When preparing for the TOEFL speaking test, it is important to have a framework to structure your response. Memorizing a few key phrases and words can help you sound more fluent as well as give you a few extra seconds to think about your response.
For example, when you are asked a question, you can respond with, "Oh, that's an interesting question. I've never thought about that before." Or you could say, "Let me think about that for a moment." These two phrases are commonly used by native speakers when responding to questions. They convey to the listener that you've understood the question, and more importantly, they give you time to formulate your response.
What if you didn't understand the question? Instead of saying, "I don't know," a native speaker would say, "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. Could you say it one more time?" Or, "Excuse me, could you repeat that one more time? I didn't catch the last part." It is completely normal for native speakers to miss certain parts of a question; they regularly use set phrases to have the speaker repeat the question. These phrases indicate that you have the capacity to clarify meanings and ask questions to eliminate confusion, which are both strong signs of fluency.
After you have understood the question, how should you structure your response? In my experience working with many students to prepare for the TOEFL, it is vital for students to have a basic structure to help them organize their response. For instance, in response to the question, “What would your dream job be and why?” students should spend the fifteen seconds of preparation time brainstorming their response. They should write down the first job that comes to mind and then make a list of reasons why they might potentially want this job.
When responding to these test questions, time is of the essence, and one should not waste it thinking about which job they might actually want in the future. Instead, one should immediately choose the first job that comes to mind, and then write as many reasons as they can why they want this specific job. Below is an example of that brainstorming session:
Job: environmental engineer
- to save the environment and make an impact in the world
- use technical knowledge to make a difference
- do something I am passionate about
Since time is limited, it is best to choose your most compelling reasons and fit them into a memorized structure similar to the one below:
- I'd like to explain why…
- First of all,
- To summarize,
A sample response using this structure would look like this:
Let me think about that for a moment… Unquestionably, I would like to be an environmental engineer if I could choose any job in the world. Now I'd like to explain why I want this job. First of all, I am passionate about the environment and saving the Earth from the devastating effects of climate change. Personally, I don't care about a high salary if I am making an impact in the world and saving the planet. Secondly, as an environmental engineer I could use the technical knowledge that I gained from school and apply it to a good cause. To summarize, if I can choose any job in the world, I would be an environmental engineer because I can make an impact in the world and apply my technical knowledge to make a difference.
Why is this a well-crafted response? Because it is concise and effectively conveys to the listener what job the speaker wants while also providing two reasons why. The response has a clear structure and key phrases that guide the listener. Many students waste time with filler works like “um,” “uh,” and “hmmm,” when these words can be replaced with more eloquent sounding phrases that give one more time to formulate a response.
Moreover, there is a clear beginning and end to this response. The speaker demonstrates that they understand the question by restating it at the beginning of their response. Thereafter, they begin to explain their reasoning and in the first point give an anecdote to connect more with the listener by using the word “personally.” The word “secondly” gives a clear indication that the speaker is moving their response forward and will explain the next point. Finally, the response ends with “to summarize,” which lets the listener know that the speaker is concluding their answer and should listen attentively.
Instead of vomiting out words and hoping that they form a coherent response, having a basic structure to fit your response can save you precious seconds and gain a higher score. In my next article, I will provide another example of a similar structure and give more useful tips for mastering the speaking portion of the TOEFL.