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TOEFL Tip#146: Your TOEFL Speaking Persona

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 9, 2012

Last week , we talked about the value in warming up before beginning the Speaking section of the TOEFL. In that post, we focused on how warming up your voice can result in a smoother delivery of your answers. Today, we’ll focus on your persona for the Speaking section.

In general, a persona is a role that a person adopts, such as the characters portrayed by an actor. To convey the roles they are playing, actors might change the pitch of their voices, or the speed of their speech, or change their accents. The persona is a temporary role, used at a specific time.

Think of a persona as the version of yourself that you want to show in public. In your daily life, you might have experienced something similar to an actor playing a role. If you are unwell but don’t want to discuss the details with anyone in your workplace, you might try to sound upbeat in order not to draw attention to your health. Perhaps you have to attend an event even though you are not interested in it. While you are there, you will probably engage in conversation with others, rather than sulk in a corner.

So, what is a TOEFL Speaking persona?

Someone who is confident and knowledgeable, who can easily demonstrate mastery of English. If you believe that you can do well on the Speaking section, that attitude will come through in how you speak. The opposite is also true: if you dread the Speaking section and just want to get through it as quickly as possible, that sense of fear, or even defeat, will be heard in your recorded answers.

As you prepare for the TOEFL exam, practice your confident TOEFL persona as well. How can you project a confident persona if you’re not actually confident? Fake it til you make it .

TOEFL Tip #145: Describe The City You Live In

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 2, 2012

Warming up is a good way to maximize your chances for a strong score on the TOEFL Speaking section. Very often, people need to speak for a minute or two to clear their throats, adjust their breathing, and feel confident speaking into a microphone. For too many students, Speaking Task 1 functions as a warm-up, which might not receive as good a score as possible if the voice is hard to hear, etc.

So how can you warm up before the Speaking section?

On test day, you have a chance to test the microphone for the computer you’re taking the TOEFL on. This allows the system to automatically adjust the microphone’s input volume. To do so, you are given a “familiar topic” prompt to answer. It is always the same for every test: “Describe the city you live in.”

The test has you respond to this prompt twice. The first time is at the beginning of the entire exam, and then again at the start of the Speaking section. We at Strictly English think this is a great opportunity to warm up your voice and your TOEFL speaking persona (which will be the subject of next week’s blog post).

Sadly, though, many test centers tell their test takers to merely repeat the phrase, “Describe the city you live in” over and over. They ask the test takers to do this because they think of this exercise only as a microphone check. The proctors just care about verifying whether the microphone is working or not. And when some test takers try to respond to the prompt with a real answer, they take too long formulating their sentences so the computer, therefore, has no input with which to verify if the microphone is working correctly or not. So, by chanting “describe the city you live in” 10 times, the microphone is guaranteed to pick up your voice, even if you’re not saying anything that helps your performance.

But Strictly English really wants to encourage you to NOT chant “describe the city you live in” over and over. Instead, you must tell the proctor, politely, “I really need this time to practice my Speaking, so I can’t afford to repeatedly chant the prompt. I have to use this time to get comfortable speaking real English into the computer.” In fact, if TOEFL lets you replay your recording, we think it’s a great idea to listen to it carefully. This will help you determine if you’re remembering to do everything you’ve studied to do. If you think you sound bad, re-record and try again. Only after you feel comfortable giving your response to the microphone check prompt should you then go on to the actual Speaking section of the test.

TOEFL Tip #144: Speaking Really Well Vs. Knowing A Lot

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 24, 2012

People who are fluent in several languages are called “polyglots.” Those who have studied a wide range of subjects are called “polymaths.” (Note the prefix these two words share: “poly-,” meaning “many”).

Because the TOEFL tests someone’s ability to understand and communicate in English, it’s easy to assume that people who have achieved complete fluency in English will score far better than those who have less mastery of the language, even if they have a broader knowledge base. To be sure, a polyglot may be able to answer the vocabulary questions on the Reading section more easily, simply because he or she recognizes the words.

However, in Strictly English’s experience across 10,000 tutoring hours, we have consistently seen that a high degree of fluency in many languages is not as helpful as knowing something about many academic subject areas. Remember, the Reading passages and some of the Listening tasks cover a very wide range of academic topics, from paleontology to business letter writing. Therefore, the Polymath’s ability to answer questions comfortably within many subject areas will be of great help, both because he/she is familiar with the content, and because that familiarity will boost his/her overall confidence.

For example, consider a polyglot who only knows about fishing. That person will only be able to talk about fishing, even if he or she can do so in 10 languages. Since the TOEFL only tests English, the ability to talk about fishing in the other 9 languages isn’t very useful for the exam. Even if the topic of fishing happens to come up on a particular TOEFL exam, it’s only going to be on the exam once, which means that the polyglot who only knows about fishing will probably have a hard time on the rest of the exam.

On the other hand, if you have a body of knowledge of 10 academic topics, and a working knowledge of English (plus your native language, of course), you will probably do better on the TOEFL because most academic topics have cognates that cross what would otherwise be linguistic barriers. Having a general knowledge of a topic is probably enough for TOEFL because the test is geared toward high school seniors. You don’t need to be an expert in the topic; you just need to be familiar with its main ideas. Your general knowledge can help to fill in the blanks created by gaps in your English.

Take the extreme example of a person who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, but has, at best, intermediate English skills. That person would probably score higher on a Reading passage about chemistry, if he or she can pick out key words and use them to extrapolate the meaning of the rest of the passage, than the Polyglot who speaks advanced English beautifully but who has had no exposure to the concepts of chemistry.

An important note of caution – it is the golden rule of TOEFL preparation that you should answer the questions from the knowledge in the PASSAGE and not from your own professional or personal knowledge. We are NOT saying that your general knowledge should REPLACE or SUPERSEDE the knowledge in the passage. We are saying that you can USE your knowledge to better understand what the passage is saying.

So, our advice: nurture your inner Polymath! Read widely on academic topics in both English AND your own language so that you build up a base of knowledge to draw upon when you take the TOEFL exam.

TOEFL Tip #143: TOEFL Journey Program

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 17, 2012

If you are planning to study abroad at an English-speaking institution, you know that the process encompasses (see definition 2b) a lot more than taking the TOEFL exam. You have to do research on the program – or several programs – you’re interested in, apply for a visa, research sources of financial support, and so on. Tracking the different pieces of information, and the many steps along the way, can be a challenge.

To help manage the application process, you might consider using ETS’s TOEFL Journey Program (). TOEFL Journey is a free, personalized program that delivers timely information to students on a wide variety of topics related to studying abroad at English-speaking institutions. Wherever you are in the application cycle, from just beginning to research options and study for the TOEFL through submitting applications, the TOEFL Journey Program provides information and online tools specific to each student’s needs.

If you do sign up for the TOEFL Journey Program – or are already participating in it – we’d love to hear from you about your experience. Leave us a comment and tell us how the TOEFL Journey Program helped you!

TOEFL Tip #142: Using The Strictly English Blog For Self-Study

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 10, 2012

We cover a lot of different topics here on the Strictly English blog, from study and test-taking tips, to changes in the exams, to reports and testimonials from our students. With well over one hundred entries, that’s a lot of material to help with your self-study.

While you certainly can scroll through each of the entries to find the ones that you need, that would be an inefficient use of your time.

Instead, use the blog’s CATEGORIES and SEARCH BOX to hone (see tr.v., definition 2) your search.

For example, are you working on improving your TOEFL Speaking score? In the right column of the blog, you’ll see the list of Categories for all of our posts. Click on Speaking, and you’ll bring up all of our articles that mention the Speaking section. You can work through each section of the TOEFL this way, and also read about other topics related to the TOEFL Exam.

If you don’t see a category for the topic you want to read about, type it in the search box. Be sure to type in variation on your search term, to bring up all of the possible matches. Maybe you’d like to read about time management on the TOEFL. Typing “time management” in the search box has only one result. Entering “clock” brings 2 articles — the same result for the time management search, plus an additional entry. On the other hand, “running out of time” brings three articles that are entirely different from either of these other two examples.

If you’ve tried the categories and search box and you still can’t find what you’re looking for, leave us a comment. Perhaps we can do a future blog post about your topic!

TOEFL Tip #141: TOEFL Junior Test: English Proficiency Exam For Middle School Students

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 3, 2012

With the global prevalence of English, families often wish to assess students’ mastery of English at an early stage of their education. Such a benchmark provides opportunities to adjust their school programs so that students are fully prepared for tests such as the TOEFL if they want to pursue advanced education in English.

To address this need, ETS has created the TOEFL Junior Test , a paper-based, multi-choice exam for middle-school students.

TOEFL Junior measures students’ mastery of the social and academic English language skills for medium-level English instruction. The test has three sections – Listening, Language Form and Meaning, and Reading. Together, these sections assess a student’s ability to listen for a variety of purposes (intrapersonal, instructional, academic), his or her knowledge of English language fundamentals such as grammar and vocabulary, and his or her ability to understand academic and non-academic material. The score reports provide further assistance, through comparative contexts for understanding the results, as well as a Lexile measure to help find books at each student’s reading level.

The TOEFL Junior Test is currently offered in more than 25 countries. For further information, click here .

TOEFL Tip #140: Your Native Language Can Affect Your Speaking Speed On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 27, 2012

Students preparing for the TOEFL often have trouble with the time limit on the Speaking section. Some finish too quickly, and don’t know how to stretch out their answers to fill all of the available time. Others are still speaking when the time expires, having taken too long to give their answers. While one obvious factor in these examples is WHAT the student is saying, another issue is HOW QUICKLY the student is speaking.

And yet, it’s often difficult for a fast talker to slow down, or for a slow talker to speed up. An article in Time magazine last fall helps to explain why.

The article describes a fascinating study of the relationship between how much information each syllable of a language conveys, and the speed at which native speakers of that language talk. The study found that languages such as English and Mandarin which convey a lot of information in each syllable are typically spoken much more slowly than languages such as Japanese and Spanish which have less information in each syllable, and therefore are spoken very quickly.

Despite these differences in the speaking speeds of languages, the study also found that speakers of different languages convey about the same quantity of information per minute. That is why, for example, subtitles in another language added to a movie can more or less keep up with the original dialog.

How does this affect you on the TOEFL exam?

If your native language is typically spoken more quickly than English, you will need to practice speaking more slowly than feels comfortable to you. Speaking English at the same speed as Spanish overwhelms the listener with too much information. If the TOEFL rater cannot fully listen to everything you say, your score might be lower.

On the other hand, if your native language is spoken at a speed that is close to English’s typical speed, you know that you can give your TOEFL answers at about the same pace as you would speak in your native language. If you find that you are still finishing with too much time, you either are not using enough detail in your response, or you are speaking faster because of nervousness. Either way, practice will help you give an on-time TOEFL Speaking response.

TOEFL Tip #139: Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 20, 2012

When Strictly English tutors call people on Skype, we are always surprised by the number of distractions we hear in the background:

Crying children
Cars honking in the street
Phones ringing
Dogs barking

Similarly, when people screen share with their tutor, we are often surprised to see 5 to 10 other programs open. This not only clutters your screen, but it also makes your computer run slower, which could weaken your Skype connection.

Although we advocate for studying with distractions, that is a strategy that should be done only LATE in your study process, toward the end, when you have already mastered our techniques for taking the TOEFL exam. At that point, you will be taking the TOEFL within a short time, and you need to prepare for the possible distractions at the TOEFL test site.

However, while still learning the techniques, you should be as free from distractions as possible. We know that it may not be possible to have your computer in a room where you can close the door, or you can’t close your windows to keep street noise out of your room during class because you don’t have air conditioning.

But it is important to do everything possible to create a quiet environment for you to study in. So, eliminate the distractions that you can eliminate. Turn off your phone, close other instant messaging programs, and close your mail program. Whenever possible, arrange a time of day when a family member can be with your child, or better yet, take them out for ice-cream while you’re having class. If you have a fenced in back yard, let your dog outside for the length of your class. Or if you live on a noisy street, get a window fan. The fan will keep air flowing in your room but also drown out most street noise. The constant white noise of the fan will be better than the erratic noise of screaming voices and car horns.

Finally, as stated above, close all of the programs that you are not using for class. It’s confusing enough to learn a language. A cluttered desktop adds to that confusion. If you’re already frustrated trying to learn the passive voice, for example, think about how much more frustrating that is when you have 8 windows open on your desktop and you’re trying to find the ONE window that you need for class.

The more serene you make your study environment, the more you will accomplish in, and retain from, each class!

TOEFL Tip #138: Don’t Be Redundant; Don’t Be Redundant!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 13, 2012

In a pressured situation, like taking the TOEFL exam, students can easily become redundant. They can feel like they need to repeat what they have said to make sure they are getting their point across. While this concern is understandable, it is also a mistake.

There are two types of redundancy. The first is redundancy of vocabulary, and the second is redundancy of ideas. Avoid both.

Evidently, the first type of redundancy means that you have a small vocabulary and therefore, are not proficient in English. One way to demonstrate proficiency in English is to have a number of ways to describe the same concept. For example, in addition to “car,” you could say automobile, auto, vehicle, or you could name the general type of car – sedan, hatchback, truck, van, and so on.

The second type of redundancy is directly related to the first. Although TOEFL doesn’t really score you on originality of thought, the problem with redundant ideas is that you will have a higher chance of collapsing into redundant vocabulary if you’re talking about the same idea in Paragraph 3 that you talked about in Paragraph 2.

Strictly English recently tested this approach. One of our researchers wrote an essay that used grammatically perfect intermediate English, and varied the ideas for each of the three reasons supporting his main thesis. However, the vocabulary was mercilessly repetitive. The essay scored only a 20.

To prevent redundancy of vocabulary, actively seek to learn new words. Look up any unfamiliar words, such as the linked definitions in this post. If you rarely, if ever, need to look up meanings when you read, you need to add more difficult material to your reading list.

Solving redundancy of ideas requires a broader approach as well. Viewing a topic from different perspectives will help add variety to your answers. Strictly English also has a list of ideas that work with almost every speaking and writing prompt. To learn this list and practice using it, contact us and enroll in a session today!

TOEFL Tip #137: Test Of American As A Foreign Culture

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 6, 2012

It has long been a complaint lobbed at standardized tests (like the SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and TOEFL) that they are culturally biased. Historically, this discussion has typically focused mostly on how the SAT inadvertently favors middle and upper class test takers by presenting reading passages about topics more familiar to them than to economically disadvantaged youth.

To date, we do not think that TOEFL has come under the same scrutiny. But we have noticed that there may be one part of the test that is causing everyone a lot of headache (and heartache) mainly because it favors a particularly American insensitivity regarding personal privacy.

In a nutshell, Americans are – generally speaking – more willing than almost any other country’s citizenry to share their lives with strangers.

You might be asking, “Okay. But what does this have to do with TOEFL?”

The answer is a bit complicated, so follow carefully:

1. Tasks 1 and 2 on the Speaking section of the test ask you to talk about a familiar topic, so these are topics that you should know something about because they come from daily life.

2. TOEFL wants DETAILS in your answer.

3. Put 1 and 2 together and it seems that you should give DETAILS from EVERYDAY LIFE. And, in fact, this video from ETS showing an example of a 4 out of 4 response does exactly this: the man talks about himself as the source of his details.

In contrast to this correct way of answering, many students answer Tasks 1 and 2 from a theoretical point of view. For example, they might say, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. If children play an instrument, then they will know how to interact with others better. Children should be more confident if they play an instrument.”

This answer is theoretical because it’s talking about a general population of “children” as if all “children” were anthropologically and sociologically the same.

But notice that when an answer is theoretical, it lacks details. And because the speaker doesn’t have details, she ends up saying the same thing over and over again. (“Instrument” is repeated in every sentence.)

When Strictly English tries to get students to tell a detailed story, we give examples to help the student see what we mean. For example, “Many children should play a musical instrument because it will make them more social. For example, the 12-year-old girl next door to me used to have no friends to play with. She was very lonely all the time. But then she learned how to play guitar and joined a band. Now she has boys and girls over at her house every day of the week.”

This is FULL of details (“12-year-old,” “guitar,” “every day,” “joined a band”)! The story really comes alive in the listener’s mind. Sadly, our students then say, “But I can’t invent a story like that so quickly.” True: not everyone is a gifted storyteller who can make up imaginary lives quickly. But that’s not the point of our sample answer. The only point we’re trying to get across is that you should have DETAILS. . . . . ANY DETAILS.

So if they can’t invent details out of thin air, then we should they find these details?

We tell them to use ideas from their own life. In my life there is a 12-year-old girl who lives next to me. So I’m not inventing a story. I’m talking about my real life. If the student talks about her own life, then Task 1 and Task 2 should be very easy to answer, right? Yet, our students still struggle, regardless of how often we tell them, “But you tell stories all day long. You tell stories to your family, your co-workers, your neighbors. Humans are story-telling machines!” Just do for TOEFL what you do all the time in your daily life.

AH HA! And here we return to the cultural bias. Most of the world is not comfortable talking about themselves. For some cultures, it’s rude to talk in detail about your life. For others, it is embarrassing. And for still others, it is just nobody’s business. Did you feel uncomfortable hearing the man in ETS’s sample answer say that his apartment was small? Would you be willing to say that to a stranger? Would you be afraid that the listener would think you’re poor because your house isn’t bigger?

So even though a test-taker will tell her husband or best friend stories all night long, she would never dream of being as open with, say, a person she has just met on an airplane.

For better or for worse, Americans will.

Of course, not ALL Americans will. Even in the USA, there are shy people. But generally speaking, an American will be more willing to talk about his or her life to strangers.

This means that TOEFL is not only a test of English, but it is also – accidentally, I’m sure – relying on an assumption that everyone can talk as easily about themselves as an American can. This is not surprising when you remember that ETS is an American company.

Want to score high? You’ll have to confront this issue directly in your own life, by asking how willing you are to tell a stranger anything about you.

Need help? Contact Us Today!

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