9 TOEFL Speaking Tips to Help You Get the Highest Score Possible
Do you want to succeed on the TOEFL speaking exam?
Perhaps you’ve already started preparing for the test by expanding your English vocabulary and reading about how to speak English more fluently.
Taking a speaking exam can be challenging even in your native language, though, so these pointers will help you feel confident and be well prepared.
Here are nine great TOEFL speaking tips to maximize your score on the speaking section of the test.
- 1. Understand the Structure of the Speaking Test
- 2. Get Familiar with the Scoring Criteria
- 3. Use Your Preparation Time Efficiently
- 4. Create Your Own Note-taking System
- 5. Learn Phrases for Specific Test Situations
- 6. Pay Attention to Your Verb Usage
- 7. Practice Your English Pronunciation
- 8. Record Your Practice Sessions
- 9. Rehearse with Someone Else
- And One More Thing...
1. Understand the Structure of the Speaking Test
First, take a look at the structure of the test so that you know what you’ll have to do on the day of the exam. It can also help you start thinking about the best way to prepare for it.
As of 2023, the TOEFL speaking exam consists of four questions, and the whole thing takes about 17 minutes to complete.
Task 1: Independent (speaking only)
For question one, you have to give a 45-second speech and you will have 15 seconds to prepare it.
You will be given two situations or opinions. Your task is to pick which one you prefer and say why. Don’t worry—there is no right or wrong choice!
Instead, your answer will be scored based on how well you can express your ideas. That means that if you can make a convincing argument for your opinion by speaking clearly and logically, you will get a good score.
You will be asked about familiar topics. Your response should come from your own personal experience, not from academic material presented to you.
Here’s an example:
Some people think it is more fun to spend time with friends in restaurants or cafes. Others think it is more fun to spend time with friends at home. Which do you think is better? Explain why. (Source)
In this task, you have to choose where you most like to spend time with your friends—at home, or out and about. Remember that you have to give reasons to support your choice. For an example of a good response to this question, click the “Source” link above and watch the official video.
Tasks 2 and 3: Integrated (reading, listening and speaking)
For question two, you will be asked to read a passage (75-100 words) about a campus-related topic. Then, you will hear a short conversation (one minute to one-and-a-half minutes) about the same topic.
You will be asked about the opinion of one of the speakers, and how their opinion relates to the reading. You will have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.
Question three follows the same structure, but the topic will be related to academics. First, you will read a passage, and then you will hear an audio—it will be part of a lecture on the same academic subject as the reading.
You will be asked to explain how the reading and the lecture are related, with 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to give your answer.
While you read and listen, you should take notes on the main points so that you don’t forget anything important when you need to respond. We’ll cover more on note-taking below.
Task 4: Integrated (listening and speaking)
In the final speaking task, you will listen to an academic lecture that is two to three minutes long. You will then have 20 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to provide a verbal summary of what you heard.
Here, you just need to cover the main points of the listening passage. Again, you will benefit from taking notes as you listen, to make sure you can remember all of the important information when it’s time for you to speak.
Though it’s important to practice, rest assured that you will be able to get a good score even if you aren’t familiar with the topic of the question. All of the integrated speaking tasks (tasks two, three and four) are designed so that you receive all of the information you need to answer the question during the test.
2. Get Familiar with the Scoring Criteria
Every question will be scored from zero to four. First, let’s take a look at each score and how it is achieved:
- A score of zero means the response was not related to the topic, the answer was not given in English or there was no attempt to answer. (As long as you try to say something about the topic in English, you will earn points!)
- A score of one means the response contains lots of pauses, very limited grammar and vocabulary, incorrect pronunciation and/or very little information on the topic. Significant listener effort is required.
- A score of two means there is some awkward pronunciation or wording, only basic sentence structures are used, ideas are not clearly connected and/or topic development is limited. Some listener effort is required.
- A score of three means the response is generally clear, pronunciation and pacing difficulties are minor, grammar and vocabulary use is mostly natural and/or ideas are relevant but may not be obviously connected. Listener effort may be necessary at times.
- A score of four means the response is clear, well-paced, uses grammar and vocabulary effectively with ease, is fully related to the topic and shows connection between ideas. Minor pronunciation or grammar mistakes may still occur.
You can take a look at the official scoring rubric for more detailed information.
Overall, to get a good score on the TOEFL speaking section, you’ll want a score of three or four on each of the four speaking tasks.
Understanding the relevant criteria used to evaluate your performance will help you improve your skills. Here’s what you should focus on so you can get the highest score possible on each task:
- Delivery: Speak clearly, with few pauses and natural pacing. Pronounce individual sounds correctly, use proper word stress and have good intonation. (Note that pronunciation is not about accent! Almost all non-native speakers have an accent; this will not cause you to lose points.)
- Language use: Use basic and advanced grammar structures with a high level of accuracy. Use a range of vocabulary in the correct context. Do not use very casual or informal speech, like slang or curse words.
- Topic development: Answer the question with relevant information, including details. If asked to give reasons or examples, provide those. Respond in a logical, organized manner so that the information is easy to understand and follow.
In general, you can work on your English speaking comprehensibility, meaning your speech is easy to understand both in terms of pronunciation and content.
3. Use Your Preparation Time Efficiently
If you only have a little time left before the big day, don’t worry! You can still improve skills needed for the TOEFL speaking exam.
We’ll go through more specific preparation tips below, but there are some general ways you can improve, especially if you need to do so quickly.
First, answer the question. Learn to notice the main ideas and key topics when reading or listening to the exam material. These are the points you should include in your response to the question. Understand the difference between “reasons” (supporting statements) and “details” (additional information) and provide them when asked.
Second, keep your answers concise. You don’t need to restate the question! You may have learned to do this when you first started learning English, but it’s actually a waste of time during the TOEFL exam, because the has already been said. It’s also not natural-sounding spoken English. (It’s not natural in most languages, in fact!) Compare these examples:
Question: Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
Bad example: I see myself working in a law firm in downtown LA in ten years’ time. Perhaps I will have started a family by then…
Good example: Working in a law firm in downtown LA. Maybe I will even have a family by then…
Third, be as comprehensible as possible. It may be more helpful to practice improving your comprehensibility with tasks 1 and 2, as you only need a topic to practice each task. You can find a list of topics here. Give yourself 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to speak, just like the actual TOEFL test.
Lastly, organize your response well. This can help with comprehensibility, too. A good, basic structure that you can follow for any spoken response is: Topic statement + Support (can be reasons, details or examples depending on what’s required).
Take a look at this example task and the outline of a response, so you can see how it’s organized:
Task: What are the characteristics of a good parent? Use reasons and details to support your response.
Topic statement: The two most important characteristics of a good parent are friendliness and the ability to set limits.
Support (Reason 1): Friendliness — If parents are friendly, kids will feel like they can trust their parents, and then the children will be friendly as well.
Detail: Kids tend to imitate their parents’ behaviors, so if a parent is friendly, they will set the right example.
Support (Reason 2): Ability to set limits — If parents can set limits, they’ll guide their children to see what’s good and bad.
Detail: Kids need limits in which they feel safe. Even if children tend to test these limits a lot, they still need their parents’ guidance.
Everything we just covered are language skills that you can improve quite quickly. If you have a bit more time before exam day, you can also improve other aspects of your English speaking, like those mentioned below.
4. Create Your Own Note-taking System
Taking good notes is key when reading and listening in the integrated speaking tasks. That means it’s important to learn how to do this during your exam preparations.
Because time during the test is limited, you can’t write down entire sentences in your notes. Instead, learn to focus on key words as you read and listen.
Key words are very important, as they will sum up the main ideas of the reading and listening passages, and you will want to use them in your responses in order to make sure you’re covering the right information.
You can practice taking notes while listening to podcasts, recorded lectures, TED talks or newscasts. Ideally, you’ll pick ones that are about two minutes long so that they’re similar to the length of the TOEFL test audio. For reading, you can practice taking notes on academic articles.
As you listen or read, take notes about the main ideas and arguments that are presented in the talk or text. Then, using your notes, say out loud your own summary of the content.
You can use special symbols as a helpful note-taking tool. That means you’ll use little designs or abbreviations to help you remember things so that you don’t have to write a lot of information.
Here are some examples to give you ideas:
- Cause and effect: →
- Similarity: =
- Contrast: ≠
- Reason: R
- Detail: D
You can also develop your own symbols, as long as you understand them.
Make sure you practice using your symbols until you’re comfortable with them. If you don’t, the symbols may confuse you or slow you down during the exam. But if you know them well, having some special symbols can definitely make your note taking faster and more useful.
5. Learn Phrases for Specific Test Situations
Fluent speech—speech which flows naturally—is something you develop over a long period of time.
Fluent speakers can find their words faster, even when they’re not quite sure what to say. This is directly linked to vocabulary, as hesitations usually happen when you can’t find the exact words you want.
Since you’re given a limited time to speak during TOEFL tasks, it’s helpful to memorize specific phrases to fill in any pauses you may need to take. Note that these phrases for spoken English may be different than phrases you use in written English for the same situations.
Here are a few you can use in different situations to improve your speaking fluency and help you make a good impression:
Phrases for finding your words
- What I’m trying to say is…
- In other words…
- To put it differently…
Phrases for giving details
- as a matter of fact
- not only… but also…
Phrases for giving reasons
- one cause for that is…
- because of…
- given that…
Phrases for introducing new points
- in addition to…
Phrases for summarizing
- All in all…
- On the whole…
- Generally speaking…
You can find more transition phrases to help you throughout the speaking test here.
6. Pay Attention to Your Verb Usage
In most situations, using a variety of verb tenses is a sign that you’re speaking English well—as long as you use them correctly, of course.
For the TOEFL speaking exam, make sure you read and listen to your question carefully. This will help you choose which verb tense you should be using.
Many students choose incorrectly in the first two tasks when they are asked to talk about familiar topics. They think that because the task is to talk about themselves, the present simple tense is needed.
But look at the following question:
Describe a skill you have that will be important for your success in the modern world, and explain why this skill is important. Include details and examples to support your explanation.
To pick the correct verb tense to use in your response, you need to break the question down. How many things is it asking you to do? (Hint: There’s more than one!)
There’s actually four things you need to answer here. You need to answer all of the following:
- What is the skill? Because this is a general comment, you will need the present simple tense here.
- How will the skill help you succeed in the modern world? Here, you’re talking about the effect in the future, so you will need to use the future simple tense.
- Why is this skill important? This is a general statement again, so it needs the present simple tense.
- What are some examples of its importance? The response here could include a mixture of tenses.
To talk about someone you know or a well-known person as an example, you will either use the past simple or the present perfect tense. To talk about general facts, you will use the present simple. To hypothesize (guess about the future), you will use “would” or “could.”
As a final helpful note about verbs: Pay attention to your usage of phrasal verbs.
These are not really appropriate in the written TOEFL exam because they are somewhat informal; however, they are acceptable in the speaking exam, since speaking is more informal.
The key is being able to use phrasal verbs correctly without overusing them. Take a look at the following:
Task: Describe your typical day.
My typical day starts when my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. I roll over and turn it off and fall back asleep for about 20 minutes and it goes off again and I know it’s time for me to wake up and get up. I really don’t like getting up so early, but I have to because I have to set off for work at 7:30…
This is not a good response to the given task. It uses too many phrasal verbs and there is no natural flow or pacing in the speech.
Well, my typical day begins when my alarm clock goes off. I really find it difficult getting out of bed and I usually lie there for about 20 minutes or so until I have to get up. The only reason why I’m awake so early is because I need to leave for work at 7:30…
See the difference? This answer still uses phrasal verbs, but not too many. It’s also easy to say and sounds more natural.
7. Practice Your English Pronunciation
As I mentioned earlier, it’s very important that you don’t worry about your accent when speaking English. Pronunciation and accent are not the same thing.
Instead, you should pay attention to the sounds of the English language. Pay special attention to the sounds that don’t exist in your native language, as these tend to be tricky for English learners.
For instance, do you have problems saying “the” or “thin”? That’s probably because you don’t have the “th” sound in your native language.
You can improve your pronunciation by reading out loud, or by listening to native speakers and trying to imitate them. Try recording yourself as you speak on your own and check how close you are to the correct pronunciation.
One way to do this is by reading podcast transcripts aloud on your own, and then listening to the podcast. Other resources, like TV shows and movies, can also be helpful for practicing pronunciation.
Not only will you learn how natives speak English, but you’ll hear the correct intonation and natural pacing. For a more structured approach to this, try a language learning program that focuses on video content, such as FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The program gives you a chance to hear pronunciation and sentence structures in use. But remember: The most important part is to make yourself understood, not to try to sound exactly like a native speaker.
8. Record Your Practice Sessions
When you practice your English speaking for any spoken exam, you should try and record yourself. If you don’t have the equipment to record yourself at home, don’t worry! The web has great resources to record temporary files (so, no excuses).
Don’t just keep recording and re-recording yourself, though. When you play back your recordings, you should be listening for specific things.
The goal is to figure out what kind of mistakes you make. Listen carefully to the phrases you use, your pronunciation and the tone of your voice. Is there anything that isn’t quite right? Anything you know you can do better?
Then, during your next practice session, put those corrections in place. When you listen to that recording, you should (hopefully) hear some improvement on the mistakes you made last time.
I know it can be awful to listen to your own recorded voice sometimes, but this activity will really allow you to perfect your spoken English skills. It will also help you be less nervous at test time, because you will already be used to being recorded!
9. Rehearse with Someone Else
You could do practice TOEFL tasks with a study buddy—maybe a classmate who is also going to be taking the exam. This way, you can help each other and share tips at the same time.
Or, perhaps you have a native English-speaking friend who would be willing to help you out. See if they will listen to you practice and then give you some feedback. This person could be a big help with improving your pronunciation, your phrasing and your speaking pace, especially if they look over the TOEFL scoring rubric first.
You can also hire an English tutor. If you already have one, ask them to spend 20 to 30 minutes helping you prepare for the exam each time you have class. If you don’t already have one, you can even find a tutor who specializes in preparing students for English proficiency exams.
No matter who you rehearse with, you will come away from the practice session with tips and feedback to help you succeed when you take the test for real.
Remember, a test is simply to check what you know. Your examiners want you to succeed, too.
By following these TOEFL speaking tips, you’ll be able to give your best on exam day!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.