Brainstorming Topics for the TOEFL Independent Speaking Task

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  • 0:01 Independent Speaking
  • 1:20 Brainstorming Experiences
  • 3:37 Brainstorming Reasons
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Do you have trouble coming up with answers for the independent speaking tasks? Or do you struggle to pick a side when you have to choose between two options? This lesson will help you brainstorm topics and examples to make your answers strong.

Independent Speaking

On the TOEFL, independent speaking tasks ask you to respond to a prompt based on your own experiences or preferences. There's no right answer here; it's just about your speaking skills. The graders only care that you can make your point concisely and clearly; they don't really care what the point is.

You can think about these questions as being broken down into two different kinds. Tasks that ask you to talk about something in a specific category and explain why you picked it. For example, you might be asked to talk about a teacher you really loved and explain why you loved her or describe the most interesting place you ever visited and what made it so interesting. For these tasks, you'll have to brainstorm an experience that fits into the category and reasons why it fits.

Tasks that ask you to pick between two options and defend your choice. For example, you might be asked to decide whether or not students at a boarding school should be allowed to have cars, and then give reasons for your choice. Often the two options are equally reasonable, and you won't really have a strong opinion one way or the other, so you'll just have to pick at random. On these tasks, you'll have to brainstorm reasons for choosing one option over another.

In this lesson, you'll get some tips for both kinds of brainstorming.

Brainstorming Experiences

First, we'll tackle the tasks where you have to come up with an experience that fits into a certain category. Some examples of categories that you might get asked about include:

  • A class you enjoyed taking and why you liked it so much
  • The best way you ever spent a vacation and why it was so great
  • An experience that taught you something and what you learned

You'll get the category, and then you'll have just 15 seconds to decide on a topic and make notes before you have 45 seconds to explain what experience you picked and why.

These categories have to be broad enough that students from any country can answer them. The good news about that is that you'll almost certainly have an experience that fits. The bad news is that such a broad prompt doesn't give you much guidance if you can't think of anything right away. Here are some tips for effective brainstorming.

Start thinking while you're listening to the prompt. Don't just passively sit there letting the prompt wash over you. Start making associations as soon as you hear the words - this can buy you a few extra seconds of thinking time.

Practice with school-related categories ahead of time. A lot of TOEFL questions revolve around school life and academic settings because that's one thing everyone taking the test has in common. So, practice thinking about school-related questions ahead of time, while you're not under time pressure. Think of several examples of:

  • Classes you liked and didn't like,and why
  • Teachers you liked and didn't like and why
  • Books you read for school that you liked and didn't like and why
  • School policies you thought were fair and unfair and why

Jot down more than one topic while you're brainstorming. The first thing you think of isn't always the best. Sometimes your second or third idea is much easier to talk about.

It's okay to make something up. The test graders have no idea whether or not you're telling the truth, and they don't care. They only care that you can listen to a prompt, come up with a relevant response, and support it. So, if you have to invent a great teacher and then make up some reasons why you loved his class, that's completely fine. In fact, sometimes it's easier.

Brainstorming Reasons

So much for brainstorming topics; now it's time to talk about reasons. You'll have to do this on the other kind of integrated speaking task, where you'll have to pick one of two options and defend your choice. Very often, you won't really care about the two options, or you'll actually agree with a third position that wasn't in the options at all.

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