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TOEFL Tip #101: Be Direct

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 27, 2011

Many students make the mistake of making their answers too complicated on the Writing or Speaking sections of the TOEFL. They think that they need to show the progression of supporting details which build up to the main idea. Instead of getting right to the point that directly addresses the essay question, they provide an elaborate story that leads into it.

Don’t do this. Instead, focus on making sure that you directly answer the question, and all of your details support the main idea. For the Independent Essay, you only have 300 words, and in the Speaking section, you have short amounts of time to give your answer. Both of these limits are too short for a long build-up to a point that has a lot of concrete details. So skip the build-up and get right to the point.

Let’s look at an example.

Independent essay question: Who is someone in your life that you admire, and why?

You’ve decided to write about your sister, because you admire the fact that she has a job that makes her happy. An indirect paragraph about your sister’s job might look like this:

I admire my sister because she has a job that makes her happy. She used to have a terrible job because she didn’t go to college. She cried every day. Then she decided to go to nursing school. She took a lot of courses and studied hard. After she graduated, she got a job at a hospital near her home. Now, she loves her job, and she is happy all of the time.

Even though the parts about your sister’s old job and going to nursing school lead up to your point about how she’s happy in her job now, only the last sentence of the paragraph actually answers the question.

Compare the indirect paragraph with a direct one:

I admire my sister because she has an important job that also makes her happy. She is a nurse who works in a hospital close to her home, and she runs a teddy bear clinic for kids. I think it is a good idea that my sister does a pretend examination on the children’s stuffed animals. This helps kids feel less afraid when they go for a doctor’s appointment, because they understand what happens there. She loves helping the people of her community, and I think her work is very valuable.

This paragraph is approximately the same length as the indirect paragraph, but notice two things that are different about it. One, it’s much more detailed than the indirect paragraph, and two, those details are all specific about why you admire your sister and her work.

When preparing for the TOEFL, practice giving direct answers. You will be surprised how much more you can say when you get right to the point.

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 #99: Blending Sounds

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 13, 2011

All speakers use blended sounds to give rhythm to their words. At the most basic level, pronunciation is blending the sounds of individual letters to form a word. Many languages – including English – also use blending between words to carry the momentum of what the speaker is saying. Understanding blending also affects your performance on the TOEFL.

A common example of blending happens when one word ends with a particular sound, and the next word starts with the same sound. In this case, the speaker will often blend the two words into one word. The sentence, “I want to eat tomatoes with you” would sound like “Eye wanna ee-ta-may-tas wih-ya.” Letters that have similar sounds, such as “t” and “d” are often blended as well: “What do you want to do?” becomes “Whadayah wanna do?” While this looks strange in writing, it’s usually easily understood when spoken.

Awareness of blending in spoken English is important for several sections of the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, being able to blend sounds between words in English will help you sound more like a native speaker. If you stop and fully articulate every sound in every word, you will sound robotic. If you just drop the last sound from every word, you may sound like you don’t fully understand how to pronounce English. Blending is in the middle between these two extremes. Of course, be careful not to run all of your words together into one long word. That’s not blending; it’s just taking out the proper spacing between words.

Blending is also important in the Speaking, Listening, and Writing sections of the TOEFL. These are all sections where you need to understand what is being said in order to complete the section correctly. While the directions throughout the exam will generally speak clearly and slowly – that is, with minimal or no blending – the academic lectures and the conversations between students may feature differing amounts of blending. To be a good listener, you need to be able to quickly separate the blended sounds back into their original words so you can follow what is being said.

To get a good sense of what blending sounds like, listen to a lot of conversations, especially if the speakers are talking quickly. You will hear how blended sounds make for smoother pronunciation.

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!

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.

TOEFL Tip #89: Touch Typing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 4, 2011

Although it may seem like getting a good TOEFL score only requires being able to read, speak, write, and listen to English well, this is not quite the case. You ALSO need to be able to work quickly without being distracted by the clock, for example. If you’re taking the iBT, you need to be familiar with using a mouse. When you have mastered general skills like these, you can put all of your attention on the exam questions. The more you have to focus on HOW to take the test, the harder it will be to do well ON the test.

A big area that slows people down on the iBT is typing out their essays for the writing section. They use only one or two fingers on each hand to type, and have to scan the entire keyboard for each letter. Or, they type quickly, but make so many mistakes that they waste a lot of time going back to fix obvious spelling errors, or putting spaces between words. It makes sense that this would slow you down, and time might run out before you finish the essay, even if you know exactly what you want to say.

To avoid this problem, practice touch typing as you get ready for the writing section of the TOEFL. “Touch Typing” means being able to type quickly and accurately without looking at the keyboard very often. If you can type with all of your fingers without looking at the keyboard, you will go a lot faster.

There are free sites on the web that will teach you how to touch type. One example is the site from The site features a clear description of each step in learning to touch type, a series of typing lessons, and a space where you can paste in your own text, and then practice typing it. For example, you can write a sample 30 minute or 20 minute essay, then practice typing it accurately.

Once you have learned to touch type and are practicing on your own, be sure to turn off the feature on your word processor that automatically corrects your mistakes. For example, auto-correct will fix simple mistakes like typing “teh” for “the.” You know how to spell “the,” but if you’re used to the computer fixing mistakes like that, you won’t be in the habit of checking your work carefully. You don’t want to lose points because of small mistakes that you can easily fix!

Touch typing well will increase your speed and accuracy, and that will help make sure that you have time to write your best essays on the TOEFL.

TOEFL Tip #87: “Less is more”

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 18, 2011

Always remember that the TOEFL values the idea that “Less is more.” The phrase means that, in some situations, doing less will bring a better result than trying to do too much. The key is that what you actually DO has to be good in order to be effective. Obviously, doing less and being careless will not bring the result that you want.

“Less is more” on the TOEFL, too. Although this post will discuss the written section of the test, you can apply this approach to the speaking section, too.

Both essays on the Writing section of the iBT have a word count. This is there for a reason! The Integrated Writing Task (informally called the 20 minute essay) should have about 200 words, and the Independent Task (informally called the 30 minute essay) requires a minimum of 300 words, but don’t go too far beyond that. Keep these word counts in mind, and focus on making your essays perfect, not longer.

One way to think about “less is more” is to use the word count as a guideline for how long each part of your essay should be. For the Integrated Task, if the reading and the listening make 3 points about the topic, you should have about 50 words per paragraph. (For example, the two sentences I just wrote = 50 words). It’s the same for the Independent Task. If you have 3 reasons/examples to support what you want to say, the introduction and conclusion paragraph might each have about 50 words, and the 3 paragraphs with your reasons might each have about 65 words. (Of course, one paragraph might have 60 words, and another might have 75 words, but you get the overall idea.) If every paragraph has 80 words, you’re trying to cram too much into the essay!

Another way to think about “less is more” is remembering the purpose of each writing task. The Integrated Task asks you to compare an academic reading passage with a spoken lecture on the same topic. That’s all you have to do – state the topic of the reading and the listening, and then compare what each says. Your goal is to summarize the main points made in the reading and listening and offer a FEW details to explain these main points. Do not try to repeat all of the details! That takes up too much space and time, and it does not necessarily improve your essay.

The purpose of the Independent Task is to respond to a question using only enough details to support your point. The key here is to focus! Be sure that your reasons and examples are direct and succinctly show the point you are trying to make. Details themselves will not gain you points. Only the details that matter will. Also, do not say things like, “And that is why I think ….” Remember, your essay has already been explaining what you think; that the reader knows that anything you write is “what you think”.

TOEFL Tip #83: TOEFL Scores And Admissions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 21, 2011

Strictly English noticed that there has been discussion throughout the web about whether high TOEFL scores play a big role in admissions decisions. The question is: do you only need to get the  minimum TOEFL score requested by the university or can a higher TOEFL score sway the decisions of college admissions?

Some internationals are convinced that a high TOEFL score will get you into the university of your choosing. For example, two non-native students are trying to get into an MBA program where the TOEFL requirement is a 90 on the iBT. If one student scored a 99 on the TOEFL iBT and another student scored a 110, then most test-takers erroneously assume that the higher score would get admitted into the university while the lower score would be declined. According to this view, even though both students made the minimum requirement, only the higher score would be accepted.

Luckily, this is not the case. Even if the applicant with a 110 got accepted and the person with the 99 did not, it was definitely not because the applicant with 110 had a higher TOEFL score. Rather, the person with the 110 must have had a better application essay, and he or she probably interviewed better. Application essays and interviews are where a student is critiqued on whether he or she will be able to excel in a university classroom. For example, an essay on the TOEFL with a perfect score is at best a C+ essay in a university classroom. TOEFL graders have different criteria about what makes a good essay than admission officers have.

To recap: If the applicant who scored a 99 submitted a great application essay while the applicant who scored a 110 wrote a terrible, or even a mediocre, application essay, then the score of 99 would be admitted and the 110 would be declined acceptance. The perspective of most American college admissions officers is that the applicant who scored 99 would be admitted because he or she achieved the minimum TOEFL requirement and had a good application essay. This applicant had two positive points while the applicant with the 110 only had one positive point (a high TOEFL score, but a poor essay). Remember there are a lot of people who speak perfect English, but are not capable of college-level thinking.

Having now explained why a higher TOEFL score won’t help you get into college, there are two possible caveats to this rule. One, the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam is important to admissions. A high Speaking sub-score will benefit the student applying to schools because verbal articulation plays a vital role in the university classroom. Your TOEFL’s overall score does not need to be higher than the requirement, but the Speaking score must be as high as possible if you want to sound your best in the admissions interview and in the classroom. Also, a high overall TOEFL score may be vital to the applicant indirectly. The preparation needed to acquire a top TOEFL score does not only develop one’s English skills but also his or her communication skills in general. If applicants can harness these skills during their TOEFL preparation, then they have a higher chance of putting together a competitive and outstanding application packet.

So a higher TOEFL score will not directly improve your chances of acceptance, but the skills you learn in order to get a higher TOEFL score might make all the difference in how you present yourself in your written and spoken communication to the school.

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