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TOEFL Tip #153: TOEFL Details Are Divinely Devilish

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 27, 2012

English has two idioms about the importance of details. One is “The devil is in the details.” The other is “God is in the details.” Someone hearing these two expressions might ask: How can both God and the devil be in the details? And more relevant to our purposes as TOEFL tutors, we might ask, what do these expressions have to do with TOEFL study?

Let’s tackle the first question first. “God is in the details,” the older expression, means that anything you do, you should do well. There is no satisfaction in doing a task in a sloppy or inattentive way, or in leaving the task unfinished. The opposite expression, “The devil is in the details” points to the difficulty in doing something well, especially if that difficulty is not apparent in the beginning. For example, close examination of the details might reveal additional complexity in the task, or the need for more in-depth knowledge.

So turning to the second question, “What does this have to do with TOEFL?,” we have to remember that TOEFL rewards attention to detail, and these details are fiendishly frustrating to most TOEFL test takers. For example, fact questions in the Reading might ask you to differentiate between two similarly written words, like “stalagmite” and “stalactite.” In the Listening section, you may need to recall a specific number like 1,000 B.C. and must be sure you don’t accidentally choose 10,000 B.C. or 1,000 A.D. Details in the Speaking usually means having extremely accurate pronunciation, while your Writing has to have detailed examples to prove your argument.

If you can master these devils, then you are rewarded with the “godly” satisfaction of razor sharp accuracy and precision in both choosing answer choices and in communicating your ideas in flawless intermediate English.

So what’s the takeaway (definition 2) of this entry? To receive a “godly” TOEFL score that might put you in seventh heaven , you have demonstrate a strong ability to work with details, which can be a real devil of a time for most people to accomplish.

TOEFL Tip #152: Improving Your Comprehension

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 20, 2012

Having a high level of reading and listening comprehension is integral for success in those sections of the exam. Perhaps you’re already listening to public radio and limiting your use of your native language in your daily routine. Doing this will improve your comprehension in English, but how can you gauge your progress?

One way is to regularly compare articles in Simple English Wikipedia with those on the same topic on the main Wikipedia site. Read the Simple English version first, and when you completely understand it, switch to the main Wikipedia version. Notice what’s different about the main Wikipedia version: more advanced vocabulary and sentence structure, as well as additional details about the topic. If you have high reading comprehension, you should be able to read the main Wikipedia site with minimal difficulty. You could also switch the comparison by reading the main Wikipedia entry first, and then the Simple English version. If your understanding of the main Wikipedia article does not match what the Simple English version says, you need to work on your comprehension skills.

Let’s look at an example about the American Revolution.

The Simple English version says, “The American Revolutionary War was a war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 British colonies in America. . . . The colonies became independent, which meant that the British Empire was no longer in charge of them.” The sentence structure is simple, and a key vocabulary term, “independent,” is defined.

The corresponding article on the main Wikipedia site says, “The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which the thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America. … Ultimately, the states collectively determined that the British monarchy, by acts of tyranny, could no longer legitimately claim their allegiance. They then severed ties with the British Empire in July 1776, when the Congress issues the United States Declaration of Independence, rejecting the monarchy on behalf of the new sovereign nation separate and external to the British Empire.” Here, the sentence structure is more complex, the vocabulary is more sophisticated and is not defined, and there is substantially more detail.

Measure your comprehension by looking for opportunities to compare articles on the same topic written for different audiences. The more easily you can switch from an article written for an introductory-level audience to one written for an intermediate-level (or higher!) audience, the better your comprehension.

TOEFL Tip #151: The Importance Of Being Enthusiastic

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 15, 2012

One of our Strictly English tutors recently received this message in a fortune cookie, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Not only is this a tasty ending for dinner, but it’s also a great mindset when studying for the TOEFL!

Many students think that determination and hard work will guarantee success on the TOEFL exam. To a certain extent, they’re right, of course. You need to prepare thoroughly for the exam, understand the skills necessary for each section, and practice so that you can improve any problem areas in advance. This takes time and effort.

But it’s possible to take determination and hard work too far. Memorizing long lists of vocabulary words, for example, or studying for 4 hours straight every day for months, will not exponentially increase your success. The chances are low that you’ll happen to study the precise words on the exam, and after about 2 hours of concentrated work, your brain can’t absorb more information. Marathon study sessions end up being unproductive because the time spent isn’t being used effectively. It’s easy to become discouraged when you think of studying as a chore to slog through.

So how does enthusiasm affect your TOEFL studying?

In addition to making study sessions more appealing, enthusiasm leads to curiosity and flexibility. These skills let you explore topics and make connections with what you already know. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, you’ll remember more, and will be able to apply that knowledge more effectively. You might not know much about large-scale agriculture, for example, but if you have a home garden, you can draw on that information to find areas of overlap with the topic.

On the other hand, if you approach studying for the TOEFL as if all you need to do is master a fixed set of content, you might have greater trouble dealing with unexpected material. Since there’s no way to know what will be on the exam, you cannot effectively take a content-based approach in your studying.

Be enthusiastic about your TOEFL preparation, and you’ll be looking forward to your next study session. From there, the sky’s the limit!

TOEFL Tip #150: Security And Standardized Testing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 6, 2012

The issue of cheating on standardized tests has been in the news several times in the past few weeks. Substantial cheating has been found in circumstances as diverse as the TOEFL exam in Vietnam and the ACT and SAT in the United States .

While these are just two examples, they are part of a growing trend to enhance security measures to ensure that the person whose name is on the test registration is indeed the person who takes the test. Strictly English has heard of several developments designed to ensure the integrity of the TOEFL exam.

Some new measures limit where students can take the exam. One Boarding School admissions councilor found that one of her seniors used the opportunity of attending a TOEFL cram-school in China over winter break to hire a proxy to take the TOEFL exam for him. This is causing more and more institutions to demand that the test be taken State-side.

Another example comes from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), whose website now states, “You must take the TOEFL iBT at an Educational Testing Service (ETS) test center located within one of the NABP member and associate member jurisdictions including the 50 United States, District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Australia, eight Canadian provinces, and New Zealand. The FPGEC will no longer accept TOEFL iBT score reports from international ETS test site locations. Check with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for dates and locations.”

Strictly English has seen an additional approach taken by many of the boarding schools that now rely on us for their TOEFL preparation classes. Because such institutions know their students personally, some administrators have begun requiring that their students take the test on a day arranged by the school. The school also provides transportation to and from the test center to ensure that no proxy steps in.

Because the issue of cheating links directly to the integrity of all standardized test scores, it’s understandable that all of the involved institutions want to have as many safeguards as possible. It gets tricky, though, for two reasons. One, as shown above, there are proxy test takers in the U.S.A. also, although they are harder to come by. Two, not every institution can request a State-side test. It’s easy for boarding schools and the NABP to require this since their students / members are already in the U.S. Although Strictly English has had two international students who took our online tutoring course from their home country and then flew over to America specifically to take the exam, this is not a feasible option for most TOEFL test takers. Since the majority of people who take the TOEFL already live overseas – for example, most international applicants to U.S. colleges and graduate programs – it is not possible to request all of these people to schedule their tests in America.

However, if you are an institution that already has most of your test takers residing in the U.S.A., it probably is best to require them to take the TOEFL with as much of your oversight as possible. Additionally, ETS needs to inspect rigorously the test centers and the companies that run those centers.

In light of the increasing focus on preventing cheating, make sure that you have the most up-to-date information about registration and day-of-exam requirements.

UPDATE: Since we first posted this item, we’ve received a press release from Eileen Tyson, Executive Director, Global Client Relations, ETS on the topic of security on the TOEFL exam. Her email reads in part, “I am writing today to share news of a recent event where ETS’s test security measures played a vital role in identifying and stopping individuals who attempted to take the TOEFL and GRE tests dishonestly. On February 25, three individuals in Hong Kong who were attempting to take the TOEFL test on behalf of others were arrested. ETS’s Office of Testing Integrity identified these individuals and their planned impersonation in advance and alerted test center personnel and local law enforcement.

On the day of the test, the individuals were arrested during a break in testing. They subsequently admitted their scheme to authorities, which involved attempts to test for others on both the TOEFL and GRE tests. These individuals have since been sentenced, and the culmination of this case has led to consequences for both the impersonators and those for whom they were testing. ETS is taking steps to alert institutions of TOEFL and GRE scores canceled in association with this case. Those institutions affected will be receiving notification from ETS this week.”

Ms. Tyson’s message directs readers interested in more information to ETS’s webpage on TOEFL security.