Jane Birkenhead, January 31 2023

Note-Taking for TOEFL Speaking

Many students struggle with writing notes for TOEFL speaking responses.

Do you find your notes don't help you with what to say?
Do you write too much? 
Do you waste effort writing notes you don't use?
Do you focus on taking notes and forget to listen?
...If so, I can help you. 

I actually think that a lot of general advice about note-taking for TOEFL speaking is wrong. This is because most advice about how to do things in TOEFL was taken from resources written for students in academic situations, like university classes. That’s why the advice for reading and essay writing is sometimes so weird. But, in this post, let’s focus on note-taking for speaking.

How to take helpful notes for TOEFL speaking

This is the one tip that has helped many students successfully change their note-taking strategies:

When you take notes for TOEFL speaking questions, DON’T concentrate on keywords like important nouns.

I know - this is completely different from what you’ve read or been taught. But here are my reasons for this advice.

Taking notes for speaking questions in TOEFL is completely different from taking notes in academic situations.

In an academic situation (like a lecture for a class you’re taking), your job is to record as much information as you can because you don’t know how you’ll need to use that information later on. Perhaps you might have to use it to write a paper or join in a discussion. You don’t know what you’ll need, and you don’t know when you'll need it. So (if you’re like me in a lecture!), you’ll write pages and pages of notes.

In TOEFL speaking questions, you know EXACTLY what you’re going to do with the information. Also, you know WHEN you’re going to use it - approximately 20 or 30 seconds after you’ve heard it.

Unless you have severe memory problems or other learning difficulties, you’ll probably be able to remember what the professor spoke about WITHOUT writing notes. If you don’t believe me - try it and see. 

Listen to a speaking lecture and see how much you remember without writing notes. 

I don't recommend this as an exam strategy, but it's an incredible useful exercise to work out your own note-taking strategy.

So, in your notes, write words that will help you construct your response. If the lecture is about goats, frogs, or Egyptian vases - you’re going to remember that. So you don’t need to write those keyword nouns. But you may want to write verbs, adjectives or adverbs that you want to remember for your response.

Examples of notes

You might like to write that:

the goats climbed speedily
the frogs were covered with shiny scarlet spots
the vases were in pristine condition 

The words in bold italics are the ones to write in your notes. These are the kinds of details that you’re likely to miss if you just concentrate on keyword nouns. 

Most resources mean nouns when they say “write keywords”. But if you write your notes so that you have lots of details that you can fill in around the nouns then you can concentrate on speaking with automaticity. This is very important for a high speaking score.

I know this is very different from what you’ve probably been taught but it’s a method that I use with my students all the time and it always helps them. 

Exercises to help you improve your note-taking for TOEFL speaking

1. Listen to a task 3 or task 4 lecture and don't take any notes at all. 

2. Listen to a task 3 or a task 4 lecture and only write down all the adjectives, adverbs or describing phrases you hear. 

3. Listen to a task 3 or task 4 lecture and try your new note-taking method. 

How did it go? Keep practicing these techniques until you feel comfortable using them.

Header Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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