TOEFL : Raising Fluency & Mastering Spoken English

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TOEFL : Raising Fluency & Mastering Spoken English

In general, the students I have met who are repeatedly getting a score lower than 50 on TSE lack accuracy when using English to communicate. They generally have sufficient vocabulary and adequate knowledge of English grammar, but they find it difficult to put their knowledge to good practical use, especially under time pressure. Students often ask, "Can I get a high score after taking your lecture for a couple of months?" I usually answer with a question. "How long have you been consistently practicing spoken English?" or I'll ask, "What is your present score?" The most common answers are, "I haven't been practicing spoken English consistently, and I have never taken the test before."

The truth be known, my most successful students spent six months to a year studying TSE. Two of my students have achieved a perfect score (60) on TSE. The first student a pharmacist studied six months before taking her first test, which she got a 60 on. It takes a month and a half to get a score report, she took the test two months in row not knowing the result of her first test and she received a 55 on her second test. My second student to get a perfect score on TSE studied seven months and he took the test every month. He received a 45 each time. On his last try, he received a 60. Some students have achieved a 50 on TSE in one to three months of study. Others have taken 8 months to more than a year to get a 50.

Of course, students vary in English ability, test preparation ability, and test taking ability. However, the most common element among the successful students was not their prior English speaking experience, but rather their persistence and motivation to succeed. Through disciplined training, they mastered the fundamentals of English Fluency (a good sound and natural expressions).


SDA is a fundamental strategy and philosophy for oral proficiency test taking. This concept was developed gradually from my teaching style and was given the acronym of SDA by one of my students. SDA stands for Simple, Direct, and Appropriate.

Test takers have a tendency to be complicated, indirect, and generally inappropriate in their answering of questions. Most students are comfortable with grammar explanations and learning rules, but find it very difficult to answer even the simplest of questions. It is remarkable, for instance, that the question, "How is the weather today?" will bring out partial sentences and one-word answers. The main strategy used in my course to solve the problem of student hesitation and lack of accuracy in sound and content is training with native speaker possible answers.

TSE English – SDA (Simple, Direct & Appropriate) Possible Answers

Many students think that to be fluent requires long sentences and difficult vocabulary words. They often think this is how a native speaker talks. It is a false expectation and leads to test taking problems.

Spoken tests are not content tests. The graders don’t care what your education level is or how much you know. They want to hear that you can communicate effectively. If you can say something effectively in five sentences, you should prefer saying it in five instead of ten. You should not be concerned about the quantity of speech you produce. You should be primarily concerned about the quality of your speech.

The first thing the grader will take note of will be your sound quality. Is your pronunciation clear? Do you pause properly in your presentation? Do you use some intonation and stress appropriately? Do you speak so that generally your ideas are easy to understand? Students that can say "yes" to each of these questions have the primary strengths and abilities that make getting a good score inevitable when combined with appropriate strategies and training.

Each question on the test has key words. Using those key words in your opening sentence helps you to show the grader you understand the language task you are to perform. Whenever possible, use key words in your first sentence to demonstrate to the graders you understand the question. Some questions don't allow this, but most do. In the course of your study, pay special attention to introduction sentences in the possible answers. Observe how they establish what will be discussed in the remainder of the answer. Indirect introductions lead to confusion and inappropriate content in answers. Repeating key words two or three times in an answer is a sign to the grader that you are able to focus on important information and develop a central idea within the time limit.

Choosing appropriate content may be the single most difficult task for test takers. However, this is where the web site becomes of invaluable help to test takers. All the students I know that have achieved a high score on spoken English tests memorized native speaker possible answers using a native speaker's recorded voice to help them gain higher accuracy in both sound and content. I am not talking about rote memorization of words on a page. This simply leads to a mindless robot answer that sounds very unnatural because it sounds like the speaker is reading. The memorization I'm talking about should be called "sound memorization".

You must not simply memorize words in a sequence. Instead, you should speak aloud following the native speaker's recorded voice so as to improve your pronunciation, linking of words, pausing, stress, and intonation. Those who memorize words on a page generally have a mindless reading voice, which always leads to a low score. If your grader believes you are presenting a memorized answer, you will not get the score you want.

This may discourage students from memorizing native speaker possible answers, but it should not. As I previously stated, I am not promoting mindless rote memorization. I am promoting an effective training strategy that I like to call "sound memorization". Proper training will lead to more than words placed in a particular order. "Sound memorization" leads to ideas that are spoken with feeling, energy, and appropriate pause. The purpose of training is to help students deliver answers in a convincing and natural manner. The most successful students have successfully prepared through proper "sound memorization".

The web site contains numerous possible answers for students to train with. They should be memorized by speaking aloud following the native speaker's recorded voice. Read the possible answers carefully. Understand the meaning of the phrases. Once you are confident you understand the content fully, practice speaking aloud with the native speaker's voice. One phrase at a time. Patiently. Repeatedly. You should notice where your pronunciation is preventing fluent delivery of the phrase. Isolate difficult phrases and repeat them over and over aloud. Record your voice and compare it to the native speaker to check for accuracy. Like a piano player who performs without music in front of them, master the answer's pronunciation, stress, pausing, and content perfectly.

Should you use a memorized answer in the test center? Yes and no. Perhaps you believe that when a native speaker makes a presentation they are completely spontaneous and creative. I think this is a naïve view of language proficiency. I have asked native speakers to describe a TSE style graph and they could not make a fluent presentation. Why? I believe it is because the person lacked experience in the language task. Did that mean the individual wasn't a "native speaker"? I know that is a ridiculous question. Of course they are a native speaker. I want to force the point that proficiency in a task comes from redundant practice and experience with the target language. Proper "sound memorization" is a highly efficient and effective tool for training specific language tasks.

The TSE test is a repetitive exam that concentrates on a limited number of language tasks. As with a job interview, you don't want to leave your presentation to chance. Instead, we need to learn the appropriate styles of presentation that will satisfy the language tasks of the oral examination, and then master those styles through redundant practice. This leads to acquisition of the necessary oral skills and content that allows the speaker to become "creative" in the answering of test questions. However, the "creative answer" is disciplined by the redundant practice that gave the speaker experience to perform the task. In other words, the speaker has the necessary background knowledge from training to be able to answer questions. Therefore, creative is a misunderstood word. It doesn't mean to create something out of nothing. Rather, it means to create something from recognizable previous parts into a unique but recognizable modified form. Thus, my most successful students have made good use of their memorization in a creative way.

Students time and again have confirmed that through "sound memorization" they were able to "creatively adapt" sentence patterns they learned through "sound memorization training" successfully on a test to achieve a 50. They report that they often modified those sentence patterns to be more appropriate to the question they were answering. Also, they have confirmed that through training with a native speaker's voice, they learned to present their ideas with an appropriate sound, at an appropriate speed, and do so confidently and convincingly.

Bruno A. Hill

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