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TOEFL Tip #207: Active vs. Passive Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 7, 2013

 Whether you speak only your native language, or have learned a second (or third, or fourth …) language, most people know a lot of words.

  But the real question is, how well do you know them?

 The words that you recognize in context when you read or hear them are your passive vocabulary. You understand what these words mean, and can follow what’s being written or said. Whether you’ve seen and heard these words a few times or repeatedly, the words in your passive vocabulary are familiar when other people use them, but you yourself don’t use them.

 The words that you use in your own speaking and writing are your active vocabulary. You not only understand these words, but you can also call them up from memory and use them accurately. Most people have a larger passive vocabulary than active vocabulary, and use somewhat different sets of words when speaking or when writing.

 Here’s an example of passive vs. active vocabulary. When you read a newspaper item or listen to a radio report, you’re probably using your passive vocabulary. You can follow the news item because you recognize the words in context. When you tell someone else about the same news item, you use your active vocabulary. For example, if the news item is about a natural disaster in which people died, your passive vocabulary would make it possible to understand “devastation” and “death toll;” you would then use your active vocabulary to refer to the “large amount of damage” and “number of people who died” when you talk about the event with someone else.

 One goal of learning a new language (or improving your skill in your first language) is to convert as many words as possible from passive into active vocabulary. You can do this by studying the vocabulary you recognize, and making a specific effort to use it in conversation. In the above example, you would say “devastation” and “death toll” as you talked about the natural disaster. You might struggle to remember the correct words at first, but the more you do it, the more words you will add to your active vocabulary.

 Next week, we’ll talk about another technique for converting words from passive to active vocabulary: crossword puzzles.


TOEFL Tip #206: Back to Basics

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 31, 2013

Students preparing for the TOEFL exam frequently focus so much on learning sophisticated vocabulary that they forget to make sure that they have mastered the words for basic elements of daily life.

Here’s a sample list of questions that you should be able to answer quickly and accurately, without having to look up any of the information. How many of these do you know?

  1. What is the difference between CARDINAL and ORDINAL numbers? Can you spell the names of ORDINAL numbers correctly?
  2. Can you say fractions correctly? How do we say 1/2 or 1/16 in English?
  3. What are the names of signs of the zodiac?
  4. Can you spell the months of the year?
  5. Can you spell words using the correct names for the letters?
  6. What is the term to describe the difference between the letter “E” and the letter “e”?
  7. How do we say email addresses in English?
  8. What is the name of this symbol : ”#”?
  9. What are the names for “;” and “:”? What are the names for the punctuation mark “.”?
  10. What is the name for the holes in your nose that you breathe through?
  11. What are your finger joints called?
  12. What is the name for the thing that moves around your screen that you control with your mouse? (You know what a mouse is in this context, right?)
  13. When you lay in bed at night, what is the part of the room you’re looking at?

These are all basic words you’ll want to be able to use on the TOEFL exam. They are common and show up all the time. They’re not as the SUBJECT of the TOEFL content, but all of these ideas are worked into that content somehow.

To practice, ask your family and friends to make up lists of random questions about basic, everyday vocabulary like this. Practice answering them as quickly as possible – the goal is to not have to stop to think of the word for a common detail.

TOEFL Tip #200: Use To Practice Paraphrasing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 20, 2013

Accurately paraphrasing a passage in the TOEFL Reading section can help you with various types of questions, such as vocabulary, understanding the details of the passage, and inserting a sentence into the passage. Yet, for many students, paraphrasing is a challenging skill. You need to capture the essential information in the original material without repeating key vocabulary or sentence structure. In addition, you will usually use fewer words in a paraphrase than in the original passage.

But how can you practice paraphrasing and know that your work is accurate? Use a website like

We at Strictly English love, for its broad range of topics, and for its use of easily accessible English. In fact, we think it’s such a valuable resource that we’ve been giving our clients one month of free access to for over a year now.

Here’s one suggestion for using to practice paraphrasing. Read the entry on the novel Black Beauty, and then read the Wikipedia entry for the same novel. Notice that you can understand much more of the Wikipedia entry’s vocabulary because you’re already familiar with the ideas from the version. Words like “disabled,” “composed,” and “forthrightly” in the Wikipedia version are easier to figure out when you have the context of “lame,” “written,” and “outwardly” from the version. You can also start with the Wikipedia version, paraphrase it yourself, and then compare your paraphrase with the version to test your accuracy.

Try it for yourself! Find a topic from that is also in Wikipedia, and see how much of the harder English you can understand after you’ve read the easy version on

TOEFL Tips #195: New Site Launching On or Before March 31st!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 17, 2013

In the next two weeks, Strictly English will launch its revamped website. Today’s post will give you a general preview of the changes, and in the coming weeks, we’ll drill down on the details of our new services and features.

 The first thing you’ll notice is that the Strictly English homepage has been reorganized. Whereas it used to look like this:


now you’ll see this when you first come to our page:


The new page showcases our four core services. Of course, we continue to offer our successful one-on-one Online Private Tutoring program. In addition, after a successful pilot program, we are now making group study a central feature of Strictly English’s offerings, with two new group study options: Study Halls worldwide online and Group Classes in the Boston area.

 With the launch of the new website, Strictly English will now be offering 4 levels of membership. Free membership is available to everyone, Basic Membership is $10/month, Premium Membership is $20/month, and Deluxe Membership is $30/2 months. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the details of each membership level, but for now, please note that everyone on our promotions list will get the chance to buy memberships for 50% off, during the first week of launch.

 In addition, the Strictly English blog has been renamed TOEFL Tips on the new website. Be sure to look for us in the dark blue bar across the top of the new homepage!


TOEFL Tip #182: Know The Types of Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 18, 2012

Time is of the essence on the TOEFL exam. You have a specific amount of time to finish each section, and you cannot get any extensions. You need to use your time effectively in order to have the best chance at a high score.

One way to use your time well on the Reading section is to be able to identify the different types of questions quickly. For example, if a question asks about a fact stated in the passage, you will use a different strategy to find that answer than you would use to answer a question about something inferred by the passage. Similarly, you can generally identify a vocabulary word’s meaning by reading the sentence in which the target word appears, but you may need to read the entire paragraph to answer a reference question correctly.

Being able to identify each type of question on the Reading passage quickly has three benefits.

First, the more quickly you can identify the category for each question in the Reading section, the less time you will waste re-reading too much of the passage to answer each question. By using your time efficiently, you will have a few extra minutes to answer a question that you find particularly challenging.

Second, once you have identified each type of question, you can answer all of the questions in a particular category, then move to the next category, and so on. This keeps your brain focused on one type of task until it is finished, rather than switching among multiple tasks repeatedly. The more you can focus on one thing at a time, the better you will perform.

Third, being confident about each type of Reading question will boost your overall confidence on the TOEFL exam. Since Reading is the first section, this confidence will carry over to the other sections.

So, as you prepare for the Reading section of the TOEFL, practice categorizing the questions, too!

TOEFL Tip #136: Improving Your TOEFL Vocabulary in 2012!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 2, 2012

This is just a short announcement to say that Strictly English will be using harder vocabulary in its 2012 blog posts so as to help you widen and deepen your  lexicon (see definition 2). When we use a word that we think is a bit beyond the average reader’s knowledge base, we’ll follow it with a link to its definition in parentheses.


Just another way that Strictly English is trying to make you the best test taker that you can be!


Test Once.

Score High.

Move On.


TOEFL Tip #57: Study For TOEFL Topics In Your Native Language

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 23, 2009

Here is a Tweet from Twitter that I thought was interesting:

my TOEFL textbook is totally brutal. lotta words even I can’t understand in my mother tongue lol

Now, because TOEFL is a test of ENGLISH, I usually do not suggest that people study for it in their own language. You should immerse yourself in English as much as possible. But there is one time when I think using your own language is a good idea: to learn about common TOEFL topics.

This student above is finding it hard to understand the topics in his TOEFL book even in his own language. Therefore, studying the basics of biology, chemistry, American history, geology, art, psychology, etc. in your own language will make it easier for you to understand these topics in English. Once you are familiar with the idea of, for example, symbiosis in your native tongue, then reading and listening about it in English will be much easier.



by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 24, 2009

I’m rather surprised that the only iPhone applications for sale are vocabulary builders. With so many sections of the test: (Reading, Listening, Speaking, Writing) and with each of these sections testing a different language or reasoning skill (pronoun identification, paraphrasing, copy editing, spelling, logic, as well as the ability to infer and summarize), it shocks me that no one has taken the initiative to make applications that help improve these other skills.  TOEFL is, after all, a multiple choice test.  You would think that an iPhone app based on picking multiple choice answers wouldn’t be that hard to design.  And it isn’t.  The problem is, as usual, time and money.  Creating the content for just one application could take a team of 10 English teachers working 10 hours a day for 10 months.  Add to this the cost of developing the application itself, and you have a big hurdle to jump.

But Strictly English is not afraid to take on this challenge!  We are currently in negotiations with iPhone application developers to design a series of applications that will help strengthen your TOEFL skills.

Until Strictly English releases these applications, though, TOEFL Students will only have the small array of vocabulary applications currently on the market, which haven’t been well-received so far. Early reports indicate that the vocabulary builders are not selling very well, primarily because students would prefer to learn new English words in relation to the student’s original language.  For example, what spanish speaker person wants read “distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune,” in order to understand the English word “Anxiety” when he/she could just know that “anxiety” = “ansiedad”.  Hence, these TOEFL vocabulary building apps have it wrong from the start.

But let’s look a little closer at some of these applications anyway:

1. Kaplan TOEFL Vocabulary (by TestPrepWiz): At the time of this writing, the application is not running on the new 3.0 upgrade. I’ve contacted the developer and they are working to fix this problem. In general, though, this program is nothing more than a digital set of flashcards. And with only 350 words, it doesn’t cover much vocabulary. It does have a test mode, which is probably its best function.

Kaplan Vocabulary

Kaplan Vocabulary

2. TOEFL – GMAT Vocabulary Builder (by and Unigate): This application is not helpful for TOEFL vocabulary study mainly because there is just one long list of words.  The user cannot know which vocabulary words are TOEFL words and which words are GMAT words.  Now it is true that all TOEFL words are also GMAT words, but it is NOT true that all GMAT words are also TOEFL words.  GMAT vocabulary is much harder than TOEFL vocabulary.  Using this application would be much better if you could chose a list of TOEFL vocabulary words ONLY, and not study the GMAT words.  It’s games are cute, but it’s hard to know what to do, and the “help” page doesn’t explain how to play.  Look at this screen shot of the game “Bubble”.  Since the balloons rise from the bottom of the screen, your eye focuses on the word EXPANSION, but this is not the word you’re trying to match.  Instead, you have to look at the top of the page to find the definition you’re trying to match.  It is written in small print and does not catch your eye.

3. TOEFL Vocabulary (AudioLearn): By far, this is the least dynamic of the three programs. As you can see form the screenshot, it is a solid stream of text, which just blurs together. In addition, all the text is read aloud in a monotonous stream. Click here download and to listen.

TOEFL Tip #26: A.Word.a.Day Can Help

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 12, 2009

It might be helpful to join a mailing list that sends you a new word every day. I think this site is very good. Although the words on it are harder than TOEFL words, you can learn a lot by reading the etymologies, which are the ROOTS, PREFIXES and SUFFIXES of the word.