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HomeFeaturesImproving ‘Speech Marks’

Improving ‘Speech Marks’

Pamela J. Sharpe offers tips to help students prepare for the speaking section of the internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language (iBT TOEFL)

Speaking Strategy 1: Stay Positive and Confident
Before our students are asked to record their responses to questions on the six speaking tasks of the iBT TOEFL, they will be asked to speak into the microphone to adjust the volume.
They will be asked a very easy question, for example: Describe a town that you know well. This is their opportunity not only to adjust the volume of the microphone but also to adjust their attitudes. It is important that they sound confident, even if they do not feel confident.
To do this, they need to have a plan. This is how I prepare my students to stay positive and confident on the TOEFL Speaking section. I invite other educators to share this list with their students.

Take deep breaths
Before the Speaking section begins, I train my students to breathe in and out at least three times.
As they breathe in, they affirm their success in their minds. I tell them to hear themselves saying “I am ready” as they breathe in and “I feel confident” as they breathe out.

It helps to smile at the computer screen. It will make students feel better and it will exercise the muscles around their mouths. I teach my students to smile until they begin speaking for Task 1.

Speak up
A shy whisper does not sound very confident, and even though the raters are not supposed to be influenced by the quality of students’ voices, of course the raters have to hear them in order to evaluate them. A confident voice can make the difference when the raters are deciding between a lower and a higher number.

Keep going
If students think that they have not scored well on Task 1, it helps to train them not to look back. They should try to do their best on Task 2. We practice concentrating on the current task by saying a mental “No” to negative thoughts about past test items.

Speaking Strategy 2: Improve Your General Accent
Many teachers try to help students improve their accents by focusing on the smallest part of speaking—individual sounds. They will take their students through all of the sounds in English, one sound at a time. That can be very helpful if students are having difficulty understanding or saying a few specific sounds, but they
probably do not need to spend their time on every one. I give my students some very different advice. I encourage them to focus on the largest part of accent—the way that the whole message sounds. How can they do that? I choose a few of the following techniques to help them improve their general accents. These techniques are based on research and have helped millions of students. Educators will be surprised how much they will help their students!

Be an actor
Part of the accent problem is that we do not sound like ourselves when we speak a foreign language. By taking a role in a play, we become someone else—someone with a perfect accent in English. Find a play in English and have students read it aloud. Be sure that they act the parts! Encourage them to get into the roles. This is a tried and true technique. In fact, several teaching methods include it as a central part of the approach.

English-speaking people who speak students’ languages have accents. They pronounce certain sounds differently, and they have a different rhythm when they speak. I suggest that educators tell their students to pretend that they are English speakers who are trying to speak the students’ languages. When students imitate English speakers in their native languages, they begin to use improved English accents!

Sing in English
One can hear how singers from Britain and Australia often sound like Americans when they sing, but they have British or Australian accents when they are interviewed on television.
Singing produces a neutral accent, which sounds more like an American accent because of the rhythm of the words. Another reason that singing helps improve accent is because we are using the left side of the brain for speech and the right side of the brain for the music.
Speech pathologists have been using this technique to help people with speech disorders like stuttering for many years, and it works for foreign accents, too. I invite educators to sing along with their classes, choosing vocalists who have good accents in English. When we sing, we are helping them to use both sides of their brains.

One of the best ways to improve accent is for students to listen to an accent that they would like to have. Books on tape provide excellent models. I tell my students that men should choose books that are narrated by men and women should choose books that are narrated by women. Many books are free online.

Read aloud
I listen with my students to a model speaker who is reading a story or narrating a nonfiction work. The first time they listen, I do not pause the audio. The second time, I pause the recording for them to repeat sentences, words, or phrases. They try to sound like the model speaker.

Record yourself
Most of us do not like to listen to our own voices, but recording and listening to ourselves is helpful, especially if we compare our recording with a native speaker’s recording. I require that my students record themselves when they complete the practice activities and model tests for each of the speaking strategies and test sections in their TOEFL preparation books.

Speaking Strategy 3: Join a Conversation Exchange
Many websites are available to facilitate conversation exchanges for students who are learning a language. Students can easily find English-speaking partners who want to learn their languages and are willing to Skype. Often, the conversation partners exchange 30 minutes of conversation in English for 30 minutes of conversation in students’ languages. This arrangement is usually available at no cost. Here are some suggestions that help my students to focus on the TOEFL Speaking section when they are talking with their conversation partners.

Find a conversation partner
There are a number of websites to explore. Most exchanges are free. I tell my students to keep looking until they find partners whom they feel comfortable talking with and who are willing to exchange conversation in English for conversation in their languages at no cost. Why not suggest that students check out the sites listed at the end of this article?

Share your goals
It is important that students let their conversation partners know why they need help. If students explain the purpose of the TOEFL and why they are taking it, their conversation partners are more likely to get on board with their TOEFL goals.

Listen to Speaking test answers
I have my students use the Speaking section of the TOEFL model tests in their preparation books with their partners. For example, they might ask their partners the following question from one of the tests: Some people think that getting a degree online is a good idea; other people think that it is better to attend a traditional college where you can study on campus. Which do you think is better and why? To simulate a test, they should ask their partners to think about an answer for 15 seconds and then speak for 45 seconds.
They should always time the answers. I remind them to use prompts from all six tasks for the Speaking questions.

Speaking Strategy 4: Practice Listening and Speaking with Background Noise
Our students should expect that the TOEFL Speaking section will be very noisy. They will hear other people speaking while they are listening to the questions, and they will be speaking at the same time as others taking the TOEFL. Although they will be given earphones, they will still be able to hear a lot of extraneous noise through their headsets.

Expect noise
When we know that something is going to happen, even if it is unpleasant, we can prepare mentally for it. If students are told that they should expect noise, they will be prepared, and they will be less likely to panic.

Learn to focus in a noisy environment
If students practice in a quiet environment, they will not have the same challenges that they will face on the TOEFL. I tell my students to turn on the radio to a talk show or turn on the television to a news channel so that they have background noise while they are taking their model tests on their computers. Some of my students’ conversation partners take them to restaurants to practice speaking tasks. Focusing in a noisy environment is a skill that students must learn in order to succeed on the Speaking section.
Speak up
The TOEFL is a high-stakes examination for students. Shy or soft-spoken students need encouragement to speak up. They have to speak up to hear themselves over the noise of other people speaking. Although students are not competing with other test takers, they do
have to be able to focus, and that may require them to compete for volume. This is not the time to be polite. Their futures are on the line, and they have to speak up for themselves.

Pamela J. Sharpe, PhD, is an internationally known expert on test preparation. She has been on the faculty at the University of Florida, the University of Texas at Austin, the Ohio State University, and Northern Arizona University.
She has received many awards for teaching. She was founding director of the American Language Institute at the University of Toledo, a Fulbright Scholar in Latin America, and a popular mentor of ESL teachers on interactive television networks.
She is the author of more than twelve books. Her Barron’s books on the TOEFL (including Barron’s TOEFL iBT, Barron’s Practice Exercises for the TOEFL, Barron’s TOEFL Test Strategies and Tips, and Barron’s Pass Key to the TOEFL iBT) are best sellers and have helped millions of students. Visit her website at or email her at

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