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TOEFL Tip #89: Touch Typing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 4, 2011

Although it may seem like getting a good TOEFL score only requires being able to read, speak, write, and listen to English well, this is not quite the case. You ALSO need to be able to work quickly without being distracted by the clock, for example. If you’re taking the iBT, you need to be familiar with using a mouse. When you have mastered general skills like these, you can put all of your attention on the exam questions. The more you have to focus on HOW to take the test, the harder it will be to do well ON the test.

A big area that slows people down on the iBT is typing out their essays for the writing section. They use only one or two fingers on each hand to type, and have to scan the entire keyboard for each letter. Or, they type quickly, but make so many mistakes that they waste a lot of time going back to fix obvious spelling errors, or putting spaces between words. It makes sense that this would slow you down, and time might run out before you finish the essay, even if you know exactly what you want to say.

To avoid this problem, practice touch typing as you get ready for the writing section of the TOEFL. “Touch Typing” means being able to type quickly and accurately without looking at the keyboard very often. If you can type with all of your fingers without looking at the keyboard, you will go a lot faster.

There are free sites on the web that will teach you how to touch type. One example is the site from The site features a clear description of each step in learning to touch type, a series of typing lessons, and a space where you can paste in your own text, and then practice typing it. For example, you can write a sample 30 minute or 20 minute essay, then practice typing it accurately.

Once you have learned to touch type and are practicing on your own, be sure to turn off the feature on your word processor that automatically corrects your mistakes. For example, auto-correct will fix simple mistakes like typing “teh” for “the.” You know how to spell “the,” but if you’re used to the computer fixing mistakes like that, you won’t be in the habit of checking your work carefully. You don’t want to lose points because of small mistakes that you can easily fix!

Touch typing well will increase your speed and accuracy, and that will help make sure that you have time to write your best essays on the TOEFL.

TOEFL Tip #88: Translation Program Pitfalls

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 25, 2011

We’ve recently heard about students using translation programs to help them study for the TOEFL. Using translation programs is what an EFL speaker would do; it is not what someone who’s trying to become an ESL speaker would do. Two weeks ago, we discussed the differences between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). We pointed out that the more of your native language you hear, speak, and read every day, the less success you will have on the TOEFL. To excel on the TOEFL, you have to not only passively surround yourself with English in as many formats as possible (news, entertainment, casual conversation, internet reading, and so on), but you also have to actively communicate complicated ideas in English every day. (Sorry, but ordering coffee doesn’t count!).

Perhaps you’re already using a lot of English in your everyday life, but consider whether you are using software such as Google Translate to switch material into your native language in order to understand a difficult passage in a news article, for example. This is not helpful overall for learning English, and it can be even worse if you’re studying to take the TOEFL exam, for two reasons.

First, translation software can be good if you want to check the meaning of a particular word or phrase, or if you already have a sense of what it means, but if you do not have a general idea of the meaning already, you might get a completely wrong translation and never know it. Translation software is often wrong–for example, it will leave out important words, and change the meaning of the passage–and unless you’re fluent in both languages, you’ll never know. Therefore, only use translation programs to fine tune a meaning you already mostly understand.

Second–and this is the bigger problem–if you are in the habit of using translation software when you come across a hard passage of English, you’re not going to have the skills to handle the difficult materials on the TOEFL exam. Figuring out words from context, recognizing metaphorical language, remembering the different forms of each part of speech (especially verbs!) are all skills that take a lot of practice to master, even for students whose first language is English. If instead of practicing these skills you’ve been letting a translation program do all the work, then you won’t suddenly be able to use these skills on test day.

So minimize your use of translation software. Otherwise, you might save time now, but you’ll very likely lose TOEFL points later.

TOEFL Tip #86: ESL vs. EFL: Why the difference matters on the TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 11, 2011

Today’s post highlights the differences between ESL and EFL, and why that matters for the TOEFL exam. Even though the “F” in the name TOEFL indicates that the test is for English as a “foreign” language, it’s really a test of English as a SECOND language. Understanding this difference will help you do well on the test.

So what’s the difference between ESL and EFL? Both terms refer to someone whose first language is not English. ESL stands for English as a Second Language and EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. Both terms refer to how important English is in the country where the speaker lives – how often someone has to speak or read English to get through a typical day. The ESL speaker lives in a country where English is the primary language, and the EFL speaker lives in a country where there is a different primary language, although some English is spoken. We usually think that EFL students live in a country where English isn’t spoken very much, and that ESL students are surrounded by English all of the time.

But that isn’t always true – it depends a lot on the choices students make.

Sometimes, our students who live in America – and who should be learning English as a Second Language – don’t do well on the TOEFL because they are actually living as if English were a Foreign Language. Any one or more of the following situations keep English as a foreign language for these students, rather than making English their second language:

• They live with family or friends who speak their native language
• Their computer’s operating system is in their native language
• They use search engines (like Google and Yahoo) in their native language
• They rent movies in their native language
• They read the news (in print or on the web) in their native language

In all of these examples – as well as many others – students do not hear spoken English, and do not read written English as part of their daily lives. They have an English class for 1 hour a day, a few times a week, which is more like an EFL experience than an ESL experience. Unless students choose to read and speak English throughout the day, every day, they will not learn enough English to count it as a second language.

This is why our clients who live in countries where English isn’t part of daily life often do better on the TOEFL: they purposefully force themselves to live an ESL lifestyle. They KNOW they have little English around them, so they hunt it out constantly. Ironically, students who live where English is the main language think that their American address alone counts as an ESL experience. But it doesn’t. Passive reception of English is not the same as active production of English – for example, thinking in it, speaking in it, reading and writing in it.

If you live in an English-speaking country but haven’t been performing as well on the TOEFL as you expected, check the list above. Changing as many of those items as you can, so that you’re surrounded by English all of the time, will very likely help your score on the next test.

TOEFL Tip #84: Elocution: focusing on HOW you speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 28, 2011

This post will be the first in a series examining the subtle but important differences among terms used to describe speaking. Understanding these terms will make you more aware of how you speak, and will help you understand and correct some common speech problems. Look for new installments about once per month.

We’ll start by taking a look at “elocution.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “elocution” as a “way or manner of speaking,” with a focus on the speaker’s “delivery, pronunciation, tones, and gestures; manner or style of oral delivery.” As you can see, elocution is about the performance of what you’re saying, not the content of what you’re saying. With good elocution, reading the phone book sounds interesting. With bad elocution, a speaker can’t hold the audience’s attention, no matter how exciting the topic is. Let’s focus on each part of this performance.

Delivery is mostly about your speaking speed. Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Do you speak at about the same speed for the entire answer? Do you slow down or speed up at any point in the answer? Do you stumble over common words? Do you stutter? Do you use a lot of filler words, such as “um” or “like”? You goal is a consistent, medium speed that is not interrupted by filler words.

We’ll discuss pronunciation in depth in a future post, but for now, a key point about pronunciation is that there is a correct way – or sometimes, more than one correct way – to pronounce a word. To do well on the TOEFL, you must pronounce words correctly. For example, the word “epitome” is pronounced “ee-PIT-oh-me,” with emphasis on the second syllable. Saying “EP-ih-tohm,” is wrong.

We’ll also discuss tone in a future post. But for now, keep in mind that you want to convey interest with your tone of voice as well as with the words you’re speaking. Avoid speaking in a monotone, or sounding bored by using the same 5 words over and over!

Obviously, your gestures won’t be recorded as part of the TOEFL, but you should still pay attention to how and when you move your hands when you speak. For example, if you usually point your finger to emphasize something you’re saying, then you should also do that when giving your TOEFL answer. You will sound more natural, and you will be more likely to vary your tone as well.

TOEFL Tip #82: Even Native Speakers Don’t Score 120 On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 10, 2011

Strictly English has recently researched how a native speaker of English would perform on the TOEFL iBT. Many of our clients assume that native speakers will score perfect 120s on the test, but this turned out not to be true.

Because TOEFL is designed for high school seniors, we wanted our English-speaker to be 17 or 18 years old. Our most important characteristic for the native English speaker was that he had excellent high-school grades and that he had no knowledge about the TOEFL exam nor of Strictly English’s strategies. In fact, he did not even know how many sections there were on the exam.

Our native speaker scored a 105. Like so many of our clients, his worst sections were Writing (25) and Speaking (26). Granted, a 26 is a fantastic Speaking score for an international test-taker, but it’s pretty low for a native speaker. Clearly this indicates that scores of 27 and above are not just about being able to speak English. Instead, you have to speak English with a professional clarity and purpose that even the most intelligent high-school students are years away from mastering.

Our native speaker’s highest score was a 28 on the Reading, which he admitted tired him out a lot and had a significant effect on his performance as the exam went on.

After the exam, all he said was, “A little knowledge of the exam prior to would have been extremely helpful,” which suggests that even a native-born speaker could have benefited from guidance on the TOEFL.

For an American student who had previously scored in the 95th percentile for the SATs to come into the TOEFL and only get a 105 on the iBT should send a message to all those internationals who are aiming to get a similar score or higher. If a straight-A native speaker only scored a 105 without coaching, you should be prepared to need some tutoring yourself if you’re trying to get a 100 of higher.

TOEFL Tip #81: Happy Student Scores 113 On TOEFL!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 23, 2010

We’re so proud to have received this email today:

*******EMAIL BEGINS HERE********

Hi Strictly English!

I just got an email that I can check my TOEFL score online. I couldn’t wait to tell you my score. To my surprise I have more than what I was thinking to get, I have 113: Reading: 29, Listening 29, Speaking: 26 and Writing: 29. I am so happy…………..

Super super thanks for your making it possible for me to get such a beautiful score.

Have a Great Thanksgiving,

TOEFL Tip #80: Reading Is Key To Improving All TOEFL Sections

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 24, 2010

You already know that reading more will improve your score on the Reading section of the TOEFL (see our March 2010 blog entry), but now you’re wondering how to improve your Speaking, Listening and Writing, too.  Surprisingly, the answer is the same: read.  Read every day, read a lot, read a wide range of topics, read different kinds of materials (poems, newspapers, magazines, novels, etc).  Study after study shows that any kind of reading improves every other aspect of language learning.

But, you might ask, what should I read?  How will I know that I’m reading the correct things?  How can I be sure that what I’m reading is at the right level for my ability?

In general, TOEFL-level reading is about the same as  the articles in The New York Times and The Guardian.  Consider reading one news story across both newspapers, and notice the differences in the way each article reports the story. Once you understand the facts of the story well in these publications, try reading about the same issue in a publication that has writing slightly above TOEFL (The New Yorker Magazine). For a real challenge, then try reading about the same topic again in The Economist, which is much harder than the TOEFL. Read articles in history, arts, culture, business, technology, science, and health because these are common TOEFL topics.

Want more?

Services such as Lexile and Bee Oasis can help target reading materials to your level.  At Lexile’s site, you can enter your current TOEFL score (or your target score!), select topics of interest to you, and they will produce a reading list that matches your reading level.  Bee Oasis is a subscription service that gives you “graded materials,” which means texts that that match your reading “grade” level.  The targeted reading from both of these sites can help support your language development by effectively focusing your reading.  You’ll have more confidence that the material is appropriate for your current level, and you can get a clearer sense of what reading level you need to reach for your desired TOEFL score.Language development takes time and consistency, but if you keep reading, you WILL get better.  Start reading today!

TOEFL Tip #79: Brazilian Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 20, 2010

Antes de fazer o curso de Strictly English, já havia realizado duas vezes o Toelf. A primeira vez 93 e na segunda 94, bem abaixo dos 100 pontos que necessitava. Comecei meu curso com SE no dia 29 de setembro e no dia 9 de outubro tirei 103 de score. O diferencial do SE é que eles dominam a metodologia do exame e te dizem exatamente como deves responder cada uma das questões. Na hora da prova eu estava muito relaxado e confiante. O resultado foi que em 10 dias eu consegui o score que estava buscando fazia 3 meses. Não acredito que haja outra opção melhor que SE, nem em qualidade nem em preço. Você não vai se arrepender! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. Outubro 2010.

TRANSLATION: Before I took Strictly English’s course, I had taken the TOEFL twice. The first time I got a 93 and the second a 94, far below the 100 points I needed. I started my course with Strictly English on September 29th and on october 9th, I scored 103. The big difference between Strictly English and another courses is that they master the format and methodology of the exam, and they tell you exactly how you have to answer in which question. In the exam I was very relaxed and confident. As a result, in only ten days, I got the score I want and that I had been pursuing for three months. I really believe that Strictly English is the better choice both in quality and price. Once you`ve tried it, you will never regret it! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. October, 2010

TOEFL Tip #78: Response To Strictly English’s Newest Tips Video

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 19, 2010

We received an email regarding our newest Tips Video, ” Pronunciation Tip to Improve Enunciation” (watch now):


Thanks for sharing the tip and I can tell you . . . that it works. An excellent strategy to dissociate the words and avoid making clumps of words which are not understandable. But, there is one drawback to this technic which I have noticed after trying it a couple of times. It decreases your speed significantly. I can’t complete two points in 45 seconds while I can do that without using this technic. Is there a solution to that? Can you make only one point and get a good score?



It is true that this technique will slow you down at first, but with time (usually within two weeks if you do it every day) your speed should begin to pick back up again, and this time, your fast speaking will have clear and articulate enunciation. Perfecting anything (riding a bike, knitting, playing the piano) always begins with slow practice, but quite soon, you find yourself going more quickly and with better accuracy.

Regarding your question about “can you make only one point and get a good score”: maybe. If you’re a very high speaker, then one point might be good enough since you have been able to use a wide range of vocabulary and a lot of details. We recommend two points because it forces you to switch topics, and therefore, switch vocabulary. It also forces you to use transitional phrases, which also demonstrate a fuller understanding of the language. So keep trying for two reasons in your responses to Task 1 and Task 2 on the Speaking.

TOEFL Tip #77: How Could One Person’s Score Change So Much In 24 Hours?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2010

We recently had a client at Strictly English take two TOEFLs within 24 hours of each other and the results were incredible. He scored a 114 on both tests, but his breakdowns were very different:

TEST ONE: R27, L29, S29, W29
Test TWO: R29, L29, S26, W30

Notice that the Speaking score changed a lot. (On a previous test, he scored a 27 on the Speaking.)  A 29 indicates near-perfect, native speaker fluency and a 26 only indicates the highest you can score while still having noticeable traces of your original language appearing in your speech. Now clearly this student’s ability to comprehend and speak English didn’t change from almost perfect fluency to “best-performing ESL” student in only 24 hours. Something else must have been at work to make such a big difference.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what this “something else” was since no one was in the room to evaluate him as he took both tests, but the possibilities are endless: one confusing vocabulary word in the reading for Task 3 or 4, or a key word that the test-taker found particularly hard to pronounce. Maybe he misunderstood one key word, like he might have mistook, “profession” for “possession”, a mistake that even a native speaker could make quite easily. It could also be that he was speaking his native language right before going into the test, and it was harder for him to switch back into smooth, elegant English. Then there’s also the possibility that the test center was loud and he was distracted. Or, perhaps the raters were slightly off. Granted, ETS tries to make their grading as uniform as possible, but a one point difference in grading wouldn’t be unheard of. And if you add one point in Rater-discrepancy, and one point for a slightly thicker accent, and another point because he had trouble with one of the reading or listening parts of the speaking, then BAM: 26!

As I said above, we’ll never really know why this difference occurred, but what we DO know is that someone who has the ability to score a 29, only scored a 26. The moral of this story: please take every precaution to guard against your best abilities not being accurately represented on the test. Whatever Speaking score you’re trying to get, plan on working toward a score that’s at least 3-5 points higher, so that any unforeseen factors will not work against you on test day!

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