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TOEFL Tip #218: Notes are Your Enemy (Kinda)

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 16, 2014

Time and time again, we see wonderfully fluent students have the hardest time producing fluid language when giving their TOEFL responses. They stumble, hesitate, and produce broken English at an alarming rate from what appears to be “nowhere”.  Where did this highly articulate person’s strong English go?  Where did all these low-functioning English problems come from?  Well, the answer is not “from nowhere”.  In fact, our research has found exactly where this problem is coming from: your old friend, “note taking”.


Now to be clear, it’s not exactly the process of note taking that’s ruining your TOEFL answer. In fact, taking notes is crucial for a strong response. But here’s the trick: while note taking is your friend, the resulting notes themselves are your enemy.


Note taking is important because it keeps you focused on what you’re reading and hearing, which is absolutely necessary! Let’s face it: you need to know what the content is in Speaking tasks 3 through 6 so that you can summarize that content when you give your response.


But the notes themselves almost always hurt your response. So many of our clients say that they want to say all the ideas they wrote down. Such a desire for mastering the content actually distracts the students from what they are currently saying because they are thinking about the next thing they want to say instead of focusing on what they are currently saying. In addition, they are also thinking about how there’s never going to be enough time to say everything that they want. This anxiety about what they want to say 5 seconds from now ruins what they are saying at the exact moment of speaking.  In addition, the notes on the page are often only a handful of the words that the student heard. Students report too often that they try to reconstruct the full sentence from the 10% or 15% of the words they wrote down from it, and this creates broken English with inaccurate idioms.


For example: if the original sentence that you heard was: “The modern world is hungry for information technology that can raise academic standards,”  you might have only written down, “world . . .hungry . . .  technology . . . standards”.  And this should be enough for you to remember the main idea of the content.  GOOD!


But here’s the problem: If you try to use these four words to reconstruct the sentence as you think you heard it, you’ll probably be in trouble. You might say, “The today’s world hungers about technology with information because it can increase a school’s required processes.”  The problem with this is that as you try to preserve the WORDS you wrote down, you end up butchering the IDEAS those words were intended to convey.  Notice that by looking at your notes, it traps you into using the words you wrote down, but since these words might not be part of YOUR everyday vocabulary (when have YOU ever said that the “world is hungry” for anything???), your English is going to come out incorrect.


So what is the SOLUTION?  Turn your notes over so that you CANNOT SEE THEM, and have confidence that because you took good notes, then you know what the material was trying to convey. Now use your OWN WORDS to construct a summary of the material.  This way, you’re freed from the words TOEFL gave you, and you’re at liberty to construct the idea of the reading/listening in YOUR best language. For example, your summary of the above sentence might be “Today, we are desperate for computers that can help our kids learn better at school”.  Notice that even though there are no words from the original material that appears in your sentence, you still captured the idea of the original, and you conveyed that idea in perfect English.  Now how could that score you anything less than a 26!  ^_^


So to recap: while TAKING notes is always your friend, TALKING FROM your notes will usually be your enemy.

TOEFL Tip #217: Any Digitized Text Can Be a Spoken Lecture

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 11, 2014

Some of our previous blog articles have taught you great note-taking techniques. But you have to practice them, and this requires that you to have a lot of lecture material on hand. But every TOEFL book and TOEFL website (yes, even ours!) has a limited number of lectures.

So where are you going to find more?

If you have already blown through all of Strictly English’s Listening Exercises and are searching low and high for more material to use, then look no further than that chunk of technology in your pocket because your smartphone (and your PC) can become a one stop shop for all of your listening material needs!

The secret is that all computers and mobile devices can read text to you! This function can usually be found in the ACCESSIBILITIES SECTION of your SETTINGS. We have included a list of helpful how-to guides and videos for the most popular pcs and smartphones at the bottom of this blog article.

So once you figure out how to turn on this feature for your particular device, have your computer become a lecturer! Not only can this make a variety of public websites (one great one is Wikipedia) into a treasure trove of interesting lectures but it provides you with the added benefit of being able to read along while it talks to you! With this, you can strengthen the connection between the sound of a word and the word itself.

Furthermore, considering that most TOEFL lectures are often not on the most interesting of topics, when the lecture if in your hands, you can decide the content that you find interesting to note-take on.

The good part about computers reading to you is that you can often change the speed of the voice. So you can start slow and, as you get better, you can speed up the voice until you’re listening at top speed!

But the benefits extend beyond your listening comprehension.

Having your pc or smartphone talk to you is that you can also use this feature to edit your writing. Often when you hear things read back to you, you can hear mistakes that you overlook when you read it to yourself in your head since listening comprehension usually develops far earlier in language than written reflective comprehension.

For example, You might write:
“I like flower.” and when you read it back to yourself, you say in your mind, “I like THE flower”. Your mind is making the correction and you’re not noticing the mistake. But if the computer reads:


You’ll hear the missing THE immediately and you can go back and correct it.

Speaking device links:

PC: or


So, go ahead, have your computer read this blog article back to you now!