Oh so close, but yet so far,” exactly expressed Manvi’s feelings when she scored 23 on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT. Even though her overall score was 103/120, she needed to score at least 26/30 in the speaking section. It would be two hard months of practice, and she would need to overcome some delivery, language use, and topic development issues before reaching her target speaking subtotal.
Delivery was the first obstacle that Manvi needed to overcome. A resident of the country of India, Manvi was not used to pronouncing the “t,” “d,” and “p” consonants sounds with explosive aspiration. After taking a pronunciation pre-test and several independent and integrated speaking practice tests, her TOEFL iBT speaking specialist diagnosed problems with these explosive consonants. Another area that Manvi needed to improve on was sentence rhythm. Manvi’s tendency when delivering speaking practice tests was to pronounce all words equally with the same stress. However, to have a smoother, more natural-sounding rhythm, Manvi slowly learned to put more stress on nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs; moreover, she learned to deemphasize grammatical words such as helping verbs, determiners, and prepositions.
In addition to having problems with certain consonant sounds and sentence rhythm, Mani also delivered her speaking practice tests in a monotone voice, partly because she was not used to recording her voice and because her first language followed different intonation patterns those in English. Therefore, her TOEFL iBT speaking specialist advised her to review specifically designed intonation lessons so that Manvi could begin learning how to change her tone so that it was more natural sounding.
Language use was the second problem appearing in some of her independent and integrated speaking practice tests. Sometimes Manvi would not use the simple past verb tense when referring to actions that were clearly completed in the past. In other cases, she would forget to use the plural “s” ending on her plural count nouns. Demonstrating limited control of grammar, Manvi also had problems using the subjunctive verb mood when speaking. For example, when she was asked what she would advise her friend to do if s/he were starting a new job tomorrow, she said, “My friend needs to be punctual each day she shows up for work.” However, to better connect her ideas to the speaking task and to demonstrate advanced grammar competency, she should have said, “If my friend were preparing for a job interview,
I would advise that she be punctual each day she showed up for work.” Had she phrased her ideas this way, she would have demonstrated her knowledge of the conditional “if” clause, the subjunctive mood in noun clauses after verbs of urging or requesting, and the use of the simple past to refer to present impossible situations. Aside from her grammar issues that were holding back her academic speaking proficiency, Manvi sometimes had word choice issues. For example, in one of her responses, she used the unnatural-sounding expression, “How many years do you have?”, instead of saying, “How old are you?” To help her deal with these language use issues, her TOEFL iBT speaking specialist asked her to review specific grammar and vocabulary lessons to help her minimize her grammar errors and to use more natural-sounding vocabulary.
Topic development was the last issue in which Manvi needed to improve in order to reach her goal of scoring 26/30 on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT exam. For example, when completing integrated speaking tasks involving reading and listening passages, Manvi would begin discussing the reading passages without using a topic statement linking the main point of both the reading and the listening passage. In an integrated practice test in which the reading passage discusses Marx’s Conflict Theory of society and the lecture which discusses three criticisms of the Conflict Theory, Manvi would begin her response by talking about the reading passage. However, her TOEFL iBT speaking specialist told her that,
if she wanted to create a more coherently organized response, she should begin her response with a topic statement that linked the main point of the reading and the listening passage: “The reading passage discusses the Conflict Theory of Carl Marx, and the listening passages presents three criticisms of the theory.” Another area in which Manvi could improve her coherence was to use appropriate transition words at key junctures in her responses.
For example, if the lecture opposes the points in the reading passage, then the appropriate transition word after discussing the reading passage is “however.” Manvi’s TOEFL iBT speaking specialist regularly recommended certain cause/effect, contrast, and add transition words that she could use in certain parts of her responses in order to better connect the ideas. The final issue related to her topic development was the type of details that Manvi used to support her generalizations.
When completing independent speaking practice tests, Manvi was informed by her TOEFL Speaking iBT specialist that she had trouble providing specific details for her generalizations. If she provided any details, they were generic. Slowly, Manvi learned to personalize her responses, so, for example, when asked to talk about her favorite type of movie, she would explain that romantic comedies were her favorite. To explain her point further, she gave the specific example of the movie Wedding Planner starring Jennifer Lopez and explained how that movie relieved her from the stresses of her job, thereby helping her to be more healthy and less depressed.
In the final analysis, after two months of posting more than 296 independent and integrated speaking practice tests, countless pronunciation exercises, and getting hours and hours of feedback from her TOEFL iBT speaking mentor, Manvi registered and took the TOEFL exam, this time scoring 28/30 on the speaking section and getting an overall TOEFL score of 109/120. Her TOEFL journey is described by her as having a few bumps along the way, but she was able to reach her TOEFL speaking goals. More importantly, Manvi developed near-native speaking proficiency that would last a lifetime.