Using examples in your TOEFL independent speaking tasks: How to improve topic development

Earlier today, one of my students in my Online TOEFL Course “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT” e-mailed me a response to the following speaking task:

Describe an important person in your life. Then explain why the person is important to you.

Tiago, my husband, is an important person to me for two reasons.

First of all, Tiago helps me to solve problems. For example, one time I had a problem with my family, and I did not know what to do. Tiago helped me to solve this problem, so I was very grateful.

Second of all, Tiago is a fun person to be with. He takes me to fun places in which we can relax and enjoy the surroundings. Therefore, I always have fun with him wherever we decide to go.

In conclusion, because Taigo helps me when I am in difficult situations and because he is a lot of fun to be around, he is definitely the most important person in my life.

After listening to the response, I noticed that the student did not adequately describe Tiago, a key part of the TOEFL speaking task. Instead, the student framed the response as to why Tiago was an important person. However, answering the question that way did not frame the response around the two key elements of the question: describing the person and then explaining why s/he is important.

In addition, even when the student stated her reasons, she was not very specific by using “problems” and “fun places” without elaborating on either of those two points. Since the student had excellent delivery and language use, I still scored the response at 23/30 points; however, for her to score higher, I told her to reframe her response by spending some time describing Tiago, after which she could include one reason to illustrate why he is important to her.

An important person is my life is Taigo, who is about 5 feet 8 inches tall, has a medium athletic type build, and has black hair with green eyes. Tiago, an outgoing person, is easy to talk to because he is a great listener.

Tiago is important because he helps me when I encounter difficulties. For instance, one time my brother got upset with me because I did not invite him to come to one of our family gatherings. It was an oversight on my part, but I thought that my brother was too busy with his schoolwork. Nevertheless, my brother got upset, but Tiago called him to apologize and invited him to go golfing, which seemed to smooth over the hard feelings.

Therefore, Tiago is an important person since he can help me when I am in a difficult situation, and, of course, I enjoy his bubbly social personality.

Notice in the revised response how the speaker takes time to describe Tiago by talking about his height, build, hair, eyes, and his personality, thereby satisfying the first part of the speaking task. In addition, instead of explaining two reasons why Tiago is important, the speaker focuses only on Tiago’s ability to solve problems. Finally, the speaker does not talk about problems in a general sense but explains the problem that she had with her brother and how Tiago was able to repair the hard feelings that her brother had toward the speaker.

Speaking Tips to Improve Topic Development

Read and decode the independent speaking prompts to identify what you are being asked to speak about.

Make sure that answer all parts of the question.

Be sure to give at least one specific example and spend about 70 words (20 seconds) elaborating on each example that you provide. Do NOT try to focus on too many examples!

The example that you give should put a face on your speaking task in that it is explaining something specific from your personal experience that the TOEFL iBT human raters will not have ever heard before.


Michael Buckhoff, the author of the article, created STEALTH, “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT,” an inexpensive Online TOEFL Course designed for international students who cannot afford to travel overseas to study TOEFL preparation in an English Language Program. Buckhoff has helped millions and millions of students improve their English without having to pay tuition fees to any organization.

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