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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 #96: Speak with Feeling

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 22, 2011

Some of our recent blog posts (here and here) have addressed different issues related to the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam. These posts have focused on your choice of words and the way that you say them. Today, we want to talk about the emotion behind your words – how your tone of voice can influence how well the TOEFL rater understands you.

Your goal is to sound like you care about your topic. When you are talking with a friend, your voice naturally rises and falls as part of the flow of conversation. Do this on the TOEFL exam as well. Vary your tone of voice, and emphasize one or two words in each sentence to highlight their importance to what you’re saying. Avoid speaking in a monotone! A flat voice that does not have any variation sounds like you are bored. If you sound bored, your rater will be bored with your answer. A bored rater might miss details in your answer, and you might end up with a lower grade. It’s ok if you sound a little bit nervous in your answers – that’s to be expected on a test – but try to calm your voice and replace nervousness with confidence. You don’t want the rater to think that you don’t understand the question, or don’t know what the answer should be. A confident voice is strong and clear, but does not yell into the microphone.

In addition, be sure to smile while giving your answer. This will help lift your voice and convey positive emotions. If you are frowning, you will sound angry or sad when you speak.

When your answers sound as if you care about the topic, that tells the rater that you have understood the context of the question, and you are matching your response correctly. If, for example, you are answering a question about your favorite season, you should sound happy, warm, and lively. On the other hand, if the question is about a person from the past you would like to meet, you should speak with admiration in your voice. If you sound angry when talking about your favorite high school teacher, the mis-match between the positive question (favorite teacher) and negative emotion (anger) might cause the rater to think that you did not fully understand the question. Even when giving answers that don’t have particular emotions associated with them, you should still sound interested in the topic. For example, when answering a question about an academic lecture, listen to the way that the speaker in the test talks about the subject for hints about how to sound enthusiastic about the subject he or she is discussing.

In order to be more effective on the Speaking section, practice conveying enthusiasm and interest in your TOEFL answers. You will sound more natural, and that is one of the keys to getting a good Speaking score.

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 #93: Guest Post: In Praise of the GMAT Official Guide

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 1, 2011

This week’s guest post is from Jim Jacobson,’s expert on the Verbal section of the GMAT. Check out their site if you are planning to take the GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exams.

Jim Writes:

One question I hear often is “what sources should I use?” The answer isn’t entirely straightforward — as always, exact tactics can vary as much as GMAT students can vary — but the Official Guide to the test should be at the heart of every single study plan, especially for GMAT aspirants whose native language is not English. What does the OG do for you?

It provides authentic test questions. The GMAT is not published after the fact the way the LSAT is; all makers of prep materials must model their questions after the ones published in the Official Guide. This means that only the OG has real, recent questions, and any other test prep source risks coming up with something the GMAT itself wouldn’t do, even on the same test topic.

The quantitative overview is comprehensive. The section that lays out what topics they want you to know is quite extensive; if you are wondering what math you will need to know/review/learn the first time to get a top score, that section gives it to you.

The verbal questions and their explanations are a priceless guide. This is the part that is useful for everyone, but particularly useful to non-native English speakers. The GMAT’s idea of English deviates a bit from standard written English, in that some things that are grammatically correct are still considered wrong on the test for stylistic reasons. The ONLY way to get a good feel for GMAT English is by careful study of the Official Guide.

It provides a basis for comparison with other test prep materials. If you use GMAT materials from any other source, you run the risk of inaccuracies (and occasionally outright incorrect information). Familiarity with the OG will enable you to better evaluate other sources, and settle disputes for yourself when sources contradict each other.

The Official Guide isn’t without any drawbacks, however:

If you have a substantial study program, you will run out of questions. The number of questions is finite, as is the number of official CATs. This leads many people to other sources. The Official Guide should still be your basis, however.

The quantitative questions do not test all the topics covered in the overview. If you struggle with Interest questions, for example, or Permutation/Combination, there are not many questions of those types in the OG. If those trouble you, you’ll need to get more practice elsewhere.

The verbal questions cannot possibly adequately test all verbal idioms. This is just a fact of human language. If idioms are a problem for you, begin a program of reading perhaps even before you start doing practice questions.

The OG is by its very nature retrospective. Because it is entirely based on previous test questions, you will not be prepared for questions that are “new.” While new question forms are tested in advance as experimental questions, they do not show up in the OG. This is perhaps the best argument in favor of supplementing with other test prep sources, not just in spite of their potential to deviate from the OG norm, but because of it! If you’re forced to see an old idiom or formula in a new way, it can help keep you flexible. Too much emphasis on simply recognizing OG patterns on the real GMAT can hurt you.

TOEFL Tip #92: Understand Campus Life

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 29, 2011

Because most people take the TOEFL as part of their application to college, some material on the exam draws on this area of knowledge. Knowing about campus life in the United States is important for all TOEFL test-takers, even if you are taking it for other reasons, such as for professional certification. Both the Listening and the Speaking sections of the TOEFL have passages and questions about college life. Even if you have not been educated in the United States, you can do well on these questions by knowing a few general points about how college campuses work.

On the TOEFL, conversations between professors and students, or between two students, will be supportive, helpful, and friendly in tone. In an ideal world, professors and other university employees (such as financial aid counselors or librarians) would never say mean things to students or be annoyed at them. Likewise, students appreciate advice given by another student. College life on the TOEFL reflects this ideal world. Professors are always available to talk with students, librarians can find many resources on any topic, and students have helpful suggestions on how to figure out a difficult situation.

When deciding on an answer about the Listening or Speaking conversation, avoid choices that seem unlikely in an ideal academic setting, no matter how reasonable they may be in a non-academic setting. Be careful – an answer might seem “right” because it has many of the content words of the Listening or Speaking passage. The key is whether the answer is negative or positive. For example, if one choice insults the student (“I can’t believe you can’t figure this out”) or seems unconcerned with the student’s problem (“I don’t have time to answer that question”), that’s negative, and the wrong answer. Choices that answer the student’s question (“Let me show you how to solve that equation”) or help to solve his or her problem (“You need to fill out these forms and bring them to the Registrar’s office”) are positive, and are more likely to be the correct answer.

Another aspect of campus culture that will help you on the TOEFL is being familiar with typical names for aspects of student life. You may know that students sleep in “dormitories,” but do you also know that “dorm” is a nickname for the same building? Perhaps the purpose of the Student Center is obvious, but do you know what the Student Union is? (It’s another name for “Student Center”). Registrar, Bursar, Dean, quad, fraternity/sorority, meal plan, work-study – these are a few of the typical departments, places, organizations, or programs at American colleges. Knowing the names campus features such as these will help you to understand the Reading or Listening passage, and can help you to choose the correct answer.

To learn about campus culture, visit the websites of several colleges or talk with current college students. You will quickly get a sense of what college life is like!

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