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TOEFL Tip #135: The Year In Review

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 30, 2011

In this last post of 2011, we’re taking a look back at the year. The Strictly English blog has been busy! As you look at the topics below, and perhaps revisit some items you may have missed when they were first posted, please take a moment to leave a comment. We are always eager to hear your feedback about items that you found particularly helpful, questions about a post, or suggestions for future items on the blog.

Perhaps Strictly English’s most exciting post was one of the last of the year. Two weeks ago, we announced a university scholarship worth $8,000.

Many of our posts are about the four sections of the TOEFL exam. In particular, a four part series on speaking, reading, listening, and writing discussed Strictly English’s recent research and experience on the TOEFL. Several posts, such as using a holistic approach to the TOEFL and an example of this approach, as well as the advice to be direct and simple, addressed multiple sections of the TOEFL.

Additional topics about the Speaking section included elocution, diction, speaking with feeling, blending sounds, and news about a change to Speaking Task One. The Listening section also featured posts about using metaphoric idioms, and listening to public radio. In the Writing section, we discussed how less is more, touch typing, and why it’s important to use a QWERTY keyboard. We also spread the word about changes to the Reading section.

Another major focus of the blog this year has been on issues related to mastering English. We have discussed the difference between ESL and EFL, using translation programs, TOEFL as a test of effective communication, the “J-Curve” of learning, fossilized grammar, possibilities for rapid improvement, and how TOEFL scores correspond to a native speaker’s ability to speak English.

We had a number of posts about preparing for the TOEFL and scoring issues on the exam. We were happy to share the news of a pharmacist who received a 29 on his Speaking section. We also reported on the results when a native English speaker who is in high school took the TOEFL, discussed whether a high score on the TOEFL improves a student’s chances of admission, outlined the timeline for TOEFL preparation, discussed differences among test preparation books, noted that achieving the score you want often requires taking the test twice, and alerted students to an apparent gap in the TOEFL testing calendar. We shared the results of several students who requested rescores (here and here). We also reported that test results from the December 17 TOEFL exam have been lower than expected.

Strictly English addressed some general topics this year. We gave readers information about the TOEFL and student visas, and about how to register as a group for the TOEFL. Because the TOEFL is primarily for students who are entering college, we suggested that a familiarity with college life would be helpful on the exam. We also had a series of posts related to studying and practicing for the TOEFL. We discussed study habits, scheduling time to study, practicing with notes and with distractions, the difference between practice speed and performance speed, recognizing signs of nervousness and converting nervousness into excitement. We also did a post about Strictly English’s Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing program.

We were pleased to feature guest posts this year. Two posts from Grockit addressed the GMAT official guide and the newly formatted GRE. A post from Harriet Murdoch discussed how the TOEFL can help in business school and beyond, while Renee Hoekstra made suggestions about how to handle test taking anxiety. wrote about using a U.S. admissions consultant.

Finally, Strictly English partnered with Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) this year. After reminding students about a gap in TOEFL’s testing schedule from mid-December 2011 to mid-January 2012, we discussed changes in the PTE Academic score report, ensuring authentic PTE Academic score reports, and a program called PTE Young Learners for younger students who are not yet ready to take Pearson’s more advanced tests.

As you consider your goals for the new year, resolve to make Strictly English part of your overall preparation for the TOEFL, PTE Academic, or IELTS. Read the blog every week, work through the free exercises on our site, and sign up for tutoring as your exam date draws closer.

Happy new year!

PTE Tip #2: Take The PTE While TOEFL Is Closed From December 17th To January 13th

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 2, 2011

As you may have read earlier this week , Strictly English has learned that ETS has no scheduled TOEFL exams between December 17th and January 13th. Such a long period without exams seems to us like a strange gap in ETS’s testing calendar. The next several weeks are the busiest peak in many students’ application process. Perhaps the score from a recent TOEFL exam was just a little bit lower than you need, or perhaps you’ve made a recent decision to apply to a program with an upcoming deadline. Maybe you just took the TOEFL and don’t have your scores yet, but want to schedule another one in case you need to take it again. This would seem to be a time to ramp up exam availability, not shut it down.

For whatever reason, if you need to take a TOEFL exam between December 17th and January 13th, you won’t be able to.

There is another option!

Although the TOEFL will be unavailable for a few weeks, the Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic will be offering exams throughout this period. As PTE Academic has told Strictly English:

PTE Academic tests are available throughout the US through December and January by request. If you wish to book a test simply contact 1-800-901-0229 and make a request for a test booking and Pearson’s customer services team will try to identify an available seat in your chosen location. For a list of locations please visit

Be sure to check directly with the Admissions Office to find out if an institution accepts PTE Academic, and what score you need. Their Admissions webpage may not be fully up to date.

Strictly English offers classes to prepare students for PTE Academic. Whether you need to take the TOEFL before December 17th, or PTE Academic later in the month, contact us today!

TOEFL Tip #132: Sign Up For Online TOEFL Classes This Cyber Monday

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 28, 2011

Today, November 28, 2011, is “Cyber Monday” in the United States, Canada, and several European countries. Generally the first full business day after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S., Cyber Monday gets its name from the burst of online shopping on this first Monday of the typical Christmas shopping period, with sales presumably generated by employees using slow moments at the office to hunt for gifts on the Internet.

How does Cyber Monday relate to the TOEFL exam? If you need TOEFL scores by early January 2012, you should consider online tutoring so you can prepare to take the exam in the next few weeks.

Strictly English has learned that ETS has no scheduled TOEFL exams between December 17th and January 13th. If you are completing a rush application at the last minute, you may not be able to get TOEFL scores in time, because TOEFL scores aren’t available for at least 10 days after the exam. To ensure that you have your TOEFL scores when you need them, you’ll need to take the TOEFL well before December 17th.

Not ready to take the TOEFL so soon? Strictly English can help, with several programs designed to meet a variety of needs. Because our courses are online, you can set the pace for finishing in time to take the TOEFL before mid-December.

Don’t wait! Contact us today.

TOEFL Tip #131: Registering As A Group for TOEFL iBT

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 18, 2011

Students who study together for the TOEFL iBT often want to take the exam at the same time. The camaraderie and support of arriving together can help calm nerves and keep students focused.

While ETS does not offer group registration directly, their Fees and Services webpage has full directions on how to register groups for the TOEFL iBT through a service called Prometric. To submit your Group Reservation Request, you will need to provide your institution’s name, address, and GSP number (if available), your own contact information, and the location, test date/s, and number of seats you are requesting. In addition, each student will need to create his or her own TOEFL iBT online profile.

ETS recommends submitting a request at least 30 days before the preferred test date, and payment must be received at least 20 days before the test date to hold the seats reserved for your group.

If your group wants to take the TOEFL during this busy time of the year, be sure to submit your Group Reservation Request soon!

TOEFL Tip #128: How TOEFL Scores Correspond to Native Ability in English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 28, 2011

 If you’re taking the TOEFL, you’re probably trying to get a specific score. Perhaps the score is part of a college application, or perhaps you need it for professional certification. Whatever your reasons, you have an end goal, a number that indicates your mastery of English, according to TOEFL.

 But what does a 30 mean, in daily life? How can you recognize the difference in skills between a 24 and a 27? Understanding the real-world equivalents of TOEFL scores can help you gauge your own performance, and get to the ability level that matches the score you need.

 In the following list, which Strictly English developed from its work with students who have a wide range of ability in English, notice that the crucial division is between 24 and 26.

 At 24 and below, a student’s ability in English still clearly marks him or her as someone who has learned English as a second language. This could be for any one or more reasons – a strong accent which obscures the speaker’s meaning, frequent errors in basic grammar, poor ability to follow conversations and lectures, and so on.

 Scores of 26 or above, on the other hand, signal that the student is on par with native speakers of English. The key difference at this level is in the sophistication of the speaker’s vocabulary, the variety of sentence structures, the skill with developing details.

 As you prepare for the TOEFL, keep in mind that the score you’re trying to reach has an equivalent that you can use for comparison with your own skills.

 30 : Professional public speaker (for example, Oprah Winfrey)

29 : University professor

28 : Really smart graduate student

27 : Really smart college senior

26 : “Straight – A” high-school senior

24 : “Fluent” ESL

22-23 : Advanced ESL

18-21 : High-Intermediate ESL

14-17 : Intermediate ESL

10 – 13: Low Intermediate ESL

below 10: Beginner ESL




TOEFL Tip #126: Getting To Performance Speed

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 21, 2011

 Time is of the essence. There’s no time like the present. Time flies when you’re having fun. We have a lot of sayings about the importance of time, and how quickly it passes.

As students prepare for the TOEFL, they’re often concerned about working within a time limit, and they worry about running out of time before they finish a section. As a result, many students think that they have to practice at the same speed that they will ultimately perform at, so they can get used to working quickly.

 This is a mistake.

 There is practice speed and there is performance speed; they are NOT the same. Do not worry about performance speed; focus instead on practice speed. As you work in practice speed mode, you will naturally perform more quickly, and your speed will increase until it reaches the levels you need in order to do well on the TOEFL.

 Our goal at Strictly English is to make your performance speed equal your practice speed.


 Because practice speed is the speed at which you can do everything correctly. Going fast doesn’t help your TOEFL score if you’re making a lot of mistakes. The key is to be fast AND accurate. You cannot begin at performance speed. By focusing on doing everything correctly at practice speed, you’ll work quickly without mistakes as you naturally increase – over time – to performance speed. 

 Don’t worry. “Over time” does not mean two years. This is what everyone fears, and what leads them to try to jump to the end of the process.  “Over time” really means . . . . about two weeks of steady, dedicated practice. Remember: it doesn’t take a 5 year old two years to learn how to ride a bike. A child may WANT to ride it perfectly on day one, but it will usually take until  . . . . day ten. That might seem like a long time, but 10 days is much shorter than 2 years!


TOEFL Tip #125: It Takes Two To Make A TOEFL Go Right

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 14, 2011

For several months, Strictly English has been hearing reports from our new clients who have taken the TOEFL 6 or more times that their scores are going down with each test, and they are feeling more nervous about the exam every time they take it. Some of these students are developing test-taking anxiety that they did not have when they took the TOEFL the first few times. Our work with them focuses not only on TOEFL strategies, but also on overcoming these new anxious responses.

 In Strictly English’s experience, students who book two tests really close together – within a day or two – often do much better than students who space their exams weeks or even months apart.

Perhaps this is because taking two tests in such a short time frame keeps students focused on taking the exam. At the first exam, students report being relaxed, because they know they have another exam very soon, in case the first one doesn’t go as well as they hope. Then, when they’re taking the second exam, they’re relaxed because they feel that they did okay on the first one. Because they take the second test before getting the scores for the first, the depression and nervousness that can follow from a low set of test scores doesn’t affect their performance on the second TOEFL. Perhaps this trick of taking two tests very close together can help avoid this dropping-score problem.

 Of course, this is an expensive gamble, but we’ve seen it work in the past. If you’re planning to take the TOEFL more than once, consider whether taking them within a few days of each other will boost your performance.

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 #122: Develop Your Skills by Listening to Public Radio

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 30, 2011

We’ve recently discussed some research conducted by Strictly English this summer which suggests that students need to have sharp listening skills for the TOEFL. We discovered that there seems to be two “paths” of connected answers for each listening passage. Each “path” is a series of related answers that follow from the first question. Whichever answer you give for the first question will lead you to select the related choices in subsequent questions. If you’ve answered the first question correctly, you’ll more likely pick the correct answers all the way through that section. If, however, you’ve chosen the incorrect answer for the first question, the “path” of answers will make it more likely that you will miss most of the answers for that passage.

How can you sharpen your listening skills?

Listen to National Public Radio (NPR) programs on your local public radio station.

The TOEFL focuses relentlessly on American-accented English, so listening to NPR will expose you to a wide range of accents. The hosts and reporters who work for NPR generally have slight accents, so they are easy to understand. They also interview people from around the United States and the world, giving you a chance to listen to English spoken with a variety of accents.

In addition to the live broadcasts of NPR programs, many of the shows also have podcasts. You can download them through NPR’s webpage. Consider listening to interviews first, as the flow of conversation might be easier to follow. As your listening skills increase, listen to longer reports on news and other topics.
Another suggestion for sharpening your language skills overall and your listening in particular, is to read about a major world event in a newspaper written in your first language, then read about that same event in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Next, listen to NPR reports about that event. Finally, read about that event in the New Yorker and The Economist. This sequence will help you to compare the ways in which different sources report on the same story, and the types of language each source uses. In addition, you will understand a lot more from the NPR reports because you are already familiar with the story they are discussing.

TOEFL Tip #120: Test Taking Anxiety?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2011

Test taking anxiety?

This is a guest post from Renee Hoekstra, Psy.D.

There are several reasons that people get anxious about test-taking, and here are a few things that you can do about it.

First of all, figure out what it is that makes you anxious. There are many reasons why people are anxious in testing situations, and the reasons vary. Some people have a hard time speaking openly and in public. Some people get really self-conscious about their accents and are afraid of saying the wrong thing when learning a new language. Some people are highly self-conscious and are afraid of being made fun of. The idea of taking a test in a different language can be intimidating.

Other people may get anxious in test taking conditions. People who have a history of poor academic performance may get anxious in any situation in which they are graded. Some people grew up in environments that were demanding or critical when they did not perform well. Competitive environments often foster the belief that a person’s worth is based on success. Anxiety can get in the way of a person’s ability concentrate, to organize information coherently, and to pay attention to something long enough to come up with the correct answer. Sometimes just being in a testing situation or classroom is enough to get people anxious.

Other people are afraid of the consequences of failure. If the consequences are very meaningful and limit options for the future, this makes sense. However, if one becomes overly focused on the consequences of failure this can “kidnap” attention that is needed to concentrate on the exam itself.

Here are a few ideas for handling test-taking anxiety:

1) Find out what you are afraid of: What is the “worst case” scenario? Share your “worst case scenario” with a trusted peer. Sometimes saying things out loud and talking openly about fear can help it to diminish. If thinking about your “worst case scenario” is enough to spike your anxiety, you may want to re-visit your scenario over and over again until your fear goes down. If you don’t know of anyone who can work with you on your “worst case scenario,” you may want to find a psychotherapist trained in exposure therapy (such as myself) to help you. The intended result of this exercise is to be able to imagine feared situations with less anxiety. When you can bring to mind the feared situations without your brain shutting down, you will have more control of your anxiety.

2) Develop a plan to cope with the worst case scenario. Figure out a Plan B. If there is a realistic chance that you will fail, accepting and tolerating the moment- your current life situation- will enable you to handle the situation better. This does not mean you have to accept failure or approve of your expectations of yourself. It does not mean that you have to give up, and it does not mean that other alternatives won’t make themselves available to you. It just means that you’ve got to get through a tough situation the best way that you can. A refusal to acknowledge and accept reality on the terms of reality can actually make your life worse. Remember that many successful people have failed. Tolerating the consequences of potential failure does not mean that your life is over. It just means you have to look for alternative paths.

3) Do everything you can to practice being in situations that make your anxiety go up. Usually, people avoid situations that make them anxious. This increases the belief that what they are avoiding is actually fearful. This increases anxiety. When forced to confront such feared situations, people are faced with flat out panic. Don’t let this be you. If being in a classroom makes you anxious, find a classroom and sit there until your anxiety goes down. If your anxiety doesn’t go down, then plan on a specific period of time- with a beginning and an end- to sit there. If going to a testing center makes you anxious, go sit in a testing center. If the click of a keyboard makes you anxious, record keyboard-clicking noises and listen to them over and over again. If the exam center allows you to take a practice test, by all means- take the practice test.

4) Know what is ahead of you. Don’t go into an exam “blind” because you were so busy avoiding taking the exam! Know all the components of the exam and know how long the exam will take. Know how many breaks you have. Know where the exam center is and anticipate problems with traffic or public transportation. Go to the exam center on a day before your exam and time how long it takes you. Talk to people who have taken the exam to get their impressions. Take practice exams and get feedback. Most anxiety can be decreased by being fully aware of- and planning for -anything that can go wrong on exam day. Get adequate sleep, take snacks to the test- taking center, eat well, don’t change your diet or make any big plans right before the exam. Stick to your schedule and your routine to the best of your ability. And be willing to accept that things don’t always go according to plan.

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