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Little Things That Make a Big Difference to Your Score: The Letter S

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 2.06.04 PMIt’s important to master the basics of the TOEFL to lay the groundwork for your best score. However, most students will find that, at some point or another, they hit a plateau–that is, they keep getting stuck at the same score on practice tests, making the same kinds of mistakes, finding themselves unable to push to that next level. If this has happened to you, don’t worry! I’ve seen this happen a lot! Some of the common plateaus occur at a score of 80; at a score of 100; and at a score of 110. Those barriers can be really hard to break through, but you CAN do it.

Today, I want to look at one little thing that can help your score in the speaking section go up. This applies to all six tasks, so you’ll have lots of opportunities to practice it. It’s simple, but vital: pronounce “s.” You’re probably thinking, “What is she talking about? I’m not forgetting to pronounce an entire letter.” But stay with me here.

I admit, you’re probably pronouncing your “s”s in most cases. What you may be doing, however, is forgetting to pronounce “s” clearly and distinctly in absolutely vital areas: notably, when creating plurals and when using possessives. In some languages, such as French, when a word ends in “s,” that letter isn’t pronounced, and it can be hard to shake that habit if there are lots of silent letters in your native language. So even if you think you’re pronouncing it loud and clear, record yourself during your next practice session. When you say “days,” does it sound more like “day”? If you’re talking about “Julia’s course,” does it end up sounding more like “Julia course”? You might think you’re pronouncing that “s” because you’re thinking about the spelling of the word as you say it, but you may be surprised when you actually hear yourself omitting it when talking.

The reason it’s so key to identifying and correcting this pronunciation error is that, unlike some mispronunciations, not pronouncing “s” distinctly can make it sound like you have mis-conjugated a verb or even misunderstood the question. You probably know that the correct present tense, third-person singular conjugation (fancy words for “he, she, it”) of “go” is “goes,” but if you’re not pronouncing that final “s,” it sounds like you’ve forgotten that. Similarly, if you’re trying to say “Maria needs to borrow the Black’s car,” meaning the car belonging to a family called the Blacks, it’s a very different thing than saying “Maria needs to borrow the black car,” which would mean a car painted black.

If you’re consistently scoring lower on your speaking section than your other sections–or even just lower than you’d like–try recording yourself and identifying how many final “s”s you can hear. If you can’t hear many, keep practicing. You can always go back to that famous American tongue-twister for a good test: “She sells seashells by the sea shore.” Keep going until we know for sure that she’s selling more than one seashell!


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