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TOEFL Tip #124: EXTRA! EXTRA! ETS Changes TOEFL Reading Section

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 12, 2011

ETS  announced on October 7th  that starting November 1, 2011 the Reading section of the TOEFL will have two major changes to it.

1. There will now only be ONE Experimental Reading passage on tests that have a “long” Reading section.

2. TOEFL will no longer break up the Reading section into two differently timed sections.

This means that now, the TOEFL timer will say 60 minutes if you have only 3 passages, and it will say 80 minutes if you have 4 passages (one of the 4 will be experimental, but you will now know which one!)

To understand these changes, we first have to explain how the Reading section has been administered until now. Previously, you were given the first passage with 20 minutes on the timer. Then, you received TWO passages and 40 minutes on the timer. If you received an “Experimental” Reading section, you were given TWO MORE passages and 40 more minutes. (The Experimental Section allows TOEFL to test out new passages to see if they have any mistakes in them. It’s their way of “beta testing” passages before those passages are used in a real test.) You wouldn’t know if the first 40-minute section or the second 40-minute section was the Experimental Section, which means you had to complete all five passages. This took 1 hour and 40 minutes! TOO LONG!!!  In addition, once the first passage’s time was up, you could not return to that passage again. (Although our research did find a bug in the programming: if you clicked on the REVIEW button and then clicked on a question from passage one, you could get back to the first passage.) This was bad because if you had time remaining after you answered every question, you could only go back and change answers in passages two and three, but not in passage one.

Well, enough test takers must have complained because now, instead of 5 passages (3 that you’re graded on and 2 that you’re not graded on) you’ll now receive only 4 (3 that you’re graded on and only 1 that you’re not graded on).

This might not seem like much of a change, but shortening the Reading by 20 minutes will be a huge improvement. Now, test takers will not get as tired before having to take the three other sections of the test. Even Strictly English tutors are exhausted after 1 hour and 40 minutes of Reading questions.

Frankly, we at Strictly English don’t think that ETS shortened the Reading section based on test taker feedback. ETS has consistently proved that it’s not really interested in customer service, as evidenced by how little they care about the deplorable test center conditions. Instead, we think that this is a direct response to the PTE Academic, a competing English Proficiency test that is only about 2.5 hours long, which is about 1.5 hours shorter than the TOEFL iBT.

Regardless of the reason, this is FANTASTIC news for test takers. You won’t be as tired entering the Listening section of the test, and you’ll get out of the exam in under 4 hours now.

As for all the passages being grouped into one timed section, this is also wonderful news. Now you can note on a piece of paper all the questions that you want to return to. And if you have time remaining, you can go back to any of the passages’ questions. MUCH BETTER!

THANK YOU ETS!!!!

TOEFL Tip #123: Rapid Improvement is Possible in TOEFL Study if . . .

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 9, 2011

. . . you already have a high level of fluency in English, and just need to learn strategies for taking the TOEFL.

A recent student, João, already had a TOEFL score of 104 when he came to Strictly English. He studied with us for 6 hours over 3 days, and he went up to a 108 on his next exam. Then he came back for 4 more hours and got 112.

João’s scores show that rapid improvement IS possible. He worked hard during his Strictly English sessions to learn the strategies and apply them on the TOEFL. We’re proud of his achievement, and confident that our techniques made a big difference on his TOEFL performance.

However, not everyone can increase their test scores by so many points after a relatively small number of tutoring hours. João was already thoroughly fluent in English before starting with Strictly English. He could focus all of his effort on learning our strategies for the TOEFL. Any language issues WILL slow down your progress.

If you know that you still need to master English fully, you will not be able to reproduce João’s success until you have improved these fundamental components. On the other hand, if you can speak and write in perfect English but just need to focus those skills for the TOEFL, you SHOULD be aiming for this kind of quick turn-around. Wherever you are in your study of the language, Strictly English can help you reach your TOEFL goals.

TOEFL Tip #115: Listen Carefully

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 19, 2011

Today’s post is the third in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Listening section. Be sure to check out our posts on the Speaking and Reading sections.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Last week’s post about the Reading section showed that students can use specific strategies to read only parts of the passage, yet still answer the questions correctly and efficiently. This approach helps students focus on what the questions are specifically asking, rather than get distracted by all of the details in the passage.

Our researcher, an American and a native speaker of English, used this same technique with the Listening section. He did not listen to any of the spoken passages or conversations; he only listened to the questions. This resulted in a score of 16! (When this researcher skipped all of the Reading passages and only answered the questions, he got a 26).

Why the big difference in scores between the Reading and Listening, when using the same technique? Our research suggests that the Listening section actually seems to build out two possible scenarios throughout the questions for a given listening passage.

What do we mean by “two scenarios”? The FIRST question will ask, “Why did the man go to the doctor’s office?” In typical standardized test design, two answers will be silly and obviously incorrect, but the remaining two both seem possible: He needed a prescription filled. He was coming in for a follow up appointment. From here, all of the remaining questions return to these same two possibilities. So the next question might be, “What was the man’s problem when he arrived?” Again, two answers are easily eliminated, and the remaining two are: He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription. He forgot his wallet and didn’t have his insurance card to give to the receptionist. If you chose “He needed a prescription filled” for question one (which is wrong), then you’re very likely to continue on that wrong path in question two and incorrectly pick, “He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription.” You can see how this might lead to giving incorrect answers for all of the questions related to this particular listening passage.

It’s good to keep in mind that the Listening is the same as the Reading in this respect – an answer for one question can help you pick the next answer for another question. The crucial difference for the Listening passage is that this only benefits you IF YOU GOT THE FIRST QUESTION CORRECT. While the Reading doesn’t seem to have a coherent, consistent, counter narrative that runs through all the questions, the Listening does. This can really trip you up.

Our research suggests that your listening skills need to be sharp in order to do well on this section. If you listen carefully and can take good notes on the passage, you should be able to answer the first question correctly. Since the subsequent questions build on that first one, you will be in a good position to do well on each passage.

TOEFL Tip #114: Understand the Logic Behind TOEFL Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 13, 2011

Today’s post is the second in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Reading section. Be sure to check out our post on the Speaking section.

Our research this summer confirms the approach that Strictly English has taken to the Reading section for some time: reading the entire passage slowly and thoroughly is not the best use of your time. Instead, you need to understand the logic behind the questions, and read the passage strategically.

Our researcher was an American and a native speaker of English. He took a recent TOEFL and did not read ANY of the Reading passages, except to answer the Insertion question, which demands that you read the paragraph into which you’ll insert the new sentence. Even for the Insertion Question, our researcher read only the relevant paragraph, not the entire passage. For all the other questions, he only looked at the questions. Before the test, our researcher expected that by ignoring the passage, he would score around a 17-22, but much to his surprise, he scored a 26!

This proves that the passage is truly a distraction. If you know the logic behind how standardized tests ask Reading questions, and if you know how to take the information from one question and apply it to another question, then you can get a high score with very minimal reading.

We are NOT advocating that non-native speakers of English should skip the Reading passages and go straight to the questions. Our researcher has over 18 years of TOEFL experience behind him, unlike most test takers who have been studying for only a few months by the time they take the test. But if a professional can get a 26 by NOT reading the passages, then you should be able to get the same score if you READ the passage *strategically*. Want to learn those strategies? Contact us today.

TOEFL Tip #111: Study WITH Distraction

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 22, 2011

In our recent post about study skills, we suggested that one key for a successful TOEFL study session was to eliminate distractions as much as possible. Work in a quiet space or wear headphones to block out noise, turn off your mobile phone, and ask friends and family not to interrupt you. This approach will help establish your study habits, and will make each session more productive.

However, as your test date approaches and your skills improve, you should switch strategies. Test centers can be loud, so you should study with distractions in the two weeks leading up to your test date. TOEFL test centers are not intentionally noisy, but the circumstances of taking the test, plus common technical glitches that must be resolved, can disrupt your concentration if you’ve not studied with noise in the background before. By practicing the TOEFL with distractions, you will be better prepared on test day. There are a variety of possible distractions on test day, but you will not be able to stop your test until the distraction is over. Once you begin your exam, you must continue with each section, except for the scheduled break.

First, new people might come in to start the test after you have begun your exam. The test center staff has to get that person set up, explain directions, and so on, while you are trying to focus on the test material. This might happen several times.

Second, there may be a technical problem with a computer in your room. Because students have to finish the TOEFL on the same computer that they start on, the staff has to fix any computer with a problem WHILE everyone else is still taking their tests. One of our students reported that during his reading section, there was a test center employee on the phone with ETS for 15 minutes, trying to resolve another student’s computer problem.

Third, not everyone moves through the TOEFL at the same pace. People who started the test before you will move on to the speaking while you’re still in the listening section. People who started after you will be talking while you’re trying to concentrate on your writing.

So, what can you do about distractions at the test center? Many centers have earplugs, but you should also consider bringing your own. You want the earplugs to be comfortable, and you should practice having them in your ears so you are used to the way that they feel (if you’ve never used earplugs before, they can feel a bit odd at first).

In addition, during the 2 weeks leading up to your test date, make a point if studying WITH distractions around you. Study in a café or another location where people come and go frequently and talk loudly. Have the radio or television on in the background. Tune the radio or TV to an American news station or talk show, so you can hear a variety of American accents. Finally, study in the same room with your children (or younger siblings) – their play will likely create bursts of noise and movement. Knowing how to ignore distractions such as these will keep you calm on test day when something is inevitably loud.

TOEFL Tip #110: What Study Time is For

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 16, 2011

In recent posts (here and here), we have focused on having strong study skills as a foundation for success on the TOEFL exam. Today’s post looks at what you’re trying to achieve while you study.

It might seem obvious that the purpose of studying is to demonstrate your mastery of strategies and skills for the TOEFL exam. You might even think of your study sessions as mini-TOEFLs, running through sections of the exam, or even a full practice exam, as if it were test day. If your TOEFL exam is in less than a week, this is a smart approach for your study time.

However, for most students, especially for those who have just started preparing for the TOEFL exam, using your study sessions to prove to yourself that you have mastered what you have recently learned is a less-effective use of your time. Too many Strictly English students never open their notebook after class when they are doing their homework. Instead, they use the evening’s study time as a way to test their memory of the day’s tutoring session. For example, Strictly English has a 120 point checklist that walks you through EVERY sentence of the independent (30 minute) essay in the Writing section. If you use it WHILE you write, then you’ll write a PERFECT essay! But too many of our clients go over the checklist with us in class, say they’ve “got it” and then “test themselves” outside of class by writing an essay WITHOUT the checklist. They want to see “how much they remember from class.”

But that’s only causing them to write a bad essay, and even worse, to memorize incorrect grammar and sentence structures.

Instead of thinking about study time as proving your mastery of class content, use the session to go SLOWLY over the process, WITH your notes OPEN. Your goal is to internalize everything that you have learned until you can do it easily and accurately. That takes time; skipping the steps only reinforces skills that you then need to un-learn.

By using your notes while you study for the TOEFL exam, you will build up your mastery at an even, consistent pace.

TOEFL Tip #97: An Incentive to Begin TOEFL Preparation Today!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 29, 2011

As the current school year starts to come to a close, we know it’s hard to think about the college application process next fall and winter. And yet, you really need to start preparing for the TOEFL now so that you will have everything you need on time for your applications.

Let’s look at the timeline, working backwards from your application deadlines.

Many college applications are due in early January at the latest; some are due in early December. Even if your deadlines are later, the rush of holidays in late December can distract you while preparing your materials, so you should complete as much as you can before mid-December.

Putting together your application – writing letters, writing an essay, and so on – should take about six weeks. You need to leave enough time for the people who write letters of recommendation on your behalf, and you need time to draft and then revise your essay. Your timeline is now back to November 1st.

You also need to take the SAT by November 1st, so that your scores will be reported on time for your application. Students typically need 3 months of prep time for the SAT, which means you’re starting to study for the SAT in early August.

You should take the TOEFL before the SAT, which means that your last chance to take the TOEFL is in late July. TOEFL preparation can take 2-3 months, which means you need to start TOEFL preparation at the end of April – now.

Strictly English has courses designed for different levels of study; classes for each section of the TOEFL typically take 3-4 weeks to complete, depending on your schedule.

If you sign up by April 30th – today – you can take advantage of our best price on TOEFL prep classes: 50% off of your first purchase. See details here. The discount will be 40% off of your first purchase if you sign up in May, and 30% off if you sign up in June. There will be no discount if you wait until the fall to sign up for classes, so sign up today to get the best savings!

TOEFL Tip #92: Understand Campus Life

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 29, 2011

Because most people take the TOEFL as part of their application to college, some material on the exam draws on this area of knowledge. Knowing about campus life in the United States is important for all TOEFL test-takers, even if you are taking it for other reasons, such as for professional certification. Both the Listening and the Speaking sections of the TOEFL have passages and questions about college life. Even if you have not been educated in the United States, you can do well on these questions by knowing a few general points about how college campuses work.

On the TOEFL, conversations between professors and students, or between two students, will be supportive, helpful, and friendly in tone. In an ideal world, professors and other university employees (such as financial aid counselors or librarians) would never say mean things to students or be annoyed at them. Likewise, students appreciate advice given by another student. College life on the TOEFL reflects this ideal world. Professors are always available to talk with students, librarians can find many resources on any topic, and students have helpful suggestions on how to figure out a difficult situation.

When deciding on an answer about the Listening or Speaking conversation, avoid choices that seem unlikely in an ideal academic setting, no matter how reasonable they may be in a non-academic setting. Be careful – an answer might seem “right” because it has many of the content words of the Listening or Speaking passage. The key is whether the answer is negative or positive. For example, if one choice insults the student (“I can’t believe you can’t figure this out”) or seems unconcerned with the student’s problem (“I don’t have time to answer that question”), that’s negative, and the wrong answer. Choices that answer the student’s question (“Let me show you how to solve that equation”) or help to solve his or her problem (“You need to fill out these forms and bring them to the Registrar’s office”) are positive, and are more likely to be the correct answer.

Another aspect of campus culture that will help you on the TOEFL is being familiar with typical names for aspects of student life. You may know that students sleep in “dormitories,” but do you also know that “dorm” is a nickname for the same building? Perhaps the purpose of the Student Center is obvious, but do you know what the Student Union is? (It’s another name for “Student Center”). Registrar, Bursar, Dean, quad, fraternity/sorority, meal plan, work-study – these are a few of the typical departments, places, organizations, or programs at American colleges. Knowing the names campus features such as these will help you to understand the Reading or Listening passage, and can help you to choose the correct answer.

To learn about campus culture, visit the websites of several colleges or talk with current college students. You will quickly get a sense of what college life is like!

TOEFL Tip #91: Use A Holistic Approach: An Example

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 18, 2011

In last week’s post, we talked about using a holistic approach for answering questions in the Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL. Keeping in mind that the questions work together, and using information from one question to answer another, can help you make sure your answers are correct, and can save you time.

Today, we wanted to work through a specific example of how a holistic approach would work. This example comes from the Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test (second edition, 2007), the Reading Diagnostic Pre-Test, pages 3-7.

The reading passage is about aggressive behavior in people, and theories about what causes it. Here is the entire first paragraph; the words in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS are words we want to emphasize for this post. They are not in bold or capital letters in the original passage.

Aggressive behavior is any behavior that is INTENDED to cause injury, pain, suffering, damage, or destruction. While aggressive behavior is often thought of as purely physical, verbal attacks such as screaming and shouting or belittling and humiliating comments AIMED AT causing harm and suffering can also be a type of aggression. What is key to the definition of aggression is that whenever harm is inflicted, be it physical or verbal, it is INTENTIONAL.

The first thing to notice when you are reading this paragraph is that it says three times that aggression is something that is done on purpose (“intended,” “aimed at,” “intentional”). Whenever you see an idea repeated several times in a short paragraph, that’s a tip that the idea is important.

Here is the first question and its answer choices:

1. Which of the following is NOT defined as aggressive behavior?
a. Inflicting pain accidentally
b. Making insulting remarks
c. Destroying property
d. Trying unsuccessfully to injure someone

Right away, you know that the answer is “a,” because the passage emphasized that aggression is intentional. While you should always double check the rest of the answer choices, you can be confident that “a” is the right answer for this question. The answers for b, c, and d ARE acts which someone does on purpose.

This is where using a holistic approach can help you on the TOEFL. As you move on to the next questions, remember this answer. You know that any answer that suggests that aggression is an accident or is unintentional is a wrong answer.

Here is question 5 and its answer choices:

5. According to paragraph 3, displacement is
a. internally directed aggression
b. a modeled type of aggression
c. aggression that is unintentional
d. aggression that is directed outward

Because you remember from question 1 that aggression always intentional, you can immediately see that answer “c” is WRONG, and you can eliminate it. Can you eliminate any other answers? Look at the key word in each choice. The key word of answer “a” is “internally,” the key word of “b” is “modeled,” and the key word of “d” is “outward.” Maybe you don’t remember these words from the passage. You can return to the reading and focus on finding the definition of displacement that uses one of these three key words. Every time you can quickly eliminate one or more choices because you remember a similar answer from earlier in the section, you have saved time, and have reduced your chances of making a mistake.

The more you practice taking a holistic approach to the Reading and Listening sections, the easier it will be to link related answers together.

TOEFL Tip #90: Reading and Listening: Use a Holistic Approach

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 11, 2011

Many people lose a lot of time on the Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL because of the way they approach the questions. They mentally review everything they know about the reading or listening passage in order answer the first question, then they stop thinking, move on to the next question, and start all over again. It’s almost like they empty their minds, and each question is about a new topic.

Don’t do this! All of the questions work together. Treating them like separate items will slow you down. You might even make mistakes that you would not otherwise make.

Instead, use a holistic approach on the Reading and Listening sections. That is, keep in mind that the questions are pieces that work together to form a unit, and each of the pieces depends on the others. Think of the questions as a jigsaw puzzle: when working on a puzzle with an outdoor scene, you group all of the blue pieces together because they’re probably the sky, and you can guess that all of the green pieces are the grass, and so on. By grouping each color together, you can find the piece you want more easily, rather than having to search through all of the puzzle pieces each time.

If you think holistically about the questions for a Reading or Listening passage, you will realize that information from an earlier answer can help answer a later question. We’ll have an example of this in next week’s post, on March 18th.

Thinking holistically can not only save you time on the Reading and Listening sections, but it can also boost your confidence. Having a technique to help answer difficult questions means that you won’t waste precious time, and you won’t panic. Try it as you practice, and see the difference that holistic thinking will make!

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