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Understanding the TOEFL Speaking Section

 This article covers:
  • What is the format of the TOEFL speaking section?
  • What questions are in the TOEFL speaking section?
  • How can I help my students practice for the TOEFL speaking section?
  • What’s the best way to prepare for the TOEFL speaking section?
  • How to improve TOEFL speaking section score?

The TOEFL iBT is the premier exam of academic English. This focus on academic skill means that the TOEFL exam is accepted at over 11,500 schools around the world. A high TOEFL score can help your students get noticed by prospective schools.

Doing well on the TOEFL exam means knowing what to expect on test day. For the speaking section, students should be prepared to speak on new topics or read written pieces. Speaking English will be an everyday experience for your students once they start classes, so this section is important.

Learn about each TOEFL section in greater detail or find out which TOEFL test is the right choice for your students.

Speech bubble
TOEFL Speaking Section

Students taking both the TOEFL iBT in-person and the TOEFL iBT Home Edition will need to complete this section. The speaking section is the third part of the TOEFL test. It takes about seventeen minutes and includes four questions.

Many international students find that the TOEFL speaking section is where they need the most practice. It tests all four major skills: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Your student won’t be given much time to think about their responses. They’ll need to practice their language skills to score high on this section.

Fortunately, the speaking section is somewhat predictable and the questions are fairly similar week after week. If your student understands the contents of the questions and how they are designed, they’ll feel much more confident on test day.

Looking for more ways to boost your student’s confidence for test day? Check out these top tips for how to practice for the TOEFL speaking section with your students!

Question #1: Independent Speaking

In the first TOEFL speaking question, your student will need to give their personal opinion on education, work, or some other aspect of life in today’s world. Often, they’ll be asked if they agree or disagree with a given statement, such as this one:

“State whether you agree or disagree with the following statement and then explain your reasons using specific details in your argument: Teachers should assign daily homework to students.”

Sometimes, they’ll be asked their personal preference about something, like this:

“Some people prefer to spend most of their time with a few close friends. Others prefer to always meet new people. Which do you prefer?”

In either case, they will be given 15 seconds to prepare their answer. After that, they’ll have 45 seconds to speak.

Students talking
Question #2: Campus Announcement

First, your student will read a 100 word article that describes a change that will occur on a university campus. The announcement will state what the change is and mention two reasons for the change. Sometimes the article will also suggest a change. Your student will have 45 seconds to read the article before it disappears.

Next, the exam will play a conversation between two students who discuss the change featured in the article. One of the students will mention why they like or dislike the change. That student will do most of the talking. The conversation will be about two minutes long.

Finally, your student will be asked to summarize the change. They will also be asked to state what the primary student thinks about the change. The question could look like this:

“The woman expresses her opinion of the university’s plan. State her opinion and the reasons she gives for holding that opinion.”

Your student will have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.

Question #3: General to Specific

For this question, your student will read a 100 word article about an academic concept. These articles can cover all possible academic topics. However, students most commonly receive articles about concepts related to biology or business. They’ll have 45 seconds to read the article before it disappears.

Next, your student will listen to a two minute lecture on the same topic. The lecture will give one or two examples of the concept mentioned in the article.

Finally, they will be asked to summarize the concept and mention how the lecture illustrated it. If, your student receives content related to thermoregulation, for example, the final question could look like this:

“Describe what thermoregulation is, and how the professor’s example illustrates this idea.”

Your student will have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.

Interested in more study abroad resources for your students? Find what you need to know with our guides for studying in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia!

Question #4: Academic Lecture

For the last speaking question, your student will listen to a lecture about an academic concept. The lecture usually describes how something is done, like how some birds hunt for food. The lecture is about two minutes long.

As soon as the lecture is finished, your student will be asked to summarize its key concepts. The question might look like this:

“Using the examples of hawks and falcons, explain how birds hunt for food.”

Your student will have 20 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.

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TOEFL Speaking score


Your student’s TOEFL score will depend on two different assessments. Each English Language Proficiency test has a unique score structure. It's important to understand the results for each one to understand what a good TOEFL score looks like.

First, human raters will examine each answer. They’ll give each answer a score between 0 and 4 based on the ETS speaking rubrics. They’ll score your student based on:

  • Delivery (how clearly they speak)
  • Language use (the level and correctness of their grammar and vocabulary)
  • Topic development (whether they stay on-topic and include the proper details in the integrated questions)

Next, your student’s answers will be checked by the ETS SpeechRater software. The software will evaluate specific grammar details, the number of words your student includes in their answers, and the number of times they paused while speaking.

Finally, the human and SpeechRater scores will be combined to produce a score from 0 to 30 for the whole section. That score will be available in your student’s ETS account six to ten days after they take the test.

Curious about other sections on the TOEFL exam? Check out the articles below: