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TOEFL Tip #206: Back to Basics

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 31, 2013

Students preparing for the TOEFL exam frequently focus so much on learning sophisticated vocabulary that they forget to make sure that they have mastered the words for basic elements of daily life.

Here’s a sample list of questions that you should be able to answer quickly and accurately, without having to look up any of the information. How many of these do you know?

  1. What is the difference between CARDINAL and ORDINAL numbers? Can you spell the names of ORDINAL numbers correctly?
  2. Can you say fractions correctly? How do we say 1/2 or 1/16 in English?
  3. What are the names of signs of the zodiac?
  4. Can you spell the months of the year?
  5. Can you spell words using the correct names for the letters?
  6. What is the term to describe the difference between the letter “E” and the letter “e”?
  7. How do we say email addresses in English?
  8. What is the name of this symbol : ”#”?
  9. What are the names for “;” and “:”? What are the names for the punctuation mark “.”?
  10. What is the name for the holes in your nose that you breathe through?
  11. What are your finger joints called?
  12. What is the name for the thing that moves around your screen that you control with your mouse? (You know what a mouse is in this context, right?)
  13. When you lay in bed at night, what is the part of the room you’re looking at?

These are all basic words you’ll want to be able to use on the TOEFL exam. They are common and show up all the time. They’re not as the SUBJECT of the TOEFL content, but all of these ideas are worked into that content somehow.

To practice, ask your family and friends to make up lists of random questions about basic, everyday vocabulary like this. Practice answering them as quickly as possible – the goal is to not have to stop to think of the word for a common detail.

TOEFL Tip #205: Translation vs. Transliteration

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 25, 2013

For non-native speakers of English who are studying for the TOEFL exam, the gold standard is being able to think and communicate entirely in English, without reference to your first language. But that’s really something that only fluent English speakers can do. For most non-fluent English speakers, ideas start in their head in their own language, and then the speaker / writer goes through a process of turning those thoughts from the native language, say Japanese, into English.

Turning thoughts in native language into English can happen in two ways: through transliteration, and through translation.

Transliteration involves one-to-one substitution between two languages. The most common form of transliteration is to substitute letters of the Latin alphabet – the alphabet used for English – in place of non-Latin letters, such as Russian’s Cyrillic alphabet. More generally, transliteration switches between languages word by word. Some common problems with this technique include leaving out articles necessary in English when transliterating from a language that doesn’t use articles, such as Japanese or Russian; redundant doubling of nouns and pronouns in English when transliterating from a language that uses pronouns in combination with verbs, such as Spanish or Italian; and misplaced adverbs of frequency (such as hourly, monthly, sometimes, often) when translating from German and related languages.

Translation, on the other hand, takes the non-English sentence and reinvents it in English, using English grammar while reproducing the meaning of the original sentence as closely as possible. Translation requires creativity, since idioms, slang, and other language variations often do not have exact parallels in other languages. Capturing the meaning of the original sentence when translating it into English may result in using words that aren’t in the original sentence but whose English meanings are closer to that original idea.

The difference between transliteration and translation has a significant effect on TOEFL Speaking and Writing scores. Transliteration results in English-language sentences that are based on a non-English grammar system. Such writing and speech can be difficult to understand and do not display mastery of English. Translation often expresses ideas with more polish because these writers and speakers are paying close attention to grammar as well as to the content of what they’re writing or saying. TOEFL-takers who transliterate receive low scores in the Writing and Speaking sections, and those who translate receive higher scores.

The more you can translate your ideas into English, the better.

TOEFL Tip #204: Using Double Translation As A Study Tool

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 17, 2013

We’ve written before about the pitfalls of using translation software as your main study tool for the TOEFL exam. If you are depending on the translation program to help you figure out difficult passages in English, you will not be practicing the skills you need for the exam. When we first wrote this piece, we noted that translation software can be inaccurate, and if you don’t already have a sense of the English meaning for the words you want translated, you won’t know whether the translation is accurate. We’re happy to note that translation programs have gotten much better since that original post, although we stand by our advice against using them instead of practicing reading and comprehending in English.

However, translation software IS useful for checking your own translations, as part of building your skills in reading longer passages in English. Using the software can help to identify areas where your translation is not accurate.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to use this technique:

1. Read an English article from
2. Translate the article into your language. Do this yourself; do not use translation software for this step.
3. Leave your translation alone for one week. Do not look at it during this week. This will help you to forget the original article, so when you do the next step, you are actively translating, rather than remembering.
4. Translate the version of the article that you wrote in your language back into English. Again, do this part yourself.
5. Compare your translation back into English with the original on

6. This is where the translation software comes is. Compare your double translation with one from Google Translate by doing the following:

A. Use to translate the English article in your language
B. Copy and paste Google’s translation back into Google Translate and have it translate your language’s version of the article back into English.
C. Compare Google’s translation with yours and also with the original.
D. Do you notice any weird English? Using a dictionary and other resources, figure out if the problem is with your translation, or with the version from Google Translate.

Practicing double translation in this way will not only strengthen your skills, but this method will also boost your confidence as your translations get better.

TOEFL Tip #203: More Ways to Immerse Yourself In English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 11, 2013

One of the most effective things you can do to prepare for the TOEFL exam is to immerse yourself in English. As we’ve noted before (here, here, and here), seeing and hearing English as part of your daily life will improve your skill in the language. The more you have internalized the rhythms and vocabulary of English, the more you can focus on the specific content of the TOEFL rather than worrying about the basics.

Here are some more ways to increase the amount of English you encounter every day, especially if you are living in a country where most people speak a language other than English:

1. Change the language setting to English on all of your technology devices (laptop, smart phone, tablet). Use English for all of your applications, as well. That way, you’ll learn English computer words like SAVE, DELETE, TRASH, RESTART, DESKTOP, etc.

2. Chose English when using an ATM. Typically, most people don’t really read the ATM screen because we all use them so often that we just know what to push. So now that you know what buttons to use, slow down and read the screen. Then you’ll learn the words like WITHDRAWAL, or SAVINGS ACCOUNT, or ENTER or PRESS.

3. Ask for an English-language menu when you go to a restaurant. If you live in a big city that has a lot of tourism, they probably have an English menu. Use it to learn words like BROILED, or SNOW PEAS.

4. Turn off the subtitles in your language on your TV so you only hear English.

5. Find an English-only radio station, or download podcasts of English-language podcasts from National Public Radio.

What are your suggestions for incorporating more English into every day? Share them in the comments section!

TOEFL Tip #202: Speak (Just A Little Bit) More Slowly

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 5, 2013

You’ve probably heard the adage, “Think before you speak.” For most situations, this is great advice. Instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind, pause and consider whether you should say it, and whether there’s a different, better way to say the same thing. Only when your thought is complete do you say what’s on your mind. Slowing down to think helps you to follow another maxim, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”

But slowing down is hard to do on the TOEFL exam. Not only does the clock remind you that time is passing while you think, but the rater could think your silence is due to trouble with English rather than a strategy for the Speaking Section. Without nonverbal cues such as facial expressions to clarify why you are being silent for a few moments, the rater could interpret your silence to mean the opposite of what’s really happening, which could affect your score.

And yet, slowing down is really important for the Speaking Section. Too many TOEFL-takers rush their answers, often because they are either nervous or are trying to fit in as much detail as possible, or both. The resulting answer is typically not as strong as it could be, and likely has a lot of stuttering and filler sounds like, “um.” A rushed answer often illustrates why “haste makes waste.”

If you can’t wait in silence until you think of your complete answer, and you shouldn’t rush to say as much as possible, what can you do on the Speaking Section, which requires you to think and talk simultaneously?

Try slowing down your speaking just a little bit. Don’t add significant pauses to your answer, and don’t speak so slowly that you sound as if you’re not sure of what you’re saying. The goal here is to have your brain working about a quarter-second faster than your mouth. This may not seem like enough time to make a difference, but it can. If you can slow your speaking by just a fraction of a second, you’ll be able to shape your thoughts into a more coherent answer, and you’ll know what to say next. Your slightly slower pacing will sound better to the rater, as well.

Remember: quality matters more than quantity.