11 Tips for improving your TOEFL® Speaking score

Okay, so you have done a TOEFL practice test and are getting ready to do the actual test, or maybe you have already done the test. Either way, I hope this post will help you find some ways to get the points you need on the speaking portion of the exam. While you may be doing some of these already, others will probably be new to you.

Let’s get down to the tips!

1. Ask yourself why you are doing this

When your study gets tiring, the most crucial thing to keep you going is your deepest motivation. What do you want, and why do you want it? The reason why we do things is the motor that keeps us going when things get tough. 

Try to go a little bit deeper than “I am doing this because I want to get into X, Y, or Z university.” Why do you want to go to that university? Keep asking yourself “why” until you get to the point that you want it merely because you want it. That is the “why” that will keep you going.

The best motivation involves passion for something. If you are just passionate about English, that will help you push through the difficulties. But passion can also come from results. When you start getting good at something, that is another way to become passionate. Use that!!!

2. Practice, practice, practice

The key to learning any language is practice. Just as with any habit, you need to invest time. In the beginning, it is hard. We can liken this to starting a workout regime. When you start going to the gym, your muscles will hurt, and you may even have difficulty moving your limbs for a few days. It is the same with English. It should “hurt” at the beginning, and it is expected that you will be tired.

But as you get into a rhythm, things will get easier, and you will start speaking without having to overthink. Since it will be less of an effort for you, you will be able to talk for longer without getting so tired. Soon enough, you won’t even have to think too much before speaking in most contexts. Keep working hard – the hours of hard work will definitely pay off!

When your motivation is deep enough, you will keep going when it is hard to put in extra practice time. 

3. Use a voice recorder to record your responses

This is a fantastic way to see how you are doing. This way, you, or someone else (if you know someone who is a native speaker of English, you could ask them to listen and give you feedback!), can look for the following:

Did you answer the question?

Is your answer structured clearly?

Is there natural progression among sentences and ideas?

What grammatical structures did you use? What transition words did you use?

Pay attention to similarities and differences with your own language

It is hard for us to remember things in the abstract without any context. We remember things much more easily when we associate them with other things. It is the same thing when we learn English.

Usually, we think in our own language, even when we speak another language. For this reason, it can be helpful, especially at the beginning, to associate the way things are in English with the way things are the same or different in your own language.

For instance, if you speak Italian, you know that you do not have to say the subject at the beginning of the sentence.

E.g. (Io) vado al cinema.

In English, however, you cannot ever omit a subject from a sentence. You can’t say, am going to the cinema. In fact, my grammar corrector is highlighting this as an error as I write because you just can’t do it in English.

Having this principle will help you apply it to other situations, such as this:

(Lui) è felice.

He is happy.

You cannot say is happy. You need the subject for the sentence to be grammatically correct.

You can do this with words as well. See what is the same and what is different and how they are the same or different, and you will begin to see patterns that you will be able to apply in new contexts.

4. Make mistakes

This is probably one of the most important things to learn, especially if you find yourself not wanting to make any mistakes when speaking with others. This can be paralyzing, so the sooner you get over this, the freer you will feel, and the more progress you will make. 

On the one hand, not wanting to make mistakes can be helpful because it can predispose you to learn from your mistakes and not make them again (because you don’t want to make mistakes). That said, this way of thinking can also keep you trapped, so it is best to quickly get out of this mentality!

If you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself what you are afraid of or why making mistakes has the effect it does on you. Like you did above, ask yourself “why” several times so that you can go deep. This will give you some insight as to what is holding you back.

It is vital for you to remember that making mistakes is something human. As Alexander Pope said in his “Essay on Criticism,” to err is human. If we are honest with ourselves, we all make mistakes. And that applies to others too. We know that they make mistakes as well. Nobody is perfect!

5. Try not to make the same mistakes without knowing why they are mistakes

In the previous tip, we spoke about those who are worried about making mistakes. When people are not concerned with making mistakes, however, they can sometimes make the same mistakes over and over (and over and over) again, without even knowing why. When you do make a mistake, try to make a conscious effort to understand the reason why. 

Try to see if there is a structure in your own language that you are using, which is incorrect in the English language. If you identify it, you will be able to look where else you are making the same mistake. 

The problem may also be that you have misunderstood the correct way. Identifying the mistake will help you correct that.

Of course, if you have been making the same mistakes for a long time, it will take time to correct them, but if you can tell yourself why you are making the mistakes, eventually, you will be able to make the changes you need to.

6. Know what the question is asking and structure your answer accordingly

While being able to really speak English is the outcome you ultimately want, you will be scored according to specific criteria. It would be such a shame to lose points for not meeting those criteria.

For example, if in the “independent speaking task,” you are required to give your opinion, make sure that you state your opinion very clearly. If the grader is unsure what your opinion is, you will lose points. After you give your opinion, provide reasons why you hold that opinion to support your argument. This will help your score immensely!

A little secret: according to the TOEFL scoring rubrics for the speaking section, you can even make some errors on this task and still receive a perfect score. But not if your answer is not coherent and intelligible!

7. Prepare what you are going to say

Your preparation time for each of the 4 tasks does not begin in the official preparation time they give you before recording your answer into the microphone. It must start way before that!

If you are looking for the main ideas as you are reading and listening (take notes!) and the points that are supporting those main ideas, your brain is going to help you identify the relevant information. You can think of this as warming up. Just as you would never arrive to run a 100m race without warming up, you shouldn’t come to the question without having warmed up.

8. Have someone test you often

The more you practice the types of exercises you will find on your TOEFL test, the more comfortable you will be when you actually take (or retake) the test. 

The speaking section of the TOEFL has 4 questions. The first one is an “independent speaking task,” which means that you will be asked to develop your own ideas and/or express your opinions or experiences. 

Scorers are looking for the following: whether or not you answer the question, fluidity in your speech, intelligibility of your answer (even if you make some minor mistakes), and the complexity of the grammar you use. 

You can practice for this question by doing the following:

  1. Have the person who is testing you give you a random topic and then ask for your opinion.
    1. Example: Is it better to wake up early and go to bed early or to wake up late and go to bed late? 
  2. Prepare some bullet points. You will only have 15 seconds to prepare, so don’t worry about writing everything.
    1. Wake up early and go to bed early
      1. Exercise
      2. Healthy breakfast
      3. Read the news before work
  3. Begin speaking. You will have 45 seconds to give your answer. 
  4. If you can record this, even better! That way, you can go back and see how you did. Ask yourself the following questions, trying to be as objective as possible:
    1. Did I answer the question?
    2. Is my answer structured clearly?
    3. Is there natural progression among sentences and ideas?
    4. What grammatical structures did I use? What transition words and other vocabulary did I use? Did I repeat the same words often? Can I use synonyms in the future?

Question 2, 3, and 4 are “integrated tasks,” which means you will need to not only practice your speaking but listening and/or reading as well as part of the task. In these tasks, the TOEFL tries to simulate situations such as those you may find on-campus at the university.

To practice for this section, here are some ideas. You will see that the ideas I give below are not the exact type of question you will find on the TOEFL. They do, however, apart from giving you speaking practice, help you practice a fundamental skill you will need for all questions of this section: being able to identify the main idea and the supporting points. 

  1. Go to YouTube and look for #shorts for various academic subjects such as #biology, #macroeconomics, #finance, etc. Listen to the short (don’t watch it because they will be giving you visual cues you won’t have on test day) and then state the main idea and the main details that support that idea.
    1. Take notes as you listen
    2. After watching the short, give yourself 20 seconds to prepare your response, then speak for 60 seconds
    3. If you can, record it so that you can see how you did.
  2. Find a good book of an academic nature and use it to practice finding the main ideas and supporting points as you read. If you want a good one, I would suggest How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Not only is this a great book to practice with, but I would also recommend it to any university student. It will give you crucial skills that will be extremely helpful across all subjects at university!
    1. Give yourself 45 seconds to read each paragraph
    2. Take notes as you read, looking for the main idea and the supporting points of that idea.
    3. Take 30 seconds to prepare what you are going to say
    4. Speak for 60 seconds.
    5. If you can, record it so that you can see how you did.

9. Join a group

There are MeetUp groups and similar get-togethers where people who are learning English can get together and practice. This is great because you can see that you are not alone in your struggles to learn a new language. Community is a very powerful way to help you compare what is working and what isn’t. 

If you are struggling with a concept, ask them how they are dealing with it. If they understand it, ask them to explain it to you. If you find someone that speaks your language, or, even better, if you share the same native language, ask them how they approached it.

In these groups, sometimes you can even find native English speakers who want to learn your language. This provides an excellent incentive for both parties to offer their expertise in their own language.

10. Listen, listen, listen

Listen as much as you can to native people speaking English. Listen to the news, the radio, podcasts, and anything else you can get your hands on. If possible, try to look for material in the United States, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. This way, you will expose yourself to the accents you may find on test day. 

This exercise will have the added benefit of hearing how words are pronounced. Since English is not a perfectly phonetic language, this will help you correct some mistakes you may be making

(a phonetic language is a language that is pronounced according to the way it is written).

While it will not always be possible, every so often, set aside some time for taking notes about what you are listening to. I would recommend taking notes about what you hear on test day, too, because it will help you listen more attentively. You will remember more of what you hear as a result.

11. Focus on pronunciation last

Don’t worry too much about your pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that pronunciation is not important. It is very important! What I am saying is that it is not too important at this stage because it is going to have a negligible effect on your TOEFL score.

What is essential at this stage is how intelligible you are when you are speaking. If the examiner struggles to understand you, they will not give you a good grade. After all, they can’t grade what they don’t understand!

If you have a chance to practice with native or proficient speakers, try to gauge whether they can understand you. You can look for facial cues to help you judge this, and if you are in doubt, ask them if you are comprehensible. 

Some people might not want to offend you, but if they see that it’s imperative to you that they understand what you are saying, then they will be able to provide you with some constructive feedback.

Remember, on test day, you will not have the luxury of visual cues because you will be speaking into a microphone. So use the opportunity to practice.

I hope these tips have helped.

Happy learning!


Hey English Learners! I'm Ryan and I have over 4000 hours of English teaching experience. Even though I am now a management consultant in Ireland by day, I have created this blog because I am a teacher at heart and am passionate about the English language! Look forward to help you get your English Exam Passport. Cheers!

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