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TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

May 29, 2018

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

Are you taking the TOEFL soon? Like most students, you are probably worried about the Speaking Test. The test is only 20 minutes, which is very short compared to other sections of the test, but it is very stressful! Follow these TOEFL speaking tips to understand and prepare for the TOEFL Speaking exam.

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

TOEFL Speaking Test Overview

The TOEFL Speaking test is 20 minutes long and has a total of six questions (tasks). There are two parts to the TOEFL Speaking test: Independent Speaking (two tasks) and Integrated Speaking (four tasks). All of the answers are recorded while the student speaks into a microphone.

With Independent Speaking, the test taker must answer a question. The answer will be based on the test taker’s experiences and opinions. The speaker does this twice.

With Integrated Speaking, the test taker listens to a short audio clip, reads a text (or does both) and then answers a question. The speaker does this four times.

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

TOEFL Speaking requires listening. Are you listening?

Independent Speaking (Tasks 1 and 2)

The student has 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to respond to a question. The speaker is expected to talk about experiences or opinions.

Talk about a teacher who influenced you. Explain why this teacher made an impact on you.
Preparation time: 15 seconds
Response time: 45 seconds

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

Practice studying speaking in groups. It will help improve your fluency.

Integrated Speaking (Tasks 3-6)

There are two types of tasks (questions) in this section. For tasks 3 and 4, the student reads a short passage, listens to a recording, and then answers a question. The student has 30 seconds to prepare and then 60 seconds to speak.

For tasks 5 and 6, the student is asked about specific information in the recording. The student has 20 seconds to prepare and then speaks for 60 seconds. Task 5 will be a conversation. Task 6 will be a lecture.

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

Be sure to improve your vocabulary for the Speaking section of TOEFL.

General Tips for TOEFL Speaking

When preparing for TOEFL Speaking, remember to:

  • Speak clearly. Clear pronunciation is important because the listener will not be able to see you, only hear you.
  • Speak slowly. Speaking quickly is not always better and does not always show fluency. It will not improve your score to try and speak like a native speaker.
  • Use the full time. If you have said everything you planned to say but you still have some time left, use it!
  • Practice speaking for 45 and 60 seconds, without pausing for long periods of time. This may sound obvious or strange, but it’s a skill that can be learned and developed.
  • Practice speaking English in a non-test-taking environment. This will give you confidence and fluency .
  • Practice specific TOEFL questions. This will help you become familiar with the exam’s format.
  • Improve your vocabulary. This great list of 300+ words for TOEFL is an excellent place to start.
  • Know what is expected of you. Learn the TOEFL scoring so you can deliver what they are looking for: see the “TOEFL Scoring” section in this article for more information.


Tips for Tasks 1 and 2 (Independent Speaking)

Follow these tips to score well on Tasks 1 and 2 of the Independent Speaking section.

  • Become confident with the past tense, especially for irregular verbs. The answers often deal with the past.
  • Learn vocabulary to help you state your opinion, such as “for this reason,” “as a result,” and “therefore.”
  • This is the only time it’s OK to lie. (Really!) If you can’t think of an answer, you can just be creative and tell a “story.”

TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips

Tips for Tasks 3 – 6 (Integrated Speaking)

Follow these tips to score well on Tasks 3-6 of the Integrated Speaking section.

  • Practice taking notes. Write the notes in your native language if this helps.
  • Don’t write every detail. Learn to listen for key ideas.
  • Remember that the reading and the recording are related. What is their relationship? Identify this as you are reading and listening. Try to predict what the recording will be about.
  • You will be asked to speak about key points, not details, in your answer.
  • Since Task 5 will be a conversation, listen to podcasts and watch movies where there is dialogue.  
  • Since Task 6 will be a lecture, watch university lectures online (Yale has a great YouTube channel, and so does Harvard!) Watch TED Talks to further improve your listening skills for academic lectures.TOEFL Speaking Overview and Tips


TOEFL Scoring

You can’t do well if you do not know what is expected of you. Here is what TOEFL scorers are looking for.

  • Did you answer the question? (Remember to follow instructions, give examples when asked, etc..)
  • Was it easy for the listener to follow? (Organize your answer.)
  • Did you hesitate a lot? (Have fluency.)
  • Did you speak clearly? (Have good pronunciation. Having an accent is OK! But you must speak clearly.)
  • Did you use more complex sentences? (Have correct and complex grammar.)
  • Did you use the right vocabulary, and a high level of vocabulary? (Impress them with your idioms, phrasal verbs, and vocabulary.)

CISL provides intensive instruction in small classroom settings. As a leader in English education and testing, we have seen thousands of students successfully complete our classes and score well on their English proficiency exams. Contact CISL for more information about TOEFL and Intensive English classes. 


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10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

December 26, 2017

10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

The TOEFL test includes a Writing section, which has two parts. Do you know how to prepare for TOEFL Writing? Here are 10 tips for improving your TOEFL Writing score.

10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

TOEFL Writing has two parts: the Integrated Task and the Independent Task. The test is about 1 hour long.

For the Integrated Task, you will read text, listen to a lecture, and then write an essay. Visit the official TOEFL site, ETS, for sample text and lectures.

For the Independent Task, you will be asked a question. The topic of this question is related to TOEFL Speaking Task #2. For the Writing test, you will be asked to express an opinion based on your personal experience.

Tip #1: Learn to identify the main ideas

What are the main points of the passage you read, and what are the main points of the lecture? Be sure you can identify main ideas while reading and listening. For practice, read articles, listen to the news, or listen to podcasts and try to identify the main topics.

Tip #2: Take good notes

Learn how to write and listen at the same time. To do so, try watching TED Talks or listening to podcasts. Take notes while you listen, and pause the recording when you need to. You will quickly learn to be able to do both things at once.

Tip #3: Plan and prepare

Do not begin writing without having a clear plan. For the Integrated Task, use your notes to make an outline of what you want to say. For the Independent Task, brainstorm ideas based on your experience. Prepare an essay with ideas that connect, and then begin writing.

10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

Tip #4: Paraphrase, don’t plagiarize

In the Integrated Task, do not use the exact words from the passage or recording. Learn how to paraphrase (say the same thing using different words). If you do not do this, you are plagiarizing, which can cost you points.

In the Independent Task, do not use the exact words from the prompt. Use synonyms.

Tip #5: Vary your sentence structures

Learn how to make more complicated sentence structures and your TOEFL writing score will improve. Here are some examples of grammar concepts to learn in order to improve your score.

Mixed Conditionals

If + subject + had + past participle, subject + would + have + past participle

If I had known you needed help moving, I would have helped you.

Had + subject + past participle, subject + would + have + past participle

Had I known you needed help moving, I would have helped you.

Should + subject + base verb, base verb

Should you need help moving, let me know.


Expressing Regret

Using the construction “if only + subject + verb”

If only I had known you needed help moving!


Noun Clauses

Make your -ing clause the subject of the sentence

Living in San Diego has made me very happy.

Growing up in Northern California was very peaceful and fun.

The more you study grammar, the more your understanding of complex sentence structures will improve!

Tip #6: Learn connecting words

Connecting words will help you understand how a lecture or argument changes. For example, if a sentence begins with “however,” we know that the following information will contradict the information before. Read our article about Connecting Words in English to understand more.

Tip #7: Read

The best way to improve your writing is to read. The more you read, the more vocabulary words and sentence structures you will come into contact with. Read the news, read books for pleasure, and read short academic articles to prepare you. Our article Book Recommendations for ESL Students is a great place to start.

10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

Tip #8: Learn how to summarize

For the Integrated Task, you will have to process information in the text and lecture and then respond to it. Learn which parts are main ideas, which parts are details, and which parts need to be included in your writing.

For the Independent Task, you might have to provide your reader with a backstory or details. Make sure that you can do this efficiently.

Tip #9: Learn to edit

Editing your own work can be difficult, but with practice, you can train yourself to look at your work like you are a teacher or an editor. The best way to do this is to edit other people’s work, so find a study partner and trade writing samples. This will teach you how to look for mistakes.

Having your paper edited will also help you to understand the common mistakes that you make. Remember these common mistakes and then look for them when you edit your own paper during the test.

Tip #10: Take a preparation course

A TOEFL preparation course will provide you with:

  • Access to a skilled instructor
  • An English learning environment where TOEFL is the main goal
  • A chance to speak English more often than you normally do
  • TOEFL preparation materials
  • The opportunity to improve your confidence and abilities

Bonus Tip: Be comfortable on a QWERTY computer

The TOEFL Writing is taken on a computer with the American QWERTY keyboard. Practice typing on this keyboard to ensure that you are comfortable.

10 Tips for Improving Your TOEFL Writing Score

Good luck!


Converse International School of Languages has provided quality English instruction for over 45 years. CISL offers TOEFL preparation classes in San Diego and San Francisco. Contact CISL for more information on its intensive TOEFL preparation classes.

Why CISL? Our classes are never more than 8 students!


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5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

July 22, 2017

Forget listening to podcasts about learning English: instead, learn about English through podcasts about interesting subjects! If you need to improve your academic English skills for the American college or university setting, spend some time listening to these fascinating podcasts about science, the humanities, culture, and technology.

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Astronomy Cast

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Travel through space all learn all about the cosmos! Where did the Earth’s water come from? Do planets have seasons? How can you make a telescope at home? Who are some famous astronomers throughout history? Hosts Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela L. Gay answer questions you’ve always had about the universe.

National Public Radio (NPR)

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Science, news, comedy, education, culture, technology: take your pick! NPR has many award-winning, well researched and well produced podcasts on various subjects. The content will keep you interested as you improve your listening skills with one speaker, two speaker, three speaker, and interview style recordings.

NASA Science Casts

5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

NASA offers many podcasts on different subjects. Some focus more on specific projects (such as the Space to Ground podcast about the International Space Station), some focus on education (check out The Beautiful Universe), and others are news-focused, like This Week@NASA.



5 Podcasts for the Academic English Student

Philosophy, history, science, and the human experience come together in RadioLab, and incredible podcast produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Converse International School of Languages offers English courses in San Diego and San Francisco, California. Improve your English through CISL’s small, eight-student classes: students can choose from Standard English, Intensive English, or specific courses such as TOEFL Preparation, IELTS Preparation, Cambridge Exam Preparation, and English for Academic Purposes. After EAP, students can attend college in the U.S. through CISL’s Academic Year Abroad and Pathway programs. 

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Academic English Vocabulary: Verbs To Use for Citations in Research Essays

March 14, 2017

When CISL English for Academic Purposes students learn to write academic English research papers, students often have difficulty citing their sources. The problem? Finding synonyms for the word “say” in order to avoid repetition in their paper. The following verbs for citations can be used in place of “say.” Some are more appropriate than others depending on the situation: to better understand their usage, we are providing the situation in which we can use this word (as well as an example, which uses the MLA format for citing sources).

With each example, we are imagining a research paper written on the effects of caffeine. We will cite an imaginary scientist with the last name “Jacobs.”

Verbs for citations

Verbs To Use for Citations in Research Essays


Usage: to cite a person who says something contrary to another argument.

Example: While many believe caffeine is harmful, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania argue that in small doses, caffeine can stimulate brain function and awareness (Jacobs 2017). 


Usage: to cite a person who says something confidently or with force.

Example: Despite arguments against the validity of his research, the professor asserts that the study’s findings are accurate (Jacobs 2017). 


Usage: to cite someone who is stating or asserting that something is the case, typically without providing evidence or proof.

Example: The anti-environment group claimed that research about global warming was flawed (Jacobs 2017). 


Usage: to cite someone who is making (secret or new information) known.

Example: Jacobs disclosed that the research was funded by a pharmaceutical company with the intention of making their new drug appear effective (199: 2017).


Usage: to make private or sensitive information known.

Example: The summary divulged that the study was funded by the government (Jacobs 2017). 

Verbs for citations


Usage: to cite a person who keeps their opinion, despite claims against it.

Example: Although over the years other studies have been published stating the dangers of caffeine, Jacobs maintains that the original study is correct and that caffeine in small doses is beneficial (199: 2017). 


Usage: to cite a person who is pointing out something interesting, adding a fact or piece of information.

Example: Jacobs additionally notes that caffeine has been shown to help maintain steady sleep patterns when used effectively (198: 2017). 

Point out

Usage: the phrasal verb “to point out” means to bring attention to an important fact.

Example: Jacobs also points out that many of the studies regarding the benefits of caffeine were paid for by the coffee industry, while his study was funded by a government grant (198: 2017). 


Usage: to cite a person who draws a conclusion based on information, evidence, or knowledge.

Example: Scientists reasoned that the study’s results were due to the use of regulated doses of coffee, as opposed to studies that gave subjects higher doses of caffeine (Jacobs 2017). 


Usage: a more formal synonym for the word “say.”

Example: Jacobs also states that the study was the first of its kind (194: 2017). 

Did you notice that each of the above words are followed by the word “that?” This is optional. To find out why, read our article on Defining vs. Non-defining Relative Clauses.

Would you like some more examples of verbs for citations? Check out the University of Toronto, Scarborough’s list of Verbs for Citing Sources, the University of Portsmouth’s Verbs for Citations list, or Centralia College in Washington’s useful Verbs of Attribution download.

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Exam Prep Writing: Beginning an Essay with an Effective Hook

December 16, 2016

Many writers (both native English speakers and English learners) agree that beginning the essay is often the most difficult part. For English proficiency exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge FCE and CAE, this is certainly the case!

Take a look at this sample TOEFL Agree/Disagree statement. How would you begin an essay? (For tips on TOEFL Agree/Disagree, check out our article that contains useful hints.)


Learn more TOEFL Writing Tips (and how to construct an Agree/Disagree essay) on the CISL Blog.

Writing Prompt:

Do you agree or disagree with the statement below?

There is nothing that younger people can teach older people. 

Use specific examples to support your arguments. 

Would you know how to begin an essay on this topic? Learn how to write a great “hook” (first sentence) and you will not have this problem again!

Students Writing

A strongly written essay will also include conjunctions: learn about how to use them effectively in our article about Coordinating Conjunctions.

Using the hook in writing

A “hook” is given its name because it hooks the reader. It’s the first sentence, and it entices the reader to continue through the paragraph and essay.

There are many types of hooks. Let’s look at a few.

Hook 1: A Question

Begin your essay by posing a question to your reader. It gets them thinking!

Example 1: Have you ever had a teacher who was younger than you?

Example 2: We become wiser as we get older . . . but can we learn from those who have experienced less of life?

Example 3: Have you ever had a teacher who was younger than you?

Hook 2: An anecdote

An anecdote is a personal story. Writing sections of proficiency exams ask you to use specific examples to support your opinion: with an anecdote, you are beginning with one!

Example 1: I will never forget walking into the classroom and seeing Vlad: even with his kind face, I thought to myself, “How can I teach someone who is significantly older than me?.” It turns out, I could.

Example 2: I’ve learned so much from my teachers and professors in elementary school, high school, and college . . . but I may have learned the most from my experience as teaching assistant to small children.

Example 3: Can the students be the teacher? I certainly think so after volunteering at a local elementary school.

Hook 3: A fact

In a test setting, it might be difficult to remember an exact fact or statistic. However, this is useful if you are writing research essays at home and can access a library or a computer. Even without a computer, this can still be a possible hook: check out some of these examples.

Example 1: You must complete four years of college and two years of additional training to become a high school teacher.

Example 2: Most companies ask for “2-5 years experience” from applicants.


Familiarize yourself with the many prompts you can get in TOEFL with our article on the Types of TOEFL Writing Prompts.

Hook 4: Set a scene

Grab their attention: tell a story! The reader will continue reading just to hear your ending!

Example 1: Jason watched as George slowly typed on the computer keyboard, carefully pushing one key at a time while looking confused and dismayed. “Can I help you?” Jason asked. “Sure,” George replied. “I’m trying to email my daughter a photo, but I don’t know how to attach it. This email thing is so confusing to me.”

Example 2: Looking around the classroom, Anna completed her lecture. “And that is how you publish your own webpage. Any questions?” A student in the back, a middle-aged gentleman with wire-rimmed glasses, raised his hand. “Just one question,” he said. “How did you learn all of this before learning how to drive?” The class laughed, and so did Anna. “Well,” Anna said, “I studied programming in high school and was well-versed in coding before I entered college last year.”

Hook 5: A quote

Without access to a computer, it might be difficult to remember exact quotes from famous individuals. However, your quote does not have to be from someone famous.

Example: “Yoga until you’re 90,” Sindhu kept saying during our yoga teacher training. With this in mind, we learned the best ways to practice yoga without putting strain on our bodies. Little did I know, in a few months my students would actually be near 90: I was soon to take a volunteer position as a yoga teacher for a retirement community in my town.

Hook 6: Your thesis!

Your thesis is the main idea of your paper. If you don’t feel like writing a catchy or creative hook, then begin your paper with your thesis. This direct approach is often very effective!

To write a powerful and concise thesis, check out our article on How to Write a Thesis with Predictors.

Example 1: I am a firm believer that everyone has something to offer, regardless of age; therefore, it is my opinion that the young have much to offer the elderly in regard to education.

Student Studying Writing Computer

Do you know how to write a thesis? Check out our article Writing a Thesis with Predictors for tips!

Hook 7: A misconception

Example 1: Many believe that the youth of today are misguided, self-centered, and irresponsible, and therefore have little to offer in regard to educating the wiser elderly population.

For more information on CISL’s intensive TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge CAE and FCE classes, check out CISL’s website.