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TOEFL Tip #159: “Okay” Is Often Not Okay

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 29, 2012

In casual conversation, people often reply in the affirmative with the word “Okay”. This can be a useful word to indicate that you agree with what is being said, but be careful. A big part of the meaning comes from the way “okay” is said, rather than from the word itself.

For example, when a wife says, “I’m going to work now,” her husband might say “ooo-kayyyy” in a sing-song voice. In this context, his response means something like, “I’ve heard that you’re saying good bye, and I’m wishing you a good day.”

Change the way “okay” is said, however, and the word is far less affirming.

Consider this situation: A father says to his young son, “Clean up your room,” and the child says, “okay,” but 30 minutes later, the room is still a mess! The father thinks the “okay” means, “I’ll do that right now,” but what did the child mean? Here are a few possibilities:

1. “I heard you, but I don’t want to do it right now. I’ll do it later”
2. “I heard you say something, but I wasn’t really listening. I’m a kid and you’re always telling me to do something, so I just tune you out most of the time.”
3. “I heard you, but I have no intention of doing what you’ve asked. I only said ‘okay’ so that you’d leave me alone while I play with my computer.”

As we can see from this example of the parent and child, it’s not always clear what “okay” means. When the word is said with little or no emotion, it can be unintentionally insulting, as in #3 above and sometimes #2.

At best, an emotionless “okay” means, “I heard you and am waiting for more information.” This is not rude (like #3), but it might suggest that you do not comprehend what was said to you. It’s like saying “go on” or “continue,” to keep the conversation going. These expressions do not always indicate that you understand what is being discussed.

So, be sure you’re saying “okay” with excitement and interest in your voice when you communicate. Better yet, say a phrase like “I get it” or “that makes sense” or “I understand.” These phrases are harder to say emotionlessly, so you’ll convey what you actually feel.


TOEFL Tip #158: Why “Smart” High School Students Have A Hard Time With TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 17, 2012

We at Strictly English have been repeatedly surprised that very bright high school students struggle with taking the TOEFL exam.

Although these students come from a wide range of high schools, we have noticed a common pattern in their educational experiences: high school students are typically rewarded for contributing to class, regardless of the accuracy or the critical acumen of what they say. There are many pedagogical reasons for this, including countering student apathy, keeping bright students engaged in classroom discussion, and acknowledging when students overcome their reluctance to speak up.

Of course, not every high school classroom follows this pattern, and many do emphasize the quality of students’ participation instead of its quantity. However, this too-frequent high school-based view of participation translates into TOEFL classes where students begin to say or write the first response that comes to them, instead of thinking carefully about how relevant or accurate their statements are.

BUT, unlike high school, college classes, and therefore TOEFL, will not reward you just for speaking. College classes and the TOEFL exam look for relevant and meaningful contributions that respond intelligently to the topic / discussion.

An egregious example of what happens when high school students are encouraged to think that speaking up in class is the same as being smart occurs when our students come close to word association in their answers. If the prompt is about chemistry, for example, talking about the link between two people in a romantic relationship is quite different from a discussion of an experiment in a lab. This is obvious, but if students just riff on the word “chemistry,” they could go in an entirely different direction than the one intended in the prompt.

But the TOEFL exam will not reward you for just being able to make any random connection between two ideas. It will only reward you if you can articulate – via paraphrasing – the author’s / lecture’s connection between two ideas. In other words: the skills that you have been rewarded for throughout 4 years in high school – stating your opinion about the subject under discussion – will not serve you well in college or on the TOEFL. Instead, you have to think very carefully about the information you’ve been given, and you have to stay true to its message. The harshest way to say this is: the TOEFL exam doesn’t care what you think about the test’s content; it only cares about how well you can understand its content and re-present it.

Participation should be rewarded early in a student’s intellectual growth, but to excel on the TOEFL and in college, that participation must be both accurate and relevant.

TOEFL Tip #157: Don’t Overuse Coordinating Conjunctions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 2, 2012

Although last week we encouraged you to use coordinating conjunctions as part of compound sentences at the intermediate level of English, you also have to guard against using them so often that you produce what are called “run-on” sentences.

As defined by the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, run-on sentences, also called fused sentences, are compound sentences that are not punctuated correctly. Perhaps they have a comma where a semicolon is needed, or perhaps there is no punctuation at all. Some examples include:

My cat is sick, I took him to the vet. (Comma instead of semi-colon)

My friend is the manager of a grocery store she is always looking for new ways to attract customers. (No punctuation)

In addition, this site is helpful for reviewing coordinating conjunctions and how to punctuate compound sentences.

Besides the problem of run-ons, overusing coordinating conjunctions will cause you to miss logical connections between argumentative elements of your sentence. This is because coordinating conjunctions have a very limited range of logic words. For example, while “but” suggests logical opposition, and “so” indicates logical outcomes, the word “and” does not introduce a logical *reason,* *cause,* or *result* between the first and second clauses. If you only use coordinating conjunctions, you will be limited when explaining a logical situation. This, in turn, will produce redundant writing.

So you want to have a mix of complex sentences and simple sentences. This will not only avoid run-ons, but it will also provide variety.

Instead of writing: I walked in the rain, so I got sick. You can write: I walked in the rain. This is why I got sick.

Both of these structures are fine and will score high if you write them with perfect intermediate grammar, but since most people speak in run-ons, it’s more natural to write with coordinating conjunctions. If you do that yourself, then it might be easier to write that way and then go back and edit your writing, breaking up the run-ons into smaller sentences and replacing the coordinating conjunctions with short phrases that indicate logical connections such as, “For this reason” or “This is how.”