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TOEFL Tip #174: Understand The Logic Behind The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 19, 2012

Last week, we discussed a strategy for the Reading section of the TOEFL which advises test-takers to read as little of the passage as possible. This week, we want to highlight an implicit point about that strategy.

Understanding the logic of the TOEFL is essential for doing well on the exam.

It’s important to realize that the TOEFL is not a test of your academic knowledge, per se. Of course, you need to know the rules and conventions of formal English in order to understand the Reading and Listening passages, and to communicate effectively in the Writing and Speaking sections. Similarly, the Reading section has questions asking about the meaning of a specific word from the passage. If you’ve never encountered that word before, you may have trouble figuring out its meaning from context.

In the big picture, however, the TOEFL does not test what you already know about academic topics as diverse as chemistry and prehistoric art. There would be no effective way to study for such a test, because it’s simply not possible to know something about every potential topic that might appear in a TOEFL passage.

Keep in mind, then, that the TOEFL assesses how well you comprehend and communicate in English. If you happen to know something about the topic of the passage, that will certainly assist you in choosing the correct answers. However, even if you know nothing about the topic, the passage itself contains everything you need to answer the questions.

This is where understanding the logic of the TOEFL becomes central. When you understand what each section of the test measures, you can answer more effectively. For example, the Writing and Speaking sections are not only about whether you can answer a question with sentences that are grammatically correct. They also gauge your ability to express and develop unique ideas and persuade your audience. To do this, you need to know how many points you need to support your main idea, how much detail to include, and how to structure your answer.

Once you’re familiar with the logic behind the TOEFL exam – HOW to take the test – you can focus on WHAT the answers are.

TOEFL Tip #172: More Information About Subject/Verb Agreement Errors

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 6, 2012

Some time ago, Strictly English had a post highlighting the fact that numerous errors in subject-verb agreement in the Writing section of the TOEFL could substantially lower your score. Our researchers have recently discovered that subject-verb agreement errors affect not only your Writing score, but also your Speaking score.

In both the Writing and Speaking sections, our researchers’ answers were nearly grammatically perfect. For this study, their only “problem” area was in subject-verb agreement. As a result, their scores in both sections dropped. Their Writing scores went down by as much as 4 points, and their Speaking scores were 2 or so points lower.

What accounts for the same error costing different points on the Writing and Speaking sections?

We attribute this to the ability to proof-read your answers in the Writing section before submitting them. If you use your response time well, you can leave a few minutes at the end to review what you’ve written and correct any mistakes. Since you technically CAN fix your errors, it seems as if ETS penalizes you more for any mistakes which remain in the answer.

On the other hand, you can’t go back and correct mistakes in your Speaking section answers. Even if you do correct one or two errors right after you say them, it’s just not feasible to expect that you can correct all of them and still give a good answer. ETS knows this, and seems to deduct fewer points because speaking on the fly (scroll to the bottom of the page) is harder than writing and revising.

Since subject-verb agreement errors are easy to recognize (click here for a review), make sure that you practice eliminating them from both your written and spoken English.

TOEFL Tip #168: Practice TOEFL Speaking In Your Native Language

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 8, 2012

Today’s post is about a strategy for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam that seems counterintuitive at first: practicing in your native language.

Of course, many of the skills necessary to get a good score on the Speaking section of the TOEFL are language-based. If your grammar is so poor that you cannot construct a correct sentence, if your pronunciation is so far off that the TOEFL rater can’t understand what you are saying, or if your vocabulary is so limited that you can only repeat a few words in every sentence, you will not score well on the Speaking section of the TOEFL. (This applies, in varying degrees, to the Writing, Listening, and Reading sections, as well.) These skills demonstrate a level of mastery of English.

But do you know that some skills necessary to get a good score on the TOEFL exam are NOT language based?

Instead, this additional set of skills is linked to public speaking. If you can speak with strength and confidence in your voice, you will sound more convincing. If you can speak slowly and clearly into the microphone and project your voice without shouting, your recorded answers will be easier to understand. If you pause for a moment between sentences, you will sound calm. Although you are not speaking to the entire room during the TOEFL exam, it is still a kind of performance. With so much at stake, you need to give the best performance that you can.

Therefore, learn how to become a more powerful public speaker in your own language. You’ll be able to translate those performance skills into English for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam.

How can you employ this technique? First, try answering TOEFL questions in your own language. Pretend that you’re talking to a young child who needs concepts explained step by step in order to understand them. Then try to deliver that same CONTENT in the same STYLE, but using English instead of your native language.

Good public speaking skills will showcase the content of your Speaking section answers to their best advantage.

TOEFL Tip#166: Strictly English’s YouTube Channel

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 24, 2012

Did you know that Strictly English has its own YouTube channel ? We do! Check out our videos on a variety of topics:

We have a number of videos which showcase a particular skill or tip for taking the TOEFL exam. Whether you want to improve your Reading, Speaking, or Writing (part 1, part 2) score, we have helpful advice.

Of course, we have information about our programs, such as the Study Hall, and a Frequently Asked Questions video made at xtranormal.com.

But don’t take just our word about how effective our programs are. Listen to what our clients say about our services.

Several students have contacted Strictly English after getting the TOEFL score they needed, and have shared their experiences in videos. We recently discussed one client’s success on the TOEFL, which she needed in order to get her nursing license. Other students have needed a particular TOEFL score for dentistry or pharmacy. As these students say, working with Strictly English made the crucial difference in their TOEFL scores.

Come back often and see what’s new on Strictly English’s YouTube channel!

TOEFL Tip #163: It’s (Not) About Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 27, 2012

By far, people’s worst anxiety about taking the TOEFL iBT comes from the timers ETS uses on the Speaking section of the exam. This is probably because the time allocations are so short – 45 seconds for Tasks 1 & 2; 60 seconds for Tasks 3-6 – that test takers cannot give themselves the luxury of “losing themselves in the question.” “Forgetting” about the timer is almost impossible in the Speaking section of the test because the clock is staring the speaker right in the face the whole time he/she is talking.

But we have good news: You can, and indeed should, FORGET THE TIMER!!!!

Strictly English knows this sounds crazy. We know that every TOEFL exam study guide and every other language school has convinced TOEFL test takers that they have to speak for the full 45 or 60 seconds, and they have to display mastery of all the content they read and hear (in Tasks 3-6).

However, our research, and that of other Speaking Specialists, has proven that this is not true. In fact, page 165 of ETS’s Official Guide to the TOEFL states that “Good responses generally use all or most of the time allotted” and that “it is important to note that raters do not expect your response to be perfect.” (Bold added for emphasis.) This means that you do not have to reproduce every detail from the short text and/or the lecture/conversation you were given. Nor do you have to finish that perfect content at the exact moment the timer reaches 0:00.

If this is true, then why does the TOEFL exam use a timer?

The timer is really for ETS. It is not for you. Since the TOEFL exam is a standardized test, it has to make sure that all responses from all test-takers are equivalent. TOEFL can’t simply have a STOP RECORDING button that the test taker can push when he/she is finished talking. If it did, then all students would have differently timed “samples” of their speaking. Therefore, the raters must have the same length of audio recording (notice that this is different from the same amount of speaking) from each test taker.

Let’s run the numbers for a moment: From the original text of ETS’s Speaking Rubric on page 166 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, we can identify the following points that raters use to grade your speaking:

1. clear speech
2. fluidity
3. good pronunciation
4. natural pacing
5. natural intonation
6. effective grammar
7. effective vocabulary
8. full answers
9. coherent presentation
10. using all or most of the response time
11. relationship between ideas
12. progression from idea to idea

Notice that TIMING is only 1/12 (or 8.3% )of the grade.

Granted, you DO have to FILL MOST OF THE TIME with your response. However, this can be achieved, and SHOULD be achieved, by talking slowly and calmly. Doing so will allow you to focus on the other 11 items above, which compose the other 91.7% of your grade. Sadly, our new students come to us having reversed this priority. They make time the most important factor, which causes them to rush, rush, rush. This hurried response is then chock full of bad pronunciation, unnatural pacing and intonation, egregious grammar errors, and incoherencies. No wonder they score so low.

So now that we’ve explained WHY it’s important to forget the timer, you have to learn HOW to forget the timer. It’s not easy to do! But our tutors can teach you very quickly the strategies necessary to turn your back on the timer and face a higher Speaking score!

TOEFL Tip #162: Speaking Section Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 20, 2012

One of our recent students was thrilled to earn a 26 on the Speaking Section of the TOEFL exam. Before coming to us, she had taken the TOEFL six times over the course of approximately 2 ½ years. Every previous score for the Speaking Section was a 24. Scoring a 26 is essential for her nursing license, but she had not been able to reach that mark on her own. She was frustrated and increasingly anxious about taking the test.

After four hours of instruction at Strictly English, she got the score she needed the next time she took the exam!

Our student took eight classes, each lasting 30 minutes. We focused on two areas: practice tests with immediate feedback so she could identify where she was making mistakes, and strategies to reduce her anxiety. With our templates to give structure to her answers, she was much more confident! Click here to listen to our full interview.

An important lesson to draw from this student’s experience is the value in trying a new approach. Doing the same thing over and over will not somehow produce different results. In fact, the opposite may happen. Our student reports feeling a kind of depression as her score remained the same with each new test.

So, if you’ve taken the TOEFL multiple times but still haven’t reached the score you’re aiming for, talk with us. We’ll develop a study plan that targets your particular needs!

TOEFL Tip #161: K.I.S.S.ing Occam’s Razor

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 13, 2012

The title of today’s post is a play on words that combines the modern expression “Keep It Short and Simple” (K.I.S.S) with the same idea in its much older form, Occam’s Razor.

The “K.I.S.S. Principle” comes from the field of engineering. It reminds designers that elaborate systems are not inherently better than simple ones. In fact, simple systems are often easier for a wide variety of people to understand. An example of the K.I.S.S. Principle is a car engine that can be fixed with a wrench and a screwdriver, instead of needing to be hooked up to a computerized diagnostic system.

Similarly, the idea behind Occam’s Razor is that the best explanation of events is the one that makes the fewest assumptions while still accounting for all of the facts. The razor slices away unnecessary details, so that what remains is both essential and accurate. If you make lunch in the morning but arrive at work without it, Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s far more likely that you left your lunch at home, rather than thinking that someone snuck into the back seat of your car and stole your lunch while you were stopped at a red light.

The reasons why we’re talking about these two idioms is because simplicity is key for the TOEFL exam. In addition, so is avoiding redundancy, which is why we’re highlighting this ONE idea with TWO different phrases!

This idea of “using simple thought processes” is the best way to think throughout the test. In fact, the clearest answers on the Writing and Speaking sections follow these principles. Clearly expressing a few details is better than creating complicated arguments that require more and more sentences.

Now, we’ll follow our own advice, and Keep (this post) Short and Simple!

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 #155: Managing Your Note Paper

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 18, 2012

Understandably, ETS wants to make sure that no information about the TOEFL exam leaves the test center. This ensures that the test’s answers cannot be given to a future test taker.

One way that ETS promotes security is to limit the amount of paper you receive. If everyone in the test center is given the same quantity of paper, then the monitor (first definition) will know to collect that number of pages from you. If you give the monitor only three sheets of paper when she knows everyone got four sheets, she will ask you for that fourth sheet. This means you cannot hide that fourth paper in your pocket with all the answers on it.

But this security measure poses a risk to your TOEFL score! You can easily imagine how this might happen: you need more paper, but the monitor is busy with someone else, or she is looking somewhere else and doesn’t see that your hand is up. You’re wasting valuable waiting to catch her attention – time that you can’t afford.

So here’s what we suggest to help you manage your paper:

1. You will be given three or four pieces of paper at the beginning of the test. Even if you think you don’t need the paper, take it anyway. It’s better to be prepared!

2. Stack the sheets together, and lay them in front of you so that the pile is longer from left to right (the same as “landscape layout” for a printer). Fold all the sheets in half. This makes every sheet into a little book with four pages. Now you have four “pages” per sheet of paper instead of only two (front and back of an unfolded sheet).

3. Use only one of these “pages” for each Reading passage and each Listening passage. If you have large handwriting or tend to scrawl your notes, you will need to practice writing a bit smaller and/or more neatly to use your paper more effectively.

4. On the break, ASK FOR MORE PAPER. Do this even if you’ve got some sheets left over! It’s better to start with four new sheets instead of having only one or two sheets when you start the Speaking section. You will have to surrender any pieces of paper that you’ve used.

5. Fold your sheets again and use one “page” for each of the Speaking tasks.

When you manage your paper this way, you will not run out of space for notes during the second half of the test. You really do not want to have to raise your hand, and wait for the attendant to see you.

Not only will you never run out of paper if you follow these steps, but you’ll also keep your notes more clearly organized. Besides having to wait for more paper while the timer keeps running, you don’t want to get confused because you crammed all of your notes from multiple lectures or passages onto the same page!

TOEFL Tip #154: Effective Intermediate English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 4, 2012

In an early scene (at the 4:40 mark) of the 1993 movie Philadelphia, Tom Hanks’ character has been illegally fired from his job and is looking for a lawyer to represent him in court. He comes to Denzel Washington’s office, and begins to tell his version of what happened. Soon, Washington’s character says, “Explain this to me like I’m a two year old.” The character’s point is that clear communication is essential for understanding complex issues, and sometimes, sophisticated language impedes clarity.

Last week’s post emphasized the importance of clear and precise intermediate English on the TOEFL exam. This week, we’re following up with a comparison of flawed advanced English and excellent intermediate English to illustrate what you’re aiming for on the TOEFL. Remember, the TOEFL is a test of communication, so clear ideas and clear expression need to be your primary focus on the exam.

Last fall , we presented a list of how TOEFL scores correspond to everyday life. Professional public speakers, such as Oprah Winfrey, correspond to a TOEFL score of 30. With that in mind, we’ve taken a sample from Oprah’s commencement speech at Howard University in 2007 and altered it somewhat, introducing the sort of errors that might easily happen on the TOEFL exam.

Here’s the example of flawed advanced English:

“The human dearth of your integrity is the most we had to offer and I would beseach you to remember what Harriet Tubman said her efforts to spirit salves of the plantation. Hariet Tubman once said that she would have liberated thousands more if only she would have convinced them they are salves. So do not be a salve to any form of selling out, maintenance you integrity it have always been, I believe, an only solution to all problems in the word and it remains the only solution.”

Although this example has polished vocabulary as well as rhetorical flair, the numerous misspellings and problems with prepositions, articles, subject/verb agreement, and sentence structure would lower the score for this passage considerably.

Here’s the version of Oprah’s passage in flawless intermediate English. It makes the same points, but in a more direct, clear manner:

“The greatest sacrifice we can make is to give up our integrity. Remember what Harriet Tubman said about her work to get slaves to freedom. She once said that she could have helped thousands more escape slavery if she could have made them realize that they are slaves. Do not sell out and become a modern slave. Keep your integrity. I believe this always has been, and always will be, the solution to the world’s problems.”

The sentences here are a bit shorter, the vocabulary is simpler, and the message is easy to understand.

Remember clarity and directness are not signs of weak English skills. They are the hallmarks of excellent intermediate English.

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