Verb Tenses and the Speaking and Writing TOEFL Sections: What you need to know!

In the speaking section of the TOEFL exam, students will make 45 and 60 second responses to six speaking tasks: a personal preference independent task, a paired-choice independent task, reading/listening/casual integrated task, reading/listening/academic integrated task, listening/casual integrated task, and listening/accademic integrated task. Moreover, when the TOEFL iBT human raters listen to, evaluate, and score these speaking tasks, they will base part of their score on how well you can control your language use. In other words, you will need to be able to use a combination of basic and advanced vocabulary and grammar, and you should minimize your vocabulary and grammatical errors. In this article, you will learn what types of verb tenses are commonly used for the different types of speaking tasks so that you can practice these verb tenses beforehand, thereby demonstrating good control of them during the actual TOEFL exam.

Verb Tenses and the Independent Speaking Tasks

Sometimes the speaking prompt may ask you about a personal experience that happened to you in the past. In these cases, you will need to draw on past tense verbs such as the simple past, the past perfect, and the past perfect progressive. Furthermore, since you are talking about an event in the past that has no current connection to the present, you will NOT need to use the present perfect. Notice how the speaker uses past tense verbs to respond to Topic A.

Topic A

Describe an place that you visited when you were younger. What is your favorite memory while you visited this place.

When I graduated from high school, I remember visiting New York City, which had skyscrapers almost touching the clouds. At about sunset, I remember watching the orange glow from the sun as it was reflected in the windows of the majestic Empire State Building, which I was so eager to see…

Since this partial response to topic A consistently uses past tense verbs, the paragraph unifies itself, thereby helping the listener to understand how all of the ideas are connected.

Topic B shows how students may be asked to talk about an unreal present condition in which case the simple past tense is used to communicate an implied reality.

Topic B

Suppose you just inherited 10 million dollars, and you had to donate half of the money to either a hospital or a charity. Which charity would you donate the money to? Why? Be sure to use supporting examples.

If I inherited that much money, I would donate half of the proceeds to the high school from where I graduated. I would instruct the school to use the money to update its library and cross-country sports programs.

The use of the words “inherited,” “would donate,” and “would instruct” create a hypothetical tone, which is the most appropriate tone given the speaking prompt. Using “graduated” is appropriate since the speaker is talking about an event that took place in the past. Do not be tempted to use the present perfect “have graduated!” In addition, when you are speaking hypothetically about present impossible and past impossible situations, do not use present or future tense verbs because they will destroy the consistency that you are trying to convey in this type of response.

Verb Tenses and the Integrated Speaking Tasks

Topic C represents a typical type of integrated speaking task which in tasks 3 and 4 will ask you to explain how the points mentioned in the listening passage relate to the information in the reading passage. In these cases, you are being asked to summarize the key points from both passages, so the most appropriate verb tense is the simple present.

Topic C

How does the information in the lecture relate to the points made in the reading passage?

The reading passage discusses the theory of cooperative learning in education, and the listening passage gives an example of how this theory can be used in a college classroom.

First of all, the author in the reading passage explains that cooperative learning involves a student-centered classroom in which students learn to interact in pairs, as groups, and as an entire classroom….

Again, the key here is consistency; each time the speaker uses the simple present tense to explain the key points in the reading and listening passage. Don’t use the present progressive in these cases because it is too wordy, and your purpose is not to talk about an immediate, ongoing action happening at the moment of speaking.


1. Read the independent speaking prompts carefully to determine which verb tense is most appropriate.

2. Be as consistent as possible in that you are not unnecessarily shifting from one verb tense to the next without good reason.

3. Use the simple present tense during the integrated speaking tasks as you explain the key ideas from the reading and listening passages.

4. Be sure to review your verb tenses before taking the TOEFL exam and make sure that you have good control over all verb tenses in conversational English. If you can eliminate verb tenses errors in your conversational speaking, you are also likely to have control of these during the TOEFL speaking section.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.