Automaticity and TOEFL Speaking

To get a perfect score, ETS says that you need to have automaticity in your TOEFL Speaking, especially as it relates to the grammar and vocabulary that you are using. However, what does automaticity mean and how do you achieve automaticity in your TOEFL speaking?

automaticity and TOEFL speaking

What is automaticity and TOEFL speaking?

If you have automaticity in TOEFL speaking, you will not have to put too much brain effort as you complete the four tasks. Defined another way, automaticity is akin to being on “auto-pilot” or being able to complete the TOEFL speaking tasks “in your sleep.”

Like driving, bicycle riding, or even walking, you are able to speak English without thinking too much about the grammar and vocabulary that you are using. For example, most likely you do not remember the first time you learned to walk. However, maybe your learning to walk followed something like this. As a baby, you tried to pull yourself up by the couch.  Then, with wobbly, unstable legs, you hesitantly began moving across the living room toward your parent’s outstretched arms a few feet away. As you walked, you almost fell several times, and finally you fell right into your parent’s arms.

Day by day, you continued to practice walking until you were running around the house chasing your sibling. Years later, you do not give walking a second thought. It is an automatic motor skill activity that involves no thinking at all. You just do it.

Why is it important?

Automaticity in vocabulary and grammar signifies native-speaker level competence. For example, anyone who proficiently speaks a language does not focus on the grammar or vocabulary that he is using. Instead, the speaker focuses on what he wants to say. This type of speaker will not have his automatic processing competing with secondary tasks such as grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, these secondary tasks (i.e., grammar and vocabulary) will not take up attention resources in the brain as the person completes the independent and integrated speaking tasks.

Conversely, if a TOEFL speaker does not have automaticity, the primary skill of speaking will be disrupted by the secondary skills of grammar and vocabulary. Consequently, what the speaker wants to say will be competing against his need to focus on the grammar and the vocabulary that he needs to use in order to address the TOEFL speaking tasks. A speaker who is not automatic will become obvious to Speech Rater and the TOEFL iBT human raters. An un-automatic TOEFL speaker will have frequent pauses and hesitations as he tries to find the right grammar and vocabulary to convey his ideas.

Finally, lower-level English speakers place heavy loads on their brain memory because the grammar and vocabulary are still new. In contrast, a TOEFL speaker who has automaticity will have a reduced memory load of almost 90%.  Therefore, instead of worrying about how to communicate his ideas with the appropriate grammar and vocabulary, this type of advanced speaker only worries about what he needs to say.

How do you improve this skill in TOEFL speaking?

Automaticity is typically achieved by what is called overlearning or overtraining as can be seen in the following students that took my online TOEFL classes.

  • Eun Jun spent 3 hours every day for two months studying my TOEFL Vocabulary PDF. During her study, she wrote down 1,700 college-level words into 1,700 notecards with the definition on one side and a sample sentence, synonyms, antonyms, and a definition on the other side. After two months, Eun Jun increased her TOEFL score from 82 to 106.
  • Rava scored 21 on the writing section of the TOEFL but needed 24. Hence, he joined my TOEFL Speaking and Writing Speaking Feedback Service. During the three months that he used my service, he emailed me 25 TOEFL independent writing practice tests. In addition, he sent me another 15 integrated writing practice tests for me to evaluate. He told me that he spent more than 1 hour writing each practice test. Moreover, he spent countless hours reviewing specific vocabulary, grammar, and writing lessons I recommended to improve his writing. Once he finished my services, he retook the TOEFL exam and scored 107, with a subtotal score of 29 on the writing section.
  • Megumi had not taken the TOEFL exam when she started using my TOEFL Speaking Boot Camp course. She needed a score of 26+ on the speaking section. On her first few speaking practice tests, she scored between 18 and 22 pts. Determined to succeed, Megumi kept at it. Each day she spent more than one hour before delivering one 45 or 60-second speaking practice. She made an outline, wrote her response, practiced reading it out loud several times, and finally emailed me her response. She repeated this process every day, seven days a week, for more than 2.5 months. Eventually, she was able to deliver her TOEFL practice tests without an outline and without having to practice the task several times.  Thinking that the time was right, Megumi registered for the TOEFL exam and scored 111, with a subtotal speaking score of 28 points.

Michael Buckhoffmbuckhoff@aol.com

Teaching Experience

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