This week I was lucky enough to again have an opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by ETS for TOEFL teachers.  Here is a quick summary of some of the questions that were asked by attendees of the workshop.  Note that the answers are not direct quotes, unless indicated.

 

Q:  Are scores adjusted statistically for difficulty each time the test is given?

A: Yes.  This means that there is no direct conversion from raw to scaled scores in the reading and listening section.  The conversion depends on the performance of all students that week.

 

Q: Do all the individual reading and listening questions have equal weight?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  When will new editions of the Official Guide and Official iBT Test books be published?

A:  There is no timeline.

 

Q:  Are accents from outside of North America now used when the question directions are given on the test?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How are the scores from the human raters and the SpeechRater combined?

A:  “Human scores and machines scores are optimally weighted to produce raw scores.”  This means ETS isn’t really going to answer this question.

 

Q: Can the human rater override the SpeechRater if he disagrees with its score?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How many different human raters will judge a single student’s speaking section?

A:  Each question will be judged by a different human.

 

Q:  Will students get a penalty for using the same templates as many other students?

A:   Templates “are not a problem at all.”

 

Q: Why were the question-specific levels removed from the score reports?

A: That information was deemed unnecessary.

 

Q:  Is there a “maximum” word count  in the writing section?

A:  No.

 

Q:  Is it always okay to pick more than one choice in multiple choice writing prompts?

A:  Yes.

At the 2019 TOEFL iBT Seminar in Seoul on September 5, ETS announced details of the new “Enhanced Speaking Scoring” for the TOEFL, which has actually been in place since August 1, 2019.

In the past, speaking responses were graded by two human graders. Now, however, speaking responses are graded by one human grader along with the SpeechRater software. This software is a sort of AI that can evaluate human speech, and has been used by ETS for various tasks since about 2008. Most notably, it provided score estimates for the “TOEFL Practice Online” tests they sell to students.

According to ETS:

“From August 1, 2019, all TOEFL iBT Speaking responses are rated by both a human rater and the SpeechRater scoring engine.”

They also note:

“Human raters evaluate content, meaning, and language in a holistic manner. Automated scoring by the SpeechRater service evaluates linguistic features in an analytic manner.”

To elaborate (and this is not a quote), ETS indicated than the human scorer will check for meaning, content and language use, while the SpeechRater will check pronunciation, accent and intonation.

It is presently unknown how the human and computer scores will be combined to create a single overall score, but looking at the speaking rubric could provide a few hints. Note that in the past the human raters would assess three categories of equal weight: delivery, language use, and topic development. If the above information is accurate, the SpeechRater now assesses delivery, while the human now assess language use and topic development. It is possible, then, that the SpeechRater provides 1/3 of the score, and than the human rater provides the other 2/3.

I will provide more information as I get it. In the meantime, check out the following video for more news and speculation.

There are six things you can do right away to improve your TOEFL speaking score:

  • Learn how the questions are designed
  • Learn how to structure your answers
  • Learn how your answers will be scored
  • Get some Accurate Practice Questions
  • Improve your accent and delivery
  • Hire a good teacher

You are probably reading this blog post because you sent me a message asking “how can I increase my TOEFL score?” That is a hard question to answer if I haven’t ever heard you speak, but I will talk about each of the above strategies one at a time.

Learn How the TOEFL Speaking Questions are Designed

It is important to know that ETS designs the four speaking questions the same way every week. There are really just a few minor variations that you might face. Learning about these designs is the first thing you need to do as you prepare for the TOEFL, as it will make your job on test day a lot easier.

Do this by checking out my playlist on the 2019 version of the TOEFL speaking section. Studying these videos might improve your performance in the “topic delivery” section of the scoring rubric (see below).

Learn How You Should Structure Your Answers (Using Templates)

Templates can be a controversial topic in the TOEFL world, but if you are struggling to put together your answers they can really help you. You can find some templates for each of the questions on my site. Note that if you have a good teacher you might not need any templates.

Learn How Your Answers Will Be Scored

You should understand that each of your answers will be given a score in three categories of equal value. Read about them by consulting the TOEFL Speaking Rubric.

For a more detailed look at how your will be graded, watch the following video.

Update: Since August 1 of 2019 the SpeechRater software has been used to judge the delivery of student answers. you can read about this right here.


Get Some Accurate Practice Questions

You absolutely need to practice with some accurate speaking questions. Answer as many as you can, and record your answers so you can review them. Here’s what I recommend:

I don’t recommend using:

  • Anything from Kaplan
  • Anything from Barrons
  • The Cambridge Guide to the TOEFL
  • BestMyTest
  • Edusynch

Improve your Accent and Pronunciation

Delivery counts for one third of your score so you should try to improve your accent, pronunciation and intonation as much as possible.

Sadly, this is hard to do on your own. A teacher can help (see below), but you might also benefit from activities like repetition, shadowing and chorusing. A fun resource for this is PlayPhrase.me. That site should be easy enough to figure out – just click on the play button and repeat the same phrase until you run out of clips. I believe that repeating the same phrase a few dozen times is a good way to reduce the presence of your native accent and to improve your overall pronunciation. This might improve your performance in the “delivery” section of the rubric.

If you want to get some free feedback on your delivery, I recommend joining the 30 Day Speaking Challenge from Huggins International.

Get a Good TOEFL Teacher

If you really want to improve your score, you should hire a tutor to work with you one on one. They will be able to help you improve your score in all three sections of the rubric. I recommend the following experts:

Mention that you were referred by Michael at “TOEFL Resources” for preferential treatment (maybe).

My overall grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test – Listening and Speaking: A

I like this book! If you’ve been reading all my TOEFL book reviews you might think I hate everything, but I really appreciate what Collins has managed to do with it’s “Skills…” series in general, and the entry focusing on listening and speaking in particular.

Just note that I’m only reviewing the speaking section of the book. The chapters focusing on listening look okay, but that isn’t really my area of expertise.

The biggest strength of this book is its concise organization. It doesn’t waste time on a lot of “skills building” activities. I guess the authors looked at a lot of other books and came to the conclusion that such content is confusing and a waste of time. Instead, they focus on breaking down the structure of each question type so that students are as comfortable as possible going into the test.

In the book is a short chapter on each question type. They flow as follows:

  • Quick Guide (describes the question and answer requirements)
  • Walk through (a sample question, sample student notes, and a sample answer)
  • Get it Right (one page of concise tips)
  • Progressive Practice (three sample questions and a template)

At the end of the book there is a sample test with one question of each type.

And that’s it. But it really works. In about ten pages per question students get an accurate depiction of how each question is structured, and a fairly good template they can use to answer the question on test day. The sample answers are complete, and sufficiently long (unlike, say, the answers in Cracking the TOEFL).

I really want to draw attention to how rare it is to find such accurate questions. Most major books I have looked at (Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton, etc) all contain inaccurate questions which make student study time EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT. The authors of those books don’t even seem to have taken the test, and so their work makes students confused and frustrated.

When students study accurate questions they can avoid wasting time. That is the strength of this book.

It is clear that four questions of each type might not be enough for students to master the test, but once they have a decent understanding of how the questions are put together they will be able to supplement this book with content from the Official Test Collection books (10 questions of each type, in total).

Just note that starting August 1 of 2019 this book will be somewhat out of date because the TOEFL will change.