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TOEFL Tip #91: Use A Holistic Approach: An Example

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 18, 2011

In last week’s post, we talked about using a holistic approach for answering questions in the Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL. Keeping in mind that the questions work together, and using information from one question to answer another, can help you make sure your answers are correct, and can save you time.

Today, we wanted to work through a specific example of how a holistic approach would work. This example comes from the Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test (second edition, 2007), the Reading Diagnostic Pre-Test, pages 3-7.

The reading passage is about aggressive behavior in people, and theories about what causes it. Here is the entire first paragraph; the words in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS are words we want to emphasize for this post. They are not in bold or capital letters in the original passage.

Aggressive behavior is any behavior that is INTENDED to cause injury, pain, suffering, damage, or destruction. While aggressive behavior is often thought of as purely physical, verbal attacks such as screaming and shouting or belittling and humiliating comments AIMED AT causing harm and suffering can also be a type of aggression. What is key to the definition of aggression is that whenever harm is inflicted, be it physical or verbal, it is INTENTIONAL.

The first thing to notice when you are reading this paragraph is that it says three times that aggression is something that is done on purpose (“intended,” “aimed at,” “intentional”). Whenever you see an idea repeated several times in a short paragraph, that’s a tip that the idea is important.

Here is the first question and its answer choices:

1. Which of the following is NOT defined as aggressive behavior?
a. Inflicting pain accidentally
b. Making insulting remarks
c. Destroying property
d. Trying unsuccessfully to injure someone

Right away, you know that the answer is “a,” because the passage emphasized that aggression is intentional. While you should always double check the rest of the answer choices, you can be confident that “a” is the right answer for this question. The answers for b, c, and d ARE acts which someone does on purpose.

This is where using a holistic approach can help you on the TOEFL. As you move on to the next questions, remember this answer. You know that any answer that suggests that aggression is an accident or is unintentional is a wrong answer.

Here is question 5 and its answer choices:

5. According to paragraph 3, displacement is
a. internally directed aggression
b. a modeled type of aggression
c. aggression that is unintentional
d. aggression that is directed outward

Because you remember from question 1 that aggression always intentional, you can immediately see that answer “c” is WRONG, and you can eliminate it. Can you eliminate any other answers? Look at the key word in each choice. The key word of answer “a” is “internally,” the key word of “b” is “modeled,” and the key word of “d” is “outward.” Maybe you don’t remember these words from the passage. You can return to the reading and focus on finding the definition of displacement that uses one of these three key words. Every time you can quickly eliminate one or more choices because you remember a similar answer from earlier in the section, you have saved time, and have reduced your chances of making a mistake.

The more you practice taking a holistic approach to the Reading and Listening sections, the easier it will be to link related answers together.

TOEFL Tip #90: Reading and Listening: Use a Holistic Approach

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 11, 2011

Many people lose a lot of time on the Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL because of the way they approach the questions. They mentally review everything they know about the reading or listening passage in order answer the first question, then they stop thinking, move on to the next question, and start all over again. It’s almost like they empty their minds, and each question is about a new topic.

Don’t do this! All of the questions work together. Treating them like separate items will slow you down. You might even make mistakes that you would not otherwise make.

Instead, use a holistic approach on the Reading and Listening sections. That is, keep in mind that the questions are pieces that work together to form a unit, and each of the pieces depends on the others. Think of the questions as a jigsaw puzzle: when working on a puzzle with an outdoor scene, you group all of the blue pieces together because they’re probably the sky, and you can guess that all of the green pieces are the grass, and so on. By grouping each color together, you can find the piece you want more easily, rather than having to search through all of the puzzle pieces each time.

If you think holistically about the questions for a Reading or Listening passage, you will realize that information from an earlier answer can help answer a later question. We’ll have an example of this in next week’s post, on March 18th.

Thinking holistically can not only save you time on the Reading and Listening sections, but it can also boost your confidence. Having a technique to help answer difficult questions means that you won’t waste precious time, and you won’t panic. Try it as you practice, and see the difference that holistic thinking will make!

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 #88: Translation Program Pitfalls

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 25, 2011

We’ve recently heard about students using translation programs to help them study for the TOEFL. Using translation programs is what an EFL speaker would do; it is not what someone who’s trying to become an ESL speaker would do. Two weeks ago, we discussed the differences between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). We pointed out that the more of your native language you hear, speak, and read every day, the less success you will have on the TOEFL. To excel on the TOEFL, you have to not only passively surround yourself with English in as many formats as possible (news, entertainment, casual conversation, internet reading, and so on), but you also have to actively communicate complicated ideas in English every day. (Sorry, but ordering coffee doesn’t count!).

Perhaps you’re already using a lot of English in your everyday life, but consider whether you are using software such as Google Translate to switch material into your native language in order to understand a difficult passage in a news article, for example. This is not helpful overall for learning English, and it can be even worse if you’re studying to take the TOEFL exam, for two reasons.

First, translation software can be good if you want to check the meaning of a particular word or phrase, or if you already have a sense of what it means, but if you do not have a general idea of the meaning already, you might get a completely wrong translation and never know it. Translation software is often wrong–for example, it will leave out important words, and change the meaning of the passage–and unless you’re fluent in both languages, you’ll never know. Therefore, only use translation programs to fine tune a meaning you already mostly understand.

Second–and this is the bigger problem–if you are in the habit of using translation software when you come across a hard passage of English, you’re not going to have the skills to handle the difficult materials on the TOEFL exam. Figuring out words from context, recognizing metaphorical language, remembering the different forms of each part of speech (especially verbs!) are all skills that take a lot of practice to master, even for students whose first language is English. If instead of practicing these skills you’ve been letting a translation program do all the work, then you won’t suddenly be able to use these skills on test day.

So minimize your use of translation software. Otherwise, you might save time now, but you’ll very likely lose TOEFL points later.

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 #86: ESL vs. EFL: Why the difference matters on the TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 11, 2011

Today’s post highlights the differences between ESL and EFL, and why that matters for the TOEFL exam. Even though the “F” in the name TOEFL indicates that the test is for English as a “foreign” language, it’s really a test of English as a SECOND language. Understanding this difference will help you do well on the test.

So what’s the difference between ESL and EFL? Both terms refer to someone whose first language is not English. ESL stands for English as a Second Language and EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. Both terms refer to how important English is in the country where the speaker lives – how often someone has to speak or read English to get through a typical day. The ESL speaker lives in a country where English is the primary language, and the EFL speaker lives in a country where there is a different primary language, although some English is spoken. We usually think that EFL students live in a country where English isn’t spoken very much, and that ESL students are surrounded by English all of the time.

But that isn’t always true – it depends a lot on the choices students make.

Sometimes, our students who live in America – and who should be learning English as a Second Language – don’t do well on the TOEFL because they are actually living as if English were a Foreign Language. Any one or more of the following situations keep English as a foreign language for these students, rather than making English their second language:

• They live with family or friends who speak their native language
• Their computer’s operating system is in their native language
• They use search engines (like Google and Yahoo) in their native language
• They rent movies in their native language
• They read the news (in print or on the web) in their native language

In all of these examples – as well as many others – students do not hear spoken English, and do not read written English as part of their daily lives. They have an English class for 1 hour a day, a few times a week, which is more like an EFL experience than an ESL experience. Unless students choose to read and speak English throughout the day, every day, they will not learn enough English to count it as a second language.

This is why our clients who live in countries where English isn’t part of daily life often do better on the TOEFL: they purposefully force themselves to live an ESL lifestyle. They KNOW they have little English around them, so they hunt it out constantly. Ironically, students who live where English is the main language think that their American address alone counts as an ESL experience. But it doesn’t. Passive reception of English is not the same as active production of English – for example, thinking in it, speaking in it, reading and writing in it.

If you live in an English-speaking country but haven’t been performing as well on the TOEFL as you expected, check the list above. Changing as many of those items as you can, so that you’re surrounded by English all of the time, will very likely help your score on the next test.

TOEFL Tip #85: Understanding Idioms: It’s A Piece Of Cake

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 3, 2011

Back in August, we wrote a blog article that identified three different kinds of idioms: metaphoric (for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verbs (for example, to LOOK UP means “to research”), and idiomatic conventions (articles, prepositions, and so on that may not be properly called idioms, yet their usage is definitely idiomatic). The advice in that post was that your focus should be on the second and third category of idioms, because you will use many more of those in the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL than you’ll use of metaphoric idioms.

Although Strictly English still encourages you to avoid metaphoric idioms when writing and speaking on the TOEFL, you do need knowledge of them because they often appear in the Listening sections of the test, and only the Listening section. That is, the listening section will have common phrases in English (idioms) that use colorful or descriptive language to make a point. These phrases are not meant literally; instead, they make a comparison by drawing a picture in your mind (that is to say, they use metaphor). Metaphoric idioms are always in the questions that start with the instructions to “listen to part of the lecture again.” The question will then replay part of the lecture when the teacher uses an idiom.

Here are two common metaphoric idioms in English:

• The female manager was angry that she had hit a glass ceiling at her company.
• “The groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty (when “predicting” if winter is over).” (This example comes from the 2nd edition of the Longman TOEFL prep book)

You can figure out idioms like these by thinking about the separate pieces of the phrase, and seeing how they might work together.

Glass ceiling: The first thing to do is VISUALIZE a glass ceiling. You’re looking at the ceiling in your living room and it’s glass. You think that’s pretty because you can see the birds flying over your head and you can see the clouds go by. So is a glass ceiling a *good* thing? Well our sentence says that the female manager felt ANGRY. So that’s a bad thing. How can this beautiful ceiling be bad? Therefore, we might have to think about it differently. Let’s imagine you’re a child walking past a candy store, and you see chocolate, and cake, and licorice in the shop window. You want it, but you can’t have it because the glass is separating you from the candy. See, glass can both (1) let you see what you want and (2) be a barrier to having it. So now we understand the “glass” part of “glass ceiling”, but why is it a ceiling and not a window or a floor? Well, now we have to think about the difference between a floor (which is below us) and a ceiling (which is above us). The manager is looking UP to see the ceiling. Just like the child wants the candy, the manager wants to go “up”. But what does that mean? Does she want to fly in a plane? No. She wants to go *up* at work. She wants a promotion. So just like the child who sees candy and is denied it, the female manager can see a promotion but is denied it. This is why we use the term glass ceiling when talking about minorities. Very often women, or homosexuals, or racial minorities, are denied the ability to get a better job, even though they can see the possibility of having that job.

Batting fifty-fifty: Start with batting. Which sports in the United States use a bat? Only baseball. What do you do with the bat in baseball? Swing at the ball; sometimes you hit the ball, sometimes you miss it. The more often you hit the ball, the more likely you are to score a run for your team. If you don’t hit the ball very often, you’re not a good baseball player. Now on to fifty-fifty. If something is split 50-50, that means it’s divided in two equal halves. When you combine the image of swinging at a baseball together with the idea of something being split in two equal halves, you see that batting fifty-fifty means that you hit the ball about half of the times you swing at it, and you miss about half of the times. So, by extension, someone who correctly does something about half of the time is batting fifty-fifty. If the groundhog isn’t batting much more than fifty-fifty when predicting that winter is over, that means the groundhog is right in its prediction more often than it is wrong, but only by a little bit. Maybe the groundhog is batting 55-45.

So, if you have a question on the TOEFL with a metaphoric idiom you’ve never heard before, try to figure out the literal meaning behind the words. We know that you can’t think through a metaphor as carefully as the explanations above when you’re actually taking the TOEFL, because of its time limits, but (1) if you practice doing this when reading and listening in general, then you’ll get faster for the test and (2) writing out the thought process is MUCH SLOWER than the thought process itself. If it takes 3 minutes to read one of the explanations above it might only take 45 seconds to think about it. PLUS you have the four answer choices to help guide you in your thinking. Practice idioms, and soon you’ll take to them like a duck to water!

TOEFL Tip #84: Elocution: focusing on HOW you speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 28, 2011

This post will be the first in a 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. Look for new installments about once per month.

We’ll start by taking a look at “elocution.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “elocution” as a “way or manner of speaking,” with a focus on the speaker’s “delivery, pronunciation, tones, and gestures; manner or style of oral delivery.” As you can see, elocution is about the performance of what you’re saying, not the content of what you’re saying. With good elocution, reading the phone book sounds interesting. With bad elocution, a speaker can’t hold the audience’s attention, no matter how exciting the topic is. Let’s focus on each part of this performance.

Delivery is mostly about your speaking speed. Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Do you speak at about the same speed for the entire answer? Do you slow down or speed up at any point in the answer? Do you stumble over common words? Do you stutter? Do you use a lot of filler words, such as “um” or “like”? You goal is a consistent, medium speed that is not interrupted by filler words.

We’ll discuss pronunciation in depth in a future post, but for now, a key point about pronunciation is that there is a correct way – or sometimes, more than one correct way – to pronounce a word. To do well on the TOEFL, you must pronounce words correctly. For example, the word “epitome” is pronounced “ee-PIT-oh-me,” with emphasis on the second syllable. Saying “EP-ih-tohm,” is wrong.

We’ll also discuss tone in a future post. But for now, keep in mind that you want to convey interest with your tone of voice as well as with the words you’re speaking. Avoid speaking in a monotone, or sounding bored by using the same 5 words over and over!

Obviously, your gestures won’t be recorded as part of the TOEFL, but you should still pay attention to how and when you move your hands when you speak. For example, if you usually point your finger to emphasize something you’re saying, then you should also do that when giving your TOEFL answer. You will sound more natural, and you will be more likely to vary your tone as well.

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.

TOEFL Tip #82: Even Native Speakers Don’t Score 120 On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 10, 2011

Strictly English has recently researched how a native speaker of English would perform on the TOEFL iBT. Many of our clients assume that native speakers will score perfect 120s on the test, but this turned out not to be true.

Because TOEFL is designed for high school seniors, we wanted our English-speaker to be 17 or 18 years old. Our most important characteristic for the native English speaker was that he had excellent high-school grades and that he had no knowledge about the TOEFL exam nor of Strictly English’s strategies. In fact, he did not even know how many sections there were on the exam.

Our native speaker scored a 105. Like so many of our clients, his worst sections were Writing (25) and Speaking (26). Granted, a 26 is a fantastic Speaking score for an international test-taker, but it’s pretty low for a native speaker. Clearly this indicates that scores of 27 and above are not just about being able to speak English. Instead, you have to speak English with a professional clarity and purpose that even the most intelligent high-school students are years away from mastering.

Our native speaker’s highest score was a 28 on the Reading, which he admitted tired him out a lot and had a significant effect on his performance as the exam went on.

After the exam, all he said was, “A little knowledge of the exam prior to would have been extremely helpful,” which suggests that even a native-born speaker could have benefited from guidance on the TOEFL.

For an American student who had previously scored in the 95th percentile for the SATs to come into the TOEFL and only get a 105 on the iBT should send a message to all those internationals who are aiming to get a similar score or higher. If a straight-A native speaker only scored a 105 without coaching, you should be prepared to need some tutoring yourself if you’re trying to get a 100 of higher.

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