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TOEFL Tip #149: Immerse Yourself In English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 30, 2012

ETS has recently launched a new all-Japanese TOEFL website. While Strictly English can understand the value of a native-language version of the TOEFL site for those who are just beginning to research the TOEFL exam, we feel strongly that prospective TOEFL test-takers who are already preparing for the exam should read the ETS site – and as much other information as possible – in English.

As we noted in Tip #86, Strictly English has repeatedly seen that students who have very little exposure to English outside of a classroom or a tutoring session simply do not improve as much as those who are living a 100% English-language life.

It’s important to remember that living in an English-speaking country does not guarantee that you’re living a 100% English-language life. Many international students living in the U.S.A., for example, live with people from their own country, and only have friends in their language school who are from their own country. As a result, they are not really living their lives in English even though English is around them all of the time.

We understand that since Japanese TOEFL test takers have some of the lowest scores compared with all other nations, it might make sense that their English might not be good enough to understand the all-English TOEFL website. But the Japanese-only site puts them at even more of a disadvantage. It gives such students another opportunity to avoid confronting their real English abilities (or lack thereof). If you’re the world leader in English-proficiency testing, you know that the world looks to you to be the trusted authority on who is ready to enter an English-speaking university or who is ready to get a professional license that requires English. Enabling people to avoid English as long as possible seems counter-intuitive.

One story that highlights the damage caused by staying in your native language as much as possible happened during the last U.S. Presidential election. We had told a Japanese student to retire his Japanese Yahoo homepage for the English Yahoo homepage. He didn’t. One day, while listening to a lecture about the U.S. government, the student did not know what “senator” meant. Since that election cycle had “Senator Obama” and “Senator Clinton” and “Senator McCain” vying for the Presidency, the tutor was flabbergasted that this student did not know a word that had been in the headlines every day for the 6 months that the student had been in the county. When the tutor, who was absolutely sure the word “senator” would be all over Yahoo.com, asked the student to go to this news site, he was saddened to see that the student was still using Japanese Yahoo. When the tutor asked the student to go to English Yahoo, he pointed out how the word “Senator” was on the page at least 8 times. Had the student been using his computer *in English,* he would have known more TOEFL-relevant vocabulary.

We believe that ETS should be not be helping to slow down a test-taker’s acquisition of English. Having an all-English website helps visitors wake up to their real English abilities sooner. With so much riding on a student’s TOEFL scores, the sooner they have a realistic assessment of their English abilities, the sooner they can begin working harder to achieve their academic and professional goals.

TOEFL Tip #148: Rescheduling Your TOEFL Exam

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 24, 2012

Strictly English has received a number of questions lately asking how to reschedule an already-scheduled TOEFL exam.

As an exercise to further demonstrate last week’s post about paraphrasing, we will paraphrase ETS’s information about rescheduling exams from the TOEFL web page. Compare this post with ETS’s information. Notice that the two convey the same ideas, but Strictly English’s post uses different vocabulary and sentence structure.

If you need to reschedule or cancel your TOEFL exam, do not wait until the last minute! You need three full days between the day you make your request and the day of your exam. Since many TOEFL exams are on Saturday, for example, you must make alternate plans by Tuesday at the latest.

In order to reschedule, you must first pay $60.

There are only two ways to reschedule or cancel a TOEFL exam: online, or by phone. Do not send mail or email, and do not show up in person at a test center to attempt to reschedule or cancel your TOEFL exam.

Here are the specifics for rescheduling or cancelling a TOEFL exam, according to ETS (and here we are quoting from the TOEFL Exam page directly):

•Online: Log in to your TOEFL iBT Profile, click “View Order(s)” on your home page, then click “Modify” or “Cancel” on the Order Summary page.

•By phone: Provide your registration number and full name used when you registered. In the United States, U.S. Territories or Canada: call 1-443-751-4862 or 1-800-468-6335. All other locations, contact your Regional Registration Center.

TOEFL Tip #147: Paraphrasing Is The Most Important Skill For The iBT

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 16, 2012

The TOEFL exam draws on a diverse skill set for each section, but there is one skill you will use for all four sections – paraphrasing.

The Reading section not only has a type of question directly asking you to paraphrase, but in the end, ALL answers are paraphrases of the relevant part of the Reading Passage. The Listening section works in the same way.

The Speaking section requires two different sorts of paraphrasing. In Tasks 3, 4, 5, 6, you must avoid repeating exactly what you read and heard. But T1 and 2 are a bit different because you’re now trying to avoid repeating YOURSELF, instead of trying to avoid repeating what you read and heard. The same goes for the Writing section. In the integrated essay (INT), you have to avoid repeating the exact phrasing used in the Passage and the lecture. In the independent essay (IND), you again, have to avoid paraphrasing yourself.

So, how do you paraphrase?

To understand good paraphrasing, you have to know what NOT to do. Do NOT think that you’re just swapping vocabulary words. It’s a disaster to think that you can take a sentence like, “Jon works in the financial market” and replace “work” with “job,” “financial” with “money,” and “market” with “store” and end up with “Jon jobs in the money store.” First of all, although my “work” (noun) is the same as my “job” (noun), there is no VERB “to job” even though there is a verb “to work”. Also, although a “market” could be a “store” sometimes, here it is not. In this sentence, “market” refers to trading stocks and the like.

The problem gets even worse when some word swapping also requires changes in grammatical construction. For example, “although” and “despite” have the same purpose within logic – they both represent the opposition of ideas – but “although” takes a clause while “despite” takes a noun phrase. “Although it was raining” should become “Despite the rain.” If you just assume that the grammar stays the same, then you would paraphrase “Although it was raining” as “Despite it was raining.” Whoops! Wrong. Very wrong. Score of 14 wrong.

These are only a couple of the hundreds of ways paraphrasing can go wrong. Another pitfall is preserving word order when changing a sentence from passage to active. When the sentence’s agent and object switch places, you have to reformulate the sentence or else the wrong noun is receiving the verb’s action.

To paraphrase correctly, you really need to free yourself completely from the structure you see in the original that you’re paraphrasing. You’re ONLY trying to preserve the original meaning, WITHOUT adding any new information. This means that the paraphrase you create could have a completely different construction than the original. You need to stop thinking that you can only swap words in and out of a cemented structure. Once you begin building a new sentence from the ground up, you will have a higher chance of paraphrasing correctly.

Let’s look at an example from the paraphrasing exercise on Strictly English’s website:

1) One of the key elements to a healthy life is your diet. There are many different types of diets that people follow: some don’t eat meat, and are called vegetarians; some are lactose intolerant, which means that they can’t digest dairy products; and others are called vegans, or people who do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or milk products. No matter the diet, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Which is the correct paraphrase of the bold sentence above?

(a) Some people are constantly dieting because they have to follow certain rules about what they can or cannot eat.

(b) Certain dietary restrictions, such as not consuming meat, dairy, or any by-products of living animals, can vary over a wide range of people’s lifestyles.

(c) It is important for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are lactose intolerant to diet on a regular basis in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

(d) Eating meat, dairy, or any other by-product of an animal requires great effort to stay healthy.

Answer (a) is wrong because it adds something new – the idea of “constantly” dieting. Similarly, (c) is wrong because it changes “diet” from a noun in the original – meaning the food that a person eats – to a verb in the paraphrase – meaning to eat in a certain way for a set period of time (and, by implication, to eat in a different way after that period of time). Finally, (d) is wrong because it also introduces something new – the “great effort” to stay healthy. The original sentence says nothing about the ease or difficulty of eating according to certain food restrictions.

Answer (b) is correct. It notes that there are “certain” restrictions – the original gave 3 examples of dietary restrictions, but says there are many others. The second sentence also completely rephrases the 3 examples – most clearly changing the list of foods vegans won’t eat into “by-products of living animals.” Equally important, this example does not add any additional information that is not in the original, as the other three answers do.

As you can see from this example, successful paraphrasing depends on holding on to the main IDEA of a sentence or passage, and letting go of the WAY that idea was expressed.

Good paraphrasing takes a lot of practice, but keep in mind that it’s a skill for the entire TOEFL, so it’s worth the time to get it right.

TOEFL Tip#146: Your TOEFL Speaking Persona

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 9, 2012

Last week , we talked about the value in warming up before beginning the Speaking section of the TOEFL. In that post, we focused on how warming up your voice can result in a smoother delivery of your answers. Today, we’ll focus on your persona for the Speaking section.

In general, a persona is a role that a person adopts, such as the characters portrayed by an actor. To convey the roles they are playing, actors might change the pitch of their voices, or the speed of their speech, or change their accents. The persona is a temporary role, used at a specific time.

Think of a persona as the version of yourself that you want to show in public. In your daily life, you might have experienced something similar to an actor playing a role. If you are unwell but don’t want to discuss the details with anyone in your workplace, you might try to sound upbeat in order not to draw attention to your health. Perhaps you have to attend an event even though you are not interested in it. While you are there, you will probably engage in conversation with others, rather than sulk in a corner.

So, what is a TOEFL Speaking persona?

Someone who is confident and knowledgeable, who can easily demonstrate mastery of English. If you believe that you can do well on the Speaking section, that attitude will come through in how you speak. The opposite is also true: if you dread the Speaking section and just want to get through it as quickly as possible, that sense of fear, or even defeat, will be heard in your recorded answers.

As you prepare for the TOEFL exam, practice your confident TOEFL persona as well. How can you project a confident persona if you’re not actually confident? Fake it til you make it .

TOEFL Tip #145: Describe The City You Live In

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 2, 2012

Warming up is a good way to maximize your chances for a strong score on the TOEFL Speaking section. Very often, people need to speak for a minute or two to clear their throats, adjust their breathing, and feel confident speaking into a microphone. For too many students, Speaking Task 1 functions as a warm-up, which might not receive as good a score as possible if the voice is hard to hear, etc.

So how can you warm up before the Speaking section?

On test day, you have a chance to test the microphone for the computer you’re taking the TOEFL on. This allows the system to automatically adjust the microphone’s input volume. To do so, you are given a “familiar topic” prompt to answer. It is always the same for every test: “Describe the city you live in.”

The test has you respond to this prompt twice. The first time is at the beginning of the entire exam, and then again at the start of the Speaking section. We at Strictly English think this is a great opportunity to warm up your voice and your TOEFL speaking persona (which will be the subject of next week’s blog post).

Sadly, though, many test centers tell their test takers to merely repeat the phrase, “Describe the city you live in” over and over. They ask the test takers to do this because they think of this exercise only as a microphone check. The proctors just care about verifying whether the microphone is working or not. And when some test takers try to respond to the prompt with a real answer, they take too long formulating their sentences so the computer, therefore, has no input with which to verify if the microphone is working correctly or not. So, by chanting “describe the city you live in” 10 times, the microphone is guaranteed to pick up your voice, even if you’re not saying anything that helps your performance.

But Strictly English really wants to encourage you to NOT chant “describe the city you live in” over and over. Instead, you must tell the proctor, politely, “I really need this time to practice my Speaking, so I can’t afford to repeatedly chant the prompt. I have to use this time to get comfortable speaking real English into the computer.” In fact, if TOEFL lets you replay your recording, we think it’s a great idea to listen to it carefully. This will help you determine if you’re remembering to do everything you’ve studied to do. If you think you sound bad, re-record and try again. Only after you feel comfortable giving your response to the microphone check prompt should you then go on to the actual Speaking section of the test.