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TOEFL Tip #221: Using TOEFL Scrap Paper

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 9, 2015

We had a student tell us that his test center in Mexico restricted the amount of paper it would give him. So we reached out to TOEFL on Facebook to ask what its official policy is on paper distribution.

Here is the conversation:

 Thursday, June 4, 2015


In sum: the test center cannot limit the total amount of paper you use on the test, but it can limit the amount of paper you have at any one time during the test.

For example, if the test center only gives you 3 pieces of paper, then if you ask for more, you will have to hand back the paper you have already used. That way, even though you used *6* pieces of paper during your exam, you only ever had *3* pieces of paper in your position at any given moment.

Strictly English also suggests that you ask for all new paper during the 10-minute break. This way, you won’t have to interrupt your test to ask for paper. It would be terrible if, 1/2 way through the Speaking Section, you needed to raise your hand, wait for the proctor to see you, wait for her to walk over, take the time to talk to her, then wait for her to return with your paper. That could be a total of 2-5 minutes! So instead, just turn in all your paper at the break (you should have used most or all of it anyway in the Listening). Then you’ll have enough paper to finish the Speaking and Writing.

Finally, having CLEARLY ORGANIZED notes is very important, so we also tell students to fold their paper in half. This way, instead of having one sheet of paper with only a front and back, you now have a little “book”, with 4 “pages”. Each page can be used for 1 listening passage or for 1 Speaking Task.  Here is a visual to help you understand what we mean:

.2. How to Fold Your Paper for Speaking Notes

TOEFL Tip #220: Backward Reading and Fluency

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 2, 2015

Congratulations to Strictly English’s founder, Jon Hodge Ph.D. His article on Backward Reading has been published in TESOL Connections March newsletter.  Read it here:

TOEFL Tip #219: Speakers are Surfers, Not Architects

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 13, 2015

Again, we’re posting an article about the Speaking section of the test. Why so many Speaking tips? Because people struggle with it the most, especially when they are trying to get a 26, which is the TOEFL score required by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).  So today, let’s talk about how to prepare your answers.

Very simply put: DON’T.

Don’t prepare at all.

Why?  Because TOEFL is grading you–in large part–on how fluid and natural your response is. And any script, any “prepared” response, will lack that natural fluidity. Think about it this way: when you’re out to dinner with your friends, and one of them asks, “Hey, where are you thinking of taking a vacation this year?”, you certainly do not respond with, “Can you give me 15 seconds to prepare my answer.” And, of course, you do not–after your 15 seconds–begin to reply to your friend with, “I would like to go to Turkey for two reasons: one, it is cheap; two, it is exotic. First of all,  . . . . ”  Such a response would be ridiculous.  TOEFL is testing your ability to talk in the REAL WORLD. It’s a test to prove that you are ready to go to a REAL university, or get a REAL job, all of which happen in the REAL world. Therefore, you have to present the TOEFL Rater with REAL English.

REAL English is spontaneous and organic, it “grows” before your very eyes. This doesn’t mean that it’s left unattended. Yes, you must listen to your English AS YOU GENERATE IT to hear if you’re making any errors. Or you have to think about what you’re going to say MILLISECONDS before the words come out of your mouth. It’s like talking in front of a 4 year old. You might be on the verge of saying a “dirty word” but when you see the child out of the corner of your eye, you catch yourself and change the phrase from “pain in the *ss” to “pain in the neck”.  We do this all the time when we speak in the REAL world.  Similarly, you have to be this flexible and “aware” of your TOEFL English. Think MILLISECONDS before you talk, not 15 seconds before you talk.

This is why Strictly English likes to compare speaking on the TOEFL the right way to surfing and speaking on the TOEFL the wrong way to architecture.  Architects have to plan their buildings for years. They draw up blueprints. Rip those blueprints up. And make new blueprints over and over until they “get it right”.  And, granted, some English is like architecture: a college writing assignment, for example. But that’s not what the TOEFL Speaking section is looking for.

REAL English is as spontaneous as a surfer on the ocean. A surfer has to respond IN THE MOMENT to the conditions around her. The wind, the waves, the other surfers beside her. And when a surfer falls off her board, WHICH IS INEVITABLE, she doesn’t sink to the bottom of the ocean and die a watery death. NO!  She gets back on the board and continues surfing! Likewise, “falling down” when talking on the TOEFL is not the death of you. Errors are part of REAL speech; the important part is to pick yourself up and keep surfing!

SAT Reading Tip for International Students

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 12, 2014

Many thanks to Tier One Tutors for their great advice to International students who are having trouble with the SAT Reading Section!  Here what they say:

International students who sit for the SAT inevitably face a different set of challenges than an average American student. An obvious issue is the language barrier. However, it’s important to recognize that the culprit is more than these students’ lack of English vocabulary.

I have a five year-old daughter, currently in Kindergarten, who is just learning to read. One of the amazing things that I experience with her is her strong, intuitive ear for English, even at this young age. While I am reading her a bedtime story, sometimes I will come across a word that I am sure she does not know. However, when I ask what she thinks it means she will often give me an accurate explanation. Astounded, I will ask how she knew and she just tells me that it “makes sense.” What she is articulating in her own 5 year-old way is that she has the ability as a native English speaker to evaluate a vocabulary word in the context of a sentence and figure out the most likely definition of the word.

Furthermore, native speakers possess a second intuitive sense. Sometimes, I will play a game with my daughter where I will see if she can guess at the “charge” of a difficult word. I will say to her “if Daddy calls you a curmudgeon, is Daddy being nice or is Daddy being mean?” Astonishingly, probably three-quarters of the time my daughter guesses correctly as to whether a hard word has positive or negative connotation.

It is the lack of these two natural skills that tends to get international students in trouble on the Critical Reading and Writing sections of the SAT. Therefore, it is these two skills that students most need to develop when studying. The key to the essay is NOT to have the biggest vocabulary; instead it is to have the best intuitive grasp of language possible.

Therefore, it is imperative that international students start studying early and often. The best thing to do is to read…a lot! And it is not simply passive reading, but active reading. That means when you come across a word you don’t know, look up the definition. Then ask yourself afterwards if there was any way you could have known what the tone of the word was based on the context of the sentence or – even better – what the definition was. It is by flexing these language muscles that international students can make the strongest improvement.

Although this may seem like a tall order, I can tell you with certainty that it is more successful and no more time consuming than the alternative – which is to rote memorize hundreds of roots, prefixes and suffixes as well as the top 5,000 SAT vocab words.

TOEFL Tip #218: Notes are Your Enemy (Kinda)

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 16, 2014

Time and time again, we see wonderfully fluent students have the hardest time producing fluid language when giving their TOEFL responses. They stumble, hesitate, and produce broken English at an alarming rate from what appears to be “nowhere”.  Where did this highly articulate person’s strong English go?  Where did all these low-functioning English problems come from?  Well, the answer is not “from nowhere”.  In fact, our research has found exactly where this problem is coming from: your old friend, “note taking”.


Now to be clear, it’s not exactly the process of note taking that’s ruining your TOEFL answer. In fact, taking notes is crucial for a strong response. But here’s the trick: while note taking is your friend, the resulting notes themselves are your enemy.


Note taking is important because it keeps you focused on what you’re reading and hearing, which is absolutely necessary! Let’s face it: you need to know what the content is in Speaking tasks 3 through 6 so that you can summarize that content when you give your response.


But the notes themselves almost always hurt your response. So many of our clients say that they want to say all the ideas they wrote down. Such a desire for mastering the content actually distracts the students from what they are currently saying because they are thinking about the next thing they want to say instead of focusing on what they are currently saying. In addition, they are also thinking about how there’s never going to be enough time to say everything that they want. This anxiety about what they want to say 5 seconds from now ruins what they are saying at the exact moment of speaking.  In addition, the notes on the page are often only a handful of the words that the student heard. Students report too often that they try to reconstruct the full sentence from the 10% or 15% of the words they wrote down from it, and this creates broken English with inaccurate idioms.


For example: if the original sentence that you heard was: “The modern world is hungry for information technology that can raise academic standards,”  you might have only written down, “world . . .hungry . . .  technology . . . standards”.  And this should be enough for you to remember the main idea of the content.  GOOD!


But here’s the problem: If you try to use these four words to reconstruct the sentence as you think you heard it, you’ll probably be in trouble. You might say, “The today’s world hungers about technology with information because it can increase a school’s required processes.”  The problem with this is that as you try to preserve the WORDS you wrote down, you end up butchering the IDEAS those words were intended to convey.  Notice that by looking at your notes, it traps you into using the words you wrote down, but since these words might not be part of YOUR everyday vocabulary (when have YOU ever said that the “world is hungry” for anything???), your English is going to come out incorrect.


So what is the SOLUTION?  Turn your notes over so that you CANNOT SEE THEM, and have confidence that because you took good notes, then you know what the material was trying to convey. Now use your OWN WORDS to construct a summary of the material.  This way, you’re freed from the words TOEFL gave you, and you’re at liberty to construct the idea of the reading/listening in YOUR best language. For example, your summary of the above sentence might be “Today, we are desperate for computers that can help our kids learn better at school”.  Notice that even though there are no words from the original material that appears in your sentence, you still captured the idea of the original, and you conveyed that idea in perfect English.  Now how could that score you anything less than a 26!  ^_^


So to recap: while TAKING notes is always your friend, TALKING FROM your notes will usually be your enemy.

TOEFL Tip #217: Any Digitized Text Can Be a Spoken Lecture

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 11, 2014

Some of our previous blog articles have taught you great note-taking techniques. But you have to practice them, and this requires that you to have a lot of lecture material on hand. But every TOEFL book and TOEFL website (yes, even ours!) has a limited number of lectures.

So where are you going to find more?

If you have already blown through all of Strictly English’s Listening Exercises and are searching low and high for more material to use, then look no further than that chunk of technology in your pocket because your smartphone (and your PC) can become a one stop shop for all of your listening material needs!

The secret is that all computers and mobile devices can read text to you! This function can usually be found in the ACCESSIBILITIES SECTION of your SETTINGS. We have included a list of helpful how-to guides and videos for the most popular pcs and smartphones at the bottom of this blog article.

So once you figure out how to turn on this feature for your particular device, have your computer become a lecturer! Not only can this make a variety of public websites (one great one is Wikipedia) into a treasure trove of interesting lectures but it provides you with the added benefit of being able to read along while it talks to you! With this, you can strengthen the connection between the sound of a word and the word itself.

Furthermore, considering that most TOEFL lectures are often not on the most interesting of topics, when the lecture if in your hands, you can decide the content that you find interesting to note-take on.

The good part about computers reading to you is that you can often change the speed of the voice. So you can start slow and, as you get better, you can speed up the voice until you’re listening at top speed!

But the benefits extend beyond your listening comprehension.

Having your pc or smartphone talk to you is that you can also use this feature to edit your writing. Often when you hear things read back to you, you can hear mistakes that you overlook when you read it to yourself in your head since listening comprehension usually develops far earlier in language than written reflective comprehension.

For example, You might write:
“I like flower.” and when you read it back to yourself, you say in your mind, “I like THE flower”. Your mind is making the correction and you’re not noticing the mistake. But if the computer reads:


You’ll hear the missing THE immediately and you can go back and correct it.

Speaking device links:

PC: or


So, go ahead, have your computer read this blog article back to you now!

TOEFL Tip #216: Say what you’ve LEARNED, not what You’ve HEARD

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 22, 2014

The Speaking section of the TOEFL asks you to orally summarize short reading passages as well as conversations and lectures. But almost every test-taker has the wrong idea about what the content of that summary should be. The biggest error is that they want to repeat the same words that they heard in the lecture or read in the passage. Understandably, they think that if they use the same words, then they will be proving to TOEFL that they have covered all the lecture’s or passage’s points. But there are many drawbacks to repeating the exact same words.

First of all, there is the idiomatic nature of language. If you heard:
“Carbohydrates are vital nutrients for a growing body to maintain optimal health.”

and you wrote down:
“Carbo, vital, body, optimal”

then you might try to string these SAME words together like this: “Carbohydrates make vital the body for optimal condition.”

And as we say in English, “Close, but no cigar.” This is “close” because you have used the same words as you heard, but it is “no cigar” (you didn’t win the prize) because you got the English all wrong. For example, the body cannot be “made vital”. Again, “for optimal condition” is not really an English phrase. A listener can figure out what you mean, but he/she will also figure out that you don’t know English well enough to know that this is not really an English phrase.

So what is the solution to this problem?

Don’t repeat what you HEARD, repeat what you LEARNED, and—-most importantly—-in your OWN WORDS.

A summary like this would be much better and score a lot higher: “Carbohydrates are very important. Kids need them in order to stay in the best possible health.”

The complaint that this advice usually receives is: “But what happened to those advanced vocabulary words like ‘vital’ and ‘optimal’? I need those advanced words to prove to TOEFL that I understood what I read/heard and to prove that I’m smart!”

In brief: No. You. Don’t.

TOEFL wants to hear natural English delivered in an effortless stream of fluid prose. The level of the vocabulary doesn’t really matter. By the very nature of the topic they give you to summarize, you’ll be forced to use some advanced words. Let’s face it, you really can’t talk about the biochemistry of nutrition without using some big words. But the best answer will be the one that relies on your own vocabulary as you explain what the materials taught you about the topic. If you focus your attention on proving to TOEFL that you learned something from the reading and listening passage, then the language will take care of itself!

TOEFL Tip #215: You’re a Storyteller, Not a Theorist

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 12, 2014

Let me give you two prompts. You decide which to answer:

1. Tell me a children’s story.


2. Tell me the general theory of relativity.


You have ten seconds to prepare . . .


Let me guess, you decided to answer the first prompt. Why? Because it is much easier to tell a story than to describe a theory or concept. And yet, most TOEFL takers do exactly that. When asked to respond to a relatively simple prompt or lecture, suddenly these test takers try to appear as Nobel laureates.

ETS is not judging how smart you are, but how well you can speak English. Period. But most TOEFL takers try to ‘wow’ the graders by showing their elaborate reasoning skills.


You are only given thirty seconds for your response and not even the smartest among us can create a good theoretical outline in that time.

So make it easier on yourself and the grader. Be a story teller.

The very first things we read as children is stories because they are easy to comprehend. We also create our own stories at a young age for that same reason. All of us, no matter the cultural background, know how to tell a story. You probably have shared one or two with a friend today.

Take all that training and use it to aid you in the TOEFL. This skill will most certainly help you in the first two speaking questions, and can often help you even in trickier lectures.

Here is an example:

TOEFL Speaking Question 1: For many people living in countries that have a natural coastline, laying and playing on the beach is a main past time. What is a main past time in your country and why? Use examples to aid in your response.Theorist:

People in my country of America like to go to shopping malls. I believe this is mainly due to…um….the high number of commercials shown on television. They…uh…watch television and then think about the products so much that they…uh… go to the mall because of their desire to own the products they…uh…have seen.

Story Teller:

People in my country love to go to malls. For example, when I was a small child growing up in Boston, my mother took me to the mall every Friday. During cold months, the mall was often very warm, and in warm months it had an air conditioner. So the mall was very comfortable for us. Moreover, it also let my mother and I have a great time together eating at the restaurants and playing in the video arcade.

See the difference? Even if you could construct that theory in fifteen seconds, you would be hard pressed to give it clearly. So next time, think like a storyteller, not a theorist.

ETS Suspension in UK

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 21, 2014

Here is ETS’s latest update about their suspension in the UK:


20 March 2014

Dear Colleague:

In an effort to keep you informed of activities related to TOEFL® testing, we are writing to provide an update on the status of the U.K. Home Office suspension of ETS’s license.

As you know, investigations into the visa application process in the U.K. have found evidence of fraud at two test centers where ETS’s TOEIC® tests are conducted. The ETS license was suspended and, because the license covers both programs, the suspension applied to the TOEFL test as well as the TOEIC test. Since the suspension, ETS has been working closely with the Home Office to provide information and a remediation plan for TOEIC visa testing. Because discussions are progressing but not yet concluded, the Home Office has decided to extend the suspension, which applies to both the TOEFL and TOEIC tests, until 1 April 2014.

The following remains true:

  • TOEFL testing continues to be available in the U.K. for non-visa related purposes.
  • TOEFL scores still may not be used for visa purposes by students already in the U.K.
  • TOEFL scores continue to be acceptable for students from everywhere else in the world.

We will continue to keep you updated as more information is received. This message is being sent from an unmonitored mailbox. Questions may be directed to

Best regards,

Eileen Tyson
Executive Director, Global Client Relations

Sandy Bhangal
Associate Director, Global Client Relations, U.K.

Educational Testing Service
Rosedale Road
Princeton, NJ 08541


Pharmacist Boards Raise Minimum TOEFL Requirements

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 19, 2014

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy will be changing its minimum TOEFL score in the next few months from a total of 89 to a total of 93.

Two of the four sub-scores are also changing:

The minimum sub-score for the Reading is increasing 1 point from a 21 to a 22.

The minimum sub-score for the Listening is increasing 3 points from an 18 to a 21.

Thankfully, the Speaking and the Writing sub-scores are not changing.

These changes go into effect at different times this year depending on how much of the pharmacist-application process you have already completed. For complete details, read more here.

To help pharmacists complete their TOEFL before these changes go into effect, Strictly English will be offering tutoring in Reading and Listening strategies for 50% off our regular prices to any pharmacist who signs up before April 1, 2014!


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