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TOEFL Tip #103: Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 31, 2011

Did you know that Strictly English also offers a program in Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing? This program is only offered to students who have already gone through our TOEFL program and is designed to prepare both university students and graduate students for the kind of thinking and writing they will have to do in their academic programs.
Here’s what one of our clients just wrote to us. We’ve been working with him specifically on public speaking since he’s a Ph.D. candidate who has to give many public talks about his work. He writes:

I came back from Zurich and I have to say that I am getting better and better with public speaking.
There is still a lot to work on but clearly I separated myself from 80% of robots that happened to give a talk at the symposium.

Funny was that various folks due to my talk smiled to me, and indeed wanted to talk to me.
For a moment I was a rock star, which in science does not happen often.

Also I noticed that in a flow of excitement and stress just before giving a seminar, I get an extra wave of energy.
Which I could use to modulate my voice and to have a strong voice throughout a talk, which keeps me far from talking in a boring and low tone.

THANKS FOR HELP! Your tips are priceless.

In respects to next classes I will contact you soon.


TOEFL Tip #102: Another Happy Pharmacist Scores 29 on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 27, 2011

In late March, we had a pharmacist come to us who had taken the TOEFL at least 7 times and was unable to get the score of 26 on the Speaking and 24 on the Writing that he needed for his pharmacy license. With only 14 hours of tutoring over a 6-week period, he got a 29 on his Speaking and a 24 on his Writing: Here’s the email we received:

Hi Alex hi Jon
My results are out last night. I got 29 on Speaking. 24 on Writing. And this means I PASSSEEEEDDDDD YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
THIS ONE IS FOR U ALEX iiiiiiiiii i i ii i i i i i i i i i i i i yea yea yea yea yea yea. Sorry I was holding it in. hehhehe Thanks guy. You were awesome. Best teacher I every had. Thanks a million times

TOEFL Tip #101: Be Direct

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on

Many students make the mistake of making their answers too complicated on the Writing or Speaking sections of the TOEFL. They think that they need to show the progression of supporting details which build up to the main idea. Instead of getting right to the point that directly addresses the essay question, they provide an elaborate story that leads into it.

Don’t do this. Instead, focus on making sure that you directly answer the question, and all of your details support the main idea. For the Independent Essay, you only have 300 words, and in the Speaking section, you have short amounts of time to give your answer. Both of these limits are too short for a long build-up to a point that has a lot of concrete details. So skip the build-up and get right to the point.

Let’s look at an example.

Independent essay question: Who is someone in your life that you admire, and why?

You’ve decided to write about your sister, because you admire the fact that she has a job that makes her happy. An indirect paragraph about your sister’s job might look like this:

I admire my sister because she has a job that makes her happy. She used to have a terrible job because she didn’t go to college. She cried every day. Then she decided to go to nursing school. She took a lot of courses and studied hard. After she graduated, she got a job at a hospital near her home. Now, she loves her job, and she is happy all of the time.

Even though the parts about your sister’s old job and going to nursing school lead up to your point about how she’s happy in her job now, only the last sentence of the paragraph actually answers the question.

Compare the indirect paragraph with a direct one:

I admire my sister because she has an important job that also makes her happy. She is a nurse who works in a hospital close to her home, and she runs a teddy bear clinic for kids. I think it is a good idea that my sister does a pretend examination on the children’s stuffed animals. This helps kids feel less afraid when they go for a doctor’s appointment, because they understand what happens there. She loves helping the people of her community, and I think her work is very valuable.

This paragraph is approximately the same length as the indirect paragraph, but notice two things that are different about it. One, it’s much more detailed than the indirect paragraph, and two, those details are all specific about why you admire your sister and her work.

When preparing for the TOEFL, practice giving direct answers. You will be surprised how much more you can say when you get right to the point.

TOEFL Tip #100: Use the Correct Keyboard

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 20, 2011

We’ve talked before about the importance of being able to touch-type on the Writing Section of the TOEFL. The faster and more accurately you are able to type, the more time you will have to develop your ideas and then go back to check for mistakes. For touch-typing to be useful on the TOEFL, make sure that you are using the correct keyboard.

The standard keyboard in the United States is the QWERTY keyboard. Keyboards are named for the first 6 letters of the top row, from left to right. This is the keyboard you will use for the TOEFL exam, so you want to be very familiar with it long before sitting down at the computer in the testing center.

While most keyboards based on the Latin alphabet – the letter system for English and many of the European languages – have numbers along the top row, and most of the letters in the same place, there are small but important differences among keyboards designed for different languages.

In addition to the QWERTY design, there are two other major layouts. For example, keyboards in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are QWERTZ, switching the locations of Y and Z. French keyboards are AZERTY, switching A and Q and W and Z, and moving the M to the left of the L. In addition, many keyboards for languages other than English will have extra keys, or key combinations, to easily make the accents and other special characters specific to a language, such as ñ, â, £, Æ.

There are also keyboards that convert between Latin and non-Latin letter systems, for example Russian, Arabic, Greek, and East Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

As we have discussed previously, you should incorporate English as much as possible into your daily life, including your keyboard. Although you might be very comfortable typing English on a non-QWERTY keyboard, these small differences in layout can slow you down on the exam if you have to search the keyboard for letters that are not in the places you are used to. Make sure that you’re using a QWERTY keyboard for English so you can be better prepared on test day.

TOEFL Tip #99: Blending Sounds

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 13, 2011

All speakers use blended sounds to give rhythm to their words. At the most basic level, pronunciation is blending the sounds of individual letters to form a word. Many languages – including English – also use blending between words to carry the momentum of what the speaker is saying. Understanding blending also affects your performance on the TOEFL.

A common example of blending happens when one word ends with a particular sound, and the next word starts with the same sound. In this case, the speaker will often blend the two words into one word. The sentence, “I want to eat tomatoes with you” would sound like “Eye wanna ee-ta-may-tas wih-ya.” Letters that have similar sounds, such as “t” and “d” are often blended as well: “What do you want to do?” becomes “Whadayah wanna do?” While this looks strange in writing, it’s usually easily understood when spoken.

Awareness of blending in spoken English is important for several sections of the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, being able to blend sounds between words in English will help you sound more like a native speaker. If you stop and fully articulate every sound in every word, you will sound robotic. If you just drop the last sound from every word, you may sound like you don’t fully understand how to pronounce English. Blending is in the middle between these two extremes. Of course, be careful not to run all of your words together into one long word. That’s not blending; it’s just taking out the proper spacing between words.

Blending is also important in the Speaking, Listening, and Writing sections of the TOEFL. These are all sections where you need to understand what is being said in order to complete the section correctly. While the directions throughout the exam will generally speak clearly and slowly – that is, with minimal or no blending – the academic lectures and the conversations between students may feature differing amounts of blending. To be a good listener, you need to be able to quickly separate the blended sounds back into their original words so you can follow what is being said.

To get a good sense of what blending sounds like, listen to a lot of conversations, especially if the speakers are talking quickly. You will hear how blended sounds make for smoother pronunciation.

TOEFL Tip #98: The “J-Curve” Of Learning TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 5, 2011

Students think that they can come to Strictly English and just have their writing “corrected.” Maybe they need to improve *only* their grammar. Or they have to learn how to think of better ideas. Or maybe they want to organize their essay in a more sophisticated way. In all these scenarios, students imagine their education as being “an addition” to what they already have.

But the sad fact of the matter is that almost all people preparing for the kind of professional writing that TOEFL demands need more substantial changes to their writing than just “adding to” their current skills.

We at Strictly English like to think of it like renovating a kitchen. Sure, you could just remodel it by putting a new coat of paint onto cracking walls and adding a power strip to one electrical outlet, allowing you to connect 4 appliances to it. But we all know that at some point, the cracks will show through and the electrical outlet will blow a fuse. Therefore, to really make that kitchen look and function the way we need it to, we’re going to have to rip out the old walls, put in new outlets, and maybe even change the location of the sink so we can fit in a nice new dishwasher.

In other words, a successful kitchen renovation requires that you demolish the old before you start building everything anew. Although this takes more time, the end product is much better. If you were buying a new house, would you want the house that had the power strip and the newly painted cracked walls or would you want the house with the reconstructed kitchen?

The same applies to TOEFL Writing and Speaking. The highest-scoring test takers are the ones who demolish their old habits and build new ones from the ground up. Granted, this takes more time, but not too much more. And unlike just painting the kitchen walls (which might look good for 6 months before showing the cracks again), quick fixes to your English do not really exist. You never really get the illusion of “sturdy walls”, not for 6 months, not for 6 weeks, not for 6 days, or for even 6 hours. The cracks in your English always show through immediately, no matter how much paint you add.

The kitchen renovation image is also useful because it reminds you that you cannot fix everything all at the same time. If you want the project to come out right, you need to pay attention to the correct sequence of getting things done. A kitchen renovation won’t be successful if you bring in the plumber, electrician, painter, and carpenter on the same day to do all of the work. First, you need the electrician because the plumber cannot work without electricity. Then you need the plumber because the water pipes have to be installed before the carpenter can build out the places for the dishwasher and garbage disposal. Finally, the painter cannot begin working until the carpenter has cleaned up all of the sawdust.

The same is true for improving your English. We need to work on central problems before we can work on other, less vital problems. For example, we want to give you organization before we worry about development. And it’s better to work on development before we begin to address grammar issues. Organization and development are important for both the Writing and Speaking sections, but some grammar issues, like spelling, don’t matter on the Speaking section. If you came to Strictly English and said you wanted to work on grammar, but your organization was weak, that would be like painting your kitchen before the electrician arrived.

So, please do not be afraid of demolishing your current English habits. It’s NATURAL and NECESSARY! Many researchers call this the “J” curve of learning. You have to go down before you can go up. It might seem depressing in the short term as your abilities go down, but if you look closely at a “J”, you’ll see that the right hand side of the “J” is A LOT higher than the left-hand side. It is so much higher that we think it’s really worth the time you spend at the bottom of the J!