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Introduction to the Independent Speaking Task

The first two questions in the speaking section of the TOEFL are the "Independent Speaking" questions.  You will be posed a question, you will be given 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to speak.  Generally, the first question will ask you to give your opinion of a topic, while the second question will ask you to state a preference.

Here's how I teach my students to answer these questions:

Part One:  Outlining and planning your answer

It is possible to plan your answer using a template.  I teach my students a very precise model.  The method I teach is actually very similar to the method I use to teach the independent writing task.  The questions you will be asked are quite similar in both sections and you can use similar strategies to plan and deliver your answer.

When practicing independent speaking, my students always outline their answers using a chart like this one:

 My students start by writing a “main point” at the top of the chart.  This is their main “answer” to the question they have been asked.

Below the main point the student writes two “reasons” that support the main point.  These are broad and not too specific.  However, they must be unique.  The reasons should not be similar to each other.  For example, if the question asks "What is the best gift to give to a child?," you should not give "it is healthy" and "it is good exercise" as reasons.  These are too similar.  Use "it is healthy" as your first reason, but try something else for your second reason.

Next, the student writes two “details" below each reason.  These are more specific.  They support the reasons and explain why they have cited the reasons.  They might also include examples from the student’s life that support the reasons.  The details should match and relate to the reasons they follow.  They support the reasons above them.

Here’s an example outline for the question: “What is the best gift to give to a child?”  It was written by an actual student of mine.  Look at it closely:

The student has filled in the outline using point-form notes (not complete sentences).  Her main point is “Best gift = pet.”


His two reasons are “it is educational” and “it is a good friend.”

The details relating to the first reason are “learn responsibility” and “learn stages of life.”  The details from the second reason are “never judgmental” and “children often alone these days.”  The student has more ideas... she is going to speak about how taking care of the pet teaches responsibility and she is going to say that students are along because their parents are often away... but the outline is just her first impressions of the topic.

This looks like a lot of work but with practice you really can do it in the 15 seconds give to you for preparation!

Part two:  Delivering your answer

I teach my students to use a ten sentence format for giving an answer based on the above outline.  I warn them not to be overly strict about following it, however.  Remember that you only have 45 seconds to talk.  You might have to freestyle a bit.  Regardless, here is the plan I teach:

  • Sentence one: A “hook.”  This is an interesting sentence that comes before your main point.  It references the question and draws your reader into the essay.
  • Sentence two:  Your main point.  In one good, clear sentence state your main point.  Don’t be too long.  Get to the point!  Let the TOEFL grader know what you are going to talk about.  Make his job easy.
  • Sentence three:  A transitional sentence.  Try something like “I feel this way for two reasons."
  • Sentence four:  State your first reason.  Begin this sentence with “first.”
  • Sentences five and six:  State the details that match the first reason.
  • Sentence seven:  State your second reason.  Begin this sentence with "second"
  • Sentences eight/nine:  State the details that match the second reason.
  • Sentence ten:  A conclusion.  Finish by saying something like "To sum it up..." and then repeating your main point.

And that's it!  I also suggest that my students use transitional phrases where possible.  Try using something like "moreover" between details.  You might even try a phrase like "what I mean is" before you mention your details.

If you want to make your answer LONGER than ten sentences, use extra sentences when you mention the details.

Here's an example answer using the above method and the example question:

"There are many great gifts that can be given to a child.  I believe that the best gift to give a child is a pet.  I feel this way for two main reasons.  First, a pet can be very educational.  Pets teach children about responsibility because they have to be serious about taking care of them, or they will die. Furthermore, watching a pet grow from an infant to an adult is a wonderful way for children to learn about the stages of life.  Second, a pet can be a good friend to a young child.  What I mean is that children sometimes fight with their friends and family members but pets are never judgmental.  Moreover, children are often left alone by busy parents.  Having a pet in the house will ensure that children never feel lonely.   For these reasons, I feel that there is no better gift for a child than a pet."

And that's how it is done!  If you want to make your answer even longer try mentioning a personal example.  This student could mention her pet gecko and talk about how she learned about the stages of life when it grew from a baby into an adult.


Read on for help with integrated speaking questions.