Why is it so difficult to get 26+ on the Speaking?

Why is it so difficult to get 26 on the Speaking section of the TOEFL iBT?
This blog post will address why it is so difficult to get a 26 on the Speaking and give advice on how to improve your independent responses.
​If you are reading this, you are probably a pharmacist or a teacher who needs 26 or more on the TOEFL iBT.  You have probably also heard a lot of stories about how difficult this is to obtain.

​According to ETS data, only 11% of test takers are able to get 26 or higher on the Speaking section. Why is it so difficult to get over 26?
A few reasons come to mind. First, there is no 25 on the TOEFL Speaking section. That means you have to leap over 25 to get to 26.  There is a huge difference between a student who gets 24 and a student who gets 26. A student who gets 24 is a very good speaker, while a student who gets 26 or higher is an excellent, confident speaker.
The ETS is well aware that many students need 26 to get licenses for certain professions in the United States. Therefore, the speaking section is the most difficult to get a high score in.

How does it happen mathematically?
To get 26, you need an average of 3.5/4 on each response. That means you need at least TWO of your speaking responses to get a 4/4. However, there are other ways to get 26. For instance, if you were scored at 3.5 on each speaking response, this would also mean you would get 26.
So how do you obtain this elusive score? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Speak in English all the time, even to your family members.
  • Listen to recorded samples of proficient English speakers and imitate them.
  • Record yourself and listen to it. Note any pronunciation difficulties or grammatical mistakes.
  • Use a timer when you practice and stick to the TOEFL time limitations.
  • Hire a TOEFL tutor to give you feedback.
  • Of course, PRACTICE. This is the most important piece of advice you can follow.

During the test:
For the independent speaking tasks, one of the biggest reasons that students do not get a good score is that they do not use enough detail in their responses.  The ETS scores “global” responses that use generalizations at a low level.  For instance, if you say “The internet has many benefits” or “working in groups can help you meet people” but do not use examples to support these statements, this is a “global” response.  It is too general to get a high score.  Let’s look at an example that would receive a high score.  It has plenty of information to support the reasons given.

People go to college for a variety of reasons. What are some reasons people go to college?
In my view, there are a number of excellent reasons to go to college.  First, you will ensure that you make a high salary. There is a tremendous amount of data that proves people with a college education earn higher salaries. A recent study printed in the New York Times demonstrates that people with a Bachelor’s Degree make 40% more each year than people with only a high school diploma. This is a significant amount of money. In addition, college gives you the perfect location to meet other professionals and network. It’s crucial to network in order to obtain a good career. For instance, because I met many other business professionals when I attended college, I was hired immediately when I graduated. I already knew many people in the field, and one of my friends from my college days was on the hiring board of Amazon. I had applied for a marketing position there, and I was offered the job because of this personal connection. For those reasons and more, people attend college.
Another common reason students do not do well on the independent tasks is that they REPEAT their words. There is a simple way to avoid this. The two reasons you support in your response should be very different. For example, imagine the prompt, “What are the benefits of working in groups?” If the first reason you develop in your response is that working in groups is beneficial because you can meet people, your second reason should be something very different so you don’t continue to repeat words. For instance, this response is repetitive and would receive a LOW score:

What are the benefits to working in groups?
Working in groups has many benefits.  First, I can meet people, which means I can make a lot of friends. I like to meet new people who can offer new ideas and brainstorm things. Groups can come up with so many ideas. That’s beneficial for my life. In addition, I can network with other people, and talk to them. They can introduce me to more people too and offer more ideas. I really enjoy this in groups, it makes it more beneficial and more interesting.  That’s why working in groups is really good and so enjoyable for everyone.

While the grammar is perfect, this would receive a low score because it is repetitive. Many of my students use repetitive words, phrases, or ideas for the independent speaking tasks.  Try to avoid this mistake.

On the other hand, this response would receive a high score:
There are a number of benefits to working in groups. The first is the opportunity to make friendships that can last a lifetime. When I was in college, I had to do a presentation on the effects of aspirin on children. The professor placed us in groups of five people. They were people I had never met before, and we became close because we were working together. I made two lifelong friends, John and Sarah, while working on that project. In addition, when you work in a group, you benefit from the variety of skills people have. For instance, I am not very computer literate. On the other hand, my English grammar and writing are at a high level. Whenever I have group work, I ask if anyone can prepare a PowerPoint presentation, and in return I offer to write a summary of our work for the professor. In this way, we use everyone’s talents effectively.

Notice that because the two reasons were very different (friendships/ benefit from the variety of skills) there was very little repetition.  Remember this for the TOEFL test.

Last words:
It is very difficult to get 26 on the speaking, but you can do it if you practice a lot and really work on getting to know the test. A great deal can be achieved and improved with practice, and if necessary, a competent tutor.
If you need an overall score of 90 or 100, my advice is to focus on increasing your listening and reading scores on the TOEFL. Since reading and listening are multiple choice and there are strategies you can follow, it is often easier and less stressful to get a higher score in those sections. Refer to my E-Book, “MASTERING THE READING SECTION FOR THE TOEFL Ibt” on Amazon for Reading strategies.