TOEFL® Advisor Quarterly

May 2012


Featured Story of a TOEFL® Test Taker

From now on, in each issue we will be featuring a successful TOEFL® test taker. This issue's feature is Hae-Jin Kim. This is her story and advice to TOEFL test takers everywhere.

A closer look and suggestions to consider

I was one of many Korean international students who have pursued their dreams abroad. Being curious about all aspects of languages, I studied linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles and applied linguistics at Columbia University in New York City. I now work at Educational Testing Service (ETS) at our headquarters in Princeton, N.J.

Through my work, I have learned that the TOEFL iBT® Speaking Section is viewed as the most challenging section by many Korean test takers. I can understand the challenges many Korean students may experience, because when I was in Korea I lacked opportunities to practice my English speaking skills.

As an employee at ETS who can relate to Korean international students preparing for the TOEFL test, I thought it might be helpful to outline what the Speaking section measures and share some ideas with Korean students that may help their study plan.

Speaking Section

The TOEFL iBT Speaking section measures your ability to speak clearly and effectively as needed in an academic setting. Students are given 20 minutes to complete six speaking questions designed to demonstrate their ability to communicate in English.

The first two questions are called "Independent Speaking Questions." The first question will require you to develop and clearly articulate a response discussing a person, object, experience or opinion. Within these responses, you will be asked to describe a topic and provide supporting reasons to explain your answer. For example, you may be asked to name a person who had a positive influence on your life and explain why.

The second question will present two possible opinions or situations. You will be asked to state a preference for an opinion and justify your response.

The remaining four questions, which are called "Integrated Speaking Questions," ask you to combine or integrate various English skills (e.g., reading and speaking). Within this section, you may listen to a conversation or lecture and be asked to react, or you may read a reading passage and answer questions.

The Speaking section score ranges from 0 to 30, with 30 being the highest possible score. Students' spoken responses are evaluated on the delivery (speech samples that are clear, contain good pronunciation and natural pacing), language use (effective and appropriate use of grammar and vocabulary), and response development (answers that fully address the question in a coherent manner).

To produce a fair and objective score for every test taker, spoken responses are evaluated by highly trained raters. To ensure that all raters are consistent in their evaluation, ETS developed scoring standards (or rubrics) that are used by raters when they score.

There are two sets of scoring standards, one for the independent speaking questions and another for the integrated speaking questions, and these are published for students so that they know exactly what they are being evaluated on. To find out how your responses are being scored, please refer to the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section Score Guide.

Tips That You May Find Helpful

Find the most effective way to practice: You can improve your English-language skills simply by doing more — read more, listen more, write more and speak more. You can practice listening, reading, and writing skills by yourself, but it is difficult to practice speaking by yourself. Therefore, finding ample opportunities to practice is important to improve your speaking skills. Look for the most convenient and effective way that will work for you. What works for others may not necessarily be the best way for you. Try to identify the most effective way for you to practice and dedicate ample time.

Review exemplary spoken responses: Sometimes, you may feel that your speaking skills are pretty good, yet your TOEFL speaking score does not reflect it and you wonder why. It could be that your pronunciation and grammar are good, but you do not express your ideas clearly and logically by using language effectively. By reviewing some model examples, available at, you can learn what is expected in a good response.

You can also record your own speech and play it as if you are listening to someone else's spoken response. Then you will be able to identify areas in which you need to improve.

Basics are important to process language quickly: If you feel that the integrated speaking questions are difficult, it could be because it requires processing language quickly. Language processing is a complex process. For you to improve on the processing speed, it is important to continuously sharpen your vocabulary and grammar. They are the most basic building blocks of the language. Make your foundation strong.

Believe in yourself: As a language learner, you are aware of what areas you need to work on. Trust yourself. Look for resources that can help you improve in those areas. Continue to build on your strengths while improving your weaknesses.

Utilize the official TOEFL resources: ETS has developed numerous resources to help students prepare for the TOEFL test. Check out the TOEFL Go Anywhere website. It offers sample questions, direct access to registration, and links students to the more than 8,500 institutions around the world that accept TOEFL scores. In addition, the "Welcome to the TOEFL iBT Testing Site" video walks students through the testing experience.

If you plan to take the TOEFL test sometime soon, your attention is probably focused on how to do well on the test so that you can get into your dream school. As you prepare for the TOEFL test, think of your first year in university or graduate school.

Doing well on the TOEFL test is important, but it is more important for you to do well once you attend an English-speaking university. All of your hard work towards the preparation of the TOEFL test will better prepare you for your first year. Good luck with your study.

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