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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!


Categories: Speaking,TOEFL Preparation,Writing

1 comment so far. Leave a comment.

  1. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » TOEFL Tip #139: The Year In Review

    wrote on January 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    [...] between ESL and EFL, using translation programs, TOEFL as a test of effective communication, the “J-Curve” of learning, fossilized grammar, possibilities for rapid improvement, and how TOEFL scores correspond to a [...]

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