TOEFL Speaking Section

Basics

The TOEFL Speaking Section is one of the newer sections of the test, added after the test moved to an Internet-based format. Test takers wear noise-cancelling headphones and speak into a microphone. Their responses are digitally recorded and sent to ETS's Online Scoring Network where they are scored by trained raters.

This section assesses test-takers' ability to speak English, both in an academic setting, as well as in conversations outside the classroom. To test spoken English in a classroom setting, the TOEFL evaluates students' abilities to answer questions, express opinions, participate in classroom discussions and summarize lectures or texts aloud. Test takers are also evaluated on their ability to present information that has been gathered from multiple sources.

Format

The TOEFL Speaking Section is 20 minutes long and includes six questions – two Independent Speaking questions and four Integrated questions. The Independent Speaking questions require test takers to draw on their own experiences and opinions. These questions measure test takers' ability to speak fluently about topics they are comfortable with.

The four Integrated questions require test takers to read a text, listen to a lecture or conversation, and then speak about the information they have gathered. These questions are intended to measure the types of skills that test takers will use in a university class. University classwork generally requires students to express their thoughts on class texts, assigned reading and information presented in class lectures. The Integrated questions are designed to measure whether test takers' level of English proficiency would enable them to participate in classroom discussions based on multiple sources.

As the total section is only 20 minutes long, the responses for each of the six questions are short. For each of the Independent Speaking questions test takers are given 15 seconds of preparation time and 45 seconds to respond. For each of the Integrated questions test takers are given 20 to 30 seconds to prepare and one minute to respond. A clock on the screen shows the amount of preparation time left or speaking time left.

Independent Speaking Questions

There are two Independent Speaking question in the TOEFL Speaking Section, and both ask test takers for their personal impressions or opinions. However, each of the two questions asks the test taker to respond slightly differently.

The first question will ask a generic question that requires an opinion. Past examples have asked test takers to describe a favorite teacher, or a class that has been particularly helpful, but the question might not involve university life. It could ask test takers to describe a favorite activity, a memorable experience or a cherished possession. There is no wrong answer. Test takers will be scored based on grammatical accuracy, speech clarity, and how coherently the test taker's opinion was presented.

The second Independent Speaking question will present test takers with two choices and ask them to defend the one they choose. To appropriately answer a choice-type question it is important to both explain the benefits of the choice selected, as well as the reasons the other choice was not selected. Again, there is no wrong answer, rather the scoring will be based on grammar, clarity and the coherence of the way the answer is presented.

Integrated Questions

Questions three through six of the Speaking Section are the four Integrated Questions. The first two questions ask the test taker to read material, listen to comment, and then give a spoken response. The second two only require listening and speaking. Each question is slightly different in what it asks test takers to do. Below is a breakdown of the four questions: 

  • Question 3 (Campus Life Question): The first of the Integrated questions asks test takers to read something about a college campus and then listen to comment on it. The information will be about a college or university, but it will not be related to academic coursework. For example, the topic could involve university policies, tuition, campus facilities or campus activities. The reading part of the question might come in a variety of forms. It could be an article about the issue; it might be a letter from the university about a change in policy; or it could be a letter to the editor in a campus newspaper. After reading about the issue, the listening portion will present someone speaking about the issue or two people having a conversation about it.

    It is important to remember that these questions are not asking for the test taker's opinion. Rather, they are asking test takers to summarize information that they have heard and read. For example, the person (or persons) commenting on the written portion of the question may be expressing an opinion on a university policy or some other feature of campus life. The test taker might have to explain the opinion. This measures the test taker's ability to understand the underlying issue and the third party's view of it, and then to explain both clearly.

  • Question 4 (Academic Question): The second Integrated question also includes written and spoken content, but the content is about an academic topic. Prior knowledge of the academic area being discussed is not required. The test taker is simply expected to understand and summarize the information provided. For example, the reading portion might be an academic text, and the listening portion might be a professor's interpretation of it. In this example, the test taker might have to explain the professor's position. Like the previous question, this question is not asking for an opinion but a summary. Test takers should be able to demonstrate an understanding of both the underlying position and the subsequent discussion. They must synthesize these related pieces of information into a coherent summary.

    Taking notes during both the reading and listening portion of these questions is recommended, particularly for academic questions with complex information that might be difficult to recall. The preparation time should be used for preparing a brief outline to ensure that major points are discussed.

  • Question 5 (Campus Problem): The second-to-last question in this section refers to a campus-related issue, but this question presents a problem and two possible solutions. For this question, there is no material to read. Test takers listen to the problem and explain which solution they feel is best. As test takers are being asked to make a choice, once again this is an opinion question and there is no wrong answer. It is best to begin by briefly explaining the problem to demonstrate understanding of it. It might also help with clarity if the two possible solutions are briefly explained. Test takers should provide enough of an overview so that someone listening to the response who has not heard the question would understand the situation based on the test taker's response alone. As with any choice question, defending a choice means both explaining why the preferable choice was selected, and why the other choice was not chosen.

  • Question 6 (Lecture Summary): For the last of question in the Speaking Section, test takers will listen to a portion of a professor's lecture. The question will then ask test takers to summarize the point the professor made. This question is not an opinion question and no opinion should be expressed. It is also important to realize that the test taker need not remember all the details and points the professor made to summarize the lecture. Explaining the professor's point with a couple of the most memorable details should be adequate. Again, the response should begin with enough information so that someone who didn't hear the professor's lecture excerpt would understand it just from listening to the response.