Rules of the Game: TOEFL Speaking and Writing

ScoreNexus TOEFL Blog

In my last post, I talked about the “rules” for TOEFL Reading and Listening. Remember, to use ScoreNexus to maximize your students’ TOEFL scores, you have to have clear strategies. And in order to have clear strategies, you have to know the rules.

In this post I will discuss the rules of the last two TOEFL sections: Speaking and Writing. These rules were created in response to the basic structure of each section, so I will first discuss the structure of each section, followed by the rules themselves.


1. Speaking is the third section of the TOEFL, and it comes right after the break. This section has six tasks to perform, and the student must record responses that are either 45 seconds or one minute.

  • The Speaking section is a very scary section for students. There is a lot of pressure on them to perform “on the spot” and the types of tasks they are asked to do are varied. Therefore…
  • Speaking Rule #1 is to practice, practice, practice! There is no substitute for repeatedly having your students record responses to tasks under realistic conditions using ScoreNexus.
  • With ScoreNexus, students can feel the time pressure, hear the beep to start recording, and experience the awkwardness of speaking into a microphone. They should do this over and over until their anxiety subsides. Your job is to get them so familiar with repeated practice that they perform all the Speaking tasks with confidence.

2. Each Speaking task has predictable patterns and subject matters.

  • Speaking Rule #2 is to know by heart each of these patterns.
  • Students should use our Speaking strategy in order to understand the patterns of each task. Knowing these patterns in advance is a tremendous advantage, and our Speaking strategy takes full advantage of this knowledge. Students will know what to expect with each task, how to take notes, and how to pattern their responses to all six Speaking tasks.

1. Writing is the last section of the TOEFL. Students will be quite tired by this point, but they will have two more Writing tasks to do.

  • Just like Speaking, Writing Rule #1 is to practice, practice, practice! There is no substitute for practice. Students have to be able to perform these two tasks so well that they can do them even with little energy left.
  • You have to make sure that you students are practicing correctly. If you are not correcting their mistakes between each practice session, they will not be benefiting. Make sure you grade each task and give them specific advice as to how to structure their essays better. ScoreNexus makes this easy to do, and our Writing strategies will guide you on how to give good advice.

2. Each Writing task has predictable patterns and subject matters.

  • Like Speaking, each Writing task is predictable. So, just like Speaking, Writing Rule #1 is to know by heart each of the two patterns.
  • Students should use our Writing strategy in order to understand the patterns of each task. Knowing these patterns in advance is a tremendous advantage. Students will be happy to know that the second writing task (I call it “W2”) is extremely similar to the second Speaking task (I call that one “S2”). The only real difference is that one response is written, while the other is spoken.
  • The most troublesome task for many students is the first Writing task. It is academic in nature, it has both reading and listening components, and then a student has only 20 minutes to write a response. For this task, our Writing strategy is very important to follow. Students who have difficulty with this task should follow our step-by-step strategy in order to do well.
Important notes:
  • Students have a lot to learn with our Speaking and Writing strategies. They must learn the patterns, how to take proper notes, and how to respond in different situations.
  • This means that generally you do not have time to teach them grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. For most tutorial sessions or classes, you have to work with your students’ current level of English skill, whatever that may be. You have to maximize their score with whatever English skills they currently have, because you do not have time significantly increase these skills (This takes months or years). Most classes or tutorial sessions last a matter of weeks or days, so there can be no way to appreciably increase English skills in this amount of time. All you can do is to get them to achieve their best with their current skill level.
  • I am not saying to ignore grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation completely. Of course if students have some issues that come up, you should correct them. But these corrections should never get in the way of learning how to take the test itself. If you find that your teaching sessions are primarily focused on English skills rather than test skills, then either you are overly emphasizing English skills, or your students’ English levels are too poor to properly teach TOEFL. If it is the latter, you have to simply stop and tell them how to work on their English skills, and after this is complete, to come back to learn TOEFL. Learning TOEFL is not learning English.
  • A common problem for students is that they type in English very slowly, or their pronunciation is so poor that it is difficult to understand. In our Writing and Speaking strategies we try to compensate for these possibilities as much as possible. However, if students just type too slowly, or have incomprehensible pronunciation, there is simply no way they can get a decent score. This is why you must have a student do a practice test before you even start to teach a student.
  • If a student lacks fundamental English skills, you will be able to tell immediately from their practice test results. You will have to make arrangements for extra typing practice and/or pronunciation practice. If it is not so bad, it is possible to do this extra practice at the same time as learning TOEFL. However, if the skills are too poor, you will have to have these students practice intensely and raise these skills before you even start to teach them TOEFL. Again, have your students do a practice test before your tutorial or class in order to identify these red flags.
In summary:

Speaking and Writing are similar in that they are both have tasks that students have to respond to. To do well:

  • Students must practice repeatedly. They should take multiple practice tests, and after each test, you must give good advice as to what they should better on next time. Practice without good instruction in between is pointless, so make sure you use ScoreNexus to grade each task and give good advice each time.
  • Students must know the patterns. Use our ScoreNexus Speaking and Writing strategies to teach the patterns and how to attack each task step-by-step.
  • Identify any potential “deal-killers” before you start a tutorial or class. You should have any potential student do a ScoreNexus practice test ahead of time. It may be that a student’s skills are simply not high enough to even learn TOEFL, in which case you have to make alternative arrangements.

Until next time,
Ed, founder of ScoreNexus