Generally speaking, students from Asian countries tend to score poorly on this section. However, as I see it, this does not mean they lack ability; they simply do not know how to express themselves in a clear and logical manner.
First let me explain a little about how the TOEFL is graded. Scores for each task fit into one of four groups: good, fair, limited, or weak. Each answer is scored by one primary examiner, with three other examiners listening and observing to prevent any inappropriate scoring practices.
1. Complete organized responses
When faced with the exam topic, always remember what they are asking you! (Don’t ramble or get off topic.) As long as you answer the question, it doesn’t matter if your answer is short or not very interesting. Use connecting words like ‘but’, ‘because’, and ‘therefore’ to help you express the logic of your point. Doing so usually results in a score of fair or higher. (Don’t worry. You will not lose points because of your accent.)
2. Clear and concise
My advice is that since you have only 30 seconds to compose your answer after hearing the question, use this time to calmly outline your response. Your first sentence must contain your main point, after that list your supporting points, then end with your conclusion. Doing this will help you avoid feeling nervous and help the examiner understand the entire structure of your response. If you can accomplish that, you should have no problem getting at least a fair.
The speaking section is divided into two main parts: the independent task and the integrated task.
The independent task is relatively easy. It mainly involves discussing topics you are familiar with and giving simple answers to the questions. For example, you may have to talk about your favorite book or movie. Try making a chart with this kind of basic information. At least if you have thought about it beforehand you won’t feel nervous when you answer the questions. If you also remember to give a clear and logical answer with a complete structure, stick to the point, use an outline and connecting words, and end with a conclusion like we talked about earlier; you will have an excellent response to the topic.
In the integrated task you might encounter topics involving campus life and academic courses. This task is called an integrated task because, unlike the task before which only required you to listen and give a simple response, this task may require you to listen to two people speaking or you may have to listen to a speech and read a short article, then give a summary or an opinion based on what you understood.
1. It is important to understand the main idea (First consider the big picture, then the details)
Just like I said about the listening section, being able to take notes is very important! Refer to the part on the listening section for more advice on taking notes as I won’t repeat it here. The topic may require you to summarize the content of the dialog. Once you have understood the main idea, do your best to listen carefully for details! These will help you with your response. Also, a good principle to follow is that all the exam topics will follow the basic pattern of ‘encounter a problem > find a solution’.
If you cannot grasp both the main idea and the details at the same time, the TOEFL grading rubric makes understanding the big picture more important. This is because if you cannot get a hold of the main information that you need to convey, the examiner will not be able to listen seriously as you relate details. The examiner may think you have completely misunderstood the topic. (So always be sure to understand the key points of the main idea.)
So when you’re taking notes, grasp the main point of the thesis statement, then in outline form find and list the supporting ideas (it doesn’t matter if you don’t manage to write down all the supporting ideas), and finally add a concluding sentence at the end. If you can do that you should have no trouble scoring at least a fair.
2. Figure out whether you must summarize or present your own opinion.
During the course of the TOEFL, if the topic clearly asks you to summarize then you must not add your own ideas and opinions. It is important to be careful of this, because the examiner may believe you have not even understood the question correctly, and that’s a serious mistake.
On the other hand, when you come to the part where you must present your opinion, if the topic is something you are familiar with you are best off simply responding to each point one by one. If you are not familiar with the topic, try to express an opinion on the main point. You may also encounter topics which offer multiple solutions. For these you have to choose one solution and explain to the examiner why you chose it.
3. Don’t be a perfectionist!
Kids from Asian countries all have one very cute characteristic; we care a lot about the impression we make! We’re afraid of asking the wrong question or saying the wrong thing, and as a result we don’t dare express our opinions without first rehearsing them a hundred times in our minds to make sure there is nothing wrong with them. But, my dears, this is an English proficiency test, not a lecture.
Your first answer or idea may not be the best one, but don’t get caught up in trying to make it perfect. As long as you have a response with supporting points and you can clearly explain the reasons for your points, the examiner will believe that you understood. As long as your response is logical the examiner will not take away points just because your argument is weak! In the end you will realize that because there really is very little time for preparation, it is unlikely that anyone will come up with “the perfect answer.” But don’t get discouraged! There may be no perfect answer but you can still perfectly control your time and master speaking with substance. That’s just a different kind of perfection.
4. Remember these basic guidelines.
I have to say it again because it’s important! Control your pace as you answer the questions, get a hold of the overall outline of what you’re going to say, and it won’t matter if the middle is a bit scattered because your overall response will still have structure.
My advice is to arrange your points in an outline, but there are many ways to link your points together. Find the way you’re most familiar or comfortable with. You could number your points or use adverbs like ‘firstly’, ‘afterwards’, and ‘eventually’ to put your points in order. What’s important is that it be the way you are used to doing it so it comes naturally and you won’t feel nervous when speaking.
Once you have mastered these few guidelines, you really shouldn’t be that worried! Speaking English isn’t as hard as you imagine. Do your best and rely on yourself to CRUSH the TOEFL!