Kate Hardin

Structuring your TOEFL Speaking Responses

The speaking section moves fast. The 45 or 60 seconds that you have to give your answer will fly by, and you need to be sure you can fit all of your thoughts into that time. Generally, this means that simplicity is key. The speaking section isn’t a good time to improvise a complicated set of contrasting ideas and show your logical abilities. Instead, try structuring your response around a set formula that you can practice and that you know will fit the time frame you’re given.

One good way to structure your response is in three parts. First, give a general statement about the main topic. For example, in the opinion task (speaking question 1), that’s your personal choice. Similarly, in the lecture summary task (question 4), that’s the main subject of the lecture.

Then, lay out the more specific details. Be as concrete as possible during this part. For example, don’t say “some animals” when you mean to say “tigers.” Concrete things are almost always easier to understand than generalities or abstractions. This part of your response—the details—is by far the most important part, and it is also the most varied from question to question. In the first task, the details might be the reasons why you prefer a certain method of studying for a test, while in the second task, the details will be the reasons that you heard a student give for disliking some piece of university news. In either case, there are very often reasons and examples. That is, in this middle part of your response you will explain and illustrate.

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Finally, you will give a quick sentence to conclude. In that conclusion, you’ll briefly restate the same reasons or details you already gave, using different wording and with less specifics. This should not be more than a few seconds—just one sentence. Because the concluding statement is so short, you can watch the clock and use this last sentence to fill time once you get close enough to the end that you can’t start another example. It’s much better to spend that time concluding than to give an inadequate, halfway-thought-out or halfway-expressed example that confuses the listener. But, at the same time, it’s better to talk until the end of the clock than it is to stop ten seconds early. So it’s helpful to finish with that unimportant conclusion, which just repeats the same ideas in different words.

It’s also a great idea to have some transitional or introductory phrases in your metaphorical toolbox so you can make it clear to the listener how each sentence fits into the whole response. Begin with a phrase like “I think that…” or “In my opinion…”. In between your examples, try using expressions like “Also”, “In addition,” and “On that note…” to show the listener that what follows will be similar to what came before. To redirect them, you can use a phrase like “On the other hand,” or “In contrast to that.” That way the speaker will be prepared for you to change topics or directions. Transitions and linking words are key!



  • 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+!

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