A Guide to the TOEFL (Speaking) Exam: Introduction + Week One

I never thought that I’d be creating a guide to the TOEFL exam, three weeks ago I didn’t even know it existed, but here we are. Why did I do it? I’m glad you asked, I did it because someone told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had no business creating this course, that it was a mistake for our employer to consult me. I did it to prove them wrong. That’s why I did it.

I decided to make it public when I realized that I’d created something that would help anyone who was preparing for their TOEFL exam, and not just for the speaking section because each of the four sections are interconnected. Think about it, the speaking section requires you to listen, read, and write – or at least to quickly think of clever responses, which is an integral part of the writing process. So, even if you’re not concerned about the speaking section, this guide is still worth your time.

It’s going to be a nine-week program1 that includes mock examinations, homework assignments, and lesson plans. It’s not a perfect program, those don’t exist, but it’s one that I wish I could’ve consulted when I first learned about the TOEFL exam, and it’s one that you can build on. Moving forward, adopt the spirit of Bruce Lee and, “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

First things first, the TOEFL Mock Speaking Tests, and the homework assignments, are the cornerstones of this course. The mock tests are important because they acclimatize students to the conditions of their final exam. It’s going to be far less intimidating for them when they face their final exam because they’ve already done it nine times. The homework assignments are also critical. In the course of completing all of the eighteen homework assignments, they will respond to each Task on three separate occasions. More importantly, they will receive pages of personalized feedback about how they can improve their responses.

Next, it’s important to expose students to a mix of positive and negative examples. Then they will understand that, on one hand, this is what I should do. This is what a good speaker sounds like, and this is what I want my finished product to be. And, on the other hand, this is what I need to avoid. This is what a bad speaker sounds like, and I have to work hard so that my finished product is not this. Throughout this course I employ Barack Obama, Sarah Koenig, Derek Sivers, and Matt Damon (among others) as positive examples. For negative examples I rely on the student’s homework responses2 – so every time you see, “breakdown one or two of the student’s homework responses”, in the class timeline, that’s an opportunity for you to explain what not to do, but (for the love of God) also explain how to avoid those mistakes in the future. And don’t be mean about it.

Finally, make it clear that you will not waste your student’s time. Every video that you ask them to watch, every audio sample that you play for them, has been carefully chosen. You would not ask them to spend their valuable time and attention on these things if you didn’t think they were important.

Without further ado, here is my first lesson plan. It’s for a 40-minute class, give or take three minutes because I was lucky enough to have some leeway.

  1. 0:00 – 0:30 = Introduction
    • Keep it short, you’ll get to know each other as the course progresses.
  2. 0:30 – 12:00 = Watch Julian Treasure at TEDGlobal 2013, “How to speak so that people want to listen”
    • This is a must-watch for anyone who wants to become a better (English) speaker. Now is a good time to tell your students about how much time and care you put into material selection. “I would not spend valuable class time watching videos unless I thought they were important.”
    • Before playing Treasure’s talk, instruct students to watch closely, listen carefully, and take notes.
    • Whenever Treasure demonstrates vocal exercises, instruct the class to join in – take the lead yourself.
  3. 12:00 – 19:30 = Speaking exercise… Watch the “Superman Monologue” from Kill Bill Vol. II
    • Instruct students to watch carefully and listen closely because, after watching the clip, they will take turns performing the monologue with a partner.
    • Don’t forget the transcript.
  4. 19:30 – 40:00 = TOEFL (Speaking) Mock Test 1

Additional Thoughts and Questions

  • Should I print a copy of the TOEFL (Speaking) Mock Test for every one of my students? Or, should I print one for each pair of students? After all, during the exam students will not receive the questions for “Integrated” Tasks 3, 4, 5, and 6 until after they listen to the audio.

Print a copy for every one of your students because then they will each have a copy to take home with them. Also encourage them to take each test again, on their own time, paying special attention to the Tasks that they struggled with in class.

That is an excellent point – about students not receiving the questions for “Integrated” Tasks 3, 4, 5, and 6 until after they listen to the audio.” Resources permitting (see attached PPT / Google Slides download + “Presentation Copy” PDF file), I would recommend using a slideshow to display the questions for each test. Initially, I recoiled from this idea for two reasons: 1) I wanted to spend as much time “on the floor” as possible – moving from pair to pair – helping students with their responses in real-time. And, 2) I didn’t want to print out two copies of the TOEFL (Speaking) Mock Tests for each of my students — the “Presentation Copy” doesn’t include the questions, rendering it useless without the accompanying presentation. Then I realized that, 1) I was going to have to play the right audio files at the right times anyways, so it’s not like I would have to go out of my way to handle the presentation. And, 2) I could just share the presentation with my students.

It depends. Sometimes I think it would be better, but (for the most part) I avoid it because the majority of my students are already overwhelmed by homework. I would also rather push them to be more focused in class, to make the most out of the time we have together, and they respond better to this when they know that I’m not going to heap loads of homework on them. Moreover, I encourage them to watch TV shows, listen to music or podcasts, and read books because it will help them improve their English skills — but I want them to enjoy the process, and to take the initiative, so these aren’t mandatory. Furthermore, they don’t get enough sleep, and they don’t understand that this negatively influences their performance. So I explicitly encourage them to sleep more, and I implicitly encourage it by limiting homework assignments. Finally, they could all use a little more free time to spend with their friends, cause trouble, make mistakes, and enjoy youth.

  • On, “proving them wrong”, my motive for creating this guide.

It turned out to be extraordinarily effective motivation, but it did entail an uncomfortable level of anger and resentment. Generally speaking, I try to avoid being motivated by vengeance (and, let’s be honest, that’s what we’re looking at here). One of my role models, Charlie Munger talks about this in his 1986 Harvard-Westlake Prep School Commencement Address – Prescriptions for Guaranteed Misery in Life:

“Resentment has always worked for me exactly as it worked for Carson. I cannot recommend it highly enough to you if you desire misery. [Samuel] Johnson spoke well when he said that life is hard enough to swallow without squeezing in the bitter rind of resentment.”

Nevertheless, there are times when you’ve gotta take inspiration wherever you can get it. After all, as Patrick Rothfuss writes in The Name of the Wind, “anger can keep you warm at night, and wounded pride can spur a man to wondrous things.”

HW Assignment #1, Key Points + Notes

This evening you will have your first homework assignment, it is an example of an “Independent” Task 1 Question, and it should take you less than 2 minutes to complete. Keep in mind, during the exam you will only have 15 seconds to prepare your answer, and 45 seconds to deliver it, after your Task 1 Question is presented to you.

I will post the prompt/question between 16:55 and 17:05. You are expected to deliver your response as a voice recording in this group chat. I will offer everyone personal feedback in a timely fashion.

I will be paying special attention to the following aspects of your answer:

  1. Delivery: How clear is your speech? Good responses are those in which the speech is fluid and clear, with good pronunciation, natural pacing, and natural-sounding intonation patterns.
  2. Language Use: How effectively do you use grammar and vocabulary to convey your ideas? How well can you control both basic and more complex language structures? Did you use appropriate vocabulary?
  3. Topic Development: How fully did you answer the question, and how coherently did you present your ideas? Good responses generally use all or most of the time allotted, and the relationship between ideas and the progression from one idea to the next is clear and easy to follow.

Now, without further ado…

“Choose a teacher you admire and explain why you admire them. Please include specific examples and details in your explanation.”

Key Points:

  1. Identify the teacher, use one of the following:
    • Name
    • Subject
    • Simple description
  2. Clearly explain what it was that made them admirable.
    • This could be a specific action or event, a character trait, whatever, choose one, and…
  3. Explain why this made them admirable.

There are many, many ways to answer this question, the important thing is that you communicate enough information about the person to help me understand why you find them admirable.

A quick note on word choice: Instead of repeating a word, like “important”, in your response try to think of some synonyms to use, like “meaningful”. Using synonyms effectively is an easy way to boost your score.

Here is a sample student response and my critique. For more, check out my SoundCloud profile – I uploaded each of my student’s responses to the first and second homework assignments, along with my analysis.

Personalized feedback:

Good work Violet, you addressed the question well, clearly explaining why you admire this teacher with great detail. The way you set-up your response, juxtaposing your thoughts and feelings about school before you met this admirable teacher with your thoughts and feelings about it after meeting her is brilliant.

Now, a couple of grammatical notes: 1) Instead of beginning with, “Teacher which I admire is”, try, “A teacher that I really admire is”, or, “The teacher that I admire most is”. 2) Instead of saying, “she was the biggest reason for my first day to be a happy memory.” Try, “She’s the main reason my first day is now a happy memory.” For bonus points, replace the word “happy” with “pleasant” – the raters should appreciate your attention to word choice. 3) Instead of, “before I have to go to school, I used to be afraid of it. I believe(d) that teachers were very strict and scary.” You could say, “Before I met her, I was afraid to go to school because I thought all of the teachers were very strict and scary.” You could also try, “Before I met her, when I was a little girl, I was afraid to go to school because the teachers frightened me.” And, 4) Instead of saying, “always carrying a big smile on her face”, you should say, “she always had a big smile on her face”, or, “there was always a big smile on her face.”

Note, this is the (brutally honest) disclaimer I’ve attached to every one of my critiques: These examples are far from perfect. In some cases I fail to correct critical mistakes, concentrating my feedback in the wrong places.3 In other cases, I am overly critical – focusing on student’s mistakes, failing to praise them for what they do well. At times I neglect to explain why I’m making certain suggestions; it’s one thing for students to know the right answer, and quite another for them to understand how they got there.4

Nevertheless, I hope that you find this helpful (even if it’s just an example of what not to do). In the spirit of Bruce Lee: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

HW Assignment #2, Key Points + Notes

This evening you will have your second homework assignment, it’s another example of an “Independent” Task 1 Question, and it should take you less than 2 minutes to complete. If it takes you more than 2 minutes, you’re doing it wrong! Remember, during the exam you will only have 15 seconds to prepare your answer, and 45 seconds to deliver it, after your Task 1 Question is presented to you.

“What place or landmark in your country do you recommend other people visit? Explain why you think other people should go there. Include details and examples to support your explanation.”

Key Points:

  • Can I clearly understand the 1 – 3 recommended places or landmarks?
  • Is it clear why I should want to go to these places?
  • Did you incorporate details and examples in your explanation?

There are many, many ways to answer this question, the important thing is that you communicate enough information about the place or landmark to explain why someone should go there.

Here is a sample student response and my critique. For more, check out my SoundCloud profile – I uploaded each of my student’s responses to the first and second homework assignments, along with my analysis.

Personalized Feedback:

Good work Hanger, your pacing was a little choppy though. I thought it was interesting that you chose to use “here” instead of “there”, as if you were broadcasting live from the province, or as if you were on the phone with someone (speaking from your home in the province). It’s clever, but be aware of that choice because it heavily influences your response. You could even think of it as though you were an actor in a commercial for the province, showing people all the neat attractions.

Here are some notes: 1) Instead of, “If I were the people who travels to my countries”, try, “If I was visiting China”. 2) Work on your pronunciation of “province”, it sounds like you said “provinc-ee”. 3) Instead of, “to begin with”, try, “for starters”, or, “the first remarkable thing about it is”. 4) If you mention a Chinese food, include a brief description, assume the rater has never heard of it before. 5) Instead of, “besides, there are many mountains here”, try, “what’s more, the province is filled with majestic mountain ranges”, or, “there are also many beautiful mountains there”. 6) Since your point about Pandas was your final point, you could say, “finally, there are many cute pandas here”.

TOEFL Scoring Table, Attachments, and Presentation

This scoring table is copyrighted by the Educational Testing Service. They’re the creators of the TOEFL Test, and their book, Official Guide to the TOEFL Test with DVD, Fifth Edition (2017), is the definitive guide. If you’re serious about getting the highest possible score on this exam, then buy it.

toefl_speaking_rubrics

Attachments

 

  1. Or, if you prefer, a three-week program with three classes, and six homework assignments, per week.
  2. Explain to your students that, whenever you pick apart their homework assignments in class, you are not doing it to embarrass them. You’re doing it because you believe that the whole class can learn from their example. In fact, you always look for cases of common errors, that are made by a significant portion of the class, because you are striving to improve everyone’s ability. Please handle this process with care.
  3. I’m especially prone to getting caught up on trivial details, and losing sight of the big picture. I constantly have to remind myself to take a step back, look at things from the outside – “Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
  4. In my defense, I did exchange messages with all of the students who contacted me (answering their questions, and explaining why it’s better to say something one way rather than another) after reading my feedback.