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TOEFL Tip #128: How TOEFL Scores Correspond to Native Ability in English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 28, 2011

 If you’re taking the TOEFL, you’re probably trying to get a specific score. Perhaps the score is part of a college application, or perhaps you need it for professional certification. Whatever your reasons, you have an end goal, a number that indicates your mastery of English, according to TOEFL.

 But what does a 30 mean, in daily life? How can you recognize the difference in skills between a 24 and a 27? Understanding the real-world equivalents of TOEFL scores can help you gauge your own performance, and get to the ability level that matches the score you need.

 In the following list, which Strictly English developed from its work with students who have a wide range of ability in English, notice that the crucial division is between 24 and 26.

 At 24 and below, a student’s ability in English still clearly marks him or her as someone who has learned English as a second language. This could be for any one or more reasons – a strong accent which obscures the speaker’s meaning, frequent errors in basic grammar, poor ability to follow conversations and lectures, and so on.

 Scores of 26 or above, on the other hand, signal that the student is on par with native speakers of English. The key difference at this level is in the sophistication of the speaker’s vocabulary, the variety of sentence structures, the skill with developing details.

 As you prepare for the TOEFL, keep in mind that the score you’re trying to reach has an equivalent that you can use for comparison with your own skills.

 30 : Professional public speaker (for example, Oprah Winfrey)

29 : University professor

28 : Really smart graduate student

27 : Really smart college senior

26 : “Straight – A” high-school senior

24 : “Fluent” ESL

22-23 : Advanced ESL

18-21 : High-Intermediate ESL

14-17 : Intermediate ESL

10 – 13: Low Intermediate ESL

below 10: Beginner ESL




TOEFL Tip #127: Not all TOEFL Books Are Created Equal

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 25, 2011

When an individual is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her self-study or when a teacher is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her group class, the first thing to remember is that there are basically three types of TOEFL books.

1. exercise books

2. sample test books

3. language skills books

And each of these books is also targeted to a particular English level. At the bottom of Strictly English’s Exercises Page you’ll find a score chart that indicates the level each book targets. So in this blog article we’ll focus on the three above mentioned differences.

Ideally, if you had the time and the budget, you’d work with all three types of books since they each have a valuable purpose to serve.

All three types give an overview of the test and the types of questions you will be asked to answer and tasks you will be asked to perform. And basically, you’ll learn the same thing from any of these books with regard to this basic introductory information.

The Exercise Books (The Longman & the Delta) give you,  . . . well . . . , a lot of exercises, or at least more than the other two types of books do. We at Strictly English think these books are indispensable. The more you rehearse the mechanical steps to answering a question type, the more accurate (and over time, the faster) you’ll become. I call this category “Exercise Books”, but to be fair, they do have sample tests as well. In fact, Longman has a large amount of both exercises and tests. Yet, I put it in the exercises category because although it has many “Mini-Tests” on its CD, it only has two full tests.

The books that I’ve categorized as “Sample Test Books” (Cambridge & Barrons) are often woefully deficient in exercises. Now they might reply, “HEY! we have lots of, say, paraphrase questions in our book. They are just not grouped together in a section called PARAPHRASE. Instead they are scattered throughout our sample tests.” I cannot argue against this point, but I don’t think of it as an “exercise” unless it’s in a drill-able format, which (as I stated above) is crucial to acclimating to the mechanical steps needed to answer a question correctly. This is not to say Sample Test Books are useless. They are great! You just want to begin using them AFTER you’ve done an exercise book. Once you’ve mastered the strategies/skills for answering each question type, THEN you can begin to integrate them into each other in a test-like format.

Finally, there are the Language Skills Books. This approach to English learning is fantastic. Arguably it cannot be beat. If Strictly English were a English Language school, we would definitely buy these books and use them in our general English classes. But language learning and TOEFL study are not the same. To learn a language, you need so much more facility than you do to pass the TOEFL. Case in point, I would argue that you can get through 99% of the TOEFL test without really understanding nor using models (the one exception being Task 5 of the Speaking where you have to give advice). So Language Skills Books are a time-sink and are too wide-reaching for TOEFL preparation.

These categories are not rigidly segregated. As I’ve already said, Longman has some full practice tests in them. Also, Cambridge is a Language Skills Book AND a Sample Test Book. Therefore, Strictly English uses only the Sample Tests from the book and ignores the Language Skills part of it.

So if you can’t buy all of them or you don’t have the time to study them all, how do you decide which ones to use? We suggest getting one Exercise Book and one Sample Test Book. For example, Longman & Cambridge or Delta & Barrons. Start there and see how you do. If you have more time, then move onto the pair you didn’t buy at first.

WARNING ONE: Please note that many of these books are out of date. Even the ETS’s 2011 Official Guide to the TOEFL inaccurately portrays the Integrated Essay and the Reading’s Chart Questions (of which not one of our students has reported seeing on a real test). This is because some of the books have not been revised recently. For example, when the Reading Section changes on Nov 1, all the books will be describing that section incorrectly. Also, Task 1 of the Speaking changed from requesting a Description to requesting Advice, which none of the books have had a chance to update either. Only a company like Strictly English, which does its own research, can keep you abreast of these changes as they happen.

WARNING TWO: Even very bright students do not often achieve the score they want through self-study alone. This is because these books are purposefully designed as teachers’ aides. They work best when you’re guided through them in a group class or with a private tutor.

Good luck!

(PS: please comment below about YOUR favorite TOEFL Book and why you like it!—-THANKS!)

TOEFL Tip #126: Getting To Performance Speed

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 21, 2011

 Time is of the essence. There’s no time like the present. Time flies when you’re having fun. We have a lot of sayings about the importance of time, and how quickly it passes.

As students prepare for the TOEFL, they’re often concerned about working within a time limit, and they worry about running out of time before they finish a section. As a result, many students think that they have to practice at the same speed that they will ultimately perform at, so they can get used to working quickly.

 This is a mistake.

 There is practice speed and there is performance speed; they are NOT the same. Do not worry about performance speed; focus instead on practice speed. As you work in practice speed mode, you will naturally perform more quickly, and your speed will increase until it reaches the levels you need in order to do well on the TOEFL.

 Our goal at Strictly English is to make your performance speed equal your practice speed.


 Because practice speed is the speed at which you can do everything correctly. Going fast doesn’t help your TOEFL score if you’re making a lot of mistakes. The key is to be fast AND accurate. You cannot begin at performance speed. By focusing on doing everything correctly at practice speed, you’ll work quickly without mistakes as you naturally increase – over time – to performance speed. 

 Don’t worry. “Over time” does not mean two years. This is what everyone fears, and what leads them to try to jump to the end of the process.  “Over time” really means . . . . about two weeks of steady, dedicated practice. Remember: it doesn’t take a 5 year old two years to learn how to ride a bike. A child may WANT to ride it perfectly on day one, but it will usually take until  . . . . day ten. That might seem like a long time, but 10 days is much shorter than 2 years!


TOEFL Tip #125: It Takes Two To Make A TOEFL Go Right

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 14, 2011

For several months, Strictly English has been hearing reports from our new clients who have taken the TOEFL 6 or more times that their scores are going down with each test, and they are feeling more nervous about the exam every time they take it. Some of these students are developing test-taking anxiety that they did not have when they took the TOEFL the first few times. Our work with them focuses not only on TOEFL strategies, but also on overcoming these new anxious responses.

 In Strictly English’s experience, students who book two tests really close together – within a day or two – often do much better than students who space their exams weeks or even months apart.

Perhaps this is because taking two tests in such a short time frame keeps students focused on taking the exam. At the first exam, students report being relaxed, because they know they have another exam very soon, in case the first one doesn’t go as well as they hope. Then, when they’re taking the second exam, they’re relaxed because they feel that they did okay on the first one. Because they take the second test before getting the scores for the first, the depression and nervousness that can follow from a low set of test scores doesn’t affect their performance on the second TOEFL. Perhaps this trick of taking two tests very close together can help avoid this dropping-score problem.

 Of course, this is an expensive gamble, but we’ve seen it work in the past. If you’re planning to take the TOEFL more than once, consider whether taking them within a few days of each other will boost your performance.

TOEFL Tip #124: EXTRA! EXTRA! ETS Changes TOEFL Reading Section

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 12, 2011

ETS  announced on October 7th  that starting November 1, 2011 the Reading section of the TOEFL will have two major changes to it.

1. There will now only be ONE Experimental Reading passage on tests that have a “long” Reading section.

2. TOEFL will no longer break up the Reading section into two differently timed sections.

This means that now, the TOEFL timer will say 60 minutes if you have only 3 passages, and it will say 80 minutes if you have 4 passages (one of the 4 will be experimental, but you will now know which one!)

To understand these changes, we first have to explain how the Reading section has been administered until now. Previously, you were given the first passage with 20 minutes on the timer. Then, you received TWO passages and 40 minutes on the timer. If you received an “Experimental” Reading section, you were given TWO MORE passages and 40 more minutes. (The Experimental Section allows TOEFL to test out new passages to see if they have any mistakes in them. It’s their way of “beta testing” passages before those passages are used in a real test.) You wouldn’t know if the first 40-minute section or the second 40-minute section was the Experimental Section, which means you had to complete all five passages. This took 1 hour and 40 minutes! TOO LONG!!!  In addition, once the first passage’s time was up, you could not return to that passage again. (Although our research did find a bug in the programming: if you clicked on the REVIEW button and then clicked on a question from passage one, you could get back to the first passage.) This was bad because if you had time remaining after you answered every question, you could only go back and change answers in passages two and three, but not in passage one.

Well, enough test takers must have complained because now, instead of 5 passages (3 that you’re graded on and 2 that you’re not graded on) you’ll now receive only 4 (3 that you’re graded on and only 1 that you’re not graded on).

This might not seem like much of a change, but shortening the Reading by 20 minutes will be a huge improvement. Now, test takers will not get as tired before having to take the three other sections of the test. Even Strictly English tutors are exhausted after 1 hour and 40 minutes of Reading questions.

Frankly, we at Strictly English don’t think that ETS shortened the Reading section based on test taker feedback. ETS has consistently proved that it’s not really interested in customer service, as evidenced by how little they care about the deplorable test center conditions. Instead, we think that this is a direct response to the PTE Academic, a competing English Proficiency test that is only about 2.5 hours long, which is about 1.5 hours shorter than the TOEFL iBT.

Regardless of the reason, this is FANTASTIC news for test takers. You won’t be as tired entering the Listening section of the test, and you’ll get out of the exam in under 4 hours now.

As for all the passages being grouped into one timed section, this is also wonderful news. Now you can note on a piece of paper all the questions that you want to return to. And if you have time remaining, you can go back to any of the passages’ questions. MUCH BETTER!


TOEFL Tip #123: Rapid Improvement is Possible in TOEFL Study if . . .

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 9, 2011

. . . you already have a high level of fluency in English, and just need to learn strategies for taking the TOEFL.

A recent student, João, already had a TOEFL score of 104 when he came to Strictly English. He studied with us for 6 hours over 3 days, and he went up to a 108 on his next exam. Then he came back for 4 more hours and got 112.

João’s scores show that rapid improvement IS possible. He worked hard during his Strictly English sessions to learn the strategies and apply them on the TOEFL. We’re proud of his achievement, and confident that our techniques made a big difference on his TOEFL performance.

However, not everyone can increase their test scores by so many points after a relatively small number of tutoring hours. João was already thoroughly fluent in English before starting with Strictly English. He could focus all of his effort on learning our strategies for the TOEFL. Any language issues WILL slow down your progress.

If you know that you still need to master English fully, you will not be able to reproduce João’s success until you have improved these fundamental components. On the other hand, if you can speak and write in perfect English but just need to focus those skills for the TOEFL, you SHOULD be aiming for this kind of quick turn-around. Wherever you are in your study of the language, Strictly English can help you reach your TOEFL goals.