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TOEFL Tip #119: Know Your Signs Of Nervousness

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 16, 2011

Two weeks ago, we talked about converting nervousness you might feel at the TOEFL exam into excitement. If you think of the test as a series of fun challenges, you are more likely to perform well.

But how can you tell if you’re feeling nervous?

We usually associate nervousness with certain responses in body. Tensing your muscles, shrugging your shoulders, tapping your fingers or bouncing your foot very quickly, crinkling your forehead, and playing with your hair are all signs of anxiety. While you might not realize that you’re nervous, if you notice that you’re doing one or more of these physical behaviors, you very likely are.

So how can you calm down?

If you’re sitting at the test station and you’re in the middle of a section, take a few seconds to breathe in deeply, and exhale slowly. Do this several times, as often as necessary. Also try stretching your legs out as far as possible. Force yourself to lower your shoulders, and roll them back. If the TOEFL exam hasn’t started yet, or you’re on the short break, take the opportunity to walk around a little bit. Do some toe-touches, deep knee bends, or any other stretches that you can comfortably perform. Likewise, if you practice yoga, select one or two positions that you can easily do in the lobby. Whatever you choose to do, the main idea is the same – to ease your muscle tension and lower your heart rate, which will allow you to concentrate on the exam.

As you prepare for the TOEFL, take note of your particular signs of nervousness, and practice relaxing in whichever way works best for you.

TOEFL Tip #114: Understand the Logic Behind TOEFL Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 13, 2011

Today’s post is the second in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Reading section. Be sure to check out our post on the Speaking section.

Our research this summer confirms the approach that Strictly English has taken to the Reading section for some time: reading the entire passage slowly and thoroughly is not the best use of your time. Instead, you need to understand the logic behind the questions, and read the passage strategically.

Our researcher was an American and a native speaker of English. He took a recent TOEFL and did not read ANY of the Reading passages, except to answer the Insertion question, which demands that you read the paragraph into which you’ll insert the new sentence. Even for the Insertion Question, our researcher read only the relevant paragraph, not the entire passage. For all the other questions, he only looked at the questions. Before the test, our researcher expected that by ignoring the passage, he would score around a 17-22, but much to his surprise, he scored a 26!

This proves that the passage is truly a distraction. If you know the logic behind how standardized tests ask Reading questions, and if you know how to take the information from one question and apply it to another question, then you can get a high score with very minimal reading.

We are NOT advocating that non-native speakers of English should skip the Reading passages and go straight to the questions. Our researcher has over 18 years of TOEFL experience behind him, unlike most test takers who have been studying for only a few months by the time they take the test. But if a professional can get a 26 by NOT reading the passages, then you should be able to get the same score if you READ the passage *strategically*. Want to learn those strategies? Contact us today.

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 #108: Scheduling Your Self-Study Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 1, 2011

We recently wrote about the importance of good study skills for success on the TOEFL exam. In that article, we explained that the self-discipline and focus that you bring to your self-study and homework will prepare you for test day, when you cannot spend 10 minutes searching for a pen that works, and another 5 minutes getting a snack, and so on. Good study habits train your mind to be ready to work at the appropriate time, without a long warm-up period.

The key to effective self-study is making a plan and following it. Whether you write the times on a printed calendar that you keep on your desk or in your backpack, or you use an online tool such as Google Calendar, you need to block out times just for TOEFL study. Think of these study times as commitments that are just as important as work or a Strictly English tutoring session.

We are all used to having classes, tutoring appointments, work meetings, and so on, in our calendars. However, students often forget to schedule homework time, thinking, “I’ll do it tonight,” or “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Too many students have the best intentions to study, and really want to do well on the TOEFL exam. But even Strictly English’s most dedicated students often come to their tutoring sessions saying they’ve not had time to finish (or even start!) their homework. Unfortunately, it is too easy for other things get in the way of studying – students are too tired at the end of the day, or make plans with friends or family that take longer than expected. We go to bed without studying for the TOEFL that day, perhaps for several days in a row.

The answer to this time crunch is to schedule 30 minutes a day into your calendar. If you get invited to do something during that already-scheduled study time, you have two options – either say no, you can’t because you need to study for TOEFL at that time of day, or say yes only if you can immediately move that study time to another 30 minute block in your calendar on the same day. Studying every day for 30 minutes is better than studying once a week for 3 hours.

Scheduling your study sessions not only sets aside the time you need, but also trains your mind to remember that TOEFL studying is a commitment, and only through such a commitment will you be able to get the score you need.

TOEFL Tip #105: Your Study Habits Can Affect Your TOEFL Performance

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 19, 2011

Today’s post is about how you study for the TOEFL. Maybe you’re using official materials from ETS, or maybe you’re using study materials such as guides by Barrons or Longman. Of course, we hope that you have already signed up for tutoring sessions with Strictly English! The materials you use to study, and the strategies you learn for each section of the exam, are very important. Unless you have good study habits, however, that information is not as effective as it could be, which could, in turn, drag down your TOEFL score by a few points or more.

Think about your typical TOEFL study session: Do you need to gather your notes, study materials, notebook, and pens from several different places? Do you try to squeeze some studying in between other tasks, while commuting to/from work or before going to bed? Do you have to clear off a table or desk to be able to work? Are there distractions when you’re studying? All of these factors detract from your study session by dividing your focus. The more often you answer “yes” to the above questions, the greater the effort you have to make just to get your study session started.

For the most effective study session, reduce distractions as much as possible. Have a dedicated place to study, and a dedicated place to keep your study materials. Keep all of your materials together. To the extent possible, limit interruptions from family members, noise, etc. Once it is time to begin studying, you should be able to sit down and immediately start work. These suggestions will help you to make the most of the time you have available.

How often and how long you work in each study session depends on your particular circumstances. There is no single correct answer, except that you should be consistent with your study times. Studying for 4 hours one week, ½ an hour the next week, then 3 hours the week after that will make it harder, not easier, for you to prepare for the TOEFL. Examine your schedule, find a regular series of times when you can study, and commit to always studying at those times. Think of your study times as a part-time job – you wouldn’t skip work just because a friend suggests getting together for coffee, and you shouldn’t skip a study session for similar, non-urgent reasons. Once you get into this habit, you will find that you can focus on your TOEFL studying much more quickly.

To get a clear sense of your current study habits, write down everything about your TOEFL studying for a week or two – what time you start, what time you finish, the conditions around you (cold/warm, noise, other distractions), and so on. Use that information to decide where you can make adjustments to your studying to increase your focus. With better study habits comes a better understanding of the material, which will serve you well when you take the TOEFL on exam day.

TOEFL Tip #100: Use the Correct Keyboard

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 20, 2011

We’ve talked before about the importance of being able to touch-type on the Writing Section of the TOEFL. The faster and more accurately you are able to type, the more time you will have to develop your ideas and then go back to check for mistakes. For touch-typing to be useful on the TOEFL, make sure that you are using the correct keyboard.

The standard keyboard in the United States is the QWERTY keyboard. Keyboards are named for the first 6 letters of the top row, from left to right. This is the keyboard you will use for the TOEFL exam, so you want to be very familiar with it long before sitting down at the computer in the testing center.

While most keyboards based on the Latin alphabet – the letter system for English and many of the European languages – have numbers along the top row, and most of the letters in the same place, there are small but important differences among keyboards designed for different languages.

In addition to the QWERTY design, there are two other major layouts. For example, keyboards in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are QWERTZ, switching the locations of Y and Z. French keyboards are AZERTY, switching A and Q and W and Z, and moving the M to the left of the L. In addition, many keyboards for languages other than English will have extra keys, or key combinations, to easily make the accents and other special characters specific to a language, such as ñ, â, £, Æ.

There are also keyboards that convert between Latin and non-Latin letter systems, for example Russian, Arabic, Greek, and East Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

As we have discussed previously, you should incorporate English as much as possible into your daily life, including your keyboard. Although you might be very comfortable typing English on a non-QWERTY keyboard, these small differences in layout can slow you down on the exam if you have to search the keyboard for letters that are not in the places you are used to. Make sure that you’re using a QWERTY keyboard for English so you can be better prepared on test day.

TOEFL Tip #98: The “J-Curve” Of Learning TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 5, 2011

Students think that they can come to Strictly English and just have their writing “corrected.” Maybe they need to improve *only* their grammar. Or they have to learn how to think of better ideas. Or maybe they want to organize their essay in a more sophisticated way. In all these scenarios, students imagine their education as being “an addition” to what they already have.

But the sad fact of the matter is that almost all people preparing for the kind of professional writing that TOEFL demands need more substantial changes to their writing than just “adding to” their current skills.

We at Strictly English like to think of it like renovating a kitchen. Sure, you could just remodel it by putting a new coat of paint onto cracking walls and adding a power strip to one electrical outlet, allowing you to connect 4 appliances to it. But we all know that at some point, the cracks will show through and the electrical outlet will blow a fuse. Therefore, to really make that kitchen look and function the way we need it to, we’re going to have to rip out the old walls, put in new outlets, and maybe even change the location of the sink so we can fit in a nice new dishwasher.

In other words, a successful kitchen renovation requires that you demolish the old before you start building everything anew. Although this takes more time, the end product is much better. If you were buying a new house, would you want the house that had the power strip and the newly painted cracked walls or would you want the house with the reconstructed kitchen?

The same applies to TOEFL Writing and Speaking. The highest-scoring test takers are the ones who demolish their old habits and build new ones from the ground up. Granted, this takes more time, but not too much more. And unlike just painting the kitchen walls (which might look good for 6 months before showing the cracks again), quick fixes to your English do not really exist. You never really get the illusion of “sturdy walls”, not for 6 months, not for 6 weeks, not for 6 days, or for even 6 hours. The cracks in your English always show through immediately, no matter how much paint you add.

The kitchen renovation image is also useful because it reminds you that you cannot fix everything all at the same time. If you want the project to come out right, you need to pay attention to the correct sequence of getting things done. A kitchen renovation won’t be successful if you bring in the plumber, electrician, painter, and carpenter on the same day to do all of the work. First, you need the electrician because the plumber cannot work without electricity. Then you need the plumber because the water pipes have to be installed before the carpenter can build out the places for the dishwasher and garbage disposal. Finally, the painter cannot begin working until the carpenter has cleaned up all of the sawdust.

The same is true for improving your English. We need to work on central problems before we can work on other, less vital problems. For example, we want to give you organization before we worry about development. And it’s better to work on development before we begin to address grammar issues. Organization and development are important for both the Writing and Speaking sections, but some grammar issues, like spelling, don’t matter on the Speaking section. If you came to Strictly English and said you wanted to work on grammar, but your organization was weak, that would be like painting your kitchen before the electrician arrived.

So, please do not be afraid of demolishing your current English habits. It’s NATURAL and NECESSARY! Many researchers call this the “J” curve of learning. You have to go down before you can go up. It might seem depressing in the short term as your abilities go down, but if you look closely at a “J”, you’ll see that the right hand side of the “J” is A LOT higher than the left-hand side. It is so much higher that we think it’s really worth the time you spend at the bottom of the J!

TOEFL Tip #97: An Incentive to Begin TOEFL Preparation Today!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 29, 2011

As the current school year starts to come to a close, we know it’s hard to think about the college application process next fall and winter. And yet, you really need to start preparing for the TOEFL now so that you will have everything you need on time for your applications.

Let’s look at the timeline, working backwards from your application deadlines.

Many college applications are due in early January at the latest; some are due in early December. Even if your deadlines are later, the rush of holidays in late December can distract you while preparing your materials, so you should complete as much as you can before mid-December.

Putting together your application – writing letters, writing an essay, and so on – should take about six weeks. You need to leave enough time for the people who write letters of recommendation on your behalf, and you need time to draft and then revise your essay. Your timeline is now back to November 1st.

You also need to take the SAT by November 1st, so that your scores will be reported on time for your application. Students typically need 3 months of prep time for the SAT, which means you’re starting to study for the SAT in early August.

You should take the TOEFL before the SAT, which means that your last chance to take the TOEFL is in late July. TOEFL preparation can take 2-3 months, which means you need to start TOEFL preparation at the end of April – now.

Strictly English has courses designed for different levels of study; classes for each section of the TOEFL typically take 3-4 weeks to complete, depending on your schedule.

If you sign up by April 30th – today – you can take advantage of our best price on TOEFL prep classes: 50% off of your first purchase. See details here. The discount will be 40% off of your first purchase if you sign up in May, and 30% off if you sign up in June. There will be no discount if you wait until the fall to sign up for classes, so sign up today to get the best savings!

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