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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 #157: Don’t Overuse Coordinating Conjunctions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 2, 2012

Although last week we encouraged you to use coordinating conjunctions as part of compound sentences at the intermediate level of English, you also have to guard against using them so often that you produce what are called “run-on” sentences.

As defined by the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, run-on sentences, also called fused sentences, are compound sentences that are not punctuated correctly. Perhaps they have a comma where a semicolon is needed, or perhaps there is no punctuation at all. Some examples include:

My cat is sick, I took him to the vet. (Comma instead of semi-colon)

My friend is the manager of a grocery store she is always looking for new ways to attract customers. (No punctuation)

In addition, this site is helpful for reviewing coordinating conjunctions and how to punctuate compound sentences.

Besides the problem of run-ons, overusing coordinating conjunctions will cause you to miss logical connections between argumentative elements of your sentence. This is because coordinating conjunctions have a very limited range of logic words. For example, while “but” suggests logical opposition, and “so” indicates logical outcomes, the word “and” does not introduce a logical *reason,* *cause,* or *result* between the first and second clauses. If you only use coordinating conjunctions, you will be limited when explaining a logical situation. This, in turn, will produce redundant writing.

So you want to have a mix of complex sentences and simple sentences. This will not only avoid run-ons, but it will also provide variety.

Instead of writing: I walked in the rain, so I got sick. You can write: I walked in the rain. This is why I got sick.

Both of these structures are fine and will score high if you write them with perfect intermediate grammar, but since most people speak in run-ons, it’s more natural to write with coordinating conjunctions. If you do that yourself, then it might be easier to write that way and then go back and edit your writing, breaking up the run-ons into smaller sentences and replacing the coordinating conjunctions with short phrases that indicate logical connections such as, “For this reason” or “This is how.”

TOEFL Tip #156: The Grammar You Need For A High TOEFL Writing Score

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 25, 2012

Following up on a recent post, we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty about “intermediate English.”

Anyone studying for the TOEFL exam understands that many aspects of English play a significant role in your TOEFL Writing score: grammar, spelling, vocabulary, idiom use, sentence structure, argument, logic, transitions, relevant details, clear thesis, paragraph breaks, punctuation, etc. But if we wanted to look at just the role that grammar plays in your score, you might be surprised by the following information.

Initially, you might think that TOEFL aligns its scores (0-30) according to the level of English. For example:

0-3= Low Beginner
4-7 = Beginner
8-11 =High Beginner
12-15 = Low Intermediate
16-19 = Intermediate
19-22 = High Intermediate
23-26 = Advanced
27-30 Fluent

But this might not be true. For example, you don’t need to be fluent if you want a 27 on the Writing section. In fact, all you need is intermediate grammatical structures with very few errors.

Good to know, right?

But even with this information, there is still a lot to think about regarding grammar: verb tense, article use, sentence structure, word order, etc. We can’t cover all of these in this one blog entry, so let’s just look at one thing on this list: sentence structure.

Basically, the more common sentence structure for intermediate grammar is the “compound” sentence. Here is a brief explanation of sentence structure:

One way to categorize sentences in English is as follows:

  • Simple
  • Compound
  • Complex

SIMPLE SENTENCES have one clause. For example: I went to the store.

COMPOUND SENTENCES have two or more independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (e.g., “and”, ‘but”, “or”). For example: Fred ate dinner, and Zhen watched TV.

PLEASE NOTE: the word “and” does not always indicate a compound sentence. For example, look at this sentence: Yuki and Alejandro both ate cake and cookies. It has the word AND in it twice, but these ANDs are not connecting two clauses; the first AND is only connecting two subjects (Yuki and Alejandro), and the second AND is only connecting two direct objects (cake and cookies). Therefore, this sentence is actually a SIMPLE sentence with a “compound subject” and a “compound direct object”.

COMPLEX SENTENCES have two or more clauses, one of which is dependent. For example: If the storm comes, we’ll close the windows. Here, “If the storm comes” is the dependent clause. If you need to learn more about dependent clauses, then please click here.

So, if you can write compound sentences with few or no spelling or punctuation errors, then you can get a 27 on the test!

Remember, though, just because the writing is intermediate, doesn’t mean that intermediate students will have an easy time scoring a 27. This is because intermediate students are still learning compound structures and make a lot of mistakes with them. So, the best candidate to try this technique is an advanced student who can write masterful compound sentences that are free from error and use engaging and precise vocabulary.

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.

TOEFL Tip #152: Improving Your Comprehension

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 20, 2012

Having a high level of reading and listening comprehension is integral for success in those sections of the exam. Perhaps you’re already listening to public radio and limiting your use of your native language in your daily routine. Doing this will improve your comprehension in English, but how can you gauge your progress?

One way is to regularly compare articles in Simple English Wikipedia with those on the same topic on the main Wikipedia site. Read the Simple English version first, and when you completely understand it, switch to the main Wikipedia version. Notice what’s different about the main Wikipedia version: more advanced vocabulary and sentence structure, as well as additional details about the topic. If you have high reading comprehension, you should be able to read the main Wikipedia site with minimal difficulty. You could also switch the comparison by reading the main Wikipedia entry first, and then the Simple English version. If your understanding of the main Wikipedia article does not match what the Simple English version says, you need to work on your comprehension skills.

Let’s look at an example about the American Revolution.

The Simple English version says, “The American Revolutionary War was a war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 British colonies in America. . . . The colonies became independent, which meant that the British Empire was no longer in charge of them.” The sentence structure is simple, and a key vocabulary term, “independent,” is defined.

The corresponding article on the main Wikipedia site says, “The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which the thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America. … Ultimately, the states collectively determined that the British monarchy, by acts of tyranny, could no longer legitimately claim their allegiance. They then severed ties with the British Empire in July 1776, when the Congress issues the United States Declaration of Independence, rejecting the monarchy on behalf of the new sovereign nation separate and external to the British Empire.” Here, the sentence structure is more complex, the vocabulary is more sophisticated and is not defined, and there is substantially more detail.

Measure your comprehension by looking for opportunities to compare articles on the same topic written for different audiences. The more easily you can switch from an article written for an introductory-level audience to one written for an intermediate-level (or higher!) audience, the better your comprehension.

TOEFL Tip #151: The Importance Of Being Enthusiastic

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 15, 2012

One of our Strictly English tutors recently received this message in a fortune cookie, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Not only is this a tasty ending for dinner, but it’s also a great mindset when studying for the TOEFL!

Many students think that determination and hard work will guarantee success on the TOEFL exam. To a certain extent, they’re right, of course. You need to prepare thoroughly for the exam, understand the skills necessary for each section, and practice so that you can improve any problem areas in advance. This takes time and effort.

But it’s possible to take determination and hard work too far. Memorizing long lists of vocabulary words, for example, or studying for 4 hours straight every day for months, will not exponentially increase your success. The chances are low that you’ll happen to study the precise words on the exam, and after about 2 hours of concentrated work, your brain can’t absorb more information. Marathon study sessions end up being unproductive because the time spent isn’t being used effectively. It’s easy to become discouraged when you think of studying as a chore to slog through.

So how does enthusiasm affect your TOEFL studying?

In addition to making study sessions more appealing, enthusiasm leads to curiosity and flexibility. These skills let you explore topics and make connections with what you already know. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, you’ll remember more, and will be able to apply that knowledge more effectively. You might not know much about large-scale agriculture, for example, but if you have a home garden, you can draw on that information to find areas of overlap with the topic.

On the other hand, if you approach studying for the TOEFL as if all you need to do is master a fixed set of content, you might have greater trouble dealing with unexpected material. Since there’s no way to know what will be on the exam, you cannot effectively take a content-based approach in your studying.

Be enthusiastic about your TOEFL preparation, and you’ll be looking forward to your next study session. From there, the sky’s the limit!

TOEFL Tip #149: Immerse Yourself In English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 30, 2012

ETS has recently launched a new all-Japanese TOEFL website. While Strictly English can understand the value of a native-language version of the TOEFL site for those who are just beginning to research the TOEFL exam, we feel strongly that prospective TOEFL test-takers who are already preparing for the exam should read the ETS site – and as much other information as possible – in English.

As we noted in Tip #86, Strictly English has repeatedly seen that students who have very little exposure to English outside of a classroom or a tutoring session simply do not improve as much as those who are living a 100% English-language life.

It’s important to remember that living in an English-speaking country does not guarantee that you’re living a 100% English-language life. Many international students living in the U.S.A., for example, live with people from their own country, and only have friends in their language school who are from their own country. As a result, they are not really living their lives in English even though English is around them all of the time.

We understand that since Japanese TOEFL test takers have some of the lowest scores compared with all other nations, it might make sense that their English might not be good enough to understand the all-English TOEFL website. But the Japanese-only site puts them at even more of a disadvantage. It gives such students another opportunity to avoid confronting their real English abilities (or lack thereof). If you’re the world leader in English-proficiency testing, you know that the world looks to you to be the trusted authority on who is ready to enter an English-speaking university or who is ready to get a professional license that requires English. Enabling people to avoid English as long as possible seems counter-intuitive.

One story that highlights the damage caused by staying in your native language as much as possible happened during the last U.S. Presidential election. We had told a Japanese student to retire his Japanese Yahoo homepage for the English Yahoo homepage. He didn’t. One day, while listening to a lecture about the U.S. government, the student did not know what “senator” meant. Since that election cycle had “Senator Obama” and “Senator Clinton” and “Senator McCain” vying for the Presidency, the tutor was flabbergasted that this student did not know a word that had been in the headlines every day for the 6 months that the student had been in the county. When the tutor, who was absolutely sure the word “senator” would be all over Yahoo.com, asked the student to go to this news site, he was saddened to see that the student was still using Japanese Yahoo. When the tutor asked the student to go to English Yahoo, he pointed out how the word “Senator” was on the page at least 8 times. Had the student been using his computer *in English,* he would have known more TOEFL-relevant vocabulary.

We believe that ETS should be not be helping to slow down a test-taker’s acquisition of English. Having an all-English website helps visitors wake up to their real English abilities sooner. With so much riding on a student’s TOEFL scores, the sooner they have a realistic assessment of their English abilities, the sooner they can begin working harder to achieve their academic and professional goals.

TOEFL Tip #148: Rescheduling Your TOEFL Exam

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 24, 2012

Strictly English has received a number of questions lately asking how to reschedule an already-scheduled TOEFL exam.

As an exercise to further demonstrate last week’s post about paraphrasing, we will paraphrase ETS’s information about rescheduling exams from the TOEFL web page. Compare this post with ETS’s information. Notice that the two convey the same ideas, but Strictly English’s post uses different vocabulary and sentence structure.

If you need to reschedule or cancel your TOEFL exam, do not wait until the last minute! You need three full days between the day you make your request and the day of your exam. Since many TOEFL exams are on Saturday, for example, you must make alternate plans by Tuesday at the latest.

In order to reschedule, you must first pay $60.

There are only two ways to reschedule or cancel a TOEFL exam: online, or by phone. Do not send mail or email, and do not show up in person at a test center to attempt to reschedule or cancel your TOEFL exam.

Here are the specifics for rescheduling or cancelling a TOEFL exam, according to ETS (and here we are quoting from the TOEFL Exam page directly):

•Online: Log in to your TOEFL iBT Profile, click “View Order(s)” on your home page, then click “Modify” or “Cancel” on the Order Summary page.

•By phone: Provide your registration number and full name used when you registered. In the United States, U.S. Territories or Canada: call 1-443-751-4862 or 1-800-468-6335. All other locations, contact your Regional Registration Center.

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.

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