good. In the end, I stopped trying and left it to him. The other guy was a waste of space. He didn’t pull his weight at all. We barely saw him.
(Female student) Did you get a good grade?
(Male student) A reasonable one, considering how little work I did. But I’m sure I’d have done better if I’d been given the chance to say what I wanted.
(Female student) Well, the new system should give you that opportunity.
(Male student) Yeah, I hope so, though I wish they’d abolish group work altogether. All this organisation and communication is just a waste of time. It’s got nothing to do with geology!
Q. The man expresses his opinion of group work. State and explain his opinion. Compare his opinion with that of the Geology Faculty.
A. The man doesn’t like group work because he had a negative experience when another group member kept rejecting his ideas. He felt he couldn’t contribute. He said that he wasn’t taking the easy road because he did constantly try to participate, unlike the third team member who simply did nothing.
He felt that the marks didn’t reflect each participant’s work fairly. He agreed with the faculty that giving one mark to the whole group doesn’t correctly reflect how much or how well each individual member worked.
He says that he really wants to be able to work individually, and this is in accordance with what the faculty recognised as important, so they seem to agree on this point. However, the man does not agree with what the university states at the end of their message about the importance of organisation and communication skills for all students. He believes that those skills have nothing to do with geology.
Directions: Read the passage taken from a psychology textbook and the lecture that follows it, then listen to the audio. Finally, answer the question.
Part A: READING
In psychology, the feeling of complete and energised focus in an activity is called “flow”. People who enter a state of flow lose their sense of time and have a feeling of great satisfaction. They become completely involved in an activity for its own sake, rather than for what may result from the activity, such as money or prestige. Contrary to expectation, flow usually happens not during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise; in a task that stretches our mental or physical abilities.
Part B: LISTENING
(Male professor speaking)
I think this will help you get a picture of what your textbook is describing. I had a friend who taught in the Physics Department, Professor Jones, he retired last year…Anyway, I remember…this was a few years ago now…I remember passing by a classroom early one morning just as he was leaving, and he looked terrible: his clothes were all crumpled, and he looked like he hadn’t slept all night. And I asked if he was ok.
I was surprised when he said that he had never felt better, that he was happy. He had spent the entire night in the classroom working on a mathematics puzzle. He didn’t stop to eat dinner; he didn’t stop to sleep…or even rest. He was that involved in solving the puzzle. And it didn’t even have anything to do with his teaching or research; he had just come across this puzzle accidentally, I think in a mathematics journal, and it just really interested him. So he worked furiously all night and covered the blackboards in the classroom with equations and numbers and never realised that time was passing by.
Q. Explain flow and how the example used by the professor illustrates the concept.
A. The article describes flow as the feeling of focus in which people can lose their sense of time, while becoming entirely involved in an activity that doesn’t necessarily result in either money or prestige. From the text, we can understand flow as: being involved in something that is difficult or challenging, rather than in moments of relaxation.
The professor’s example of his colleague is relevant because he describes how this co-worker had clearly lost his sense of time by working all night on the mathematics puzzle he had come across, not stopping to rest, eat or even sleep. He also explains how the puzzle was not going to lead his colleague to any specific conclusion. It represented a personal challenge that kept him intrigued and fully satisfied while he was in the process of doing it.
2. Understand your TOEFL Speaking score
To score top marks in the TOEFL Independent Speaking task, study the assessment rubric (criteria). The marks are focused on the following three concepts:
A. Delivery: The candidate generally speaks at a good speed and shows fluency of expression. Speech is clear and may include minor lapses or minor difficulties with pronunciation or intonation patterns, but these do not affect overall intelligibility.
B. Language use: The response demonstrates effective use of grammar and vocabulary. It shows a relatively high degree of automaticity with good control of basic and complex structures. Minor errors may be noticeable but they do not lead to misunderstanding.
C. Topic development: The response is sustained and relevant to the task. It is generally well-developed and coherent, and relationships between ideas are clear.
Source: ETS TOEFL Official Website
When answering TOEFL Speaking questions, consider the following:
Did I answer completely?
Did I speak clearly?
Did I make any mistakes with grammar?
Did I choose my words correctly?
Were my ideas clearly organised?
Did I make good use of the time given?
Did I speak too quickly or slowly?
Did I use pauses effectively?
3. Use introductory phrases to buy yourself more time
Practise giving your opinions, describing problems and solutions, and using language to compare and contrast ideas. These are key concepts in the TOEFL Speaking test.
The more you talk about your thoughts and opinions, the easier speaking in English will become, and the less stressful it will be to talk about bigger ideas.
Practise beginning your answers with phrases, such as:
“As far as I’m concerned…”
“Personally, I think that…”
“It seems to me that…”
To describe problems and solutions, use intro phrases like these:
“The problem is…”
“The problem seems to be that…”
“The real issue seems to be that…”
To compare and contrast ideas, try expressions like:
“On the contrary…”
“Instead, I’d say that…”
“Some may argue that…”
4. Communicate regularly with native speakers
Listen carefully to how native speakers sound when they speak, and try to copy what you hear. There are many free and paid online platforms where you can interact with native speakers. Facebook has many groups where you can find speaking partners.
If you want more focused preparation for the TOEFL Speaking exam, consider taking paid online lessons with a qualified native English teacher. At OTUK, our courses concentrate on fluency AND exam technique to help you get faster results.
On the TOEFL Speaking test, you will need to read and listen to material that may be fairly long or wordy. It’s important to pick out the most important points fast and summarise information to create answers that are short, clear and relevant.
You can prepare by frequently listening to the news, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. in English, and then recording your own summary of what you have heard. You can also practise doing this with reading texts or articles.
You can use an online tool like Resoomer to summarise a text fast. This may help you to find shorter ways of expressing the same ideas in English.
Try to express your ideas at ever-increasing speeds, begin with a 2-minute summary, then a 90-second summary, then 60 seconds, etc. Each time remove any non-essential elements. Only focus on the key concepts. This exercise forces your brain to select relevant words and phrases for more effective communication.
Example text and summary answer
Listening text transcript:
It’s always been one of those big sci-fi questions – is there life on Mars, or rather, could Mars ever support life? Well, it is generally assumed that in order to have life, you need water. Well, ever since the 1960s we’ve been sending out probes to Mars to try to…ascertain if there is water on Mars, or if there ever has been, and in the 1990s, 1996 to be precise, the U.S. Mars Global Surveyor was launched. The surveyor remains in orbit around Mars to this day and has some rather nifty equipment on board, including a high-resolution camera, a sensor that can identify soil and rocks, and a laser that can take measurements and map the planet’s surface.
So what have we learnt from the Global Surveyor? Well, we’ve found out that yes, there was once water on Mars, and in great quantities too. I’m talking oceans, seas, lakes…much like Earth today. They have deduced this from the shapes of the mountains and valleys on Mars – they are the same shape as those formations on Earth that we know were created by water. In fact, some analysts are suggesting that there is still water on Mars to this day, but deep down, in holes 100 to 400 meters below the surface.
This idea created quite a stir, as you can imagine, and a number of scientists have tried to either prove…or refute this theory, using other evidence available to us. Some Chinese scientists, for example, have been studying a meteorite that was collected from Antarctica in 2001, but they’ve found no evidence of water there, but that’s not to say there isn’t any water on Mars, as Mars and meteorites are separate entities entirely. Another source of evidence we have is images from astronomical telescopes, but we can’t see much of the planet from this angle – just the poles, and they are covered in ice caps – dry ice, not H20 – so that doesn’t help us one way or the other.
Q. Using information from the talk, describe what we know about water on Mars, and how we know this.
A.We hear from the professor that there was once water on Mars, perhaps a similar amount to on Earth today. This data has been retrieved by a probe sent to orbit Mars in the 90s. Scientists have even been able to measure the shape of the land and draw maps of the planet. They believe there was once water on Mars because the rock formations are similar to those formed by water on Earth. Some argue that there is still water on Mars, but deep underground.
Some Chinese scientists have been exploring a Martian meteorite that landed on Earth in 2001. They haven’t found any signs of water in these rocks, but this doesn’t discount the possibility of water on Mars itself. The professor also explains that we can view images from telescopes, but they don’t really help us decide whether Mars has water as they can only see the poles of the planet. These are covered in dry ice, making it difficult to see. In conclusion, we still don’t know whether there is currently water on Mars.
6. Support your answers
Practise explaining your answers. Support them with clear reasons. If you want to argue that travelling on a gap year is better than going straight to university, then be prepared to come up with at least three reasons to justify your opinion. In the test, you will not have time to give three reasons, but it is always better to have too many than too few.
For the travel/university example, your reasons might be: learning about new cultures, visiting famous places, and taking a necessary break from education. You could use a couple of these reasons to support your answer.
7. Use adverbs/adjectives to add complexity to your language
You need to demonstrate that you have a good knowledge of vocabulary. Including various adverbs and adjectives can add more expression and complexity to your English.
Try to use transitional adverbs to make your speech flow, e.g. however, therefore, consequently, moreover, nevertheless, nonetheless, thus, and hence. When discussing your personal opinions, use adjectives like: reliable, resourceful, sensible, passionate, and bright.
Check out our blog posts about adjectives and adverbs to improve your vocabulary for the TOEFL Speaking test. You can download all our posts as free pdfs to study at home!
8. Take notes effectively when listening to English speakers
In the TOEFL Speaking test, you will have the opportunity to write notes as you listen to texts in preparation for your answer. If you don’t regularly practise this skill, time may become a problem, and you may not record all the important points. For the integrated tasks on the Speaking test, you’ll have 45 seconds to read a text, during which time, you’ll also make notes.
Exercise: Try listening to the radio/TV news and make a bullet point list of the essential information. This will be the backbone of a good summary to reference when speaking. Now practise retelling the news item in the shortest way possible using your notes. You can get a friend to comment on your summary or ask you a specific exam question.
You won’t be marked on the appearance of your notes. They are just for you. Keep them as brief as possible by using abbreviations and “shorthand”. Use bullet points and include only one fact per line. Make sure your notes are 100% clear to you.
Let’s look at an example text with very brief bullet point notes.
Beginning with the fall semester, tuition bills must be paid in full before classes begin. Returning students will not be able to attend classes for which they preregistered last spring if there is an outstanding balance due on the account. Although in previous semesters students were allowed to attend classes if 50 percent of the bill was paid, the new policy, with no exceptions, will go into effect immediately. The bursar’s office is open Monday to Friday from nine to six to assist you with financial aid, loans, and scholarship applications. Please check your account balance online.
New policy = 100% paid before attend class, starting autumn
Old policy = only 50% paid before
Office open Mon-Fri 9-6 for help
Check account balance online
9. Use phrasal verbs (but not too much!)
Native speakers often use phrasal verbs in conversation, especially in more informal situations. It’s a good idea to use some phrasal verbs during your TOEFL Speaking test to show that you know them. This is higher-level vocabulary.
Make sure you know common phrasal verbs to use in different contexts. For example:
Get on, get back, get over
Look after, look up, look forward to
Put off, put on, put away
You don’t need to learn all the phrasal verbs in the dictionary! Just focus on fully understanding 15-20 common ones. Check out our list of recommended phrasal verbs for IELTS – these can also be used for your TOEFL exam.
Use phrasal verbs naturally and just several times during your Speaking test. Make sure you don’t overuse them, like in this example below:
I don’t know how I got through the lecture today. Everyone was dozing off! The students at the back of the room did nothing but fool around. I know the faculty has tried to crack down on disrespectful behaviour and get back to a sense of decency, but today the lecturer ended upbreaking off the lesson and leaving the room to cool off. I think that this behaviour may cause a drop off in the number of students who enrol, and the university may even do away with the course altogether.
Listening to yourself speaking is a highly effective method of study. This can help you find weak points in pronunciation, reduce pauses, correct common mistakes in grammar, etc. It’s also a good idea to share your recordings with a study buddy or English-speaking friend/tutor to get additional feedback.
Use a mirror = Practise answering TOEFL Speaking tasks in front of a mirror. This will help you build confidence when speaking aloud in public. Start by doing this alone. Later ask a friend/tutor to play the role of the examiner.
Use your phone = Record yourself giving answers to Speaking questions by using a dictaphone app on your mobile. Do this once a day. Do this in the morning and review your recording in the evening. Keep paper notes on what to improve. Practise doing the same Speaking task at least 3 times.
Don’t judge yourself too harshly. We all make mistakes. The objective here is to practise speaking, analyse our errors, and then improve over time. The more you speak about the same topics, the better your answers will become!
11. Master transition words
Connect and move between ideas by frequently using phrases like: first, however, incontrast, ontheotherhand, moreover, etc. Remember that flowing easily between ideas is a sign of fluency. Using transitions can help you avoid pauses and lead the examiner smoothly into your next point.
Let’s look at some really useful transition words and phrases:
Giving yourself time to think
That’s an interesting/a good question
Let me think
In spite of
Others may argue
Expanding on your point
First (of all) . . . Second . . . Third
Without a doubt
Illustrating cause and effect
As a result
For the most part
As a result
12. Show what you know!
We can think of the TOEFL Speaking test as a “performance”. You are the main actor and you need to demonstrate your knowledge of English to the examiner. This may include vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, style/flow, and other aspects of the language.
Use each Speaking task as an opportunity to show the examiner what you know in English. If you want to get a higher score, you need to use more complex vocabulary and grammar correctly. This should also be relevant to the question.
If you can, try to include a number of different verb tenses in your answers. For example:
Q. Do you agree or disagree that pupils should have a job while they are studying at school?
A.When I was at school, I had a part-time job, and it really helped me to learn about self-discipline. I don’thave a job at the moment because I need to dedicate all my time to university, so I suppose I can see both sides of the argument. I would definitely recommend getting a part-time job if you can handle the workload. I know I’llsee the benefits of it later in my life.
We’ve already mentioned vocabulary like phrasal verbs, adverbs/adjectives, and transition words in our list of TOEFL exam tips. There is no specific set of vocabulary given by TOEFL ETS for candidates to learn. Your goal should be to acquire vocabulary over time as you progress your English.
4 ways to improve your vocabulary for TOEFL:
Read regularly in English and keep a notebook for new vocabulary
Use a dictionary and thesaurus to make sure you fully understand each new word
Make a list of 10 new words/expressions each week and test yourself
Write down vocabulary you can use for common TOEFL Speaking topics, focus on learning more words for your weaker topics
13. Practise preparing quickly (use the news!)
In the TOEFL Speaking test, you will have 15 seconds to prepare your first response. Make sure you know what this feels like. Try to watch or listen to the news every day and give yourself 15 seconds to prepare a summary of one news item.
At first, you may find it hard to make notes in such a short time. That’s ok! With practice, you will get faster. If your English is good enough, use native news sources and not ESL-adapted material. Make sure you have a stopwatch on your mobile to time yourself.
There may be some background noise during your Speaking exam. If you need complete silence to speak well, this may be distraction on your test. This may also affect you during tasks that involve listening.
Practise speaking and listening to English in public places where there are multiple distractions. If you don’t have anyone to practise with, record yourself speaking in places that have some amount of background distraction. You can also practise at home by increasing background noise from a TV or radio while you are doing a speaking or listening task.
15. Listen to different accents
During your TOEFL speaking test, the examiner may ask you to listen to a number of audio recordings. The audio for the first task will probably contain a mixture of accents from English-speaking countries around the world – USA, England, Scotland, India, South Africa etc. This could be a problem if you are only used to one accent of English.
Expose yourself to as many different accents as possible so that you become familiar with them over time. Remember that you can control the accent you use, but you never know what to expect when other people open their mouths and start speaking English! You need to be flexible and able to understand a variety of different accents for the test.
For some great audio samples, check out the IDEA archive of accents and dialects of English. For example, try listening to these accents from across England.