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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 #129: Request For Speaking Re-score Brings A Higher Result . . . Again

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 4, 2011

Earlier this year, we discussed examples of Strictly English students whose TOEFL test scores were significantly lower than their practice scores had been prior to the exam. Each of the three students requested a rescore, and each had his or her score raised by 4 points. As we noted, this is a substantial difference which can determine if students can continue their professional studies, or not.

It’s happened again.

Just this week, we’ve had yet ANOTHER student’s request for a re-score on his Speaking section result in a 26, after receiving a 24 in his first results.

This student is Indian, and he needed the 26 for his Pharmacy License. To improve his Speaking score, he studied with Strictly English. We were 100% sure he’d get the 26, based on our experience and the evaluation tools we have developed. He didn’t, and we told him to rescore. We were RIGHT. He *did* speak at a level of 26 on his test.

Can Strictly English score people more accurately than ETS?

While ETS graders are trained so that their results consistently meet ETS’s scoring requirements, our students’ experience strongly suggests that some accents might prove more challenging for graders to assess, at least on a first listen. Of course, you need to do as much as you can to ensure that you are clearly understood when you speak, but if your TOEFL Speaking score is surprisingly lower than your practice scores, consider asking for a re-score.

TOEFL Tip #128: How TOEFL Scores Correspond to Native Ability in English

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 28, 2011

 If you’re taking the TOEFL, you’re probably trying to get a specific score. Perhaps the score is part of a college application, or perhaps you need it for professional certification. Whatever your reasons, you have an end goal, a number that indicates your mastery of English, according to TOEFL.

 But what does a 30 mean, in daily life? How can you recognize the difference in skills between a 24 and a 27? Understanding the real-world equivalents of TOEFL scores can help you gauge your own performance, and get to the ability level that matches the score you need.

 In the following list, which Strictly English developed from its work with students who have a wide range of ability in English, notice that the crucial division is between 24 and 26.

 At 24 and below, a student’s ability in English still clearly marks him or her as someone who has learned English as a second language. This could be for any one or more reasons – a strong accent which obscures the speaker’s meaning, frequent errors in basic grammar, poor ability to follow conversations and lectures, and so on.

 Scores of 26 or above, on the other hand, signal that the student is on par with native speakers of English. The key difference at this level is in the sophistication of the speaker’s vocabulary, the variety of sentence structures, the skill with developing details.

 As you prepare for the TOEFL, keep in mind that the score you’re trying to reach has an equivalent that you can use for comparison with your own skills.

 30 : Professional public speaker (for example, Oprah Winfrey)

29 : University professor

28 : Really smart graduate student

27 : Really smart college senior

26 : “Straight – A” high-school senior

24 : “Fluent” ESL

22-23 : Advanced ESL

18-21 : High-Intermediate ESL

14-17 : Intermediate ESL

10 – 13: Low Intermediate ESL

below 10: Beginner ESL




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 #126: Getting To Performance Speed

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 21, 2011

 Time is of the essence. There’s no time like the present. Time flies when you’re having fun. We have a lot of sayings about the importance of time, and how quickly it passes.

As students prepare for the TOEFL, they’re often concerned about working within a time limit, and they worry about running out of time before they finish a section. As a result, many students think that they have to practice at the same speed that they will ultimately perform at, so they can get used to working quickly.

 This is a mistake.

 There is practice speed and there is performance speed; they are NOT the same. Do not worry about performance speed; focus instead on practice speed. As you work in practice speed mode, you will naturally perform more quickly, and your speed will increase until it reaches the levels you need in order to do well on the TOEFL.

 Our goal at Strictly English is to make your performance speed equal your practice speed.


 Because practice speed is the speed at which you can do everything correctly. Going fast doesn’t help your TOEFL score if you’re making a lot of mistakes. The key is to be fast AND accurate. You cannot begin at performance speed. By focusing on doing everything correctly at practice speed, you’ll work quickly without mistakes as you naturally increase – over time – to performance speed. 

 Don’t worry. “Over time” does not mean two years. This is what everyone fears, and what leads them to try to jump to the end of the process.  “Over time” really means . . . . about two weeks of steady, dedicated practice. Remember: it doesn’t take a 5 year old two years to learn how to ride a bike. A child may WANT to ride it perfectly on day one, but it will usually take until  . . . . day ten. That might seem like a long time, but 10 days is much shorter than 2 years!


TOEFL Tip #125: It Takes Two To Make A TOEFL Go Right

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 14, 2011

For several months, Strictly English has been hearing reports from our new clients who have taken the TOEFL 6 or more times that their scores are going down with each test, and they are feeling more nervous about the exam every time they take it. Some of these students are developing test-taking anxiety that they did not have when they took the TOEFL the first few times. Our work with them focuses not only on TOEFL strategies, but also on overcoming these new anxious responses.

 In Strictly English’s experience, students who book two tests really close together – within a day or two – often do much better than students who space their exams weeks or even months apart.

Perhaps this is because taking two tests in such a short time frame keeps students focused on taking the exam. At the first exam, students report being relaxed, because they know they have another exam very soon, in case the first one doesn’t go as well as they hope. Then, when they’re taking the second exam, they’re relaxed because they feel that they did okay on the first one. Because they take the second test before getting the scores for the first, the depression and nervousness that can follow from a low set of test scores doesn’t affect their performance on the second TOEFL. Perhaps this trick of taking two tests very close together can help avoid this dropping-score problem.

 Of course, this is an expensive gamble, but we’ve seen it work in the past. If you’re planning to take the TOEFL more than once, consider whether taking them within a few days of each other will boost your performance.

TOEFL Tip #124: EXTRA! EXTRA! ETS Changes TOEFL Reading Section

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 12, 2011

ETS  announced on October 7th  that starting November 1, 2011 the Reading section of the TOEFL will have two major changes to it.

1. There will now only be ONE Experimental Reading passage on tests that have a “long” Reading section.

2. TOEFL will no longer break up the Reading section into two differently timed sections.

This means that now, the TOEFL timer will say 60 minutes if you have only 3 passages, and it will say 80 minutes if you have 4 passages (one of the 4 will be experimental, but you will now know which one!)

To understand these changes, we first have to explain how the Reading section has been administered until now. Previously, you were given the first passage with 20 minutes on the timer. Then, you received TWO passages and 40 minutes on the timer. If you received an “Experimental” Reading section, you were given TWO MORE passages and 40 more minutes. (The Experimental Section allows TOEFL to test out new passages to see if they have any mistakes in them. It’s their way of “beta testing” passages before those passages are used in a real test.) You wouldn’t know if the first 40-minute section or the second 40-minute section was the Experimental Section, which means you had to complete all five passages. This took 1 hour and 40 minutes! TOO LONG!!!  In addition, once the first passage’s time was up, you could not return to that passage again. (Although our research did find a bug in the programming: if you clicked on the REVIEW button and then clicked on a question from passage one, you could get back to the first passage.) This was bad because if you had time remaining after you answered every question, you could only go back and change answers in passages two and three, but not in passage one.

Well, enough test takers must have complained because now, instead of 5 passages (3 that you’re graded on and 2 that you’re not graded on) you’ll now receive only 4 (3 that you’re graded on and only 1 that you’re not graded on).

This might not seem like much of a change, but shortening the Reading by 20 minutes will be a huge improvement. Now, test takers will not get as tired before having to take the three other sections of the test. Even Strictly English tutors are exhausted after 1 hour and 40 minutes of Reading questions.

Frankly, we at Strictly English don’t think that ETS shortened the Reading section based on test taker feedback. ETS has consistently proved that it’s not really interested in customer service, as evidenced by how little they care about the deplorable test center conditions. Instead, we think that this is a direct response to the PTE Academic, a competing English Proficiency test that is only about 2.5 hours long, which is about 1.5 hours shorter than the TOEFL iBT.

Regardless of the reason, this is FANTASTIC news for test takers. You won’t be as tired entering the Listening section of the test, and you’ll get out of the exam in under 4 hours now.

As for all the passages being grouped into one timed section, this is also wonderful news. Now you can note on a piece of paper all the questions that you want to return to. And if you have time remaining, you can go back to any of the passages’ questions. MUCH BETTER!


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 #122: Develop Your Skills by Listening to Public Radio

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 30, 2011

We’ve recently discussed some research conducted by Strictly English this summer which suggests that students need to have sharp listening skills for the TOEFL. We discovered that there seems to be two “paths” of connected answers for each listening passage. Each “path” is a series of related answers that follow from the first question. Whichever answer you give for the first question will lead you to select the related choices in subsequent questions. If you’ve answered the first question correctly, you’ll more likely pick the correct answers all the way through that section. If, however, you’ve chosen the incorrect answer for the first question, the “path” of answers will make it more likely that you will miss most of the answers for that passage.

How can you sharpen your listening skills?

Listen to National Public Radio (NPR) programs on your local public radio station.

The TOEFL focuses relentlessly on American-accented English, so listening to NPR will expose you to a wide range of accents. The hosts and reporters who work for NPR generally have slight accents, so they are easy to understand. They also interview people from around the United States and the world, giving you a chance to listen to English spoken with a variety of accents.

In addition to the live broadcasts of NPR programs, many of the shows also have podcasts. You can download them through NPR’s webpage. Consider listening to interviews first, as the flow of conversation might be easier to follow. As your listening skills increase, listen to longer reports on news and other topics.
Another suggestion for sharpening your language skills overall and your listening in particular, is to read about a major world event in a newspaper written in your first language, then read about that same event in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Next, listen to NPR reports about that event. Finally, read about that event in the New Yorker and The Economist. This sequence will help you to compare the ways in which different sources report on the same story, and the types of language each source uses. In addition, you will understand a lot more from the NPR reports because you are already familiar with the story they are discussing.

TOEFL Tip #121: Guest Post: Preparing for the New Revised GRE

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2011

Here’s a guest post from Jill Muttera, a tutor with Grockit

Use Your Fall to Prepare for the New Revised GRE: What to Expect and How to Prepare for the Verbal Section

Fall is here, and for some lucky people that means trips to go apple picking or to enjoy the season’s brightly colored leaves. But for those of you taking the new revised GRE later this fall or winter, now is the time to buckle down and put in those hours studying for the big test!

It can be easy to feel like there is tons of time to study for the GRE — until suddenly, weeks have turned into months, and the test is just around the corner. To avoid this procrastination disaster and use your available time effectively, create a study plan for the test right away. Most students start studying for the GRE about three months in advance. Set a goal for hours of studying per week and make a schedule of when you will fit in these hours. Some people learn best by studying a short amount daily, while others benefit from longer sessions and having a day or days off. Play around with different schedules until you find what works best for you. Make sure to take practice tests throughout your preparation time so you can get used to the length of the test, as well as gauge your progress in different areas. It is also a good idea to have a reading program set up in addition to your regular GRE practice time. Reading is the best way to learn new vocabulary, especially for non-native English speakers, because you are seeing the word in context. Vocabulary learned this way is more likely to stick with you than vocabulary memorized from a list of definitions. Well-written novels or articles in newspapers are both great options. Many people find that reading one article per day from a newspaper’s website is a nice supplement to their regular GRE practice.

For students taking the new revised GRE, preparing for the test may seem especially overwhelming. Fortunately, a little knowledge about what to expect will allow you to perform your best on these new sections. The new verbal section of the GRE focuses more on vocabulary in context, rather than standing on its own. This is good news for you since context offers clues to the meanings of words. The antonym and analogy questions have been eliminated, and text completion and sentence equivalence questions have been added. If you have taken the TOEFL exam, these new questions will be familiar already. Text completion questions consist of short paragraphs with one to three blanks. Each blank will have three possible choices, or five if there is only one blank. A choice could be one word or a phrase made up of a few words. Sentence equivalence questions contain one sentence with one blank and six answer choices. You must select two answer choices that could complete the sentence. Both of these types of questions do not get partial credit–if you miss one part of the question, you miss the whole thing. An effective strategy for these sections is predicting a word or phrase that would fill in the blank and then trying to find a matching meaning in the answer choices.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about the GRE, especially with a new format and the rush of activity that fall often brings. But armed with a clear study plan and an understanding of the new elements of the GRE, you can make the most of your fall and go into your test confident and prepared!

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