TOEFL speaking

When Being Polite or Friendly Backfires: Avoid These 5 Errors on The TOEFL and in University Life

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Will Being Polite or Friendly Cost You Points on the TOEFL?

When learning a new language, you need to know more than just the vocabulary and grammar structures.  Understanding cultural rules is just as important as knowing the language rules, and as a result, topics regarding everything from spacing to hygiene to body language are often touched upon in the language learning classroom.  It is good to know how to be polite in the language that you are studying, but is it possible that sometimes what we perceive as politeness is actually costing us points?

Like many other types of rules, the rules regarding politeness are situationally dependent.  In other words, the context of the situation may determine what is polite and what is not appropriate.  In fact, sometimes what you may perceive as considerate might be the very thing that is preventing you from making progress on the TOEFL or developing good relationships after test day.


On the TOEFL iBT, you must type your answer to the independent and integrated essay.  While you already know that being able to type quickly and accurately is important for being able to reach your goal score within the time limit, the way in which you type does matter.  You may have noticed that people tend to put things that are extremely important in all capitalized letters in order to draw the reader's attention to that word or phrase.  Perhaps you've gotten an email or text message that says you need to be in a specific location at 9 AM SHARP, for instance.  While it is true that native English speakers will sometimes use all caps in order to bring your attention to valuable information, you do not want to do this on test day.  Writing your entire essay in all caps will not suggest that your essay is important.  Instead, think of writing something in all caps as the equivalent of yelling as that is how most native speakers will read it.  If you've ever received an email from a colleague written in all caps, it will seem either like they are very mad at you or it will seem unprofessional.  On test day, it will be impossible for the grader to understand if you know the correct rules regarding capitalization if you capitalize everything. After you get into the university program you desire, if you send an email in all caps, it is likely to be received as pushy and offensive.  On both test day and in emails to your professors or fellow students after the TOEFL, make sure to avoid using all caps.

2| Using slang or text-speak (and emoticons/emojis)

When texting, many native speakers will use the letter u to mean you or other similar abbreviations for common words.  In a casual situation between friends, this would not seem unusual.  Even though an abbreviation like b/c or btw could be understood by a native speaker test grader or professor, it would seem incredibly inappropriate for that audience.  Always use formal language and a formal register when writing in these situations.

While you don't need to give a title for your independent or integrated essays on the TOEFL, you will need to write a subject line if you are sending an email to a professor.  Don't leave the subject line blank and don't use cutesy emoticons in the subject line, either.  While this would be okay if you are emailing someone who you are close with, emailing someone in a position of authority, especially if you select an emoji like the kissy face will seem very awkward and uncomfortable for the person receiving your email.

3| Thank you for reading my essay

If you are writing an email, it is considered polite to thank the other person.  In fact, many people use some variation of thank you as their closing (the part before they sign their name).  However, on the TOEFL itself, you absolutely do not want to finish your essay or your speaking response with the sentence "Thank you for reading my essay."  First, it is not the standard convention to do this in a formal essay in English.  Second, you might be hiding an excellent last sentence.  Because the scorers will be reading your essay quite quickly, they might overlook the strong closing sentence that you composed before this fake one that isn't actually contributing to your essay overall.

4| Being too blunt

Wasting another person's time-- whether this is the scorer of your essay or your current course instructor-- is inconsiderate.  In American culture, there are certain expectations regarding the set up of the ensuing conversation or essay, and skipping this could seem strange, pushy, or blunt.  For writing, your first sentence should be related to the topic but should not provide your entire answer to the question yet.  In speaking, it is even more important to correctly introduce the request that you are making.  Phrases like "do you have a minute" before making a request are considered standard whereas simply saying "I need X" seems impolite or even self-centered.  

On the TOEFL, you are likely to hear these types of phrases in the Listening section if a student is going to see a professor for clarification or to ask for a favor.  Look for modals and phrases like “Would you mind _____” or “Could I ask you a quick question.”

5| Saying it doesn't matter

Frequently students try to be extremely accommodating, trying to show respect to those who are in a position of power, whether this is the essay scorer or their instructor.  One way people try to show how agreeable they are is by letting the other person make a decision or by trying not to take any stand on an issue as a way of circumventing potential controversy.  For independent essay questions, the TOEFL frequently will ask you for your opinion on a topic. You absolutely want to take a clear position.  It will make for clearer writing and allow you to more completely develop your thoughts.  It is also easier to compose an essay where you aren't trying to split your time between all sides of an issue and will not cause you to potentially contradict yourself.  Some students, in an attempt to make sure that no one is offended, try to entirely avoid giving an answer that favors one side.  Non-native speakers might do this by using the phrase "I don't care."  Without context, however, this can come off as extremely rude.  It sounds like you are dismissing the topic as ridiculous, unimportant, or even stupid, inadvertently creating a situation that is probably more offensive than just having stated your actual opinion in the first place.  If in situations outside of the exam, you want to indicate that you are deferring to the other person to make the choice, use a phrase like it is up to you to sound just like a native speaker.  On the TOEFL listening, you might even hear two students use this phrase when deciding what club to join or a professor say it to a student in terms of what topic they should choose for a paper.

Key Takeaways

Stay polite and contextually appropriate by following these guidelines on the TOEFL and in university interactions.  Put into practice what you’ve learned by practicing with 30 free essay prompts today.

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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears

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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears Quickly and Easily

What you should and shouldn't be afraid of

Around Halloween, there is endless discussion of scary movies and costumes. While some people derive great pleasure from the manufactured fear of watching a horror film or dressing up like a zombie, few would say the same for the very real fears that surround test day. With a handful of tricks, turn the test into the closest thing to a treat, eliminating the most common TOEFL terrors.

1| Not having background knowledge on the topic

For many students the idea that the first reading passage will be on a topic that they've never heard about before and in a discipline that they know little to nothing about strikes fear into test-takers hearts.  While it is easy to see how a reading about a chemistry topic might be intimidating for a person who struggled in science classes in his/her native language, do not allow yourself to get intimidated.  The TOEFL passages are designed so that way anyone could answer the questions even if they did not come in with any prior knowledge.  That means that all the academic terms that are specific to that field will be defined for you, but most people get so panicked that they do not even attempt to find the gist of the passage.  

In order to combat this problem, read passages on a variety of topics before test day.  Follow all sections of the newspaper or sites like Newsela instead of only reading the topics that you naturally gravitate towards.  If you struggle with having enough self-discipline to seek out passages that you do naturally feel inclined to read, follow along with the passages I like to on Twitter to get a well-rounded selection.

2| Running out of time

For many students, the sound of a ticking clock counting down the minutes or seconds left on each section of the exam is enough to make their blood run cold.  If looking at the clock brings about feelings of apprehension, you need to rethink the way you consider the clock.  Being afraid of the clock almost always means you are ignoring the clock, usually resulting in looking at the remaining time so late that you can no longer change your strategy.

Time management is a learned skill.  For each section of the test, you need to be able to pace yourself, and you should follow a pacing guide so that way you can check at regular intervals to make sure that you are sticking to the time recommendations per question.  By checking the time left regularly, you can determine what you need to do moving forward.  This is particularly important on the reading section as the test does not prompt you to move to the next passage.  You need to take the responsibility for using the time allotted wisely, and that means not being afraid of the timer.  Don't do practice problems or full-length practice tests without a time limit.  Knowing your limits (and where you need to be at any given point) will give you confidence when checking the clock, not fear.

3| Not recognizing the vocabulary word being asked about

Students frequently spend tons of time memorizing new vocabulary words because they are so afraid of encountering a word they've never seen before on test day.  While learning new terms is good, it is nearly impossible to know every word that you see in the passage as there is a such a range of academic vocabulary and discipline specific terms you would need to know.  While you don't need to understand every word in a passage (after all, the passages are roughly 800 words and you are only asked 13 questions per passage), what happens when the word you don't know is in the question stem or the answer choices?

Most students freeze up when they are asked about a word they don't know (or are given a word they don't know as an answer choice).  If this happens, don't fret.  ETS has likely given you a clue in either the sentence before or after or enough information to allow you to make an educated guess.  Can you use part of the word-- like a prefix, for instance-- to make an inference about what the word means?  Do you know the word that they are asking about, but not one of the answer choices?  Just like on the SAT, if this happens, ask yourself, how close of a synonym are the other answer choices you do recognize?  If someone asked you what the word means and you would have selected one of the answers that you know, odds are that that is the right answer and the brand new word is simply a distraction.  Don't fall for the predictable trap like those in horror movies; be confident in the knowledge you have.

4|  Freezing up on the speaking

Perhaps the single scariest section for test-takers is the speaking section.  Having to speak in your non-native language might induce fear on a regular basis, and the idea that you are creating a recording with the sole purpose of having your speech be judged only raises the stakes.  Add in the additional stress of having only seconds of preparation time, and this fear seems valid.  While worrying about your accent or that you will make a grammar mistake can cause people to lack confidence about their speaking abilities, the number one phobia students have is not having anything to say at all when the recording time begins.

To cope with this feeling of alarm, make sure that you have a solid template to fall back on to get you started with each of the 6 types of speaking questions.
This way you will never feel like you have been caught off guard.  After getting the first sentence of two under your belt, you will feel the momentum on your side and be able to complete your speaking response.

5| Not having ideas for what to write about

You see the essay prompt-- and your mind goes blank.  You cannot come up with anything to say that seems relevant or important.  If this sounds like a recurring nightmare that you've had, then you might be suffering from common fear #5: having no clue what to write about.

One of the easiest ways to fight this fear is with solid preparation.  First, you can and should free write on some of the most common topics-- like education and technology-- that the TOEFL loves to ask independent questions about.  In fact, by exploring your ideas ahead of time, you will be able to prepare yourself for both the writing and the speaking sections as there is often a great deal of overlap.

Remember, too, that you do not need to give your honest opinion.  If you had a gut reaction as to what your answer is for the question but you cannot come up with any reasons, don't feel like you need to draw upon the rationale that actually supports your initial feeling.  Similarly, don't feel like you can't modify a story from your life in order to make it fit the position you are taking.  For example, if you don't have direct experience with the topic but you know that a personal example would offer the support and the authority you need to round out a particular paragraph, for standardized test writing, stretching the truth is perfectly fine (and no one needs to be the wiser).

Key Takeaways

Being afraid of the test only leads to poor test-taking come exam day.  Fight fear with sound strategies and practice before the test, making your test-taking fears rest in peace once and for all.

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Top 10 TOEFL Speaking Myths Debunked

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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!

How Small Talk Can Make A Big Difference For TOEFL Speaking And Listening Section Scores


13 Useful Small Talk Transitions To Look for on the TOEFL

Speaking and listening go hand-in-hand, something that all language learners and teachers can tell you.  Too often, though, students don’t realize that the same holds true when it comes to the TOEFL test.  Frequently students tend to study skills in a bit of a vacuum, isolating one language skill from another unless they are practicing an integrated question, ETS’s term for questions that involve multiple skills. But because the listening section features a lot of informal phrases, the same that are used in everyday conversation, participating in daily conversation with your classmates and teachers could make you more ready for the TOEFL as well as for life post-test. 

So what should you talk about? The possibilities are nearly endless (eventually). Of course, it is important to know your audience, meaning you want to avoid topics Americans consider taboo if chatting with someone in the US. In other words, don't bring up religion,  only, or politics as many people in the States would find this rude. Americans love to start by talking about the weather, light-hearted (non-controversial) stories from the news, sports (especially local teams or big games like the World Series) or general plans for the upcoming weekend or vacation/break.

How does this help you on the TOEFL? It isn't likely that you'll hear a full conversation of small talk. 

A frequently overlooked skill is the ability to transition from small talk to what you actually want to speak about.  While we often associate transitions with writing, they are just as important and useful in speaking.  This is even more true given that Americans expect small talk before actually discussing the reason for the meeting or appointment.  In fact, most people would consider it rude to skip the small talk.  So, how do we get from small talk to what you actually want to discuss that day?  By using transitions--the same transitions that you might hear in a conversation on the TOEFL when a student goes to see his/her professor during office hours, begins by being polite, and then gets to why he/she actually stopped by.

Here are some key transitions that native speakers use that you can use as well when you want to move from small talk to the real reason for why you started up a discussion or if you just want to change the topic of conversation for whatever reason.

By the way…
That reminds me of…
Speaking of…
Before I forget…
Oh, while I remember…
I just thought of something.
Oh, there’s something else I wanted to say/ask you.
This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but…
Changing the subject for a minute…
That’s funny, because something similar…
      (note, it does not actually have to be funny.  This is more used like “That’s interesting because I had a similar situation”)
I know this isn’t really what we are talking about, but…
I know this is changing the subject, but…

Using these phrases during the course of your regular routine will help you recognize these phrases when they come up on the listening section (or integrated speaking question 3 and 5); as an added benefit, if you are using them regularly, that means you are speaking regularly, gaining extra practice in pronunciation, pacing, and word choice along the way.


Get all the phrases you need and a recap of all the topics to discuss (or to avoid) in a convenient one page printable that you can take with you wherever you go.

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