Understanding the TOEFL Speaking Section

Understanding the TOEFL Speaking Section 

The speaking section is the third part of the TOEFL test. It takes  about seventeen minutes, and includes four questions. A lot of international students consider this the most challenging part of the test, and you won’t be given much time to think about your responses. To excel here, you’ll need strong language skills, and the ability to think on your feet! Not only that, but this section isn’t just about speaking. It tests all four major skills—speaking, writing, listening, and reading!

Fortunately, nothing in this part of the TOEFL should come as a surprise. The speaking section is somewhat predictable, and the questions are fairly similar week after week. If you understand the contents of the questions and how they are designed, you’ll feel much less nervous on test day.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the four TOEFL speaking questions, one at a time.

Question #1: Independent Speaking

In the first TOEFL speaking question, you’ll be asked to give your personal opinion on a topic related to education, work, or some other aspect of life in today’s world. Often, you’ll be asked if you 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, you’ll be asked your 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, you will be given 15 seconds to prepare your answer, and 45 seconds to speak.

Question #2: Campus Announcement

First, you will read a short article (about 100 words) 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  suggest a change. You will have 45 seconds to read the article. It will then disappear, and you won’t see it again.

Next, you will listen to a conversation between two students who are talking about the change. There will always be one man and one woman in the conversation. One of them 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, you will be asked to summarize the change, and state what that student thinks about it. The question might look something like this:

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

You’ll have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak.  

Question #3: General to Specific

First, you will read a short article (about 100 words) on an academic concept. These articles can cover all possible academic topics, but  according to one survey, students most commonly get articles about concepts related to biology and business. You’ll have 45 seconds to read the article. After that it will disappear. You will see it again.

Next, you will listen to a short lecture (about two minutes) on the same topic. The lecture will give one or two examples of the concept mentioned in the article.

Finally, you will be asked to summarize the concept, and mention how the lecture illustrated it. 

If, for instance, you’ve just heard content to  thermoregulation,the question might look something like this:

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

You’ll have 30 seconds to prepare, and 60 seconds to speak. 

Question #4: Academic Lecture

First, you will listen to a lecture about an academic concept or phenomenon. It usually describes how something is done, like how certain birds hunt for food, or how businesses attract new customers. The lecture is about two minutes long.

Fortunately, there is no reading in this question. As soon as the lecture is finished, you’ll 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.”

You’ll have 20 seconds to prepare, and 60 seconds to speak.


Your score will depend on two different assessments. First, human raters will examine each answer. They’ll give each response a score between 0 and 4 based on the  ETS speaking rubrics. They’ll judge you based on your delivery (how clearly you speak), language use (the level and correctness of your grammar and vocabulary), and topic development (whether you stay on-topic and include the proper details in the integrated questions).

Next, your answers will be checked by the  ETS SpeechRater software. It will focus on more specific linguistic features like specific grammar details, the number of words you include in your answer, and the number of times you pause 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 ETS account six to 10 days after you take the test.