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TOEFL Tip #213: Inference Is King!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 26, 2013

An important key for doing well on the TOEFL exam is understanding how the exam is set up. TOEFL is NOT designed for test-takers to find information as if the exam were an Easter egg hunt with relevant information scattered throughout it. Instead, it’s designed for you to derive information through critical thinking skills.

We know there are fact questions and inference questions, and to the native speaker these are starkly different. Fact questions for a particular passage are similar to an Easter egg hunt. Like Easter eggs hidden in tall grass or behind a rock, the answers to fact questions are in the passage, but may be tricky to find. If you look carefully enough, however, you will be able to locate them. Inference questions require critical thinking skills. You have to put together pieces of information in the passage to infer something that the passage does not directly state. For example, if the passage states that the weather has been rainy for several weeks, and that it’s spring, you can infer that spring has rainy weather.

But sadly, only the most fluent of non-native English speakers will find FACT questions as simple as looking for a truth that is explicitly stated on the page. To be sure: the truth IS THERE, but it is buried under tricky vocabulary, confusing phrasal verbs, or advanced grammar. So it’s a fact question for a native Speaker, but ultimately it becomes an inference question for anyone who doesn’t know all of the vocabulary or who has never encountered the idiomatic expressions used.

Consequently, even though there may be only 1 or 2 questions per passage explicitly identified as INFERENCE questions (those are the ones that have the word “IMPLY” or “INFER” in the question), there might be 8-10 questions that require the same critical thinking skills as does a question explicitly identified as “inference.”

Therefore, studying critical thinking skills and lateral thinking skills will be very useful when preparing for the TOEFL. Our recent posts about absolute modifiers in general and modal verbs in particular demonstrate how critical thinking can help you to choose the correct answers. Similarly, this post on the limits of memorized answers points out the need to evaluate the information on the TOEFL exam, rather than attempting to memorize answers that you can plug into the prompts for the Speaking and Writing sections. This Wikipedia entry describes lateral thinking, and here are some exercises to challenge you!

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 #103: Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 31, 2011

Did you know that Strictly English also offers a program in Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing? This program is only offered to students who have already gone through our TOEFL program and is designed to prepare both university students and graduate students for the kind of thinking and writing they will have to do in their academic programs.
Here’s what one of our clients just wrote to us. We’ve been working with him specifically on public speaking since he’s a Ph.D. candidate who has to give many public talks about his work. He writes:

I came back from Zurich and I have to say that I am getting better and better with public speaking.
There is still a lot to work on but clearly I separated myself from 80% of robots that happened to give a talk at the symposium.

Funny was that various folks due to my talk smiled to me, and indeed wanted to talk to me.
For a moment I was a rock star, which in science does not happen often.

Also I noticed that in a flow of excitement and stress just before giving a seminar, I get an extra wave of energy.
Which I could use to modulate my voice and to have a strong voice throughout a talk, which keeps me far from talking in a boring and low tone.

THANKS FOR HELP! Your tips are priceless.

In respects to next classes I will contact you soon.