Kate Hardin

Common TOEFL Speaking Difficulties

Sentence variety

Because there isn’t time to fully plan the response, many people fall into a trap of repetitive sentence structure: “I think that _____. I think that ______. I think this is because _____.” One fairly extreme way to avoid this is to practice by drawing cards, each with a different kind of  structure written on it; have a simple sentence on one card, a compound sentence on another, a sentence with an introductory subordinate clause on another, and so on. To practice, pick a practice question/topic. Then draw one card. Your introductory sentence must use the structure on that card. Then draw another card, and form a second sentence based on it. When you’re practicing this way, don’t time yourself; slow is okay. The focus in this activity is on getting creative with your sentence structure and becoming flexible.


Not understanding enough of the information

This one’s a toughie. What do you do if you finish listening to the materials in an integrated task, and you really want nothing more than to listen again? What if you have no idea what to say? It’s a terrible feeling that I hope you don’t experience on test day, but if it does happen, don’t panic. Use your preparation time to draw whatever connections you can. If you can, still begin by stating the main idea/problem. If you have a reading sample (i.e. in questions #3 and #4), maybe spend a little more time than usual summarizing it. Include whatever information you did get, and focus on your language rather than the information. Half of your grade will come from language, not content, so if you have to, take advantage of this fact to show just how beautiful your English can be. Most of all, if this happens to you, don’t let it affect the rest of your test. Rather than dwelling on mistakes you’ve made, focus on doing your absolute best on all of the other questions.

Practice for your TOEFL exam with Magoosh.


Not speaking clearly

My middle school band teacher used to praise students who messed up loudly–who played a note at full volume when everyone else in the band was silent, or made other obvious (and hilarious) errors. He said that everyone makes mistakes, but he wanted us to make them with confidence. That may seem backwards, but it’s actually not a bad theory. First of all, people are more likely to respect you and have faith in your abilities if you appear to be convinced of your own ability. Even if you have to fake it, try to convey confidence in your spoken answers. Second of all, the graders can’t grade what they can’t hear. If you mutter or mumble, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Finally, part of your grade will come from “Delivery,” which is how well you pronounce your words and how clearly you speak. So speak at an audible volume (but not loudly enough to disturb other test-takers), enunciate, and believe in yourself!

(A quick note of caution, though: I once had a student who spoke too loudly during the test, so a supervisor came to his desk, interrupted him,  and told him to speak more quietly. The recording didn’t stop, though, so he lost a lot of time. This is clearly a big problem that you don’t want to have. Don’t shout!)



  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!

More from Magoosh