When a student takes the TOEFL iBT exam and reaches his/her goal of 26+ on the speaking section, there is always a story behind the score. Moreover, each story is different for each TOEFLer, for he/she has had TOEFL iBT speaking practice to overcome varying degrees of weaknesses with delivery, language use, and topic development. For Suma, delivery was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of her speaking subtotal goal of 26. More specifically, Suma needed to overcome problems with certain consonant sounds, she had problems with intonation, and she needed to improve her blending before she would be able to reach her goals.
First of all, in order improve her delivery, Suma needed to overcome problems with the consonants “th,” “v,” and “p.” When Suma pronounced words with “th,” she consistently placed her tongue behind the alveolar ridge and pronounced the sound as a “t.” Therefore, when she said the word “think,” she pronounced it as “tink.” Eventually, with direction from her iBT speaking and pronunciation specialist, she learned to move the tongue forward just below the upper teeth, thereby pronouncing the sound as an interdental and not as an alveolar consonant. Suma also had trouble with the “v” consonant. In this case, when uttering the word “value,” she would pronounce it as “balue.” To correct this problem, she was advised to make sure that the inner border of the lower lip contacted the upper teeth, thereby creating a constriction when producing the sound. Eventually, she stopped bringing both lips together when producing the “v,” and she was able to more clearly pronounce the “v” fricative consonant. The last consonant sound that Suma needed to correct was the voiceless bilabial consonant sound: “p.” It wasn’t that she did not bring both lips together when pronouncing the “p” because she did. However, her sole problem with this sound was that she did not force enough air out of the mouth when producing the sound. Consequently, when pronouncing the word “pat,” it sounded like the was saying “bat.” Slowly, her TOEFL speaking mentor coached her into correctly pronouncing the “p” consonant more clearly. It may not seem like much, but, once Suma was able to correctly pronounce these three sounds correctly, her overall intelligibility dramatically improved.
Second of all, in order to further improve her delivery, Suma needed to improve her intonation in three specific areas. 1). Suma needed to group ideas into thought groups of 4-5 stressed words, using rising tone on all thought groups except the last and placing falling tone on the last thought group in a sentence. Instead she was placing an even tone on all thought groups, including the last. 2). Suma used the same tone on almost all the words, including the last content word (noun, adjective, adverb, and verb) in a sentence. However, the last content word should be more prominently stressed than all words in a sentence, and Suma was advised to make this word clearer, louder, longer, and higher pitched than the other content words in a sentence. 3). Suma also had problems with her tone when introducing items in a series. For example, when saying, “I like apples, bananas, oranges, and lemons.”, Suma would use an even tone on all words. However, in order to create a more natural sounding tone, Suma was advised by her TOEFL iBT speaking specialist to use slightly higher pitch on all items except the last, in which case she should use falling tone to indicate the end of the thought group.
Third of all, Suma needed to improve her blending within thought groups, which, her TOEFL iBT speaker advised, would help her to speak more naturally and more smoothly. It wasn’t easy, and Suma got a lot of feedback after completing pronunciation and speaking practice tests. Therefore, she started to make smoother transitions from one idea to the next by linking the sound of word one to the sound of another word. For example, in saying the phrase “wash sheets,” Suma learned not to pronounce the final and initial “sh” sounds in the words “wash” and “sheets” as separate sounds. Instead, she lengthened the sound as if pronouncing the two words as one longer word. Another area of blending that Suma gradually mastered was when pronouncing two words that ended and began with similar consonant sounds. For example, the “s” and the “t” consonants, both of which are alveolar consonants, are pronounced with the tongue behind the teeth touching the alveolar ridge on the roof of the mouth. Therefore, Suma learned to pronounce the phrase “light sweater” by combining the “t” in the word “light” with the sound “s” in the word “sweater” almost as if “light sweater” were one longer word. Previously, she would have paused after the word “light” before saying the word “sweater.” By learning to group words together with either the same or similar consonant sounds, Suma was able to speak more fluently, naturally, and clearly.
Finally, it was time for Suma to put all her practice to the test, so she scheduled to take the TOEFL exam for the fourth time. During the speaking section of the exam, Suma made sure she pronounced the “th,” “v,” and “p” consonant sounds as accurately as she could. In addition, Suma used more natural sounding intonation and blending that she had practiced with her TOEFL iBT speaking and pronunciation mentor. Therefore, after the speaking section was completed, Suma felt more confident that she had felt when taking previous TOEFL exams. A few weeks later, Suma got her TOEFL results back, and she was delighted to learn that she had scored 27/30 on the speaking section. She had reached her goal, and her delivery had been almost perfect!