This is part of my series on Intensive and Extensive Learning.
The TOEFL Speaking Test mostly gives students practice in extensive speaking. Basically students are given a topic and they have to talk about it for a short period of time. The topic may be a simple one like “Describe your favorite teacher” or “Is it better to live in the city or the country?”. Other tasks expect you to listen to a conversation and summarize it, or read a short text and explain it. But in either case, the same extensive speaking skills are used–students have to generate language themselves and organize it into a short monologue. We give students practice in this all the time when we ask them, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” or “Tell me about your family”. This is good practice for students to practice and to learn to and for more advanced students it’s an easy task. For beginner or intermediate students, assigning a short speech is best when the students are first taught appropriate vocabulary or given a clear model and guidelines. Topics like this are actually useful for testing how well students are learning new vocab or new sentence structures or if students have a topic that they want to discuss.
Part two of the IELTS speaking test also asks students to speak for two minutes on a set topic. However parts 1 and 3 provide valuable practice in dialogues. While the examiner has a set list of questions to ask the student, the test is more of a conversation or dialogue between two people than a strict test. For example, a TOEFL task might ask students to discuss their town. The student would answer:
I am from Astana. It has been the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998. The population is 600,000 but it is growing. In Astana there are many beautiful buildings like Ak Orda and Bayterek. Bayterek is a tower with a golden globe on top and you can go to the top and see the whole city from there…
The IELTS speaking section might go more like:
Examiner: Tell me about your hometown.
Student: I am from Astana.
Examiner: Is it a city or a village?
Student: It’s a city. It’s the capital of Kazakhstan.
Examiner: Is it a big city or not?
Student: I think it’s a very big city. 600,000 people live there and also it’s the capital so it has to be a big city.
Examiner: 600,000 doesn’t sound very big. What’s the biggest city in Kazakhstan?
Student: Oh, Almaty has 1 million people living in it. But I think Astana is the second biggest or maybe Karaganda.
Examiner: Oh interesting. So I guess Astana is fairly big.
Student: I don’t understand.
Examiner: I meant that for Kazakhstan, Astana is big. If it’s the second biggest city in the country, then it’s fairly big. So, now what is your favorite part of Astana?
Student: The Left Bank, I think. It’s very beatiful and Ak Orda is there.
Examiner: What’s Ak Orda?
Notice that in a dialogue the student cannot prepare very much because he or she doesn’t know what the questions are going to be. So students have to learn to improvise. They can’t prepare a speech or write down their lines and just read them. So they have to think and speak at the same time. Also in a dialogue, if a student makes a mistake or says something unclear they get immediate feedback in a relatively gentle way. The examiner can say, “I don’t understand…” or “Did you mean…?” And students will have to learn to speak around vocabulary gaps–if they don’t have the right word, they have to explain it in another way or use a synonym.
This is all realistic practice. When we speak with our friends, we don’t know what they are going to say. Sometimes we have to explain what we mean a second time or ask for clarification. So having students dialogue with each other or with you, the teacher, provides great practice. Dialoguing with a teacher can also give students confidence because it puts them on an equal footing with the teacher. It provides teachers with a chance to correct errors gently or steer students to better ways of expressing themselves through targeted questions. And IELTS textbooks provide wonderful starting questions for dialogues.
So in short, both TOEFL and IELTS practice can be very useful in giving students great speaking exercises.If you liked this post, you might enjoy my book, 50 Activities for the First Day of School, a collection of rapport building and community creating activities.