Top 10 TOEFL Speaking Myths Debunked

Copy of Copy of Overconfidence blog post graphic.png

The Top 10 TOEFL Speaking Myths Are Debunked Here

For many students, standardized tests produce a lot of anxiety;  this creates an environment in which myths thrive.  Students pass along advice to other students without necessarily having any foundation for it.  For many TOEFL-takers, the speaking section of the exam produces the most fear and consequently some of the most ingrained misconceptions.  Here are some of the top misunderstandings students have about the TOEFL speaking section (and the truth that you need to know).

Myth #1|  Native speakers would ace the speaking section

Non-native speakers assume that those who grew up speaking English as their primary language would have no problems on the speaking section of the exam.  Although it is true that, for the most part, native speakers would have no problem with using slang, choosing the correct word, or speaking at an appropriate pace, native speakers would not be able to work within the time constraints or summarize all the main ideas from a lecture like in speaking question 6 without some note-taking abilities and some preparation on the test criteria.

Measuring your own test scores against how a native speaker would perform is a futile comparison.  It is often used as an excuse or serves as another reason to be discouraged.  Native speakers aren't taking the exam, and even if they were, they wouldn't be able to achieve top scores without understanding the ins and outs of the test itself.

Myth #2|  If you make a mistake when speaking, it is impossible to correct it

One reason that the speaking section is more nerve-wracking than the writing section is the disparity between tactics to correct errors.  When typing, no one has to know you initially made a mistake.  By deleting typos and mistakes as you go and leaving time at the end to proofread, editing can help remove any errors that were initially made.  However, when it comes to speaking, there is no back or delete button.  Just like with any in-person conversation, there is no back button or do-overs; you only can get one chance.

But even when native English speakers talk, mistakes are made because of the improvisational nature of speaking.  Because you cannot plan every word in advance, everyone-- English speakers and English learners alike, make mistakes.  You can and should correct important mistakes.  Native speakers do this regularly and casually by inserting the phrase "I mean" before the correction.

For example: My brother is a doctor.  She-- I mean, he-- needed the perseverance to get through the academic and emotional challenges of medical school.

In this case, using I mean to make an essential correction was essential.  Using the wrong pronoun is, of course, a grammar mistake, but more than that, it could have made the listener believe that you were now talking about a different person, causing greater confusing.  By using I mean to correct these types of errors on test day and in regular conversational, anyone who is listening to you will have a much clearer understanding of your meaning.

Myth #3|  Speaking faster is better

Different regions of the United States are known for having certain quirks regarding their speech patterns.  Those in the Northeast, for example, are known for speaking quite fast (like the characters on one of my favorite shows of all time, Gilmore Girls).  

Pacing is an important part of making sure that your spoken response can be understood by the graders.  Although you want to make sure that you can fully develop your examples and reasons in your response, there is no need to rush.  When speaking too quickly, you could be sacrificing the clarity of your pronunciation.

Myth #4| Grammar mistakes matter significantly, so you should think carefully, pausing if needed, when choosing each word

While speaking so quickly that you cannot be understood will undermine your score, speaking too slowly could be just as, if not more so, detrimental to your TOEFL speaking score.  Listening to students who pause frequently between words or sentences is a very challenging experience.  It is difficult for the grader to follow the ideas because there seems to be no clear flow.  Pausing often in your response causes students to sound like they lack confidence in their speaking abilities, something you do not want your graders to infer.

Furthermore, hesitations and pauses cause the language to sound unnatural.  Spoken English regularly makes use of reductions and stress is not divided equally on every word.  This means you may sound robotic or mechanical to a native speaker if pauses interfere with what would be considered normal speech patterns.

Myth #5|  You must use formal, academic language all the time

Using academic language is vital for highlighting your vocabulary.  While writing typically requires a formal register, speaking does not always have some strict guidelines.  For spoken responses, using a mix of more academic vocabulary words as well as slang and phrasal verbs when appropriate will help you sound natural.

Writing is almost always a more formal register. While there is a lot of overlap as both writing and speaking are productive rather than receptive skills, expectations for sentence varieties, vocabulary, and tone are lower for spoken interactions. Don't put unnecessary pressure on yourself to make them match.

Myth #6| You should correct every error you realize you made

While correcting your mistakes can be a good thing and may end up clearing up potential misunderstandings, correcting every single error made could be unnecessarily distracting.  

First, the person listening may not have caught each mistake.  Second, you may not be making the right correction;  you may have substituted one mistake for another.  Lastly, in addition to drawing more attention to the mistakes, you could be preventing your response from developing any sort of flow and coherence, compounding grammar or vocabulary mistakes with larger content problems.

Myths #7|  It is polite to apologize for any perceived shortcomings

Just like you do not want to apologize at the end of your essay for anything that you believe you did poorly, in your spoken responses, you similarly should not issue an apology.  Some students think it is polite to apologize for their accent or their grammar mistakes, but this is something that will absolutely cost you points.

Students are even more tempted to apologize for speaking mistakes than they are with written mistakes as people often unthinkingly apologize in conversation frequently.  We apologize for interrupting what someone else said, for being late to a meeting, or for saying something that we didn't really mean.  Because spoken apologies are such a natural part of conversation, it is easy to do so in your response, especially if you feel you have messed up.  If you have done this in your Speaking section practice, it is important to break this habit as it will cost you points.

Myth # 8|  Transitions are unnecessary in spoken English

In written responses, it is important to guide the reader through your ideas. The best way to do this is through the use of transition words and phrases.

Although your transitions don't have to be as formal, you should still use transitions when listing reasons and when introducing examples. While you might not always have time to use a concluding sentence at the end of each response, these internal transitions will help keep your ideas organized, create cohesion and flow, and ultimately make it easier for the listener to understand. While listeners can ask questions when interacting in person, the recorded nature if these one-way responses make transitions that much more important.

Myth #9| Speaking into the microphone is exactly like speaking to someone in person

Practicing small talk regularly can go a long way in developing your confidence and your oral skills. However, when you add in the element of a recording device, the interactions feel a little bit different than speaking to someone in person. 

While imagining that you are speaking to someone you are comfortable with, like a family member or a friend, might help make you feel more confident and at ease when forming your responses, don't completely ignore the technology element involved when recording TOEFL speaking responses.  Because you will be recording your answers via microphone and getting no visual cues as to the listener's comprehension of your statements, make sure to practice in situations that mimic this. Talking to your friend via phone call, using a free audio recorder on your mobile device, or using apps like Recap to send practice answers to your tutor or teacher are great ways to simulate the test.

Myth #10| You need to be quiet when giving your answer because that is polite

When grading TOEFL speaking homework for my students, sometimes I would encounter recordings that were so quiet it was nearly impossible to hear the response.  Students who would speak confidently in class, raising their hands to volunteer answers, suddenly became nearly impossible to hear on recordings.  If you are barely speaking above a whisper, this will influence how the person grading your response perceives and understands your response.  First, speaking that softly may inadvertently make it appear that you are not confident in your response.  More importantly, however, when you are whispering, it is difficult to get a good sense of the pronunciation, causing the grader to strain or guess at what is being said.  

Although you don't want to yell or project your voice in the test center, be sure to speak at a regular talking volume, as if you are interacting with someone sitting near you. It may feel uncomfortable to speak even at that volume in a near silent atmosphere like the testing center, but speaking at a regular tone is the only way to avoid whispering or mumbling.

Key Takeaways

 By recognizing the differences in expectations between written and spoken situations, practicing the correct volume, vocabulary, and pacing, and understanding the conventions regarding making mistakes, test-takers can avoid the common pitfalls of many responses that craft responses based on myths, not on grading criteria and listener expectations.  Practice these in daily interactions by grabbing the small talk cheat sheet!

Privacy Policy