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TOEFL Tip #168: Practice TOEFL Speaking In Your Native Language

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 8, 2012

Today’s post is about a strategy for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam that seems counterintuitive at first: practicing in your native language.

Of course, many of the skills necessary to get a good score on the Speaking section of the TOEFL are language-based. If your grammar is so poor that you cannot construct a correct sentence, if your pronunciation is so far off that the TOEFL rater can’t understand what you are saying, or if your vocabulary is so limited that you can only repeat a few words in every sentence, you will not score well on the Speaking section of the TOEFL. (This applies, in varying degrees, to the Writing, Listening, and Reading sections, as well.) These skills demonstrate a level of mastery of English.

But do you know that some skills necessary to get a good score on the TOEFL exam are NOT language based?

Instead, this additional set of skills is linked to public speaking. If you can speak with strength and confidence in your voice, you will sound more convincing. If you can speak slowly and clearly into the microphone and project your voice without shouting, your recorded answers will be easier to understand. If you pause for a moment between sentences, you will sound calm. Although you are not speaking to the entire room during the TOEFL exam, it is still a kind of performance. With so much at stake, you need to give the best performance that you can.

Therefore, learn how to become a more powerful public speaker in your own language. You’ll be able to translate those performance skills into English for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam.

How can you employ this technique? First, try answering TOEFL questions in your own language. Pretend that you’re talking to a young child who needs concepts explained step by step in order to understand them. Then try to deliver that same CONTENT in the same STYLE, but using English instead of your native language.

Good public speaking skills will showcase the content of your Speaking section answers to their best advantage.

TOEFL Tip #163: It’s (Not) About Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 27, 2012

By far, people’s worst anxiety about taking the TOEFL iBT comes from the timers ETS uses on the Speaking section of the exam. This is probably because the time allocations are so short – 45 seconds for Tasks 1 & 2; 60 seconds for Tasks 3-6 – that test takers cannot give themselves the luxury of “losing themselves in the question.” “Forgetting” about the timer is almost impossible in the Speaking section of the test because the clock is staring the speaker right in the face the whole time he/she is talking.

But we have good news: You can, and indeed should, FORGET THE TIMER!!!!

Strictly English knows this sounds crazy. We know that every TOEFL exam study guide and every other language school has convinced TOEFL test takers that they have to speak for the full 45 or 60 seconds, and they have to display mastery of all the content they read and hear (in Tasks 3-6).

However, our research, and that of other Speaking Specialists, has proven that this is not true. In fact, page 165 of ETS’s Official Guide to the TOEFL states that “Good responses generally use all or most of the time allotted” and that “it is important to note that raters do not expect your response to be perfect.” (Bold added for emphasis.) This means that you do not have to reproduce every detail from the short text and/or the lecture/conversation you were given. Nor do you have to finish that perfect content at the exact moment the timer reaches 0:00.

If this is true, then why does the TOEFL exam use a timer?

The timer is really for ETS. It is not for you. Since the TOEFL exam is a standardized test, it has to make sure that all responses from all test-takers are equivalent. TOEFL can’t simply have a STOP RECORDING button that the test taker can push when he/she is finished talking. If it did, then all students would have differently timed “samples” of their speaking. Therefore, the raters must have the same length of audio recording (notice that this is different from the same amount of speaking) from each test taker.

Let’s run the numbers for a moment: From the original text of ETS’s Speaking Rubric on page 166 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, we can identify the following points that raters use to grade your speaking:

1. clear speech
2. fluidity
3. good pronunciation
4. natural pacing
5. natural intonation
6. effective grammar
7. effective vocabulary
8. full answers
9. coherent presentation
10. using all or most of the response time
11. relationship between ideas
12. progression from idea to idea

Notice that TIMING is only 1/12 (or 8.3% )of the grade.

Granted, you DO have to FILL MOST OF THE TIME with your response. However, this can be achieved, and SHOULD be achieved, by talking slowly and calmly. Doing so will allow you to focus on the other 11 items above, which compose the other 91.7% of your grade. Sadly, our new students come to us having reversed this priority. They make time the most important factor, which causes them to rush, rush, rush. This hurried response is then chock full of bad pronunciation, unnatural pacing and intonation, egregious grammar errors, and incoherencies. No wonder they score so low.

So now that we’ve explained WHY it’s important to forget the timer, you have to learn HOW to forget the timer. It’s not easy to do! But our tutors can teach you very quickly the strategies necessary to turn your back on the timer and face a higher Speaking score!

TOEFL Tip #153: TOEFL Details Are Divinely Devilish

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 27, 2012

English has two idioms about the importance of details. One is “The devil is in the details.” The other is “God is in the details.” Someone hearing these two expressions might ask: How can both God and the devil be in the details? And more relevant to our purposes as TOEFL tutors, we might ask, what do these expressions have to do with TOEFL study?

Let’s tackle the first question first. “God is in the details,” the older expression, means that anything you do, you should do well. There is no satisfaction in doing a task in a sloppy or inattentive way, or in leaving the task unfinished. The opposite expression, “The devil is in the details” points to the difficulty in doing something well, especially if that difficulty is not apparent in the beginning. For example, close examination of the details might reveal additional complexity in the task, or the need for more in-depth knowledge.

So turning to the second question, “What does this have to do with TOEFL?,” we have to remember that TOEFL rewards attention to detail, and these details are fiendishly frustrating to most TOEFL test takers. For example, fact questions in the Reading might ask you to differentiate between two similarly written words, like “stalagmite” and “stalactite.” In the Listening section, you may need to recall a specific number like 1,000 B.C. and must be sure you don’t accidentally choose 10,000 B.C. or 1,000 A.D. Details in the Speaking usually means having extremely accurate pronunciation, while your Writing has to have detailed examples to prove your argument.

If you can master these devils, then you are rewarded with the “godly” satisfaction of razor sharp accuracy and precision in both choosing answer choices and in communicating your ideas in flawless intermediate English.

So what’s the takeaway (definition 2) of this entry? To receive a “godly” TOEFL score that might put you in seventh heaven , you have demonstrate a strong ability to work with details, which can be a real devil of a time for most people to accomplish.

TOEFL Tip #113: Content not as Important as Pronunciation & Grammar on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 5, 2011

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Speaking section.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, our research has identified a surprising, perhaps even shocking, result. The information we have gathered indicates that content plays a far less important role than we initially thought it did. Strictly English test-takers said that they only briefly addressed the prompt’s content before abandoning that topic and instead, rambled on about something else that was only tangentially connected.

For example, if Task One asked the test taker to describe your favorite season, our researcher responded as follows: “I love summer because that’s when I get to visit my mother in Florida. I love Florida because I like watching the tourists who come from all around the world to enjoy our warm ocean water and terrific beaches. I also enjoy freshly squeezed juice made from oranges that grow in my mother’s back yard. Finally, I like the excitement of DisneyWorld and Epcot Center.” Notice how most of her answer says nothing about summer, the speaker’s favorite season. In fact, these reasons to like Florida are not seasonal at all; they are available year-round in Florida. Our researcher–an American and native speaker of English–spoke in perfect English with no grammar mistakes and no pronunciation errors. She scored a 30. This indicates that talking about the prompt’s topic might not really be as important as everyone thinks.

Another researcher reported that he spoke with virtually no details for any of the tasks. In fact, he stated in his answer that he didn’t understand everything in the announcement. This test-taker also started his response by spending 20 seconds reading the prompt aloud, and then said, “hmmmmmm….. I didn’t understand the announcement very well, but I know it was talking about a school dorm. I’m not quite sure about the details, but I know that the woman is not happy.” This was his complete answer. Notice that he didn’t summarize any details from the announcement (for example, that the dorm was closing, or that it was closing early to have lead paint removed). He just referred to “dorm.” He also said nothing about the woman’s opinion, except that she is unhappy. This test-taker stretched out this paltry content for the full 60 seconds, and still received a 26. Again, he spoke with perfect English.

What is the lesson to take from this research? The scores for the Speaking section seem to be all about having perfect intermediate level English and no accent. Please note: we are not encouraging test takers to entirely ignore content and speak about topics completely unrelated to the exam questions. Instead, we are encouraging you to be less anxious about the content. Instead, you need to worry a lot more about speaking clearly with correct grammar.


TOEFL Tip #99: Blending Sounds

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 13, 2011

All speakers use blended sounds to give rhythm to their words. At the most basic level, pronunciation is blending the sounds of individual letters to form a word. Many languages – including English – also use blending between words to carry the momentum of what the speaker is saying. Understanding blending also affects your performance on the TOEFL.

A common example of blending happens when one word ends with a particular sound, and the next word starts with the same sound. In this case, the speaker will often blend the two words into one word. The sentence, “I want to eat tomatoes with you” would sound like “Eye wanna ee-ta-may-tas wih-ya.” Letters that have similar sounds, such as “t” and “d” are often blended as well: “What do you want to do?” becomes “Whadayah wanna do?” While this looks strange in writing, it’s usually easily understood when spoken.

Awareness of blending in spoken English is important for several sections of the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, being able to blend sounds between words in English will help you sound more like a native speaker. If you stop and fully articulate every sound in every word, you will sound robotic. If you just drop the last sound from every word, you may sound like you don’t fully understand how to pronounce English. Blending is in the middle between these two extremes. Of course, be careful not to run all of your words together into one long word. That’s not blending; it’s just taking out the proper spacing between words.

Blending is also important in the Speaking, Listening, and Writing sections of the TOEFL. These are all sections where you need to understand what is being said in order to complete the section correctly. While the directions throughout the exam will generally speak clearly and slowly – that is, with minimal or no blending – the academic lectures and the conversations between students may feature differing amounts of blending. To be a good listener, you need to be able to quickly separate the blended sounds back into their original words so you can follow what is being said.

To get a good sense of what blending sounds like, listen to a lot of conversations, especially if the speakers are talking quickly. You will hear how blended sounds make for smoother pronunciation.

TOEFL Tip #84: Elocution: focusing on HOW you speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 28, 2011

This post will be the first in a series examining the subtle but important differences among terms used to describe speaking. Understanding these terms will make you more aware of how you speak, and will help you understand and correct some common speech problems. Look for new installments about once per month.

We’ll start by taking a look at “elocution.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “elocution” as a “way or manner of speaking,” with a focus on the speaker’s “delivery, pronunciation, tones, and gestures; manner or style of oral delivery.” As you can see, elocution is about the performance of what you’re saying, not the content of what you’re saying. With good elocution, reading the phone book sounds interesting. With bad elocution, a speaker can’t hold the audience’s attention, no matter how exciting the topic is. Let’s focus on each part of this performance.

Delivery is mostly about your speaking speed. Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Do you speak at about the same speed for the entire answer? Do you slow down or speed up at any point in the answer? Do you stumble over common words? Do you stutter? Do you use a lot of filler words, such as “um” or “like”? You goal is a consistent, medium speed that is not interrupted by filler words.

We’ll discuss pronunciation in depth in a future post, but for now, a key point about pronunciation is that there is a correct way – or sometimes, more than one correct way – to pronounce a word. To do well on the TOEFL, you must pronounce words correctly. For example, the word “epitome” is pronounced “ee-PIT-oh-me,” with emphasis on the second syllable. Saying “EP-ih-tohm,” is wrong.

We’ll also discuss tone in a future post. But for now, keep in mind that you want to convey interest with your tone of voice as well as with the words you’re speaking. Avoid speaking in a monotone, or sounding bored by using the same 5 words over and over!

Obviously, your gestures won’t be recorded as part of the TOEFL, but you should still pay attention to how and when you move your hands when you speak. For example, if you usually point your finger to emphasize something you’re saying, then you should also do that when giving your TOEFL answer. You will sound more natural, and you will be more likely to vary your tone as well.

TOEFL Tip #78: Response To Strictly English’s Newest Tips Video

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 19, 2010

We received an email regarding our newest Tips Video, ” Pronunciation Tip to Improve Enunciation” (watch now):


Thanks for sharing the tip and I can tell you . . . that it works. An excellent strategy to dissociate the words and avoid making clumps of words which are not understandable. But, there is one drawback to this technic which I have noticed after trying it a couple of times. It decreases your speed significantly. I can’t complete two points in 45 seconds while I can do that without using this technic. Is there a solution to that? Can you make only one point and get a good score?



It is true that this technique will slow you down at first, but with time (usually within two weeks if you do it every day) your speed should begin to pick back up again, and this time, your fast speaking will have clear and articulate enunciation. Perfecting anything (riding a bike, knitting, playing the piano) always begins with slow practice, but quite soon, you find yourself going more quickly and with better accuracy.

Regarding your question about “can you make only one point and get a good score”: maybe. If you’re a very high speaker, then one point might be good enough since you have been able to use a wide range of vocabulary and a lot of details. We recommend two points because it forces you to switch topics, and therefore, switch vocabulary. It also forces you to use transitional phrases, which also demonstrate a fuller understanding of the language. So keep trying for two reasons in your responses to Task 1 and Task 2 on the Speaking.

TOEFL Tip #30: Woman vs. Women

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 7, 2009

The words “Woman” and “Women” sound different, but the change in pronunciation doesn’t happen where the change in spelling occurs.  When the “A” in “womAn” changes to the “E” in “womEn”, the “man” sound stays the same.

What does change is the “O” sound in the two words, even though the letter “O” stays the same.
womAn is pronounced w—-uh—-man
womEn is pronounced w—-”i” (pronounced like the “i” in “it”)—-man

Learn this correct pronunciation, and you’ll be better understood on the speaking section.