(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post refers to Speaking Task 5, a task that is no longer part of the exam after the 2019 TOEFL changes. However, the focus of this post is on pacing and intonation in English speech, rather than the specific instructions and requirements of the old Task 5. So students may still find this post helpful.)
Hello Magooshers. Today I have a very special post for you. You see, a few weeks ago, a Magoosh student bravely agreed to let me post her Speaking response to this blog so I can critique it.
This student’s speech is a response to a TOEFL Integrated Speaking Task 5. You can read the task transcript and task question here. I’ve chosen this student’s response because she faces two very common challenges: speaking speed and English intonation. Listen to her talk. Can you notice the trouble areas in her speech?
I would score this spoken response at somewhere between 18 and 20 points, or somewhere between a 2 and 3 on the official Integrated Speaking rubric for the TOEFL. (Seen on page 2 of this document.) The good news for this student, and many others like her, is that a lot of her common speaking problems could be reduced, even solved, with one small change: the student needs to speak more slowly. Her speech is very quick. This makes her delivery seem nervous and forced— it can cause her to lose points for not sounding natural.
The speed of her speech also makes some of her words hard to understand, and makes her accent sound stronger than it really is. Her Indian accent would be fairly understandable if she spoke at a normal pace. But when someone with a foreign accent speaks really quickly, it’s harder for a native English speaker to keep up with their accented pronunciation and foreign-sounding intonation.
Speaking at a slower, more natural pace would solve a lot of this student’s problems. But there is another aspect of her speech that she could also change. Making an effort to use the intonation of North American native English would help a lot too. Like most ESL students, the rhythm of this student’s speech is distinctly non-native, and could be a little hard to follow even at a slower speed.
English intonation actually has a predictable “rising-falling” pattern. By this I mean that the tone of a native speaker’s voice starts out somewhat low, gets higher and then falls again. This simple change in pitch happens over and over on important words and phrases in English speech. This simple pattern of tones can be imitated with practice. The Magoosh TOEFL Blog offers two helpful tutorials on English intonation, complete with audio samples. Check them out here: English Intonation: Knowing When to Rise and Fall
Don’t get me wrong, the speed of this student’s speech is really the most important thing she needs to change. But intonation is a close second priority.
At this point, you may also be wondering about the student’s stammering. You’ll notice that she stumbles over her words at times. When this happens, she repeats the first syllable of a word a time or three before her speech becomes steady again. She wondered about it too. I have some good news for this student and all of you stammerers out there— these kinds of little irregularities in your speech are not a big deal. Even native speakers stammer, stutter, misspeak a little, and have verbal pauses. As long as your speech is understandable, TOEFL scorers won’t be concerned with those kinds of small slip-ups.
In my next post, we’ll take an even closer look at this speaking sample. I’ll show you some specific ways that this response could be improved. I’ll give examples of times I found this response difficult to understand. These examples will include transcripts of the student’s original speech so we can get a really good look at what was said, and how it can change. In some cases, I’ll even include sample corrected speech— audio tracks of me re-reading the transcript in my own Native English accent.