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TOEFL Tip #116: Vary Your Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 26, 2011

Today’s post is the fourth in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Writing section. Be sure to check out our posts on the Speaking, Reading, and Listening sections.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the example below has been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Our researcher – an American and a native speaker of English – wrote all of his essays with perfect intermediate-level English, with no mistakes. However, he wrote with a lot of redundancy, repeating key vocabulary words far too often. He scored only a 20. Our researcher has written just as simply on other TOEFL exams, but varied his vocabulary more significantly. He scored above a 25.

Here is a body paragraph written in the same style that our researcher produced on the exam this summer:

First of all, I like dogs because they are friendly. For example, my friend Mary has a dog. That dog is not friendly. Every time Mary has a friend over, her dog is not friendly to Mary’s friend. On the other hand, I have a very friendly dog. All of my friends love how friendly my dog is, which makes them want to be my friend.

Notice that the word “dog” appears 6 times, and “friend” or “friendly” appears 10 times – there are 3 “friend/friendly” repetitions in 2 different sentences!

So, redundancy kills your score. You must paraphrase and use a variety of words for the same concept. For example, you might say that Mary is your sister, a neighbor, or a co-worker. You could revise the last sentence to say, “Everyone I know loves how approachable my pet is, which makes them want to spend time with me.” These are small changes which convey the same idea in a broader range of words.

TOEFL Tip #115: Listen Carefully

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 19, 2011

Today’s post is the third in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Listening section. Be sure to check out our posts on the Speaking and Reading sections.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Last week’s post about the Reading section showed that students can use specific strategies to read only parts of the passage, yet still answer the questions correctly and efficiently. This approach helps students focus on what the questions are specifically asking, rather than get distracted by all of the details in the passage.

Our researcher, an American and a native speaker of English, used this same technique with the Listening section. He did not listen to any of the spoken passages or conversations; he only listened to the questions. This resulted in a score of 16! (When this researcher skipped all of the Reading passages and only answered the questions, he got a 26).

Why the big difference in scores between the Reading and Listening, when using the same technique? Our research suggests that the Listening section actually seems to build out two possible scenarios throughout the questions for a given listening passage.

What do we mean by “two scenarios”? The FIRST question will ask, “Why did the man go to the doctor’s office?” In typical standardized test design, two answers will be silly and obviously incorrect, but the remaining two both seem possible: He needed a prescription filled. He was coming in for a follow up appointment. From here, all of the remaining questions return to these same two possibilities. So the next question might be, “What was the man’s problem when he arrived?” Again, two answers are easily eliminated, and the remaining two are: He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription. He forgot his wallet and didn’t have his insurance card to give to the receptionist. If you chose “He needed a prescription filled” for question one (which is wrong), then you’re very likely to continue on that wrong path in question two and incorrectly pick, “He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription.” You can see how this might lead to giving incorrect answers for all of the questions related to this particular listening passage.

It’s good to keep in mind that the Listening is the same as the Reading in this respect – an answer for one question can help you pick the next answer for another question. The crucial difference for the Listening passage is that this only benefits you IF YOU GOT THE FIRST QUESTION CORRECT. While the Reading doesn’t seem to have a coherent, consistent, counter narrative that runs through all the questions, the Listening does. This can really trip you up.

Our research suggests that your listening skills need to be sharp in order to do well on this section. If you listen carefully and can take good notes on the passage, you should be able to answer the first question correctly. Since the subsequent questions build on that first one, you will be in a good position to do well on each passage.

TOEFL Tip #114: Understand the Logic Behind TOEFL Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 13, 2011

Today’s post is the second in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Reading section. Be sure to check out our post on the Speaking section.

Our research this summer confirms the approach that Strictly English has taken to the Reading section for some time: reading the entire passage slowly and thoroughly is not the best use of your time. Instead, you need to understand the logic behind the questions, and read the passage strategically.

Our researcher was an American and a native speaker of English. He took a recent TOEFL and did not read ANY of the Reading passages, except to answer the Insertion question, which demands that you read the paragraph into which you’ll insert the new sentence. Even for the Insertion Question, our researcher read only the relevant paragraph, not the entire passage. For all the other questions, he only looked at the questions. Before the test, our researcher expected that by ignoring the passage, he would score around a 17-22, but much to his surprise, he scored a 26!

This proves that the passage is truly a distraction. If you know the logic behind how standardized tests ask Reading questions, and if you know how to take the information from one question and apply it to another question, then you can get a high score with very minimal reading.

We are NOT advocating that non-native speakers of English should skip the Reading passages and go straight to the questions. Our researcher has over 18 years of TOEFL experience behind him, unlike most test takers who have been studying for only a few months by the time they take the test. But if a professional can get a 26 by NOT reading the passages, then you should be able to get the same score if you READ the passage *strategically*. Want to learn those strategies? Contact us today.

TOEFL Tip #113: Content not as Important as Pronunciation & Grammar on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 5, 2011

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Speaking section.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, our research has identified a surprising, perhaps even shocking, result. The information we have gathered indicates that content plays a far less important role than we initially thought it did. Strictly English test-takers said that they only briefly addressed the prompt’s content before abandoning that topic and instead, rambled on about something else that was only tangentially connected.

For example, if Task One asked the test taker to describe your favorite season, our researcher responded as follows: “I love summer because that’s when I get to visit my mother in Florida. I love Florida because I like watching the tourists who come from all around the world to enjoy our warm ocean water and terrific beaches. I also enjoy freshly squeezed juice made from oranges that grow in my mother’s back yard. Finally, I like the excitement of DisneyWorld and Epcot Center.” Notice how most of her answer says nothing about summer, the speaker’s favorite season. In fact, these reasons to like Florida are not seasonal at all; they are available year-round in Florida. Our researcher–an American and native speaker of English–spoke in perfect English with no grammar mistakes and no pronunciation errors. She scored a 30. This indicates that talking about the prompt’s topic might not really be as important as everyone thinks.

Another researcher reported that he spoke with virtually no details for any of the tasks. In fact, he stated in his answer that he didn’t understand everything in the announcement. This test-taker also started his response by spending 20 seconds reading the prompt aloud, and then said, “hmmmmmm….. I didn’t understand the announcement very well, but I know it was talking about a school dorm. I’m not quite sure about the details, but I know that the woman is not happy.” This was his complete answer. Notice that he didn’t summarize any details from the announcement (for example, that the dorm was closing, or that it was closing early to have lead paint removed). He just referred to “dorm.” He also said nothing about the woman’s opinion, except that she is unhappy. This test-taker stretched out this paltry content for the full 60 seconds, and still received a 26. Again, he spoke with perfect English.

What is the lesson to take from this research? The scores for the Speaking section seem to be all about having perfect intermediate level English and no accent. Please note: we are not encouraging test takers to entirely ignore content and speak about topics completely unrelated to the exam questions. Instead, we are encouraging you to be less anxious about the content. Instead, you need to worry a lot more about speaking clearly with correct grammar.

GOOD LUCK!