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TOEFL Tip #75: What Kinds Of Idioms Does TOEFL Want

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 8, 2010

You can find many webpages and books promising to teach you all the important idioms necessary to score high on the  TOEFL iBT writing section, but the kinds of idioms they are teaching are not really what TOEFL is looking for. In all fairness, it’s not really the writers’ or publishers’ fault. I guess they saw the word “idiom” somewhere on an ETS TOEFL document (I think the Official Guide to the TOEFL mentions “idioms” in its grading rubric), and decided to write a book or a website about idioms.

But one has to remember that there is a wide range of “idioms” in English. On one end of the spectrum you have idioms like, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. These are more metaphorical in nature. Dogs and cats are not really coming out of the sky. The image of dogs and cats suggests VIOLENCE (because dogs and cats typically fight each other). So this idiom means that the rain was very violent.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you have phrasal verbs such as “look up”, as in “I looked up a word in the dictionary”.  This is not quite as metaphorical as “it’s raining cats and dogs”, but it does still (like the metaphoric idioms) mean something different from what the actual words say. When you LOOK UP a word in the dictionary, most likely your eyes are LOOKING DOWN at the dictionary. So the “up” doesn’t mean “over your head”. In fact, the “up” means nothing at all on its own. What the “up” does is change the meaning of the word “look” from “see” to “research”. When you look up a word, you are “researching” its meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the quirky parts of the language that do not have a dependable system of rules to justify them, most notably: articles, prepositions, and word forms. Why do we get IN a car, but ON a bus? Why do we TALK ABOUT or DISCUSS work, but we do not DISCUSS ABOUT work?  And what’s the difference if I like “the flowers” “a flower” or “flowers”. Even more frustrating, why do colleges offer a degree in “communications” but not a degree in “communicating”?  There are no rules to help you here. Or, if there are rules, they are so dependent on logic and context that you have to be a philosopher more than a grammarian to get it right.

The uses of language on this end of the idiom spectrum are often talked about in terms other than as idioms. They are called (as I identified them above) articles or prepositions or word forms. And even if I were to agree and say that they are not proper “idioms”, their use is, nevertheless, idiomatic. And these are the “idioms” that will help you score high on the TOEFL.

To recap: I’ve identified three types of idioms: metaphoric idioms (“it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verb idioms (“look up” as in “to research”), and what I will call “idiomatic conventions” (I got ON the bus and TALKED ABOUT my relationship). And what I’m arguing is that most TOEFL idiom books focus on metaphoric idioms, whereas you would be better preparing yourself if you focused more on phrasal verb idioms and idiom conventions.

Let’s face it. If you try to cram a metaphoric idiom into your TOEFL essay, it most likely will sound silly or forced. For example, if you’re writing about how you prefer having a guarantee instead of having a possibility, you could try to fit the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” into your essay, but what if in the process, you mess up all the more subtle idioms and write, “the bird on my hand makes the same as a couple by the bush”.  YOUCH!  So, how many points do you think you’re going to get because you 1/2 memorized an idiom. Not many.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “But what if I memorize the idiom and use it correctly?”  Okay. let’s say you do just that. What you might have then is a beautiful idiom surrounded by a bunch of writing that is full of mistakes in conventional idioms or phrasal verb mistakes. In addition, how many metaphoric idioms will you have to have memorized to be sure that you’ll have the perfect idiom for the essay prompt you get on test day?  This just seems like too much work for too little payoff.

Therefore, we at Strictly English really encourage you to focus your attention on the two non-metaphoric idiom categories. If you can get those right, TOEFL graders won’t care about  the lack of metaphoric idioms. All of our highest scoring students do not use metaphoric idioms. Instead, they have a solid understanding that students get “final grades at Boston College” and not “final scores at The Boston College” and that their friend “took ill late Sunday night” and not that their friend “made illness in the Sunday night”. THESE are the idiomatic parts of the language you need to be focusing on and not that some Boston College student “aced his finals” or that your friend “puked his guts out”. As admirable as these metaphoric idioms are, I think you’ll go coo-coo burning the midnight oil trying to pigeonhole each metaphoric idiom so that you’ll knock the socks off of your TOEFL rater!

TOEFL Tip #70: The Limits Of Memorized Answers

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 25, 2010

Many of our clients want to have a list of memorized answers for the Speaking and Writing sections of the iBT. They believe that if they memorize 100 answers that are general enough, then those 100 answers will apply to any question they get on the test.

Although Strictly English does believe that you can have some “go-to” topics before you walk into the exam, it is not realistic to assume that your standardized answers will easily fit for any question you get.

For example, one standard topic that can work for many questions is “BODY”.  So let’s imagine that a student has memorized the idea of talking about BODY. That is GOOD. It will probably help them come up with an answer. But let’s take this a step further and say that they have memorized one very specific positive body answer and one very specific negative body answer. The positive body answer is, “It keeps me fit” and the negative body answer is “It might hurt me”. So let’s look at five possible questions on either Task 2 or on the Independent Essay and see how many of them we can use these standard answers of STAY FIT and HURT MYSELF for.

QUESTION: Should children be required to take gym class in high school?

POS: I believe that children should be required to take gym class in high school because it helps them stay fit.

NEG: I believe that children should not be required to take gym class in high school because they could hurt themselves.

We were lucky here, because GYM CLASS is already about BODY, so our general catch-all answers work. But we’ll still have to explain specifically HOW children might hurt themselves. And that hurt must be SPECIFIC for each prompt’s situation. At this level of detail a standard answer is no longer possible. For example, let’s imagine our more detailed standard answer is “IT WILL HURT YOUR BACK.”  Will it work in every question? Let’s see:

QUESTION: “Do you agree with the statement that owning your own home is better than renting an apartment?”

ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership hurts my back.

At first glance, this sounds silly. Millions of people own homes and 99% of them do not have a bad back. And if they DO have a bad back, it is not BECAUSE of home ownership. Now, BAD BACK can still be used to answer this question, but we have to introduce that concept in a way that is unique to the question.

REVISED ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership requires more physical labor, which might hurt my back.

This is better, but now we have to explain WHAT KIND OF PHYSICAL LABOR hurts the back. Gardening? Shoveling snow? Raking Leaves? Mowing the Lawn?  Again, at this level of detail, whatever answer we come up with, won’t work for another answer. Sure shoveling snow can hurt your back, but we can’t use that for an answer to a prompt like:

QUESTION: “Is it better to wear glasses or contact lenses?”

I think it is better to wear glasses because I will not hurt my back while shoveling snow.

I hope you can see that this answer is TERRIBLE. And we seriously get students who try to answer with these kinds of memorized answers. Now please note that BODY is still a good topic, and even HURT is still a good idea. For example,

I prefer glasses because contacts can infect my eyes.

Now the good thing is that HURT is still our answer, but the bad thing is that we still had to come up with a hurt that was SPECIFIC to contact lenses (an infection).

Please remember that the directions for both the Speaking and the Writing on the iBT say to give “reasons and examples” to support your opinion. These reasons and examples must be specific and relevant to the prompt.

Of course, you can say, “well, I’ll just memorize 10 different kinds of hurt”, but I hope you can see that what we’ve shown here will just happen again.  If you memorized 10 kinds of hurt, then you’ll get a prompt that needs an 11th type of hurt. If you memorize 100 types of bodily injury, then you will get a prompt that requires a 101st type of bodily injury.

Trust us when we say: It is not possible to memorize enough answers.

And on a broader picture. Is this really how you want to be preparing for your college career? I hope you understand that you cannot memorize your way through the American university system.  Sure, you need to memorize many facts in, say, an organic chemistry class. But most of your classes will evaluate you on your ability to think critically and your ability to synthesize new ideas from existing information. Therefore, you might as well begin learning how to do this NOW.

So, in conclusion: Yes, Strictly English encourages you to memorize some GENERAL TOPICS, but we do NOT encourage you to memorize specific details. Instead, you need to learn lateral thinking skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to synthesize information. These skills are really only taught in university. It’s what differentiates university from high school. Therefore, you really need to be working with Strictly English tutors, all of whom have their Ph.D.s and work at a university.

TOEFL Tip #69: Video Testimonial: Score 104. Speaking 27

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 15, 2010

He did it, so can you!  Sign up today!

TOEFL Tip #67: How Long Does It REALLY Take To “Pass” The TOEFL?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 14, 2010

So they say it takes between 2500 – 5000 hours to get a good score on the TOEFL. And that’s from your very first English lesson.

This must be wrong.

Let’s say you studied English in school every day from 1st grade until you graduated. With homework, that’s about 2 hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, for 12 years. that’s about 4800 hours of English study. But most students around the world can only score in the 60-70 range at this point in their lives. So what’s wrong with these numbers?

Maybe it has something to do with the frequency of study. 5000 hour spread out over 12 years isn’t enough consistent exposure to the language. But let’s take an extreme example in the opposite direction. If you lived in America for a year and studied 13 hours a day, that would get you to the 5000 hours they say you need. Yet, this doesn’t work either! I don’t know any student in my 17 years of teaching ESL who went from Dead beginner to a TOEFL score of 100 in 12 months.

What’s the real story then?

As usual, it’s not QUANTITY, but QUALITY.  You need to be studying the right materials and in the right way. Otherwise, you’ll just be spinning your wheels or, even worse, learning the English INCORRECTLY!

That’s why Strictly English organizes your study efficiently and customizes your study to fit your unique needs.

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