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TOEFL Speaking Tips

Expert Secrets Revealed

June 23, 2017 0 comments

Speaking might be the scariest section of the entire TOEFL exam. Even native speakers would find it difficult.

Think about it.

You’re asked a question.

The question could be about anything.

After the question is asked, you are expected to speak into a microphone for precisely 60 seconds.

That’s tough.

Now, there’s plenty of advice online and in books that describe the format of the questions and how you should respond.

However, today’s article will focus solely on the vocabulary you need to know to earn a high score on the TOEFL Speaking Section.

These TOEFL speaking tips will include words and phrases that will help you sound more like a native speaker and boost your overall score.

Instead of long lists of vocabulary, I’m going to provide you with just a few words and phrases that will have a tremendous impact on your performance.

We are going to start by talking about transition words. These are words that connect one idea to the next like but, also, and however.

After that, you will learn the Vocabulary Ninja secret recipe for writing subjects in sentences: subject juggling.

Subject juggling is the most important skill you need to master in both the speaking and writing section and I am the only TOEFL instructor who can show you how to do it.

And finally, we will go over four common idioms that will help you sound more like a college student that was born and raised in the States.

Sound good?

Oh, and if you need some example questions from TOEFLs past, here’s a handy PDF of over 150 independent speaking questions that have been asked in TOEFL exams past. Download here.

I’ve also included a complete TOEFL Speaking Section that you can download right here.

TOEFL Speaking Section Example PDF

This article will be broken down into seven separate sections:

  1. Who are you and why do you know so much about the TOEFL?
  2. What’s the structure of the TOEFL Speaking Section?
  3. What are the most important transition words?
  4. What is subject juggling and how to use it?
  5. Four idioms to help you sound more American.
  6. Conclusion
  7. Vocabulary Ninja’s Top Ten Tips for the Speaking Section

In this article, I’ll be taking the last three years of my life teaching TOEFL and condensing it down into one article packed with only the most useful information.

So make sure you have a pen and paper ready to take some notes.

1. Who are you and why do you know so much about the TOEFL?

About five years ago, I was asked to create the TOEFL program for a private college located in midtown Manhattan. The course started with just one student and an inexperienced teacher, me. I read almost every book and online resource I could find about the TOEFL. Over time, my students’ performance started to improve and the class grew.

For over three years I taught TOEFL fours hours a day for five days a week. I wrote a book and created an online course called TOEFL Speaking Success that is available on Udemy. Currently, over 9000 students from 140 countries have enrolled in the course and the average rating is 4.8 out of 5.0. (recent haters have bumped it down to a 4.6 🙁

If you want to know more about the TOEFL Speaking course, you can follow this link to Udemy.

2. What’s the structure of the TOEFL speaking section?

The TOEFL Speaking section has six questions that are broken into two separate parts:

Part One: Questions 1 and 2, Independent Speaking

Topic: The first two questions will ask for your opinion on a range of topics. Education, Business, and Parenting are just a few of the many subjects that may be asked. The only difference between question one and two is that question one will ask you a general opinion question and you can choose from a range of options. For example:

Question 1: If you could make one important change in a school that you attended, what would you change? Provide reasons and examples to support your answer.

Question 2: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: All high school students should wear school uniforms.

Both questions one and two are simple questions about your opinion. What makes these questions so difficult is that you must have a response that lasts 45 seconds. In reality, most people would respond to these questions in less than ten seconds.

Time Breakdown: 

  • 1st – The question will be read out loud.
  • 2nd – After the question is read, you will have 15 seconds to prepare a response.
  • 3rd – After 15 seconds, you will hear this: “Please begin speaking now.
  • 4th – You will speak about your opinion to the topic for 45 seconds.

If you want more detailed information about the TOEFL independent speaking, you can check out the free version of my course on Udemy which is all about independent speaking questions. Click Here:


Part 2 – Questions 3-6, Integrated Speaking

The last four questions are part of the integrated speaking section. Integrate means together, so, instead of just giving your opinion to a question, here, you must report on information that you read or hear.

Each integrated question is a little bit different, so I will briefly explain each one individually.

Exciting, right?

Seriously though, this stuff is important so if you don’t know it, make sure you write it down.

Question #3

Topic: The topic will have something to do with campus life. It could be about living in the dormitory, visiting the library or some other aspect of life while residing in a college.

Time Breakdown:

  • 1st – You have 45 seconds to read a passage of approximately 100 words. After 45 seconds, the passage disappears and never returns
  • 2nd – You listen to a conversation between two students who will discuss the content of the reading. The conversation will be between a man and woman and last for about 90 seconds.
  • 3rd – After the reading and listening, you have 30 seconds to prepare your response.
  • 4th – For 60 seconds, you must report on the most important information in the reading and listening passages.

Question #4

Topic: This question will introduce an academic topic. The topic could be about how animals use camouflage or ancient Mesopotamia. There’s are a wide range of possibilities.

Time Breakdown:

  • 1st – You have 50 seconds to read a passage of approximately 100 words. After 50 seconds, the passage disappears and never returns
  • 2nd -You have to listen to a lecture by a professor explaining the topic in the reading. The lecture will last for about 90 seconds.
  • 3rd – After the reading and listening, you have 30 seconds to prepare your response.
  • 4th – For 60 seconds, you must report on the most important information in the reading and listening passages.

Question #5

Topic: The topic will have something to do with campus life.

Time Breakdown:

  • 1st -You have to listen to a conversation between two students (no reading passage). The conversation will be between a man and a woman and last between 2-3 minutes.
  • 2nd – After the listening, you have 20 seconds to prepare a response.
  • 3rd -For 60 seconds, you have to report on the most important information in the conversation and provide your personal opinion.

Question #6

Topic: This task will introduce an academic topic.

Time Breakdown:

  • 1st – You have to listen to an academic lecture by a professor that will last about three minutes.
  • 2nd – After the listening, you have 20 seconds to prepare a response.
  • 3rd -For 60 seconds, you have to report on the most important information in the lecture.

If you want more detailed information about the speaking section, you can check out my course on Udemy. Click here for the details.

Here’s a handy chart if you want to see the whole TOEFL Speaking in one convenient page:

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

3. What transition words do I need to know?

Transition words help sentences flow together and form a story.

According to ETS’ grading rubric, one of the four main criteria a student is judged on is topic development. Topic development basically means:

Does the student know how to tell a story?

In order to tell a good story, ideas must flow naturally from one to the next. There needs to be a beginning that is rather general, a middle where the general ideas become more specific, and an end that sums up the main points of the story.

The most effective way to connect ideas and move from one topic to the next is through transition words. However…

I’m not going to give you a long list of transition words.

Instead, I’m going to show you what transition words and phrases I would use in each part of the speaking response.

I believe these transition words work best because they sound the most natural. However, this is just my opinion. You will meet other teachers and experts who may disagree.

But they’re wrong (haha).

Okay, so, different transition words and phrases serve different purposes. Let’s start with:

Introducing Opinion: 
  • In my esteemed estimation…
  • If I were asked…
  • In my opinion…
  • I think…
  • To me…

When introducing your personal opinion, the two best phrases to use are “I think” and “To me” because they sound the most natural.

In my opinion” is a common phrase and sounds fine if you want to use it.

Again, keep in mind that all of this advice is based on the idea that I want you to sound as natural as possible.

You don’t need to sound like a professor on the TOEFL.

If someone launched into their opinion with the phrase “in my esteemed estimation“, even a professor, I would assume that they have minimal contact with other human beings.

Also, personally speaking, I hate the phrase “If I were asked”. I asked you a question. You don’t have to imagine the situation.  It’s unnecessary and awkward.

Personal Examples: 
  • As an illustration…
  • To illustrate my point…
  • For instance…
  • For example…
  • I remember when…

The phrase “I remember when” would only be used in the independent speaking section to introduce a personal example. Since you have to speak about your opinion for 45 seconds, it’s necessary to include a personal example in your independent speaking response. “I remember when” is how most native speakers introduce a personal story.

Of course, “for example” and “for instance” are common transition words that you can use as well.

However, stay away from “as an illustration” and to “to illustrate my point”. While some native speakers may introduce examples in this manner, it would be strange to hear them spoken by someone who speaks English as a second language.

Adding Information: 
  • Of equal importance…
  • Furthermore…
  • Moreover…
  • On top of that…
  • Also…

The most common transition word is ‘also’, but try not to use it too often. Vary your sentence structure and try other transitions like “actually” and “on top of that”.

Moreover” and “furthermore” sound less conversational and more academic, but appropriate to use in the speaking section, especially in the integrated section.

  • Notwithstanding 
  • On the contrary 
  • While/Even though 
  • On the other hand 
  • However 
  • But 

The classic “but” and “however” are the most common contrasting transitions and sound natural.

On the other hand” is another good way to introduce a contrasting idea and can be used as a synonym to “however“.

The terms “while” and “even though” are useful, but follow a different grammatical format. It’s hard to use these contrasting transitions, but if you know how to use them properly, be sure to include them in your speaking response. Let me show you a few examples:

“I like ice cream. However, I also like cake.”

“While I do like ice cream, I also enjoy eating cake.”

“Even though I like ice cream, I also enjoy eating cake.”

Notwithstanding” and “on the contrary” sound a bit too fancy. Just keep in mind that while in some cultures it’s cool to sound smart, America is different. We prefer people to speak plain and to the point, even in some circles of academia.

Keep it simple. 

The Conclusion: 
  • I would like to summarize by…
  • In summation…
  • In conclusion…
  • These are the reasons why…
  • To sum up…
  • That’s why…

The phrases “these are the reasons why” and “that’s why” work best in the independent speaking section for you to sum up your response and signal that the information and examples you provided lead to your opinion. However, the phrase “These are the reasons why…” sometimes sounds robotic, so, it’s better to use the transition “That’s why…“.

That’s why I think all high school students should wear school uniforms.”

Of course, there are dozens of other transition words that you can study, but these are the best phrases to employ during The Speaking Section to make your English sound more natural.

Don’t forget to try all of this advice out in our free TOEFL speaking and writing practice questions download.

ETS, the company that makes the TOEFL exam, released a rubric of how the tasks in The Speaking Section are graded. If you use the recommended transition words mentioned above it will help improve your delivery (how natural you sound) and your topicdevelopment (how well you construct your response like a story).

4. What is subject juggling

According to ETS’ grading rubric, your language use will also be assessed. In other words, it’s necessary to use a range of vocabulary while varying your sentence structure.

Paul at TOEFL Speaking Teacher suggests:

“Use a Variety of Vocabulary! One of my favorite tips to get a better TOEFL Speaking score is increasing your word variety (and using them correctly). Buy or research a good vocabulary builder and study vocabulary regularly. Try to use at least one of your new words in each practice response so you become comfortable using them.”
Paul Austin, TOEFL Speaking Teacher 

One way to sound like you have a variety of vocabulary is to know how to subject juggle.

Subject juggling is a phrase first coined by Vocabulary Ninja (me). And, as far as I know, no one teaches this vital skill.

Subject juggling is the ability to reword the same subject in different sentences. Every subject must have at least two synonymous expressions: a subject pronoun and a subject alias.

Don’t understand?

No problem. You will once we look at a few examples:

My father is tall. My father is handsome. My father has black hair.

Now, this is a poorly written string of sentences for a number of reasons, but one reason is that the wording of the subject has remained exactly the same.

  • My father…
  • My father…
  • My father…

In English, every sentence has a subject.

That’s annoying.

Other languages, like Japanese, don’t need a subject in ever sentence because it is already implied in from the context. This is not the case in English.

Every sentence needs a subject. However, you can’t just say the same subject the same way over and over again.

You need to subject juggle.

Let’s use the same example:

  • My father is tall. 
  • He is handsome.

The first step in subject juggling is to identify the subject pronoun. You should often switch between the subject and subject pronoun.

  • My parents are poor. However, they are happy.
  • My family lives in a small town. We have lived there for over twenty years.

But that’s not all…

You need a third way to same the subject: the subject alias.

An important topic must have three separate monikers:

  1. the subject
  2. the subject pronoun
  3. the alias

My father is tall. He’s handsome. The old man has black hair.

Let me show you a couple of examples from TOEFL reading passages so you can see exactly how writers (and speakers) subject juggle.

These two are taken from the Reading Section of Pearson’s book: “Longman Preparation Course for the iBT TOEFL” by Deborah Phillips from page 67.

Ben and Jerry, friends since middle school, were rather unusual individuals even from the beginning of their careers. They chose not to begin their entrepreneurial careers by attending one of the elite business schools in the US, rather, opting to take a five-dollar correspondence course from Pennsylvania State University….Since the two men had little financial backing to start their business, they had to cut corners wherever they could.”

As always, you must introduce the proper name for the subject first, in this case, “Ben and Jerry“. In the second sentence, the subject is juggled to “they” and, later on, “they” are referred to as “the two men“.

This example is from the same TOEFL book, on page 43.

Popcorn was first discovered and harvested in the Central American region of present-day Guatemala thousands of years ago. Today it has become a worldwide favorite, inspiring various methods of heating the kernels so they “pop” into the fluffy softened texture that can easily be eaten… This traditional Native American dish was quite a novelty to newcomers to the Americas.”

  • the subject – popcorn
  • the subject pronoun – it
  • the subject alias – traditional Native American dish

If you understand how to context juggle, it will improve not only your speaking score but your score on every single section of the TOEFL. You will see how native speakers use subject juggling to organize thoughts and express ideas.

Understanding how and when to subject juggle has an enormous impact on your perceived fluency. So, let me show you how to subject juggle.

You know the subject. You know the subject pronoun. But how do you make a subject alias?

The first way is an “adjective-noun combination“.

Instead of saying “Ben and Jerry“, the writer added the adjective “two” and changed the proper noun to a common noun “men“, “the two men“.

In the second reading, the writer replaced “popcorn” with the subject alias “traditional Native American dish“. “Traditional” serves as the adjective and “Native American dish” as the noun phrase to take the place of “popcorn”.

Here are a few more examples of adjective-noun combination to create a subject alias:

  • lions  –> they –> giant cats
  • my high school –> it –> educational institution
  • tornado –> it –> dangerous weather pattern

The “adjective-noun” combination is the most convenient way to create a subject alias.

Another way to subject juggle is to make your subject more specific.

Here’s an example from an article about homeschooling for Kaplan’s “Premier TOEFL iBT 2017-2018″ book (page 54).

“The final important advantage of homeschooling lies in the socialization children are able to receive. Homeschooled children are less subject to the stresses and pressures experienced by conventional students who spend six, seven or eight hours a day with their peers. They are less likely to become involved with gangs or drugs.”

When you are telling a story or writing an article, the subject must go from general to specific to move the story forward and hold the reader’s attention. Stories must start general and get more specific as they progress. So, you will find that another way to subject juggle is to mention specific elements of a general topic. In the passage mentioned above:

  • the subject – homeschooling
  • the subject pronoun – it
  • more specific subject – homeschooled children

Let’s look at the same examples from before

  • lions  –> they –> the male lion
  • my high school –> it –> Mr. MacPherson’s class
  • tornado –> it –> The Tornado Disaster of 1908 

You want to vary your vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend all day studying lists of words. Instead, all you have to do is notice the patterns in the language and replicate it.

Now that you know abut sentence juggling, you will start to see it more often in what you read and listen to in English.

For the speaking section of the exam, it’s crucial for you to be able to come up with subject aliases, especially for the integrated speaking questions, because you don’t want to say the same exact thing you read about or heard.

As Michael Goodine from TOEFL Resources points out:

“Avoid repeating words that appear in the question prompt too often. Using the same vocabulary as in the passages won’t help improve your score.”

-Michael Goodine, TOEFL Expert at TOEFL Resources 

One of the most effective ways to show that you have a varied vocabulary is to think of a subject alias.

Practice at home.

Start reading TOEFL materials or online articles and discover how writers subject juggle to increase the interest of the reader and move the story forward.

Start juggling.

Subject juggling, I mean.

Okay, before I go on to the third section…

I want to congratulate you for reading this far.


In this noisy world, I’m shocked that anyone has the attention span to read this much about the TOEFL.You’re truly committed to becoming a better English speaker and TOEFL taker.

You are doing exactly what you need to do to get the score of your dreams: you’re learning and working hard.

Don’t stop.

This information will show you the way to the TOEFL score of your dreams, but you have to do the work.

Keep it up.

Okay, now, enough talking, let’s go to the next question:

5. What idioms do I need to know on the TOEFL?


You NEED to know 0 idioms for the TOEFL.

You can do fine on the TOEFL without using a single idiom.

However, idioms are hard to use. If you can use an idiom in your speaking response correctly, it makes a strong impression on the listener.

Now, don’t start Googling “English idioms” because you’ll be bombarded by lists of hundred of idiomatic expressions and many aren’t useful.

I’m just going to teach you four. Four idioms that sound natural and fit perfectly into the TOEFL speaking structure.

I’m going to show you the exact grammatical structure to use when you try out these idioms and how to integrate each of them in your speaking response.

This little phrase will make your opinion sound stronger.

  • To me, it’s a no brainer, all high school students should wear school uniforms.
  • To me, it’s a no brainer, I would much rather work for one company for the rest of my life than change jobs every couple of years.
  • For me, it’s a no-brainer, the two characteristics of a great teacher are intelligence and a good sense of humor.

Follow this exact structure if you decide to use no brainer in the speaking section.

Use this phrase when you are explaining an opinion that you disagree with.

  • It drives me crazy when schools try to make students wear school uniforms.
  • It drives me crazy when my parents tell me to find one job that I can work at for the rest of my life.
  • It drives me crazy when teachers are lazy and boring.

This could be considered slang, but that’s okay. While the TOEFL is an academic test, keep in mind that it’s unnatural to sound academic when you speak. Even an American who sounds too much like a professor when she speaks sounds strange and unnatural. 

  • Wearing a school uniform isn’t really my style.
  • Working at one company for the rest of my life isn’t really my style.
  • Studying in groups isn’t really my style, I would much rather study alone.

Use “to make a long story short” instead of “in conclusion” or “to sum up“.

  • To make a long story short, I don’t think students should wear school uniforms.
  • To make a long story short, I don’t want to work for one company for the rest of my life.
  • To make a long story short, I’d rather study alone than in a group.

That’s all you need. Four little idioms that can have a tremendous impact on your TOEFL speaking score.

Don’t forget you can try out this advice on over 150 different speak and writing questions in this handout.

5. Conclusion

Just to wrap things up I want to go over the most important points from this post..

Here are the top six lessons to take away from this article:

  1. The TOEFL Speaking Section is broken up into two parts: The Independent and The Integrated Speaking Section
  2. There are six questions in the TOEFL Speaking Section: two independent speaking questions and four integrated speaking questions
  3. Natural sounding transitional phrases like to me, I remember when, also, on the other hand, and that’s why will help improve the flow of your speaking responses.
  4. Every subject must also have a subject pronoun and a subject alias so the writer or speaker can subject juggle.
  5. You can make subject aliases by creating a new noun-adjective combination or by making the subject more specific.
  6. Idioms are unnecessary, but four will help improve your speaking score: a no-brainer, it drives me crazy, not my style and to make a long story short.

Thanks for reading this far.

Oh, and get your complete TOEFL Speaking Section right here so you can practice for test day:

TOEFL Speaking Section Example PDF

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Is there any part of this article you disagree with? Or maybe you just want to send me some love?

-Josh, The Vocabulary Ninja

P.S. This complete TOEFL Speaking Section is an excerpt from my book TOEFL Speaking Success which is available through my course at Udemy that’s available at this link.

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