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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.

Or

2. Tell me the general theory of relativity.

 

You have ten seconds to prepare . . .

Done?

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.

Don’t.

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.

TOEFL TIP #214: Strictly English’s TOEFL Guarantee Program

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 3, 2013

Have you taken the TOEFL multiple times, only to be a few points away from the score you need? Are you wondering what it will take to get those last few points?

Strictly English has a new program that will help you get the scores you need – the TOEFL Guarantee. If you have a TOEFL score from within the past 3 months, and you know that the score you’re trying to reach is no more than 4 points higher per section than your current score, this program is designed to work with you until you pass.

Working with dedicated tutors, you’ll take 3 classes per week, and a third-party practice test (such as from ETS or Testden) every 2 weeks. Once you reach the score you want in one section of the exam, you’ll keep studying for the other sections until you pass all sections. Send your test scores directly to Strictly English so we can keep track of your progress!

 We guarantee that we’ll keep tutoring you until you pass, for ONE flat price! 

For full details, including pricing, visit the TOEFL Guarantee Program page. Ready to enroll? Contact us today! 

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 #212: Avoiding Absolute Modifiers: Modal Verbs

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 21, 2013

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of avoiding absolute answers on the TOEFL exam. TOEFL wants to avoid making its answers too easy with choices such as ALWAYS or NEVER. Instead, TOEFL wants test-takers to have to think carefully about the question and evaluate which answer is the best choice.

 

In addition to adverbs like “always” and “never,” English grammar also uses modal verbs to indicate a suggested or required action. A “modal verb,” sometimes called a “helper verb,” is a word that adds further meaning to the primary verb in a sentence. The main group of modal verbs is can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, would.

 

So how can you use modal verbs to avoid choosing absolute answers, and increase your chances of picking the correct answer?  Think about the modal verbs on a sliding scale, with suggestions at one end, and requirements at the other end.

 

On this scale, “can” and “could” are at the suggestion end of the scale, indicating that it is possible to take the action of the verb, but not indicating whether the subject will do it. Think of these as a 20% requirement. 

Other modal verbs on the sliding scale increase the necessity for the sentence’s subject to do what the verb says. “Might” indicates that subject has a choice about whether to do the verb’s action, perhaps a 40% requirement. “Should” and “ought” are very strong suggestions, with a sense of obligation to do what the verb says – 80% requirement. “Must” indicates a required action, one that the subject has no choice about; it’s a 100% requirement.

 

Here is a series of example, using illnesses: 

If you feel dizzy, you CAN lie down for a few minutes.

If you have a sinus infection, you MIGHT want to see a doctor.

If you have the flu, you SHOULD go to the doctor.

If you have cancer, you MUST go to the doctor.

 Since the TOEFL exam avoids answers that indicate 100%, definitely avoid answers that use “must.” Because “should” and “ought” are strong suggestions, you probably want to think carefully about choices with those words. “Should” and “ought” could be the correct answers if the issue in the question is serious enough. Use your judgment, but in general, “might” and “could” will be safe bets.

 

 

TOEFL Tip #210: Paraphrasing Out Of Order Is Easier

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 29, 2013

As we’ve noted before, paraphrasing is an essential skill on the TOEFL exam. You need to be able to rephrase ideas you read and hear on the exam to avoid repetition and to demonstrate your mastery of English.

Today’s post focuses on word order when you are paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is not only about replacing one word with another in the same sentence structure. Good paraphrasing preserves the meaning of the sentence while also rearranging and changing its grammar.

Paraphrasing is easier if you can separate the parts of the sentence and recombine them. Trying thinking of the elements in a sentence like playing cards that can be shuffled:

1. Identify the KEY WORDS in a sentence (verbs, negatives, subjects, and direct objects). Do not focus on grammar elements (prepositions, articles, suffixes, etc).

2. Write each keyword on separate pieces of paper.

3. On the back side of each piece of paper, write a synonym for that word.

4. Shuffle your papers with the key words, and lay them out in a random new order with the synonym side facing up.

5. Try to write a sentence using this new order and conveying the same meaning.

6. Shuffle the papers again and make a second paraphrase.

 Here’s an example from the beeoasis.com article, “Simplifying Complexity.”

“We’re discovering in nature that simplicity often lies on the other side of complexity.”

1. The key words are “we,” “discovering,” “nature,” “simplicity,” “often,” “lies,” “other side,” “complexity.”

2. Index cards are great for this exercise, but any small pieces of paper will do.

3. Synonyms could be “scientists,” “finding out,” “natural world,” “simple” “frequent” “exists” “opposite side” “complex”

4. New shuffled order, using the synonyms:  natural world frequent finding out scientists simple exist complex opposite

5. A paraphrase based on this new order: “In the natural world, a frequent finding by scientists is that simple things exist as complex things’ opposite side.”  (Notice that the verb “finding out” has been switched to the noun “finding,” so that the sentence is grammatically correct.)

6. Shuffle again, and a second paraphrase: complex simple natural world scientists frequent finding out opposite side exists

“The difference between something that is complex and something that is simple in the natural world, scientists are frequently finding out, is that these are opposite sides of existence.” (Again, notice that the form of “exists” changes to suit the new sentence.)

 

Shuffling the synonyms and making a new sentence with the words in a new order will challenge your grammar, and will strengthen your ability to think of several ways to express one idea. How many different paraphrases can you make with one sentence? Give us your examples in the comments!

TOEFL Tip #209: Compare The English in Different News Stories on the Same Topic

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 22, 2013

 

Strictly English is a strong proponent of using news sources to improve your English. You can improve your listening and reading skills by reading the news. The more you immerse yourself in English, the more thoroughly English will become your second language.

 

This post expands on an idea mentioned in our discussion of using 360 Research to improve your English. As you read about one news story in a variety of sources, observe the level of formality for the English used in each source. A story in The New York Times, for example, will use formal English, but someone’s blog post will likely more causal. Twitter or Facebook are even more causal.

 

How can you know if a writer or speaker is using English formally or informally?

 Look at the grammar and word choice. Formal English doesn’t use contractions or slang expressions; sentences are always complete, and the vocabulary is sophisticated. Informal English often uses contractions, text-speak abbreviations (LOL), and other slang phrases. Sentences may not be complete, and vocabulary is often simple.

 

Also, context is often useful for understanding how formally or informally someone is speaking or writing. Writing a blog that your friends will read is different from writing a newspaper story for the general public. The blog might make jokes, or exaggerate a particular aspect of the story, or use colorful vocabulary; the newspaper story doesn’t. Understanding the differences between those two audiences will help you to notice the different levels of English.

 

This is important for the TOEFL exam because you should be using a fairly formal level of English in your written and spoken answers. This shows stronger mastery of English, and an ability to choose the right level of English for the right audience.

 

So, as you are reading and listening to various sources of English, be sure to take note of how the writers and speakers differ from each other.

TOEFL TIP #208: Crossword Puzzles Improve Your Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 14, 2013

Crossword puzzles are great tools for building your active vocabulary. A crossword puzzle is a grid with blank spaces to fill in words across (left to right) and down (top to bottom). Each word has a clue, and as you fill in the crossword, the letters from one word help you to fill in another word that intersects with it.

 The daily crossword puzzle in The New York Times is well-known, and Monday’s puzzle is the easiest. By contrast, the Sunday Times puzzle is famous for its difficulty! With the following rules, a student with intermediate-level English can do a New York Times Monday puzzle. Practice vocabulary with a crossword puzzle to vary your study routine!

 1. Know the crossword puzzle rules:

  • Answers are the same grammatical form as the clues. A plural clue will have a plural answer, so you can put an “S” in the answer’s last box.
  • Similarly, tenses must match, so a past tense clue must have a past tense answer.
  • Remember phrasal verbs, so a clue for “dispersed” could have the answer “handed out.”
  • Abbreviations in clues means the answer is an abbreviation, so a clue of “Headed the CIA” would be “JEH” for J. Edgar Hoover.

2.  When it’s just a fact – especially a person’s name – use Google!  So a clue, “Won the swimming gold in 2012″ can be found in Google, and that will help you fill in some letters for words that “cross” the Olympics answer.

3. Look at word patterns instead of the clue. The clue “gregarious” may not help you very much, but if you have some letters already filled in, then you might figure out the answer. For example, this answer might be partially filled in as:

t a _ k _ t i v _

and we know that TALK is a common word in English, and we know that TIVE is a common suffix in English. And we know that the letter between the “K” and the “T” has to be a VOWEL (a, e, i, o, u).

The best part is that the New York Times repeats words often, so you see them again days later, which helps you to remember them!  For example, you’ll see ALOE at least 5 times within the first month of doing crosswords, so you’ll be sure to remember what it means!

 

 

TOEFL Tip #207: Active vs. Passive Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 7, 2013

 Whether you speak only your native language, or have learned a second (or third, or fourth …) language, most people know a lot of words.

  But the real question is, how well do you know them?

 The words that you recognize in context when you read or hear them are your passive vocabulary. You understand what these words mean, and can follow what’s being written or said. Whether you’ve seen and heard these words a few times or repeatedly, the words in your passive vocabulary are familiar when other people use them, but you yourself don’t use them.

 The words that you use in your own speaking and writing are your active vocabulary. You not only understand these words, but you can also call them up from memory and use them accurately. Most people have a larger passive vocabulary than active vocabulary, and use somewhat different sets of words when speaking or when writing.

 Here’s an example of passive vs. active vocabulary. When you read a newspaper item or listen to a radio report, you’re probably using your passive vocabulary. You can follow the news item because you recognize the words in context. When you tell someone else about the same news item, you use your active vocabulary. For example, if the news item is about a natural disaster in which people died, your passive vocabulary would make it possible to understand “devastation” and “death toll;” you would then use your active vocabulary to refer to the “large amount of damage” and “number of people who died” when you talk about the event with someone else.

 One goal of learning a new language (or improving your skill in your first language) is to convert as many words as possible from passive into active vocabulary. You can do this by studying the vocabulary you recognize, and making a specific effort to use it in conversation. In the above example, you would say “devastation” and “death toll” as you talked about the natural disaster. You might struggle to remember the correct words at first, but the more you do it, the more words you will add to your active vocabulary.

 Next week, we’ll talk about another technique for converting words from passive to active vocabulary: crossword puzzles.

 

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.

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