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TOEFL Tip #81: Happy Student Scores 113 On TOEFL!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 23, 2010

We’re so proud to have received this email today:

*******EMAIL BEGINS HERE********

Hi Strictly English!

I just got an email that I can check my TOEFL score online. I couldn’t wait to tell you my score. To my surprise I have more than what I was thinking to get, I have 113: Reading: 29, Listening 29, Speaking: 26 and Writing: 29. I am so happy…………..

Super super thanks for your making it possible for me to get such a beautiful score.

Have a Great Thanksgiving,

TOEFL Tip #80: Reading Is Key To Improving All TOEFL Sections

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 24, 2010

You already know that reading more will improve your score on the Reading section of the TOEFL (see our March 2010 blog entry), but now you’re wondering how to improve your Speaking, Listening and Writing, too.  Surprisingly, the answer is the same: read.  Read every day, read a lot, read a wide range of topics, read different kinds of materials (poems, newspapers, magazines, novels, etc).  Study after study shows that any kind of reading improves every other aspect of language learning.

But, you might ask, what should I read?  How will I know that I’m reading the correct things?  How can I be sure that what I’m reading is at the right level for my ability?

In general, TOEFL-level reading is about the same as  the articles in The New York Times and The Guardian.  Consider reading one news story across both newspapers, and notice the differences in the way each article reports the story. Once you understand the facts of the story well in these publications, try reading about the same issue in a publication that has writing slightly above TOEFL (The New Yorker Magazine). For a real challenge, then try reading about the same topic again in The Economist, which is much harder than the TOEFL. Read articles in history, arts, culture, business, technology, science, and health because these are common TOEFL topics.

Want more?

Services such as Lexile and Bee Oasis can help target reading materials to your level.  At Lexile’s site, you can enter your current TOEFL score (or your target score!), select topics of interest to you, and they will produce a reading list that matches your reading level.  Bee Oasis is a subscription service that gives you “graded materials,” which means texts that that match your reading “grade” level.  The targeted reading from both of these sites can help support your language development by effectively focusing your reading.  You’ll have more confidence that the material is appropriate for your current level, and you can get a clearer sense of what reading level you need to reach for your desired TOEFL score.Language development takes time and consistency, but if you keep reading, you WILL get better.  Start reading today!

TOEFL Tip #79: Brazilian Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 20, 2010

Antes de fazer o curso de Strictly English, já havia realizado duas vezes o Toelf. A primeira vez 93 e na segunda 94, bem abaixo dos 100 pontos que necessitava. Comecei meu curso com SE no dia 29 de setembro e no dia 9 de outubro tirei 103 de score. O diferencial do SE é que eles dominam a metodologia do exame e te dizem exatamente como deves responder cada uma das questões. Na hora da prova eu estava muito relaxado e confiante. O resultado foi que em 10 dias eu consegui o score que estava buscando fazia 3 meses. Não acredito que haja outra opção melhor que SE, nem em qualidade nem em preço. Você não vai se arrepender! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. Outubro 2010.

TRANSLATION: Before I took Strictly English’s course, I had taken the TOEFL twice. The first time I got a 93 and the second a 94, far below the 100 points I needed. I started my course with Strictly English on September 29th and on october 9th, I scored 103. The big difference between Strictly English and another courses is that they master the format and methodology of the exam, and they tell you exactly how you have to answer in which question. In the exam I was very relaxed and confident. As a result, in only ten days, I got the score I want and that I had been pursuing for three months. I really believe that Strictly English is the better choice both in quality and price. Once you`ve tried it, you will never regret it! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. October, 2010

TOEFL Tip #78: Response To Strictly English’s Newest Tips Video

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 19, 2010

We received an email regarding our newest Tips Video, ” Pronunciation Tip to Improve Enunciation” (watch now):


Thanks for sharing the tip and I can tell you . . . that it works. An excellent strategy to dissociate the words and avoid making clumps of words which are not understandable. But, there is one drawback to this technic which I have noticed after trying it a couple of times. It decreases your speed significantly. I can’t complete two points in 45 seconds while I can do that without using this technic. Is there a solution to that? Can you make only one point and get a good score?



It is true that this technique will slow you down at first, but with time (usually within two weeks if you do it every day) your speed should begin to pick back up again, and this time, your fast speaking will have clear and articulate enunciation. Perfecting anything (riding a bike, knitting, playing the piano) always begins with slow practice, but quite soon, you find yourself going more quickly and with better accuracy.

Regarding your question about “can you make only one point and get a good score”: maybe. If you’re a very high speaker, then one point might be good enough since you have been able to use a wide range of vocabulary and a lot of details. We recommend two points because it forces you to switch topics, and therefore, switch vocabulary. It also forces you to use transitional phrases, which also demonstrate a fuller understanding of the language. So keep trying for two reasons in your responses to Task 1 and Task 2 on the Speaking.

TOEFL Tip #77: How Could One Person’s Score Change So Much In 24 Hours?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2010

We recently had a client at Strictly English take two TOEFLs within 24 hours of each other and the results were incredible. He scored a 114 on both tests, but his breakdowns were very different:

TEST ONE: R27, L29, S29, W29
Test TWO: R29, L29, S26, W30

Notice that the Speaking score changed a lot. (On a previous test, he scored a 27 on the Speaking.)  A 29 indicates near-perfect, native speaker fluency and a 26 only indicates the highest you can score while still having noticeable traces of your original language appearing in your speech. Now clearly this student’s ability to comprehend and speak English didn’t change from almost perfect fluency to “best-performing ESL” student in only 24 hours. Something else must have been at work to make such a big difference.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what this “something else” was since no one was in the room to evaluate him as he took both tests, but the possibilities are endless: one confusing vocabulary word in the reading for Task 3 or 4, or a key word that the test-taker found particularly hard to pronounce. Maybe he misunderstood one key word, like he might have mistook, “profession” for “possession”, a mistake that even a native speaker could make quite easily. It could also be that he was speaking his native language right before going into the test, and it was harder for him to switch back into smooth, elegant English. Then there’s also the possibility that the test center was loud and he was distracted. Or, perhaps the raters were slightly off. Granted, ETS tries to make their grading as uniform as possible, but a one point difference in grading wouldn’t be unheard of. And if you add one point in Rater-discrepancy, and one point for a slightly thicker accent, and another point because he had trouble with one of the reading or listening parts of the speaking, then BAM: 26!

As I said above, we’ll never really know why this difference occurred, but what we DO know is that someone who has the ability to score a 29, only scored a 26. The moral of this story: please take every precaution to guard against your best abilities not being accurately represented on the test. Whatever Speaking score you’re trying to get, plan on working toward a score that’s at least 3-5 points higher, so that any unforeseen factors will not work against you on test day!

TOEFL Tip #76: What Is IELTS?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 18, 2010

We at Strictly English have been curious about other English proficiency tests that compete with the TOEFL (in particular the IELTS and the PTE), so we’ve done some research ourselves, and we’ve also asked professional tutors who specialize in these other tests to write about them. What follows below comes from Alanna Carysforth, founder of lead tutor at Best IELTS. If you have any questions about IELTS, please visit her website!

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination is primarily designed to assess the ability of candidates to study at a higher education level in the English language.

The examination lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes and consists of 4 tests in the following skills; listening (approx 30 minutes), reading (1 hour), writing (1 hour) and speaking (approx 15 minutes).

The IELTS test is available in two different formats; Academic or General Training.  Academic IELTS is usually used to determine the suitability of a candidate to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level.  General Training IELTS is used for candidates wishing to continue their studies to diploma level or complete their secondary education in an English-speaking country and also for immigration to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  The listening and speaking tests are the same for both formats but the reading and writing tests are different.  The reading and writing tests for General Training IELTS are less demanding than for Academic IELTS.

There is no pass or fail grade in IELTS; the institution to which you are applying informs you of the IELTS Band Score they require.

You are given a grade between 0 and 9 for each of the four skills tests and this is then averaged out for an overall band score.


Listening          6

Reading            5

Writing            5.5

Speaking          6

Total                   22.5

So the overall band score would be 5.5       (5.63 rounded down)

In my experience, universities often require an overall score of 6.5, and often specify a particular band score in certain skills.

Here are the IELTS band score descriptors; it is worth noting, however, that the IELTS test is pitched at intermediate level.

Band 9: Expert user: has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.

Band 8: Very good user: has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.

Band 7: Good user: has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user: has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

Band 5: Modest user: has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.

Band 4: Limited user: basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.

Band 3: Extremely limited user: conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur.

Band 2: Intermittent user: no real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.

Band 1: Non-user: essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.

Band 0: Did not attempt the test: No assessable information provided.

How is the IELTS test marked?

The IELTS Listening and Reading Tests are marked absolutely objectively.  The IELTS Writing Tests and IELTS Speaking Tests are marked by a certified examiner.

I have had a number of people ask me my opinion on the objectivity of the writing and speaking scoring.  What I do know is that the examiners have to follow strict criteria when assigning their grades and I understand that examiners are also monitored from time to time (the speaking test is recorded).

The assessment criteria that examiners use are strictly confidential and do not leave the test centre.  There are, however, public versions of these descriptors:

IELTS Speaking Test Band Descriptors

(There are two IELTS Writing Tasks to complete)

IELTS Writing Test Task 1 Band Descriptors

IELTS Writing Test Task 2 Band Descriptors

The public versions of these descriptors give some idea of the criteria involved in different band scores.

TOEFL Tip #75: What Kinds Of Idioms Does TOEFL Want

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 8, 2010

You can find many webpages and books promising to teach you all the important idioms necessary to score high on the  TOEFL iBT writing section, but the kinds of idioms they are teaching are not really what TOEFL is looking for. In all fairness, it’s not really the writers’ or publishers’ fault. I guess they saw the word “idiom” somewhere on an ETS TOEFL document (I think the Official Guide to the TOEFL mentions “idioms” in its grading rubric), and decided to write a book or a website about idioms.

But one has to remember that there is a wide range of “idioms” in English. On one end of the spectrum you have idioms like, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. These are more metaphorical in nature. Dogs and cats are not really coming out of the sky. The image of dogs and cats suggests VIOLENCE (because dogs and cats typically fight each other). So this idiom means that the rain was very violent.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you have phrasal verbs such as “look up”, as in “I looked up a word in the dictionary”.  This is not quite as metaphorical as “it’s raining cats and dogs”, but it does still (like the metaphoric idioms) mean something different from what the actual words say. When you LOOK UP a word in the dictionary, most likely your eyes are LOOKING DOWN at the dictionary. So the “up” doesn’t mean “over your head”. In fact, the “up” means nothing at all on its own. What the “up” does is change the meaning of the word “look” from “see” to “research”. When you look up a word, you are “researching” its meaning.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the quirky parts of the language that do not have a dependable system of rules to justify them, most notably: articles, prepositions, and word forms. Why do we get IN a car, but ON a bus? Why do we TALK ABOUT or DISCUSS work, but we do not DISCUSS ABOUT work?  And what’s the difference if I like “the flowers” “a flower” or “flowers”. Even more frustrating, why do colleges offer a degree in “communications” but not a degree in “communicating”?  There are no rules to help you here. Or, if there are rules, they are so dependent on logic and context that you have to be a philosopher more than a grammarian to get it right.

The uses of language on this end of the idiom spectrum are often talked about in terms other than as idioms. They are called (as I identified them above) articles or prepositions or word forms. And even if I were to agree and say that they are not proper “idioms”, their use is, nevertheless, idiomatic. And these are the “idioms” that will help you score high on the TOEFL.

To recap: I’ve identified three types of idioms: metaphoric idioms (“it’s raining cats and dogs”), phrasal verb idioms (“look up” as in “to research”), and what I will call “idiomatic conventions” (I got ON the bus and TALKED ABOUT my relationship). And what I’m arguing is that most TOEFL idiom books focus on metaphoric idioms, whereas you would be better preparing yourself if you focused more on phrasal verb idioms and idiom conventions.

Let’s face it. If you try to cram a metaphoric idiom into your TOEFL essay, it most likely will sound silly or forced. For example, if you’re writing about how you prefer having a guarantee instead of having a possibility, you could try to fit the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” into your essay, but what if in the process, you mess up all the more subtle idioms and write, “the bird on my hand makes the same as a couple by the bush”.  YOUCH!  So, how many points do you think you’re going to get because you 1/2 memorized an idiom. Not many.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “But what if I memorize the idiom and use it correctly?”  Okay. let’s say you do just that. What you might have then is a beautiful idiom surrounded by a bunch of writing that is full of mistakes in conventional idioms or phrasal verb mistakes. In addition, how many metaphoric idioms will you have to have memorized to be sure that you’ll have the perfect idiom for the essay prompt you get on test day?  This just seems like too much work for too little payoff.

Therefore, we at Strictly English really encourage you to focus your attention on the two non-metaphoric idiom categories. If you can get those right, TOEFL graders won’t care about  the lack of metaphoric idioms. All of our highest scoring students do not use metaphoric idioms. Instead, they have a solid understanding that students get “final grades at Boston College” and not “final scores at The Boston College” and that their friend “took ill late Sunday night” and not that their friend “made illness in the Sunday night”. THESE are the idiomatic parts of the language you need to be focusing on and not that some Boston College student “aced his finals” or that your friend “puked his guts out”. As admirable as these metaphoric idioms are, I think you’ll go coo-coo burning the midnight oil trying to pigeonhole each metaphoric idiom so that you’ll knock the socks off of your TOEFL rater!

TOEFL Tip #74: Testimonial From Saudi Arabian Student

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 9, 2010

Here is a testimonial from one of our Saudi Arabian parents whose daughter has just received the TOEFL score she needed.

من الصعب إختصار في بضع سطور مافعلته هذه الشركه لمساعدة ابنتي تحقيق هدفها من رفع مستواها في اللغة الانكليزيه. فقد قاموا بوضع برنامج خاص لها وفروا مدرسات على مستوى عالي

وتابعوا تطورها عن قرب. لقد كان ولله الحمد اختياري لهذه الشركة موفقا

And it translates as:

It is hard to tell in few words what this company has done to help my daughter achieve here target of improving her English language. They have developed a special program for here, made available excellent tutors, and followed here progress closely. Thank God,  my selection of this company turned out to be exactly what we needed.

TOEFL Tip #73: Use Earplugs When Taking TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 23, 2010

Test centers put the test takers very close together in the testing room, which means that you can hear a lot of distracting noises when you’re trying to concentrate.  For example while you’re concentrating on your test, you might hear:

1. another test taker’s listening section (if they have their volume up all the way)
2. another test taker giving his/her Speaking responses
3. the administrator talking to a test taker who is having trouble
4. noises from outside the test center, like fire trucks or ambulances

Now the test center does suggest that you wear your headphones for the entire test, even if you’re not listening to anything at the time. They say that the headphones will help eliminate some noise, but reports from test takers say that this is not enough.

Therefore, Strictly English suggests that you wear earplugs on the day of your test. Earplugs are very good at keeping out surrounding noises, like I listed above, but still letting you hear sounds that are directed in your ear.  This means that you WILL be able to hear the sounds coming out of your headphones for the Listening section, Speaking section, and for the Integrated Essay, but you will not hear any of the distractions in the room.

So be sure to buy some earplugs. These combined with wearing the headphones should give you a much quieter testing environment!

TOEFL Tip #72: Admissions Offices Prefer TOEFL Over IELTS

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 11, 2010

Not surprisingly, many admissions offices prefer TOEFL over IELTS, and why not? TOEFL is more academically focused and it is more objective in its assessment of Speaking. (Entry continues below picture.)

On the TOEFL, six different  raters evaluate your Speaking responses, and they cannot be swayed by your smile or your tears to give you a higher grade because they feel bad for you.  I know IELTS says that they train their raters to be objective, but I just don’t see how you can coldly grade someone very low who is clearly nervous or afraid.  I would hope people are more compassionate than that, but I would also hope that a test taker doesn’t get a higher grade than their ability just because a rater feels sorry for them.

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