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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.

TOEFL Tip #138: Don’t Be Redundant; Don’t Be Redundant!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 13, 2012

In a pressured situation, like taking the TOEFL exam, students can easily become redundant. They can feel like they need to repeat what they have said to make sure they are getting their point across. While this concern is understandable, it is also a mistake.

There are two types of redundancy. The first is redundancy of vocabulary, and the second is redundancy of ideas. Avoid both.

Evidently, the first type of redundancy means that you have a small vocabulary and therefore, are not proficient in English. One way to demonstrate proficiency in English is to have a number of ways to describe the same concept. For example, in addition to “car,” you could say automobile, auto, vehicle, or you could name the general type of car – sedan, hatchback, truck, van, and so on.

The second type of redundancy is directly related to the first. Although TOEFL doesn’t really score you on originality of thought, the problem with redundant ideas is that you will have a higher chance of collapsing into redundant vocabulary if you’re talking about the same idea in Paragraph 3 that you talked about in Paragraph 2.

Strictly English recently tested this approach. One of our researchers wrote an essay that used grammatically perfect intermediate English, and varied the ideas for each of the three reasons supporting his main thesis. However, the vocabulary was mercilessly repetitive. The essay scored only a 20.

To prevent redundancy of vocabulary, actively seek to learn new words. Look up any unfamiliar words, such as the linked definitions in this post. If you rarely, if ever, need to look up meanings when you read, you need to add more difficult material to your reading list.

Solving redundancy of ideas requires a broader approach as well. Viewing a topic from different perspectives will help add variety to your answers. Strictly English also has a list of ideas that work with almost every speaking and writing prompt. To learn this list and practice using it, contact us and enroll in a session today!

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 #116: Vary Your Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 26, 2011

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

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the example below has been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Our researcher – an American and a native speaker of English – wrote all of his essays with perfect intermediate-level English, with no mistakes. However, he wrote with a lot of redundancy, repeating key vocabulary words far too often. He scored only a 20. Our researcher has written just as simply on other TOEFL exams, but varied his vocabulary more significantly. He scored above a 25.

Here is a body paragraph written in the same style that our researcher produced on the exam this summer:

First of all, I like dogs because they are friendly. For example, my friend Mary has a dog. That dog is not friendly. Every time Mary has a friend over, her dog is not friendly to Mary’s friend. On the other hand, I have a very friendly dog. All of my friends love how friendly my dog is, which makes them want to be my friend.

Notice that the word “dog” appears 6 times, and “friend” or “friendly” appears 10 times – there are 3 “friend/friendly” repetitions in 2 different sentences!

So, redundancy kills your score. You must paraphrase and use a variety of words for the same concept. For example, you might say that Mary is your sister, a neighbor, or a co-worker. You could revise the last sentence to say, “Everyone I know loves how approachable my pet is, which makes them want to spend time with me.” These are small changes which convey the same idea in a broader range of words.

TOEFL Tip #109: Keep It Simple

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 8, 2011

As we discussed several weeks ago, an important key for doing well on the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL is to communicate directly. Using layers of explanations to build up to your main idea is not an advantage on the TOEFL. Complicated responses can be difficult for the rater to assess, and can lead you to make grammar mistakes.

A common version of making your ideas too complicated is “graduate-school-itis.”  The suffix “itis” originally comes from medicine, and means “inflammation.” Common examples include tonsillitis (swollen tonsils), arthritis (swollen joints), and meningitis (swelling of the brain). The “itis” suffix is also used metaphorically to describe attitudes or behaviors, such as “Facebookitis” (constantly checking the social networking site). Graduate-school-itis is a version of this metaphorical use of “itis” – it is the tendency for graduate school applicants to over-extend their thinking and communication.

In many ways, graduate-school-itis is admirable. Graduate school is intellectually challenging, and students who aspire to graduate studies must stretch their critical thinking and communication skills. As part of showing that they are capable of doing advanced work, graduate school applicants take every opportunity they can to push their thinking forward.

Here’s an example of the kind of “pushed” thinking we are talking about. The question asks the student’s opinion about having a new restaurant in the neighborhood. The student replies that having a new restaurant nearby is good for the neighborhood because it will improve racial diversity. At first, this seems strange, until the student explains that most restaurants today hire immigrants to work in their kitchens, and those employees will bring more diversity to her town. This seems like a nuanced and sophisticated way to link together two issues, and to demonstrate that the student can think beyond the obvious reasons (new food to try, new place to meet friends) to want a new local restaurant.

But I hope you can also see that this reason requires TWO arguments. First, the writer has to establish the “fact” about the hiring practices of restaurants, and second, she has to explain the outcome of that “fact.” Not only is this two-step argument too complicated for TOEFL, but it also has too many possible contradictions.  One problem is that not ALL restaurants hire immigrant minorities for their staff. Another problem is that immigrant employees might not be able to afford housing the town that they work in, which means that the neighborhood will NOT become more diverse. Instead, just say that a restaurant in the neighborhood will save you time. Here, all you have to say is that it takes you only 5 minutes to walk to a local restaurant, whereas it might take you 15 minutes to drive to the next-nearest restaurant.

Another example of “pushed” thinking involves using overly complicated language. Instead of just saying, “I like laptops because they are portable,” graduate students often want to say, “Laptops provide students with a sense of utter jubilation because these miracles of modern technology allow aspiring intellectuals to be cosmopolitan nomads.” But such an ambitious sentence – without the help of a dictionary, spell check, or grammar book – ends up sounding like, “Laptops provide studiers with senses of utter jibations for those technologic miracles of modernicity allow intellectuals aspirations that can only be made into nomads of the cosmos.” Using advanced vocabulary is an important skill, but over-loading a sentence like this with elaborate expressions obscures what you are trying to say.

Take consolation, though, that this situation is not unique to non-native speakers of English. Even native English speakers suffer from graduate-school-itis. It is a necessary part of the graduate school experience because it originates from the passion and drive needed for graduate studies. Nevertheless, such convoluted expressions are precisely what graduate school is designed to eradicate.

Remember – the TOEFL is not about being smart. It is about being clear in what you say and write. Leave the complicated intellectual thoughts at home on test day. Being direct in your communication is the smart choice for the TOEFL.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOEFL Tip #95: TOEFL Tests Effective Communication

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 15, 2011

Students often get nervous about the content of the TOEFL exam. They worry that they won’t be familiar with the topics in the Reading section, the academic lectures in the Speaking and Listening sections, or the written and spoken passages for the Integrated Writing task (also called the 20 minute essay). To prepare for the test, students might be tempted to try to learn something about a lot of different academic subjects, hoping that they’ll get lucky and recognize the topics on test day. While concern about knowing the material on the TOEFL exam is understandable, trying to study for the content of the exam is not a good use of your time and effort. Because you don’t know what topics will actually be on the TOEFL, it is a waste of time and energy to try to guess which random subjects will be on the exam, and study those. Always remember that the TOEFL tests effective communication, not intelligence.

This is really important to understand. The TOEFL tests how well you can understand and communicate in English. You do not have to already know about the topics on the exam in order to answer the questions. According to Test Section details for the Reading section page on the official TOEFL webpage:

TOEFL iBT Reading passages are excerpts from university-level textbooks that would be used in introductions to a discipline or topic. The passages will cover a variety of different subjects. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the topic of a passage. All the information you need to answer the questions will be in the passage.

Although this quote is talking about the Reading section, it also applies to the other sections of the exam – the information you need to answer the questions will be contained in the passages.

Let’s be clear: there are definitely strategies about TOEFL content that will help you to do well on the exam because they will save you time on test day. Our post from March 29th, for example, pointed out that students should be familiar with terms about American university campuses. Another strategy is study the roots, prefixes, and suffixes of English words to that you can more quickly figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. The important difference between these strategies and trying to study for the content of the TOEFL is that knowing campus vocabulary and understanding how to figure out what a word means will help with all sections of the exam. This is time and energy well spent.

Rather than worry about what will be on the TOEFL exam, work on strengthening your core English language skills, and expressing yourself clearly and succinctly.

TOEFL Tip #94: Diction: Word Choice And How You Speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 7, 2011

Today’s post is part of our series examining the subtle but important differences among terms used to describe speaking. Understanding these terms will make you more aware of how you speak, and will help you understand and correct some common speech problems.

This post focuses on diction. The term “diction” has two different, but related, meanings. One meaning refers to the words that you choose, and the way that you phrase your ideas. The other refers to the way that you speak. Let’s look at both of these meanings in more detail.

Word choice is important on the TOEFL, in both the Speaking and the Writing sections. Having good diction means that you use language that is appropriate for your audience, and for your purpose. On the TOEFL, this means that you should use a range of vocabulary that mixes short, simple words with longer, more sophisticated words. Similarly, use a variety of sentence structures. Writing or speech that has all short words in short sentences makes the writer/speaker seem uneducated, whereas writing or speech that has all long words in complex sentences can be difficult to understand. By mixing your word choice and sentence style, you demonstrate your mastery of the language. Avoid all swearing on the TOEFL, even expressions that seem mild or are in widespread use, and limit your use of jargon – that is, specialized vocabulary – from your profession.

The other meaning of diction – how you speak – is equally important. You want to speak clearly, and fully pronounce each word before moving on to the next. Many speakers frequently drop the final letter from words when speaking (especially the final “t” and “d” sounds); for example, reading the previous sentence out loud might sound like this: “Ya wanna speak clearly, an fully pronounce each wor before moving on t’the next.” Don’t do this on the TOEFL! Each word needs to be clearly heard. Speaking quickly makes diction harder, so practice speaking slowly enough to be easily understood.

To better understand diction, try listening to two or three news reports from different sources on the same topic. Because the subject is the same, you will be able to hear how each report uses word choice and clear speaking to convey information quickly and clearly.

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