TOEFL Test Speaking

I had a rude awakening to the world of exam prep around this time last year, when I taught exactly one iBT TOEFL prep course. I got some priceless advice from a couple of overworked yet helpful colleagues – but then it was up to me to sink or swim. (I think I treaded water in the end).

I’ve certainly taken and prepared myself for a number of tests in my day, including a few important standardized ones. However I’ve never done anything like the iBT TOEFL – and have nothing but respect for those who take this test and do well.

What most impressed me was how well-versed some of the students I taught were with the time limits and format, specifically that of the independent speaking part. See some examples here.

Of course it’s not the idea of answering a question that’s hard to grasp…but coming up with an appropriate answer in a second language and explaining it fully using exactly the time allotted. One teacher told me he advised students to pick a common structure for this section of the test and stick with it. It was a basic formula of – restate the question, give your thesis/opinion, say “first of all”…and give the first reason/example, “And secondly”…and give the second reason/example. “For these reasons” … give your conclusion/restate your thesis.

Obviously getting a good score also incorporates understanding the question, coming up with a reasonable answer, and then presenting it clearly in English, as well as performing well in other sections which I think would prove challenging for many a native speaker. But the difference between two people of about the same level – one who has learned this formula and practiced it a lot and one who has not – never ceased to amaze me during the class.

I think it’s clear that – more so than the old paper-based TOEFL (which I tutored exactly one student in) – the iBT TOEFL does actually require a real standard of English, and not simply strategizing or stockpiling grammar smarts. But practice still does go a long way towards perfect. Have you taught or taken the iBT TOEFL? And if so, do you have any tips or hints to share?