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TOEFL Tip #216: Say what you’ve LEARNED, not what You’ve HEARD

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 22, 2014

The Speaking section of the TOEFL asks you to orally summarize short reading passages as well as conversations and lectures. But almost every test-taker has the wrong idea about what the content of that summary should be. The biggest error is that they want to repeat the same words that they heard in the lecture or read in the passage. Understandably, they think that if they use the same words, then they will be proving to TOEFL that they have covered all the lecture’s or passage’s points. But there are many drawbacks to repeating the exact same words.

First of all, there is the idiomatic nature of language. If you heard:
“Carbohydrates are vital nutrients for a growing body to maintain optimal health.”

and you wrote down:
“Carbo, vital, body, optimal”

then you might try to string these SAME words together like this: “Carbohydrates make vital the body for optimal condition.”

And as we say in English, “Close, but no cigar.” This is “close” because you have used the same words as you heard, but it is “no cigar” (you didn’t win the prize) because you got the English all wrong. For example, the body cannot be “made vital”. Again, “for optimal condition” is not really an English phrase. A listener can figure out what you mean, but he/she will also figure out that you don’t know English well enough to know that this is not really an English phrase.

So what is the solution to this problem?

Don’t repeat what you HEARD, repeat what you LEARNED, and—-most importantly—-in your OWN WORDS.

A summary like this would be much better and score a lot higher: “Carbohydrates are very important. Kids need them in order to stay in the best possible health.”

The complaint that this advice usually receives is: “But what happened to those advanced vocabulary words like ‘vital’ and ‘optimal’? I need those advanced words to prove to TOEFL that I understood what I read/heard and to prove that I’m smart!”

In brief: No. You. Don’t.

TOEFL wants to hear natural English delivered in an effortless stream of fluid prose. The level of the vocabulary doesn’t really matter. By the very nature of the topic they give you to summarize, you’ll be forced to use some advanced words. Let’s face it, you really can’t talk about the biochemistry of nutrition without using some big words. But the best answer will be the one that relies on your own vocabulary as you explain what the materials taught you about the topic. If you focus your attention on proving to TOEFL that you learned something from the reading and listening passage, then the language will take care of itself!

TOEFL Tip #215: You’re a Storyteller, Not a Theorist

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 12, 2014

Let me give you two prompts. You decide which to answer:

1. Tell me a children’s story.


2. Tell me the general theory of relativity.


You have ten seconds to prepare . . .


Let me guess, you decided to answer the first prompt. Why? Because it is much easier to tell a story than to describe a theory or concept. And yet, most TOEFL takers do exactly that. When asked to respond to a relatively simple prompt or lecture, suddenly these test takers try to appear as Nobel laureates.

ETS is not judging how smart you are, but how well you can speak English. Period. But most TOEFL takers try to ‘wow’ the graders by showing their elaborate reasoning skills.


You are only given thirty seconds for your response and not even the smartest among us can create a good theoretical outline in that time.

So make it easier on yourself and the grader. Be a story teller.

The very first things we read as children is stories because they are easy to comprehend. We also create our own stories at a young age for that same reason. All of us, no matter the cultural background, know how to tell a story. You probably have shared one or two with a friend today.

Take all that training and use it to aid you in the TOEFL. This skill will most certainly help you in the first two speaking questions, and can often help you even in trickier lectures.

Here is an example:

TOEFL Speaking Question 1: For many people living in countries that have a natural coastline, laying and playing on the beach is a main past time. What is a main past time in your country and why? Use examples to aid in your response.Theorist:

People in my country of America like to go to shopping malls. I believe this is mainly due to…um….the high number of commercials shown on television. They…uh…watch television and then think about the products so much that they…uh… go to the mall because of their desire to own the products they…uh…have seen.

Story Teller:

People in my country love to go to malls. For example, when I was a small child growing up in Boston, my mother took me to the mall every Friday. During cold months, the mall was often very warm, and in warm months it had an air conditioner. So the mall was very comfortable for us. Moreover, it also let my mother and I have a great time together eating at the restaurants and playing in the video arcade.

See the difference? Even if you could construct that theory in fifteen seconds, you would be hard pressed to give it clearly. So next time, think like a storyteller, not a theorist.