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TOEFL Tip #130: TOEFL Scores For Student Visas To Australia And The United Kingdom

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 12, 2011

Applying for a visa to study in Australia or the United Kingdom just got a little bit easier.

Starting November 5, 2011, TOEFL test scores will be acceptable for Australian student visa applications, if you do not have International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test scores. ETS, the company that administers the TOEFL exam, researched the scores of people who had taken both tests to determine the equivalent scores between TOEFL and IELTS scores.

At the lowest and highest scores, only a few points separate the TOEFL scores from each IELTS band. For example, a TOEFL score of 31 is the equivalent of IELTS band 4, and a TOEFL 32 corresponds to IELTS band 4.5. Similarly, a TOEFL 115 equals IELTS band 8.5, and a TOEFL 118 is the same as IELTS band 9.

The biggest differences between TOEFL scores and IELTS bands are in the middle of the range, where there is a lot of variation in non-native speakers’ mastery of English. A TOEFL score of 46 matches IELTS band 5.5, but to get to the equivalent of the next IELTS band (6), a student’s TOEFL score has to go up by 14 points, to 60. There’s an even bigger jump to get to the next-highest IELTS band (6.5) – a whopping 19 point increase, for a TOEFL score of 79. (For more information, including the full chart comparing TOEFL scores with IELTS bands, click here).

This move by the Australian government follows a similar expansion by the United Kingdom earlier this year.

As of April 6, 2011, students can use TOEFL iBT scores as part of their applications for visas to the United Kingdom. Non-native speakers of English pursuing a degree in the United Kingdom need to show a minimum TOEFL score of 21 in Listening, 22 in Reading, 23 in Speaking, and 21 in Writing. For more information, click here.

As always, students need to check with the particular requirements of the institution where they will be studying, which may require higher scores than the minimum needed for a visa.

Want to study in Australia or the United Kingdom, but can’t find TOEFL classes near you? Study online with Strictly English!

TOEFL Tip #127: Not all TOEFL Books Are Created Equal

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 25, 2011

When an individual is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her self-study or when a teacher is picking which TOEFL book is best for his/her group class, the first thing to remember is that there are basically three types of TOEFL books.

1. exercise books

2. sample test books

3. language skills books

And each of these books is also targeted to a particular English level. At the bottom of Strictly English’s Exercises Page you’ll find a score chart that indicates the level each book targets. So in this blog article we’ll focus on the three above mentioned differences.

Ideally, if you had the time and the budget, you’d work with all three types of books since they each have a valuable purpose to serve.

All three types give an overview of the test and the types of questions you will be asked to answer and tasks you will be asked to perform. And basically, you’ll learn the same thing from any of these books with regard to this basic introductory information.

The Exercise Books (The Longman & the Delta) give you,  . . . well . . . , a lot of exercises, or at least more than the other two types of books do. We at Strictly English think these books are indispensable. The more you rehearse the mechanical steps to answering a question type, the more accurate (and over time, the faster) you’ll become. I call this category “Exercise Books”, but to be fair, they do have sample tests as well. In fact, Longman has a large amount of both exercises and tests. Yet, I put it in the exercises category because although it has many “Mini-Tests” on its CD, it only has two full tests.

The books that I’ve categorized as “Sample Test Books” (Cambridge & Barrons) are often woefully deficient in exercises. Now they might reply, “HEY! we have lots of, say, paraphrase questions in our book. They are just not grouped together in a section called PARAPHRASE. Instead they are scattered throughout our sample tests.” I cannot argue against this point, but I don’t think of it as an “exercise” unless it’s in a drill-able format, which (as I stated above) is crucial to acclimating to the mechanical steps needed to answer a question correctly. This is not to say Sample Test Books are useless. They are great! You just want to begin using them AFTER you’ve done an exercise book. Once you’ve mastered the strategies/skills for answering each question type, THEN you can begin to integrate them into each other in a test-like format.

Finally, there are the Language Skills Books. This approach to English learning is fantastic. Arguably it cannot be beat. If Strictly English were a English Language school, we would definitely buy these books and use them in our general English classes. But language learning and TOEFL study are not the same. To learn a language, you need so much more facility than you do to pass the TOEFL. Case in point, I would argue that you can get through 99% of the TOEFL test without really understanding nor using models (the one exception being Task 5 of the Speaking where you have to give advice). So Language Skills Books are a time-sink and are too wide-reaching for TOEFL preparation.

These categories are not rigidly segregated. As I’ve already said, Longman has some full practice tests in them. Also, Cambridge is a Language Skills Book AND a Sample Test Book. Therefore, Strictly English uses only the Sample Tests from the book and ignores the Language Skills part of it.

So if you can’t buy all of them or you don’t have the time to study them all, how do you decide which ones to use? We suggest getting one Exercise Book and one Sample Test Book. For example, Longman & Cambridge or Delta & Barrons. Start there and see how you do. If you have more time, then move onto the pair you didn’t buy at first.

WARNING ONE: Please note that many of these books are out of date. Even the ETS’s 2011 Official Guide to the TOEFL inaccurately portrays the Integrated Essay and the Reading’s Chart Questions (of which not one of our students has reported seeing on a real test). This is because some of the books have not been revised recently. For example, when the Reading Section changes on Nov 1, all the books will be describing that section incorrectly. Also, Task 1 of the Speaking changed from requesting a Description to requesting Advice, which none of the books have had a chance to update either. Only a company like Strictly English, which does its own research, can keep you abreast of these changes as they happen.

WARNING TWO: Even very bright students do not often achieve the score they want through self-study alone. This is because these books are purposefully designed as teachers’ aides. They work best when you’re guided through them in a group class or with a private tutor.

Good luck!

(PS: please comment below about YOUR favorite TOEFL Book and why you like it!—-THANKS!)

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 #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 #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 #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 #104: Rescoring Could Make A Big Difference

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 10, 2011

If your Speaking and Writing scores on the TOEFL are lower than you expected, consider having the sections rescored. Recently, three Strictly English students have benefitted significantly from their rescore requests. Two students each gained four points on the Speaking section – one went from 23 to 27, and the other went from 24 to 28 – and the third student gained four points on the Writing section, going from 24 to 28. These higher scores are life-changing, because they resulted in the scores necessary for each student to pursue professional licenses. With so much at stake, rescoring could be a smart strategy.

The ETS site outlines the process for requesting a rescore, but we wanted to highlight a few points here.

Each TOEFL exam you take can be rescored only one time, but you have up to three months after you take the test to request the rescore. If you want both the Speaking and Writing sections rescored, they must be done at the same time. Each section is $60 ($120 for both sections), which must be paid whether your scores changes or not. Revised scores are ready online three weeks after your request is received.

Only the Speaking and Writing sections can be rescored, because these sections call on the judgment and experience of each person scoring your exam. Of course, ETS has standards and guidelines to help all of its graders assess tests in very similar ways. Strictly English has discussed scoring discrepancies with ETS, who assures us that these are anomolies – unusual exceptions to their typical results. ETS says, “Data collected by ETS indicates that TOEFL iBT score changes based on rescores has always been less than one tenth of one percent and that the rate has actually decreased every year.” Yet, for us to have three students each gain four points suggests that ETS’s scoring on the Speaking and Writing sections might not be consistent all of the time.

Before you request a rescore, be honest with yourself about your performance on the test. Is your actual score on the Speaking and Writing sections lower than the score you need by four or fewer points? Have your practice test scores been higher than your actual test score? Were you well prepared to take the test – well-rested, not hungry, etc? Did you feel that you easily understood the material in the Speaking and Writing sections? Did you feel confident that your answers addressed the questions in a direct, focused way?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, consider having your Reading or Writing sections rescored. Rescoring could make the difference in your final test score between needing to take the TOEFL again, or not. If you request a rescore and receive a higher score, please be sure to let us know!

TOEFL Tip #102: Another Happy Pharmacist Scores 29 on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 27, 2011

In late March, we had a pharmacist come to us who had taken the TOEFL at least 7 times and was unable to get the score of 26 on the Speaking and 24 on the Writing that he needed for his pharmacy license. With only 14 hours of tutoring over a 6-week period, he got a 29 on his Speaking and a 24 on his Writing: Here’s the email we received:


Hi Alex hi Jon
My results are out last night. I got 29 on Speaking. 24 on Writing. And this means I PASSSEEEEDDDDD YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
THIS ONE IS FOR U ALEX iiiiiiiiii i i ii i i i i i i i i i i i i yea yea yea yea yea yea. Sorry I was holding it in. hehhehe Thanks guy. You were awesome. Best teacher I every had. Thanks a million times

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