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TOEFL Tip #140: Your Native Language Can Affect Your Speaking Speed On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 27, 2012

Students preparing for the TOEFL often have trouble with the time limit on the Speaking section. Some finish too quickly, and don’t know how to stretch out their answers to fill all of the available time. Others are still speaking when the time expires, having taken too long to give their answers. While one obvious factor in these examples is WHAT the student is saying, another issue is HOW QUICKLY the student is speaking.

And yet, it’s often difficult for a fast talker to slow down, or for a slow talker to speed up. An article in Time magazine last fall helps to explain why.

The article describes a fascinating study of the relationship between how much information each syllable of a language conveys, and the speed at which native speakers of that language talk. The study found that languages such as English and Mandarin which convey a lot of information in each syllable are typically spoken much more slowly than languages such as Japanese and Spanish which have less information in each syllable, and therefore are spoken very quickly.

Despite these differences in the speaking speeds of languages, the study also found that speakers of different languages convey about the same quantity of information per minute. That is why, for example, subtitles in another language added to a movie can more or less keep up with the original dialog.

How does this affect you on the TOEFL exam?

If your native language is typically spoken more quickly than English, you will need to practice speaking more slowly than feels comfortable to you. Speaking English at the same speed as Spanish overwhelms the listener with too much information. If the TOEFL rater cannot fully listen to everything you say, your score might be lower.

On the other hand, if your native language is spoken at a speed that is close to English’s typical speed, you know that you can give your TOEFL answers at about the same pace as you would speak in your native language. If you find that you are still finishing with too much time, you either are not using enough detail in your response, or you are speaking faster because of nervousness. Either way, practice will help you give an on-time TOEFL Speaking response.

TOEFL Tip #139: Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 20, 2012

When Strictly English tutors call people on Skype, we are always surprised by the number of distractions we hear in the background:

Crying children
Cars honking in the street
Phones ringing
Dogs barking

Similarly, when people screen share with their tutor, we are often surprised to see 5 to 10 other programs open. This not only clutters your screen, but it also makes your computer run slower, which could weaken your Skype connection.

Although we advocate for studying with distractions, that is a strategy that should be done only LATE in your study process, toward the end, when you have already mastered our techniques for taking the TOEFL exam. At that point, you will be taking the TOEFL within a short time, and you need to prepare for the possible distractions at the TOEFL test site.

However, while still learning the techniques, you should be as free from distractions as possible. We know that it may not be possible to have your computer in a room where you can close the door, or you can’t close your windows to keep street noise out of your room during class because you don’t have air conditioning.

But it is important to do everything possible to create a quiet environment for you to study in. So, eliminate the distractions that you can eliminate. Turn off your phone, close other instant messaging programs, and close your mail program. Whenever possible, arrange a time of day when a family member can be with your child, or better yet, take them out for ice-cream while you’re having class. If you have a fenced in back yard, let your dog outside for the length of your class. Or if you live on a noisy street, get a window fan. The fan will keep air flowing in your room but also drown out most street noise. The constant white noise of the fan will be better than the erratic noise of screaming voices and car horns.

Finally, as stated above, close all of the programs that you are not using for class. It’s confusing enough to learn a language. A cluttered desktop adds to that confusion. If you’re already frustrated trying to learn the passive voice, for example, think about how much more frustrating that is when you have 8 windows open on your desktop and you’re trying to find the ONE window that you need for class.

The more serene you make your study environment, the more you will accomplish in, and retain from, each class!

TOEFL Tip #138: Don’t Be Redundant; Don’t Be Redundant!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 13, 2012

In a pressured situation, like taking the TOEFL exam, students can easily become redundant. They can feel like they need to repeat what they have said to make sure they are getting their point across. While this concern is understandable, it is also a mistake.

There are two types of redundancy. The first is redundancy of vocabulary, and the second is redundancy of ideas. Avoid both.

Evidently, the first type of redundancy means that you have a small vocabulary and therefore, are not proficient in English. One way to demonstrate proficiency in English is to have a number of ways to describe the same concept. For example, in addition to “car,” you could say automobile, auto, vehicle, or you could name the general type of car – sedan, hatchback, truck, van, and so on.

The second type of redundancy is directly related to the first. Although TOEFL doesn’t really score you on originality of thought, the problem with redundant ideas is that you will have a higher chance of collapsing into redundant vocabulary if you’re talking about the same idea in Paragraph 3 that you talked about in Paragraph 2.

Strictly English recently tested this approach. One of our researchers wrote an essay that used grammatically perfect intermediate English, and varied the ideas for each of the three reasons supporting his main thesis. However, the vocabulary was mercilessly repetitive. The essay scored only a 20.

To prevent redundancy of vocabulary, actively seek to learn new words. Look up any unfamiliar words, such as the linked definitions in this post. If you rarely, if ever, need to look up meanings when you read, you need to add more difficult material to your reading list.

Solving redundancy of ideas requires a broader approach as well. Viewing a topic from different perspectives will help add variety to your answers. Strictly English also has a list of ideas that work with almost every speaking and writing prompt. To learn this list and practice using it, contact us and enroll in a session today!

TOEFL Tip #137: Test Of American As A Foreign Culture

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 6, 2012

It has long been a complaint lobbed at standardized tests (like the SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and TOEFL) that they are culturally biased. Historically, this discussion has typically focused mostly on how the SAT inadvertently favors middle and upper class test takers by presenting reading passages about topics more familiar to them than to economically disadvantaged youth.

To date, we do not think that TOEFL has come under the same scrutiny. But we have noticed that there may be one part of the test that is causing everyone a lot of headache (and heartache) mainly because it favors a particularly American insensitivity regarding personal privacy.

In a nutshell, Americans are – generally speaking – more willing than almost any other country’s citizenry to share their lives with strangers.

You might be asking, “Okay. But what does this have to do with TOEFL?”

The answer is a bit complicated, so follow carefully:

1. Tasks 1 and 2 on the Speaking section of the test ask you to talk about a familiar topic, so these are topics that you should know something about because they come from daily life.

2. TOEFL wants DETAILS in your answer.

3. Put 1 and 2 together and it seems that you should give DETAILS from EVERYDAY LIFE. And, in fact, this video from ETS showing an example of a 4 out of 4 response does exactly this: the man talks about himself as the source of his details.

In contrast to this correct way of answering, many students answer Tasks 1 and 2 from a theoretical point of view. For example, they might say, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. If children play an instrument, then they will know how to interact with others better. Children should be more confident if they play an instrument.”

This answer is theoretical because it’s talking about a general population of “children” as if all “children” were anthropologically and sociologically the same.

But notice that when an answer is theoretical, it lacks details. And because the speaker doesn’t have details, she ends up saying the same thing over and over again. (“Instrument” is repeated in every sentence.)

When Strictly English tries to get students to tell a detailed story, we give examples to help the student see what we mean. For example, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. For example, the 12-year-old girl next door to me used to have no friends to play with. She was very lonely all the time. But then she learned how to play guitar and joined a band. Now she has boys and girls over at her house every day of the week.”

This is FULL of details (“12-year-old,” “guitar,” “every day,” “joined a band”)! The story really comes alive in the listener’s mind. Sadly, our students then say, “But I can’t invent a story like that so quickly.” True: not everyone is a gifted storyteller who can make up imaginary lives quickly. But that’s not the point of our sample answer. The only point we’re trying to get across is that you should have DETAILS. . . . . ANY DETAILS.

So if they can’t invent details out of thin air, then we should they find these details?

We tell them to use ideas from their own life. In my life there is a 12-year-old girl who lives next to me. So I’m not inventing a story. I’m talking about my real life. If the student talks about her own life, then Task 1 and Task 2 should be very easy to answer, right? Yet, our students still struggle, regardless of how often we tell them, “But you tell stories all day long. You tell stories to your family, your co-workers, your neighbors. Humans are story-telling machines!” Just do for TOEFL what you do all the time in your daily life.

AH HA! And here we return to the cultural bias. Most of the world is not comfortable talking about themselves. For some cultures, it’s rude to talk in detail about your life. For others, it is embarrassing. And for still others, it is just nobody’s business. Did you feel uncomfortable hearing the man in ETS’s sample answer say that his apartment was small? Would you be willing to say that to a stranger? Would you be afraid that the listener would think you’re poor because your house isn’t bigger?

So even though a test-taker will tell her husband or best friend stories all night long, she would never dream of being as open with, say, a person she has just met on an airplane.

For better or for worse, Americans will.

Of course, not ALL Americans will. Even in the USA, there are shy people. But generally speaking, an American will be more willing to talk about his or her life to strangers.

This means that TOEFL is not only a test of English, but it is also – accidentally, I’m sure – relying on an assumption that everyone can talk as easily about themselves as an American can. This is not surprising when you remember that ETS is an American company.

Want to score high? You’ll have to confront this issue directly in your own life, by asking how willing you are to tell a stranger anything about you.

Need help? Contact Us Today!

TOEFL Tip #136: Improving Your TOEFL Vocabulary in 2012!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 2, 2012

This is just a short announcement to say that Strictly English will be using harder vocabulary in its 2012 blog posts so as to help you widen and deepen your  lexicon (see definition 2). When we use a word that we think is a bit beyond the average reader’s knowledge base, we’ll follow it with a link to its definition in parentheses.


Just another way that Strictly English is trying to make you the best test taker that you can be!


Test Once.

Score High.

Move On.