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TOEFL Tip #163: It’s (Not) About Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 27, 2012

By far, people’s worst anxiety about taking the TOEFL iBT comes from the timers ETS uses on the Speaking section of the exam. This is probably because the time allocations are so short – 45 seconds for Tasks 1 & 2; 60 seconds for Tasks 3-6 – that test takers cannot give themselves the luxury of “losing themselves in the question.” “Forgetting” about the timer is almost impossible in the Speaking section of the test because the clock is staring the speaker right in the face the whole time he/she is talking.

But we have good news: You can, and indeed should, FORGET THE TIMER!!!!

Strictly English knows this sounds crazy. We know that every TOEFL exam study guide and every other language school has convinced TOEFL test takers that they have to speak for the full 45 or 60 seconds, and they have to display mastery of all the content they read and hear (in Tasks 3-6).

However, our research, and that of other Speaking Specialists, has proven that this is not true. In fact, page 165 of ETS’s Official Guide to the TOEFL states that “Good responses generally use all or most of the time allotted” and that “it is important to note that raters do not expect your response to be perfect.” (Bold added for emphasis.) This means that you do not have to reproduce every detail from the short text and/or the lecture/conversation you were given. Nor do you have to finish that perfect content at the exact moment the timer reaches 0:00.

If this is true, then why does the TOEFL exam use a timer?

The timer is really for ETS. It is not for you. Since the TOEFL exam is a standardized test, it has to make sure that all responses from all test-takers are equivalent. TOEFL can’t simply have a STOP RECORDING button that the test taker can push when he/she is finished talking. If it did, then all students would have differently timed “samples” of their speaking. Therefore, the raters must have the same length of audio recording (notice that this is different from the same amount of speaking) from each test taker.

Let’s run the numbers for a moment: From the original text of ETS’s Speaking Rubric on page 166 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, we can identify the following points that raters use to grade your speaking:

1. clear speech
2. fluidity
3. good pronunciation
4. natural pacing
5. natural intonation
6. effective grammar
7. effective vocabulary
8. full answers
9. coherent presentation
10. using all or most of the response time
11. relationship between ideas
12. progression from idea to idea

Notice that TIMING is only 1/12 (or 8.3% )of the grade.

Granted, you DO have to FILL MOST OF THE TIME with your response. However, this can be achieved, and SHOULD be achieved, by talking slowly and calmly. Doing so will allow you to focus on the other 11 items above, which compose the other 91.7% of your grade. Sadly, our new students come to us having reversed this priority. They make time the most important factor, which causes them to rush, rush, rush. This hurried response is then chock full of bad pronunciation, unnatural pacing and intonation, egregious grammar errors, and incoherencies. No wonder they score so low.

So now that we’ve explained WHY it’s important to forget the timer, you have to learn HOW to forget the timer. It’s not easy to do! But our tutors can teach you very quickly the strategies necessary to turn your back on the timer and face a higher Speaking score!

TOEFL Tip #162: Speaking Section Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 20, 2012

One of our recent students was thrilled to earn a 26 on the Speaking Section of the TOEFL exam. Before coming to us, she had taken the TOEFL six times over the course of approximately 2 ½ years. Every previous score for the Speaking Section was a 24. Scoring a 26 is essential for her nursing license, but she had not been able to reach that mark on her own. She was frustrated and increasingly anxious about taking the test.

After four hours of instruction at Strictly English, she got the score she needed the next time she took the exam!

Our student took eight classes, each lasting 30 minutes. We focused on two areas: practice tests with immediate feedback so she could identify where she was making mistakes, and strategies to reduce her anxiety. With our templates to give structure to her answers, she was much more confident! Click here to listen to our full interview.

An important lesson to draw from this student’s experience is the value in trying a new approach. Doing the same thing over and over will not somehow produce different results. In fact, the opposite may happen. Our student reports feeling a kind of depression as her score remained the same with each new test.

So, if you’ve taken the TOEFL multiple times but still haven’t reached the score you’re aiming for, talk with us. We’ll develop a study plan that targets your particular needs!

TOEFL Tip #161: K.I.S.S.ing Occam’s Razor

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 13, 2012

The title of today’s post is a play on words that combines the modern expression “Keep It Short and Simple” (K.I.S.S) with the same idea in its much older form, Occam’s Razor.

The “K.I.S.S. Principle” comes from the field of engineering. It reminds designers that elaborate systems are not inherently better than simple ones. In fact, simple systems are often easier for a wide variety of people to understand. An example of the K.I.S.S. Principle is a car engine that can be fixed with a wrench and a screwdriver, instead of needing to be hooked up to a computerized diagnostic system.

Similarly, the idea behind Occam’s Razor is that the best explanation of events is the one that makes the fewest assumptions while still accounting for all of the facts. The razor slices away unnecessary details, so that what remains is both essential and accurate. If you make lunch in the morning but arrive at work without it, Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s far more likely that you left your lunch at home, rather than thinking that someone snuck into the back seat of your car and stole your lunch while you were stopped at a red light.

The reasons why we’re talking about these two idioms is because simplicity is key for the TOEFL exam. In addition, so is avoiding redundancy, which is why we’re highlighting this ONE idea with TWO different phrases!

This idea of “using simple thought processes” is the best way to think throughout the test. In fact, the clearest answers on the Writing and Speaking sections follow these principles. Clearly expressing a few details is better than creating complicated arguments that require more and more sentences.

Now, we’ll follow our own advice, and Keep (this post) Short and Simple!

TOEFL Tip #160: An Interview About Strictly English’s Study Hall Program

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 6, 2012

Strictly English has introduced a new Study Hall program that combines the focus of private lessons with the affordability of group tutoring. Our tutor works 1-on-1 with you, and responds to another student while you are typing your answers. Each Study Hall is one hour long, and we have a number of days and times available. See the Study Hall page for more information, or click here to sign up.

Below is an excerpt of an interview with three recent students in Strictly English’s Study Hall:

Strictly English: What were you expecting for the Study Hall?
VN: I thought one of the students would write some, like we did, and everybody can see and make corrections. The teacher would see each correction, and evaluate if it is right or not. So the teaching method would be like correcting somebody’s mistakes and learning the grammar from these mistakes. However, this was better because the previous is more passive learning. It is a more “active” process.

Strictly English: What did you like most about the Study Hall?
MC: I liked that I can see how much time I spent to write my sentence, and that there was time to evaluate my work before sending to the tutor.

DH: Also, the time for thinking is approximately the same as for the TOEFL test, which is very good for training. This was very effective and really good way to practice.

VN: All my mistakes and their corrections are fixed in the Skype notes, and I could review them.

Strictly English: In which areas of English did you receive help during the Study Hall?
DH: I learned couple of essential points about TOEFL writing, such as, how to use punctuation, how to use transitions, and how to organize sentences.

MC: I learned how to create short sentences. It also helped me with my repetition of word problem.

Strictly English: Did you learn any tips for taking the TOEFL exam?
MC: I have learned about “slowing down,” and not being nervous when I write.

VN: The brainstorm and idea of the question were very good because they can cover the speaking and writing parts on the real TOEFL.

Strictly English: What would you say to someone who is thinking about signing up for the Study Hall?
DH: I liked it. I felt comfortable when my mistakes were corrected. I am very satisfied with my Study Hall experience and find it very helpful for any ESL or TOEFL student.

VN: It supported my skills, and I really like they taught me how to figure out my mistakes by myself. I believe that it is very good and progressive method of studying English.

MC: In my opinion, it is very helpful and at the same time you don’t feel any tension, really enjoying your lesson. If I keep taking this Strictly English Study Hall, I think I can be a better writer!