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TOEFL Tip #130: TOEFL Scores For Student Visas To Australia And The United Kingdom

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 12, 2011

Applying for a visa to study in Australia or the United Kingdom just got a little bit easier.

Starting November 5, 2011, TOEFL test scores will be acceptable for Australian student visa applications, if you do not have International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test scores. ETS, the company that administers the TOEFL exam, researched the scores of people who had taken both tests to determine the equivalent scores between TOEFL and IELTS scores.

At the lowest and highest scores, only a few points separate the TOEFL scores from each IELTS band. For example, a TOEFL score of 31 is the equivalent of IELTS band 4, and a TOEFL 32 corresponds to IELTS band 4.5. Similarly, a TOEFL 115 equals IELTS band 8.5, and a TOEFL 118 is the same as IELTS band 9.

The biggest differences between TOEFL scores and IELTS bands are in the middle of the range, where there is a lot of variation in non-native speakers’ mastery of English. A TOEFL score of 46 matches IELTS band 5.5, but to get to the equivalent of the next IELTS band (6), a student’s TOEFL score has to go up by 14 points, to 60. There’s an even bigger jump to get to the next-highest IELTS band (6.5) – a whopping 19 point increase, for a TOEFL score of 79. (For more information, including the full chart comparing TOEFL scores with IELTS bands, click here).

This move by the Australian government follows a similar expansion by the United Kingdom earlier this year.

As of April 6, 2011, students can use TOEFL iBT scores as part of their applications for visas to the United Kingdom. Non-native speakers of English pursuing a degree in the United Kingdom need to show a minimum TOEFL score of 21 in Listening, 22 in Reading, 23 in Speaking, and 21 in Writing. For more information, click here.

As always, students need to check with the particular requirements of the institution where they will be studying, which may require higher scores than the minimum needed for a visa.

Want to study in Australia or the United Kingdom, but can’t find TOEFL classes near you? Study online with Strictly English!

TOEFL Tip #129: Request For Speaking Re-score Brings A Higher Result . . . Again

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 4, 2011

Earlier this year, we discussed examples of Strictly English students whose TOEFL test scores were significantly lower than their practice scores had been prior to the exam. Each of the three students requested a rescore, and each had his or her score raised by 4 points. As we noted, this is a substantial difference which can determine if students can continue their professional studies, or not.

It’s happened again.

Just this week, we’ve had yet ANOTHER student’s request for a re-score on his Speaking section result in a 26, after receiving a 24 in his first results.

This student is Indian, and he needed the 26 for his Pharmacy License. To improve his Speaking score, he studied with Strictly English. We were 100% sure he’d get the 26, based on our experience and the evaluation tools we have developed. He didn’t, and we told him to rescore. We were RIGHT. He *did* speak at a level of 26 on his test.

Can Strictly English score people more accurately than ETS?

While ETS graders are trained so that their results consistently meet ETS’s scoring requirements, our students’ experience strongly suggests that some accents might prove more challenging for graders to assess, at least on a first listen. Of course, you need to do as much as you can to ensure that you are clearly understood when you speak, but if your TOEFL Speaking score is surprisingly lower than your practice scores, consider asking for a re-score.

TOEFL Tip #127: Not all TOEFL Books Are Created Equal

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 25, 2011

When an individual is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her self-study or when a teacher is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her group class, the first thing to remember is that there are basically three types of TOEFL books.

1. exercise books

2. sample test books

3. language skills books

And each of these books is also targeted to a particular English level. At the bottom of Strictly English’s Exercises Page you’ll find a score chart that indicates the level each book targets. So in this blog article we’ll focus on the three above mentioned differences.

Ideally, if you had the time and the budget, you’d work with all three types of books since they each have a valuable purpose to serve.

All three types give an overview of the test and the types of questions you will be asked to answer and tasks you will be asked to perform. And basically, you’ll learn the same thing from any of these books with regard to this basic introductory information.

The Exercise Books (The Longman & the Delta) give you,  . . . well . . . , a lot of exercises, or at least more than the other two types of books do. We at Strictly English think these books are indispensable. The more you rehearse the mechanical steps to answering a question type, the more accurate (and over time, the faster) you’ll become. I call this category “Exercise Books”, but to be fair, they do have sample tests as well. In fact, Longman has a large amount of both exercises and tests. Yet, I put it in the exercises category because although it has many “Mini-Tests” on its CD, it only has two full tests.

The books that I’ve categorized as “Sample Test Books” (Cambridge & Barrons) are often woefully deficient in exercises. Now they might reply, “HEY! we have lots of, say, paraphrase questions in our book. They are just not grouped together in a section called PARAPHRASE. Instead they are scattered throughout our sample tests.” I cannot argue against this point, but I don’t think of it as an “exercise” unless it’s in a drill-able format, which (as I stated above) is crucial to acclimating to the mechanical steps needed to answer a question correctly. This is not to say Sample Test Books are useless. They are great! You just want to begin using them AFTER you’ve done an exercise book. Once you’ve mastered the strategies/skills for answering each question type, THEN you can begin to integrate them into each other in a test-like format.

Finally, there are the Language Skills Books. This approach to English learning is fantastic. Arguably it cannot be beat. If Strictly English were a English Language school, we would definitely buy these books and use them in our general English classes. But language learning and TOEFL study are not the same. To learn a language, you need so much more facility than you do to pass the TOEFL. Case in point, I would argue that you can get through 99% of the TOEFL test without really understanding nor using models (the one exception being Task 5 of the Speaking where you have to give advice). So Language Skills Books are a time-sink and are too wide-reaching for TOEFL preparation.

These categories are not rigidly segregated. As I’ve already said, Longman has some full practice tests in them. Also, Cambridge is a Language Skills Book AND a Sample Test Book. Therefore, Strictly English uses only the Sample Tests from the book and ignores the Language Skills part of it.

So if you can’t buy all of them or you don’t have the time to study them all, how do you decide which ones to use? We suggest getting one Exercise Book and one Sample Test Book. For example, Longman & Cambridge or Delta & Barrons. Start there and see how you do. If you have more time, then move onto the pair you didn’t buy at first.

WARNING ONE: Please note that many of these books are out of date. Even the ETS’s 2011 Official Guide to the TOEFL inaccurately portrays the Integrated Essay and the Reading’s Chart Questions (of which not one of our students has reported seeing on a real test). This is because some of the books have not been revised recently. For example, when the Reading Section changes on Nov 1, all the books will be describing that section incorrectly. Also, Task 1 of the Speaking changed from requesting a Description to requesting Advice, which none of the books have had a chance to update either. Only a company like Strictly English, which does its own research, can keep you abreast of these changes as they happen.

WARNING TWO: Even very bright students do not often achieve the score they want through self-study alone. This is because these books are purposefully designed as teachers’ aides. They work best when you’re guided through them in a group class or with a private tutor.

Good luck!

(PS: please comment below about YOUR favorite TOEFL Book and why you like it!—-THANKS!)

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 #113: Content not as Important as Pronunciation & Grammar on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 5, 2011

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Speaking section.

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.

In the Speaking section, our research has identified a surprising, perhaps even shocking, result. The information we have gathered indicates that content plays a far less important role than we initially thought it did. Strictly English test-takers said that they only briefly addressed the prompt’s content before abandoning that topic and instead, rambled on about something else that was only tangentially connected.

For example, if Task One asked the test taker to describe your favorite season, our researcher responded as follows: “I love summer because that’s when I get to visit my mother in Florida. I love Florida because I like watching the tourists who come from all around the world to enjoy our warm ocean water and terrific beaches. I also enjoy freshly squeezed juice made from oranges that grow in my mother’s back yard. Finally, I like the excitement of DisneyWorld and Epcot Center.” Notice how most of her answer says nothing about summer, the speaker’s favorite season. In fact, these reasons to like Florida are not seasonal at all; they are available year-round in Florida. Our researcher–an American and native speaker of English–spoke in perfect English with no grammar mistakes and no pronunciation errors. She scored a 30. This indicates that talking about the prompt’s topic might not really be as important as everyone thinks.

Another researcher reported that he spoke with virtually no details for any of the tasks. In fact, he stated in his answer that he didn’t understand everything in the announcement. This test-taker also started his response by spending 20 seconds reading the prompt aloud, and then said, “hmmmmmm….. I didn’t understand the announcement very well, but I know it was talking about a school dorm. I’m not quite sure about the details, but I know that the woman is not happy.” This was his complete answer. Notice that he didn’t summarize any details from the announcement (for example, that the dorm was closing, or that it was closing early to have lead paint removed). He just referred to “dorm.” He also said nothing about the woman’s opinion, except that she is unhappy. This test-taker stretched out this paltry content for the full 60 seconds, and still received a 26. Again, he spoke with perfect English.

What is the lesson to take from this research? The scores for the Speaking section seem to be all about having perfect intermediate level English and no accent. Please note: we are not encouraging test takers to entirely ignore content and speak about topics completely unrelated to the exam questions. Instead, we are encouraging you to be less anxious about the content. Instead, you need to worry a lot more about speaking clearly with correct grammar.

GOOD LUCK!

TOEFL Tip #112: Fossilized Grammar: Eliminating Persistent Errors

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 29, 2011

Communicating in a second language at a level equal to that of a native speaker is difficult. Second language speakers often stumble over certain aspects grammar, no matter how long or how intensely they have studied the language. This is called fossilized grammar. Just like ancient plant or animal remains that have hardened over a long time, fossilized grammar errors are mistakes that have become embedded in a person’s way of speaking and writing.

Some second language learners might think that fossilized grammar is not a problem at all. People they encounter in their everyday lives understand what they are saying with minimal difficulty – they can work, shop, travel, and so on, without needing translation or assistance. They think that as long as a few grammar mistakes do not get in the way of what they mean to communicate, those mistakes don’t matter.

But they do matter on the TOEFL. Fossilized grammar in the Speaking and Writing sections of the exam can give the impression that the test taker is not as proficient in English as he or she really is. Strictly English’s experience has repeatedly shown that how students communicate on the TOEFL is as important as what they say. Spoken and written answers that contain many grammar errors are unlikely to receive scores higher than the mid 20s, and will probably be much lower than that.

So what can you do to eliminate fossilized grammar? First, you have to identify what your particular pieces of fossilized grammar are – every second language learner has different stumbling points. Record yourself having several different conversations, and make a transcript of what you say. Look for patterns in your speech. If you have trouble identifying grammar mistakes, ask a native speaker to help you. Do the same with several pieces of writing: identify mistakes and look for patterns. If, for example, you see that you are regularly using the wrong verb tense, or your verbs and nouns do not match in number (he say, they claims), these are your fossils.

The next step is paying very close attention to what you’re saying when you communicate. That focus will help you make the correct grammar choice each time. It’s easier to make mistakes when we are speaking quickly, or are not really choosing our words carefully (even for native speakers!). Do this repeatedly, every day, every time you speak or write. Only by carefully correcting yourself each time will you eventually be able to eliminate that fossil from your speech or writing.

As you prepare for the TOEFL, assess whether you have fossilized grammar in your speaking or writing. If you take steps to eliminate those persistent mistakes, you will create a much better impression on the exam.

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 #109: Keep It Simple

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 8, 2011

As we discussed several weeks ago, an important key for doing well on the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL is to communicate directly. Using layers of explanations to build up to your main idea is not an advantage on the TOEFL. Complicated responses can be difficult for the rater to assess, and can lead you to make grammar mistakes.

A common version of making your ideas too complicated is “graduate-school-itis.”  The suffix “itis” originally comes from medicine, and means “inflammation.” Common examples include tonsillitis (swollen tonsils), arthritis (swollen joints), and meningitis (swelling of the brain). The “itis” suffix is also used metaphorically to describe attitudes or behaviors, such as “Facebookitis” (constantly checking the social networking site). Graduate-school-itis is a version of this metaphorical use of “itis” – it is the tendency for graduate school applicants to over-extend their thinking and communication.

In many ways, graduate-school-itis is admirable. Graduate school is intellectually challenging, and students who aspire to graduate studies must stretch their critical thinking and communication skills. As part of showing that they are capable of doing advanced work, graduate school applicants take every opportunity they can to push their thinking forward.

Here’s an example of the kind of “pushed” thinking we are talking about. The question asks the student’s opinion about having a new restaurant in the neighborhood. The student replies that having a new restaurant nearby is good for the neighborhood because it will improve racial diversity. At first, this seems strange, until the student explains that most restaurants today hire immigrants to work in their kitchens, and those employees will bring more diversity to her town. This seems like a nuanced and sophisticated way to link together two issues, and to demonstrate that the student can think beyond the obvious reasons (new food to try, new place to meet friends) to want a new local restaurant.

But I hope you can also see that this reason requires TWO arguments. First, the writer has to establish the “fact” about the hiring practices of restaurants, and second, she has to explain the outcome of that “fact.” Not only is this two-step argument too complicated for TOEFL, but it also has too many possible contradictions.  One problem is that not ALL restaurants hire immigrant minorities for their staff. Another problem is that immigrant employees might not be able to afford housing the town that they work in, which means that the neighborhood will NOT become more diverse. Instead, just say that a restaurant in the neighborhood will save you time. Here, all you have to say is that it takes you only 5 minutes to walk to a local restaurant, whereas it might take you 15 minutes to drive to the next-nearest restaurant.

Another example of “pushed” thinking involves using overly complicated language. Instead of just saying, “I like laptops because they are portable,” graduate students often want to say, “Laptops provide students with a sense of utter jubilation because these miracles of modern technology allow aspiring intellectuals to be cosmopolitan nomads.” But such an ambitious sentence – without the help of a dictionary, spell check, or grammar book – ends up sounding like, “Laptops provide studiers with senses of utter jibations for those technologic miracles of modernicity allow intellectuals aspirations that can only be made into nomads of the cosmos.” Using advanced vocabulary is an important skill, but over-loading a sentence like this with elaborate expressions obscures what you are trying to say.

Take consolation, though, that this situation is not unique to non-native speakers of English. Even native English speakers suffer from graduate-school-itis. It is a necessary part of the graduate school experience because it originates from the passion and drive needed for graduate studies. Nevertheless, such convoluted expressions are precisely what graduate school is designed to eradicate.

Remember – the TOEFL is not about being smart. It is about being clear in what you say and write. Leave the complicated intellectual thoughts at home on test day. Being direct in your communication is the smart choice for the TOEFL.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOEFL Tip #106: A Change in Speaking Task One

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 24, 2011

For more than a year, we’ve been hearing reports that ETS seems to have changed the format of Speaking Task One, from a description of something or someone, to giving advice to someone. Of course, ETS has the right to use older versions of the TOEFL at any given time, so do not assume that you will never get a description question, such as “Describe your favorite pet.” However, based on the information we have heard, ETS seems to have been using a new style of Speaking Task One question consistently for some time.

As we understand it, the new Speaking Task One focuses on giving general advice about common situations. An example might be, “A friend is thinking about buying a dog. What would you advise your friend to consider before making a decision?” Be careful with this question. You want to make sure that you are giving advice TO someone ELSE, rather than stating your opinion about dogs as pets, or your opinion about whether your friend should or should not get the dog. Strictly English thinks that the new format of Speaking Task One is too similar to Speaking Task Two, which asks you to construct an argument or give your opinion about a familiar topic.

To help make sure that your answers for Speaking Task One and Task Two are different, keep in mind that Task One is your opinion about what someone else should do or think about. For example, if you’re giving advice to your friend before she buys a dog, you might suggest that she consider questions such as: How large the dog will be and how much space does she have available in her home? Does she have enough time to walk the dog several times a day? Will the dog bark a lot and disturb the neighbors? These are logical concerns that anyone should think about before buying a dog. It doesn’t matter if you personally love dogs or would never have one as a pet, your advice to your friend would be the same.

Remember that Speaking Task One is always going to be on a familiar, simple, general topic. The advice you give should be straightforward and basic.

It may take a while for this new format of question to show up in study guides, so make sure that you prepare on your own. Have friends and family members ask you for advice on everyday topics (Where should I shop? Which book should I read next? In which neighborhood should I live?) so you can get in the habit of offering simple advice.

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