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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 #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 #153: TOEFL Details Are Divinely Devilish

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 27, 2012

English has two idioms about the importance of details. One is “The devil is in the details.” The other is “God is in the details.” Someone hearing these two expressions might ask: How can both God and the devil be in the details? And more relevant to our purposes as TOEFL tutors, we might ask, what do these expressions have to do with TOEFL study?

Let’s tackle the first question first. “God is in the details,” the older expression, means that anything you do, you should do well. There is no satisfaction in doing a task in a sloppy or inattentive way, or in leaving the task unfinished. The opposite expression, “The devil is in the details” points to the difficulty in doing something well, especially if that difficulty is not apparent in the beginning. For example, close examination of the details might reveal additional complexity in the task, or the need for more in-depth knowledge.

So turning to the second question, “What does this have to do with TOEFL?,” we have to remember that TOEFL rewards attention to detail, and these details are fiendishly frustrating to most TOEFL test takers. For example, fact questions in the Reading might ask you to differentiate between two similarly written words, like “stalagmite” and “stalactite.” In the Listening section, you may need to recall a specific number like 1,000 B.C. and must be sure you don’t accidentally choose 10,000 B.C. or 1,000 A.D. Details in the Speaking usually means having extremely accurate pronunciation, while your Writing has to have detailed examples to prove your argument.

If you can master these devils, then you are rewarded with the “godly” satisfaction of razor sharp accuracy and precision in both choosing answer choices and in communicating your ideas in flawless intermediate English.

So what’s the takeaway (definition 2) of this entry? To receive a “godly” TOEFL score that might put you in seventh heaven , you have demonstrate a strong ability to work with details, which can be a real devil of a time for most people to accomplish.

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 #134: Dec 17th Tests Scores Lower than Expected

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 29, 2011

If it’s true that misery loves company, then a lot of you can take comfort in that your lower-than-expected TOEFL scores from the Dec 17th TOEFL test are on average with many other people’s scores.

This is not only being reported from out clients at Strictly English, but also from other schools’ students.

But Why? How could the whole world bomb (see definition 5) the same test? Did TOEFL deliver a bad test that day? Did TOEFL design a new test that’s simply harder than before?

Probably not.

Most likely it’s because this one test is, in many test-takers’ minds, the most important test of the year. If you’re an MBA candidate, this was the last test you could take if you wanted to apply for Round Two admissions. If you’re an undergraduate applicant or an applicant to graduate school, this was the last test you could take if you wanted your scores comfortably in advance of your application deadlines. Even if you didn’t really have an official deadline for your TOEFL, there was still that desire to finish the year with TOEFL behind you!

Simply said: everyone’s nerves got the best of them. And what Strictly English has noticed over its nearly 8 years of tutoring is that nothing kills a TOEFL score quicker than being nervous. We have had scores (see definition 11) of students who have performed wonderfully week after week in our tutoring sessions, only to come back from the test and say that they froze with panic once the test started. Only after they overcame their fear of the test were they able to deploy Strictly English’s strategies (or anyone’s strategies for that matter) successfully.

So now what?

If you’re going to take the test again in January, then the most important thing to remember is: DO NOT PANIC!!! Worrying will get you nowhere. You must remind yourself that if you worry on test day, you will fail! So what’s the point in generating all that anxiety when it’s just going to work against you anyway.

What to do?

1. Read our article about how to recognize anxiety as excitement. If you can shift your perception of your emotions, you’ll do much better!

2. Get a mild anti-anxiety pill from you doctor. There is NO SHAME in telling your doctor that you get nervous on tests and that you have a big test coming up soon. You and he can discuss if there are medical options with minimal or no side effects. Most one-time antidepressants are not habit forming.

3. Schedule two tests a week apart. We have found this strategy really relaxes people!

4. Get a relaxation tape and practice some visualizing exercises.

In short. have confidence that you’re on the right track and that your English is strong!

GOOD LUCK!

PTE Tip #5: Start Early With PTE Young Learners

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 23, 2011

Young students who are not yet ready to prepare for the full Pearson Test of English Academic might consider the PTE Young Learners. The program is aimed at students who are 8 – 14 years old. This could be especially helpful for non-native speakers of English who plan to enroll in high school or college in an English speaking country.

PTE Young Learners features English as it is used in realistic, day-to-day scenarios, and measures students’ ability to communicate in English. Because of this, the test is not focused on memorizing the formal structures and grammar of English. Instead, the material in PTE Young Learners centers on stories and conversations about the routines of a fictional family.

Like PTE Academic, PTE Young Learners tests students’ Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking skills. An external assessor measures students’ Speaking skills, while the rest of the exam is on paper.

In addition, PTE Young Learners is divided into four levels to reflect increasing language acquisition – Firstwords, Springboard, Quickmarch, and Breakthrough. Students move to the next level as they gain confidence and experience in communicating in English. Pearson provides students with feedback on their test performance, and successful PTE Young Learners test takers receive a certificate indicating their achievement in English.

For students who will be educated in English-speaking institutions, PTE Young Learners could be a valuable early step toward that goal. For more information about PTE Young Learners, click here

TOEFL Tip #133: Strictly English’s $8,000.00 University Scholarship

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 16, 2011

Strictly English is proud to announce that it will match one of ETS’s five US$8,000.00 scholarships, to be given to any Japanese student who wins ETS’s 2012 award and who studied TOEFL(R) with Strictly English anytime between December 17, 2011 and March 13, 2012.

This could amount to $16,000.00 that you’d be able to apply toward your educational expenses!

That’s a lot of money to win for the small price of some TOEFL tutoring! ^_^

Restrictions apply (For example):
1. You must meet all of ETS’s eligibility requirements. To learn more about ETS’s scholarships, read more here.

2. You must enroll in all 4 of Strictly English’s Complete Strategies Programs (one for each section of the test).

3. You much provide documented proof of having received ETS’s scholarship.

4. This is not a cash prize. The money you win will be given directly to your educational institution on your behalf and will not exceed the cost of tuition for that institution.

5. You must be enrolled with Strictly English before January 10, 2012.

Please Note: Strictly English’s scholarship award is in no way endorsed by ETS or TOEFL. Strictly English is a wholly separate entity from TOEFL and ETS.

For more information, please contact Strictly English.

GOOD LUCK!

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