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TOEFL Tip #153: TOEFL Details Are Divinely Devilish

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 27, 2012

English has two idioms about the importance of details. One is “The devil is in the details.” The other is “God is in the details.” Someone hearing these two expressions might ask: How can both God and the devil be in the details? And more relevant to our purposes as TOEFL tutors, we might ask, what do these expressions have to do with TOEFL study?

Let’s tackle the first question first. “God is in the details,” the older expression, means that anything you do, you should do well. There is no satisfaction in doing a task in a sloppy or inattentive way, or in leaving the task unfinished. The opposite expression, “The devil is in the details” points to the difficulty in doing something well, especially if that difficulty is not apparent in the beginning. For example, close examination of the details might reveal additional complexity in the task, or the need for more in-depth knowledge.

So turning to the second question, “What does this have to do with TOEFL?,” we have to remember that TOEFL rewards attention to detail, and these details are fiendishly frustrating to most TOEFL test takers. For example, fact questions in the Reading might ask you to differentiate between two similarly written words, like “stalagmite” and “stalactite.” In the Listening section, you may need to recall a specific number like 1,000 B.C. and must be sure you don’t accidentally choose 10,000 B.C. or 1,000 A.D. Details in the Speaking usually means having extremely accurate pronunciation, while your Writing has to have detailed examples to prove your argument.

If you can master these devils, then you are rewarded with the “godly” satisfaction of razor sharp accuracy and precision in both choosing answer choices and in communicating your ideas in flawless intermediate English.

So what’s the takeaway (definition 2) of this entry? To receive a “godly” TOEFL score that might put you in seventh heaven , you have demonstrate a strong ability to work with details, which can be a real devil of a time for most people to accomplish.

TOEFL Tip #147: Paraphrasing Is The Most Important Skill For The iBT

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 16, 2012

The TOEFL exam draws on a diverse skill set for each section, but there is one skill you will use for all four sections – paraphrasing.

The Reading section not only has a type of question directly asking you to paraphrase, but in the end, ALL answers are paraphrases of the relevant part of the Reading Passage. The Listening section works in the same way.

The Speaking section requires two different sorts of paraphrasing. In Tasks 3, 4, 5, 6, you must avoid repeating exactly what you read and heard. But T1 and 2 are a bit different because you’re now trying to avoid repeating YOURSELF, instead of trying to avoid repeating what you read and heard. The same goes for the Writing section. In the integrated essay (INT), you have to avoid repeating the exact phrasing used in the Passage and the lecture. In the independent essay (IND), you again, have to avoid paraphrasing yourself.

So, how do you paraphrase?

To understand good paraphrasing, you have to know what NOT to do. Do NOT think that you’re just swapping vocabulary words. It’s a disaster to think that you can take a sentence like, “Jon works in the financial market” and replace “work” with “job,” “financial” with “money,” and “market” with “store” and end up with “Jon jobs in the money store.” First of all, although my “work” (noun) is the same as my “job” (noun), there is no VERB “to job” even though there is a verb “to work”. Also, although a “market” could be a “store” sometimes, here it is not. In this sentence, “market” refers to trading stocks and the like.

The problem gets even worse when some word swapping also requires changes in grammatical construction. For example, “although” and “despite” have the same purpose within logic – they both represent the opposition of ideas – but “although” takes a clause while “despite” takes a noun phrase. “Although it was raining” should become “Despite the rain.” If you just assume that the grammar stays the same, then you would paraphrase “Although it was raining” as “Despite it was raining.” Whoops! Wrong. Very wrong. Score of 14 wrong.

These are only a couple of the hundreds of ways paraphrasing can go wrong. Another pitfall is preserving word order when changing a sentence from passage to active. When the sentence’s agent and object switch places, you have to reformulate the sentence or else the wrong noun is receiving the verb’s action.

To paraphrase correctly, you really need to free yourself completely from the structure you see in the original that you’re paraphrasing. You’re ONLY trying to preserve the original meaning, WITHOUT adding any new information. This means that the paraphrase you create could have a completely different construction than the original. You need to stop thinking that you can only swap words in and out of a cemented structure. Once you begin building a new sentence from the ground up, you will have a higher chance of paraphrasing correctly.

Let’s look at an example from the paraphrasing exercise on Strictly English’s website:

1) One of the key elements to a healthy life is your diet. There are many different types of diets that people follow: some don’t eat meat, and are called vegetarians; some are lactose intolerant, which means that they can’t digest dairy products; and others are called vegans, or people who do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or milk products. No matter the diet, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Which is the correct paraphrase of the bold sentence above?

(a) Some people are constantly dieting because they have to follow certain rules about what they can or cannot eat.

(b) Certain dietary restrictions, such as not consuming meat, dairy, or any by-products of living animals, can vary over a wide range of people’s lifestyles.

(c) It is important for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are lactose intolerant to diet on a regular basis in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

(d) Eating meat, dairy, or any other by-product of an animal requires great effort to stay healthy.

Answer (a) is wrong because it adds something new – the idea of “constantly” dieting. Similarly, (c) is wrong because it changes “diet” from a noun in the original – meaning the food that a person eats – to a verb in the paraphrase – meaning to eat in a certain way for a set period of time (and, by implication, to eat in a different way after that period of time). Finally, (d) is wrong because it also introduces something new – the “great effort” to stay healthy. The original sentence says nothing about the ease or difficulty of eating according to certain food restrictions.

Answer (b) is correct. It notes that there are “certain” restrictions – the original gave 3 examples of dietary restrictions, but says there are many others. The second sentence also completely rephrases the 3 examples – most clearly changing the list of foods vegans won’t eat into “by-products of living animals.” Equally important, this example does not add any additional information that is not in the original, as the other three answers do.

As you can see from this example, successful paraphrasing depends on holding on to the main IDEA of a sentence or passage, and letting go of the WAY that idea was expressed.

Good paraphrasing takes a lot of practice, but keep in mind that it’s a skill for the entire TOEFL, so it’s worth the time to get it right.

TOEFL Tip#146: Your TOEFL Speaking Persona

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 9, 2012

Last week , we talked about the value in warming up before beginning the Speaking section of the TOEFL. In that post, we focused on how warming up your voice can result in a smoother delivery of your answers. Today, we’ll focus on your persona for the Speaking section.

In general, a persona is a role that a person adopts, such as the characters portrayed by an actor. To convey the roles they are playing, actors might change the pitch of their voices, or the speed of their speech, or change their accents. The persona is a temporary role, used at a specific time.

Think of a persona as the version of yourself that you want to show in public. In your daily life, you might have experienced something similar to an actor playing a role. If you are unwell but don’t want to discuss the details with anyone in your workplace, you might try to sound upbeat in order not to draw attention to your health. Perhaps you have to attend an event even though you are not interested in it. While you are there, you will probably engage in conversation with others, rather than sulk in a corner.

So, what is a TOEFL Speaking persona?

Someone who is confident and knowledgeable, who can easily demonstrate mastery of English. If you believe that you can do well on the Speaking section, that attitude will come through in how you speak. The opposite is also true: if you dread the Speaking section and just want to get through it as quickly as possible, that sense of fear, or even defeat, will be heard in your recorded answers.

As you prepare for the TOEFL exam, practice your confident TOEFL persona as well. How can you project a confident persona if you’re not actually confident? Fake it til you make it .

TOEFL Tip #145: Describe The City You Live In

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 2, 2012

Warming up is a good way to maximize your chances for a strong score on the TOEFL Speaking section. Very often, people need to speak for a minute or two to clear their throats, adjust their breathing, and feel confident speaking into a microphone. For too many students, Speaking Task 1 functions as a warm-up, which might not receive as good a score as possible if the voice is hard to hear, etc.

So how can you warm up before the Speaking section?

On test day, you have a chance to test the microphone for the computer you’re taking the TOEFL on. This allows the system to automatically adjust the microphone’s input volume. To do so, you are given a “familiar topic” prompt to answer. It is always the same for every test: “Describe the city you live in.”

The test has you respond to this prompt twice. The first time is at the beginning of the entire exam, and then again at the start of the Speaking section. We at Strictly English think this is a great opportunity to warm up your voice and your TOEFL speaking persona (which will be the subject of next week’s blog post).

Sadly, though, many test centers tell their test takers to merely repeat the phrase, “Describe the city you live in” over and over. They ask the test takers to do this because they think of this exercise only as a microphone check. The proctors just care about verifying whether the microphone is working or not. And when some test takers try to respond to the prompt with a real answer, they take too long formulating their sentences so the computer, therefore, has no input with which to verify if the microphone is working correctly or not. So, by chanting “describe the city you live in” 10 times, the microphone is guaranteed to pick up your voice, even if you’re not saying anything that helps your performance.

But Strictly English really wants to encourage you to NOT chant “describe the city you live in” over and over. Instead, you must tell the proctor, politely, “I really need this time to practice my Speaking, so I can’t afford to repeatedly chant the prompt. I have to use this time to get comfortable speaking real English into the computer.” In fact, if TOEFL lets you replay your recording, we think it’s a great idea to listen to it carefully. This will help you determine if you’re remembering to do everything you’ve studied to do. If you think you sound bad, re-record and try again. Only after you feel comfortable giving your response to the microphone check prompt should you then go on to the actual Speaking section of the test.

TOEFL Tip #140: Your Native Language Can Affect Your Speaking Speed On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 27, 2012

Students preparing for the TOEFL often have trouble with the time limit on the Speaking section. Some finish too quickly, and don’t know how to stretch out their answers to fill all of the available time. Others are still speaking when the time expires, having taken too long to give their answers. While one obvious factor in these examples is WHAT the student is saying, another issue is HOW QUICKLY the student is speaking.

And yet, it’s often difficult for a fast talker to slow down, or for a slow talker to speed up. An article in Time magazine last fall helps to explain why.

The article describes a fascinating study of the relationship between how much information each syllable of a language conveys, and the speed at which native speakers of that language talk. The study found that languages such as English and Mandarin which convey a lot of information in each syllable are typically spoken much more slowly than languages such as Japanese and Spanish which have less information in each syllable, and therefore are spoken very quickly.

Despite these differences in the speaking speeds of languages, the study also found that speakers of different languages convey about the same quantity of information per minute. That is why, for example, subtitles in another language added to a movie can more or less keep up with the original dialog.

How does this affect you on the TOEFL exam?

If your native language is typically spoken more quickly than English, you will need to practice speaking more slowly than feels comfortable to you. Speaking English at the same speed as Spanish overwhelms the listener with too much information. If the TOEFL rater cannot fully listen to everything you say, your score might be lower.

On the other hand, if your native language is spoken at a speed that is close to English’s typical speed, you know that you can give your TOEFL answers at about the same pace as you would speak in your native language. If you find that you are still finishing with too much time, you either are not using enough detail in your response, or you are speaking faster because of nervousness. Either way, practice will help you give an on-time TOEFL Speaking response.

TOEFL Tip #138: Don’t Be Redundant; Don’t Be Redundant!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 13, 2012

In a pressured situation, like taking the TOEFL exam, students can easily become redundant. They can feel like they need to repeat what they have said to make sure they are getting their point across. While this concern is understandable, it is also a mistake.

There are two types of redundancy. The first is redundancy of vocabulary, and the second is redundancy of ideas. Avoid both.

Evidently, the first type of redundancy means that you have a small vocabulary and therefore, are not proficient in English. One way to demonstrate proficiency in English is to have a number of ways to describe the same concept. For example, in addition to “car,” you could say automobile, auto, vehicle, or you could name the general type of car – sedan, hatchback, truck, van, and so on.

The second type of redundancy is directly related to the first. Although TOEFL doesn’t really score you on originality of thought, the problem with redundant ideas is that you will have a higher chance of collapsing into redundant vocabulary if you’re talking about the same idea in Paragraph 3 that you talked about in Paragraph 2.

Strictly English recently tested this approach. One of our researchers wrote an essay that used grammatically perfect intermediate English, and varied the ideas for each of the three reasons supporting his main thesis. However, the vocabulary was mercilessly repetitive. The essay scored only a 20.

To prevent redundancy of vocabulary, actively seek to learn new words. Look up any unfamiliar words, such as the linked definitions in this post. If you rarely, if ever, need to look up meanings when you read, you need to add more difficult material to your reading list.

Solving redundancy of ideas requires a broader approach as well. Viewing a topic from different perspectives will help add variety to your answers. Strictly English also has a list of ideas that work with almost every speaking and writing prompt. To learn this list and practice using it, contact us and enroll in a session today!

TOEFL Tip #137: Test Of American As A Foreign Culture

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 6, 2012

It has long been a complaint lobbed at standardized tests (like the SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and TOEFL) that they are culturally biased. Historically, this discussion has typically focused mostly on how the SAT inadvertently favors middle and upper class test takers by presenting reading passages about topics more familiar to them than to economically disadvantaged youth.

To date, we do not think that TOEFL has come under the same scrutiny. But we have noticed that there may be one part of the test that is causing everyone a lot of headache (and heartache) mainly because it favors a particularly American insensitivity regarding personal privacy.

In a nutshell, Americans are – generally speaking – more willing than almost any other country’s citizenry to share their lives with strangers.

You might be asking, “Okay. But what does this have to do with TOEFL?”

The answer is a bit complicated, so follow carefully:

1. Tasks 1 and 2 on the Speaking section of the test ask you to talk about a familiar topic, so these are topics that you should know something about because they come from daily life.

2. TOEFL wants DETAILS in your answer.

3. Put 1 and 2 together and it seems that you should give DETAILS from EVERYDAY LIFE. And, in fact, this video from ETS showing an example of a 4 out of 4 response does exactly this: the man talks about himself as the source of his details.

In contrast to this correct way of answering, many students answer Tasks 1 and 2 from a theoretical point of view. For example, they might say, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. If children play an instrument, then they will know how to interact with others better. Children should be more confident if they play an instrument.”

This answer is theoretical because it’s talking about a general population of “children” as if all “children” were anthropologically and sociologically the same.

But notice that when an answer is theoretical, it lacks details. And because the speaker doesn’t have details, she ends up saying the same thing over and over again. (“Instrument” is repeated in every sentence.)

When Strictly English tries to get students to tell a detailed story, we give examples to help the student see what we mean. For example, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. For example, the 12-year-old girl next door to me used to have no friends to play with. She was very lonely all the time. But then she learned how to play guitar and joined a band. Now she has boys and girls over at her house every day of the week.”

This is FULL of details (“12-year-old,” “guitar,” “every day,” “joined a band”)! The story really comes alive in the listener’s mind. Sadly, our students then say, “But I can’t invent a story like that so quickly.” True: not everyone is a gifted storyteller who can make up imaginary lives quickly. But that’s not the point of our sample answer. The only point we’re trying to get across is that you should have DETAILS. . . . . ANY DETAILS.

So if they can’t invent details out of thin air, then we should they find these details?

We tell them to use ideas from their own life. In my life there is a 12-year-old girl who lives next to me. So I’m not inventing a story. I’m talking about my real life. If the student talks about her own life, then Task 1 and Task 2 should be very easy to answer, right? Yet, our students still struggle, regardless of how often we tell them, “But you tell stories all day long. You tell stories to your family, your co-workers, your neighbors. Humans are story-telling machines!” Just do for TOEFL what you do all the time in your daily life.

AH HA! And here we return to the cultural bias. Most of the world is not comfortable talking about themselves. For some cultures, it’s rude to talk in detail about your life. For others, it is embarrassing. And for still others, it is just nobody’s business. Did you feel uncomfortable hearing the man in ETS’s sample answer say that his apartment was small? Would you be willing to say that to a stranger? Would you be afraid that the listener would think you’re poor because your house isn’t bigger?

So even though a test-taker will tell her husband or best friend stories all night long, she would never dream of being as open with, say, a person she has just met on an airplane.

For better or for worse, Americans will.

Of course, not ALL Americans will. Even in the USA, there are shy people. But generally speaking, an American will be more willing to talk about his or her life to strangers.

This means that TOEFL is not only a test of English, but it is also – accidentally, I’m sure – relying on an assumption that everyone can talk as easily about themselves as an American can. This is not surprising when you remember that ETS is an American company.

Want to score high? You’ll have to confront this issue directly in your own life, by asking how willing you are to tell a stranger anything about you.

Need help? Contact Us Today!

TOEFL Tip #134: Dec 17th Tests Scores Lower than Expected

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 29, 2011

If it’s true that misery loves company, then a lot of you can take comfort in that your lower-than-expected TOEFL scores from the Dec 17th TOEFL test are on average with many other people’s scores.

This is not only being reported from out clients at Strictly English, but also from other schools’ students.

But Why? How could the whole world bomb (see definition 5) the same test? Did TOEFL deliver a bad test that day? Did TOEFL design a new test that’s simply harder than before?

Probably not.

Most likely it’s because this one test is, in many test-takers’ minds, the most important test of the year. If you’re an MBA candidate, this was the last test you could take if you wanted to apply for Round Two admissions. If you’re an undergraduate applicant or an applicant to graduate school, this was the last test you could take if you wanted your scores comfortably in advance of your application deadlines. Even if you didn’t really have an official deadline for your TOEFL, there was still that desire to finish the year with TOEFL behind you!

Simply said: everyone’s nerves got the best of them. And what Strictly English has noticed over its nearly 8 years of tutoring is that nothing kills a TOEFL score quicker than being nervous. We have had scores (see definition 11) of students who have performed wonderfully week after week in our tutoring sessions, only to come back from the test and say that they froze with panic once the test started. Only after they overcame their fear of the test were they able to deploy Strictly English’s strategies (or anyone’s strategies for that matter) successfully.

So now what?

If you’re going to take the test again in January, then the most important thing to remember is: DO NOT PANIC!!! Worrying will get you nowhere. You must remind yourself that if you worry on test day, you will fail! So what’s the point in generating all that anxiety when it’s just going to work against you anyway.

What to do?

1. Read our article about how to recognize anxiety as excitement. If you can shift your perception of your emotions, you’ll do much better!

2. Get a mild anti-anxiety pill from you doctor. There is NO SHAME in telling your doctor that you get nervous on tests and that you have a big test coming up soon. You and he can discuss if there are medical options with minimal or no side effects. Most one-time antidepressants are not habit forming.

3. Schedule two tests a week apart. We have found this strategy really relaxes people!

4. Get a relaxation tape and practice some visualizing exercises.

In short. have confidence that you’re on the right track and that your English is strong!

GOOD LUCK!

PTE Tip #5: Start Early With PTE Young Learners

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 23, 2011

Young students who are not yet ready to prepare for the full Pearson Test of English Academic might consider the PTE Young Learners. The program is aimed at students who are 8 – 14 years old. This could be especially helpful for non-native speakers of English who plan to enroll in high school or college in an English speaking country.

PTE Young Learners features English as it is used in realistic, day-to-day scenarios, and measures students’ ability to communicate in English. Because of this, the test is not focused on memorizing the formal structures and grammar of English. Instead, the material in PTE Young Learners centers on stories and conversations about the routines of a fictional family.

Like PTE Academic, PTE Young Learners tests students’ Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking skills. An external assessor measures students’ Speaking skills, while the rest of the exam is on paper.

In addition, PTE Young Learners is divided into four levels to reflect increasing language acquisition – Firstwords, Springboard, Quickmarch, and Breakthrough. Students move to the next level as they gain confidence and experience in communicating in English. Pearson provides students with feedback on their test performance, and successful PTE Young Learners test takers receive a certificate indicating their achievement in English.

For students who will be educated in English-speaking institutions, PTE Young Learners could be a valuable early step toward that goal. For more information about PTE Young Learners, click here

TOEFL Tip #133: Strictly English’s $8,000.00 University Scholarship

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 16, 2011

Strictly English is proud to announce that it will match one of ETS’s five US$8,000.00 scholarships, to be given to any Japanese student who wins ETS’s 2012 award and who studied TOEFL(R) with Strictly English anytime between December 17, 2011 and March 13, 2012.

This could amount to $16,000.00 that you’d be able to apply toward your educational expenses!

That’s a lot of money to win for the small price of some TOEFL tutoring! ^_^

Restrictions apply (For example):
1. You must meet all of ETS’s eligibility requirements. To learn more about ETS’s scholarships, read more here.

2. You must enroll in all 4 of Strictly English’s Complete Strategies Programs (one for each section of the test).

3. You much provide documented proof of having received ETS’s scholarship.

4. This is not a cash prize. The money you win will be given directly to your educational institution on your behalf and will not exceed the cost of tuition for that institution.

5. You must be enrolled with Strictly English before January 10, 2012.

Please Note: Strictly English’s scholarship award is in no way endorsed by ETS or TOEFL. Strictly English is a wholly separate entity from TOEFL and ETS.

For more information, please contact Strictly English.

GOOD LUCK!

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