Tuesday, November 30

Godzilla v. Japanese Whaling!

Japanese Whaling Fleet Surrendered?


Gojira (Godzilla) is a super-fast, anti-whaling ship - nice.

Scoring Rubrics - What You Need to Know

What is a rubrics? Rubrics means "a list of rules" against which something is rated or measured. For TOEFL, there are speaking rubrics and writing rubrics. ETS did not make up these rubrics. They are universal rules of proficient argument development going all the way back to Aristotle. For this discussion, let's focus on ETS's independent writing task rubrics.

Sounds really official - The Independent Writing Task Rubrics! Don't worry. Translated, it simply means, "personal essay writing rules." If you follow the rules (the rubrics), your independent essay will demonstrate proficiency. Wait! What does proficiency mean? Proficiency means "skill and knowledge."

Okay, so let's say you scored 5 on your independent essay. Why? Because in your essay, you demonstrated proficiency (skill and knowledge). Because you demonstrated proficiency, you didn't break any rules. You played the TOEFL writing game perfectly and scored big. Great!

Now let's say you got a 2.5 on your independent essay. That means you broke a few rules, lots of rules - big rules. Okay, so how do you go from 2.5 to 3 to 4 to 5? Easy. Follow the rules. Do standardized TOEFL texts teach you the rules? No. Do they teach you how to apply the rules? Sorry. Instead, standardized TOEFL say, "Look at this example of an independent essay. It is a 2.5. Trust me. Now turn the page." Unfortunately, standardized TOEFL texts do not tell you why the example independent essay is a 2.5. There is no rhetorical analysis. Instead, these texts leave it up to you (the test-taker) to compare your essays to ETS's rubrics. Sounds easy? Right? Wrong. Why? Because ETS's independent writing task rubrics are difficult to understand, for test-takers and instructors alike.

Why are ETS's rubrics hard to decipher from a scoring point of view? I think ETS is being purposefully vague. ETS is not in the business of helping you get a high score. ETS is in the business of designing tests. Period. That means TOEFL texts must teach the rules of writing to test-takers. Unfortunately, standardized TOEFL texts do not teach test-takers how to interpret ETS's writing rubrics. Instead, these same texts say, "Do this! Do this! Do this!" but they don't tell you why from a scoring perspective. Now think: How can you get a high writing score if you don't understand the rules of the game? It's like having a car accident because nobody told you how to drive. Frustrating? You bet.

That, in my estimation, is a central flaw in standardized TOEFL texts: they do not teach speaking and writing rubrics specific to the TOEFL game. However, my text, Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, does.

Before writing Speaking and Writing Strategies, I asked myself: How can my TOEFL students get the highest possible speaking and writing scores? What is the first step? The first step is understanding the rubrics (the rules). If you don't understand the rubrics - if you don't read the driver's manual - you are guessing. You don't want to guess. Your future is too important.

Want to learn more? It's all in the book.

Monday, November 29

Calculate Your TOEFL Score!

Okay, so you want to know your TOEFL iBT score, but you don't want to give ETS $170.00 to find out. What can you do? Use the Pro's unofficial TOEFL iBT score estimator. Sounds complicated. It's not. All you have to do is write an independent essay for 30 minutes, then have it scored by an objective rater. Easy, right?

So let's say you scored 3/5. Converted, that's a 20/30 writing section score. Now this is the interesting part: If you scored 20/30 on your independent essay, you will score the same on the listening section, the reading section and on the speaking section. 

Yes, your section scores might vary a bit. Let's say you scored 22/30 on listening, 21/20 on speaking, and 19/30 on reading. That means you will score in the 80-range if you took the TOEFL iBT. Probably in the 75 - 85 range.

The Pro's method of score estimating is very accurate. Very. Why? Because I record all my TOEFL students' practice scores and average them at the end of the semester. For example, Anna averaged 100/120 on in-class practice tests. At the end of the semester, I said, "Anna, if you take the TOEFL iBT tomorrow, I predict you will score in the 95-105 range."

What happened? Anna scored 103. Amazing, huh? And Anna is not alone. Peter averaged between 85-95/120 on in-class practice tests and scored 88/120 on the official TOEFL iBT. The list is endless.

Remember: This is a real-world, TOEFL Pro strategy. You will not find this strategy anywhere else. Why not? Because the Pro is all about scoring. What do TOEFL students want? Scoring strategies.

Not convinced? Take at look at the official TOEFL scores for the year ending 2009 (see scores). Notice how consistent they are? That means that Lionel in Gabon probably scored 18/30 on his independent essay, and he scored the same - or almost the same - on the other three test sections.

Remember: The level of your English language proficiency is consistent across four disciplines: reading, listening, speaking, writing. Never do I see a writing score of 28/30 and a reading score of 18/30. Never. If you write English proficiently, you will read, speak, and hear it proficiently. Conversely, if you do not write English proficiently...Well, you get the picture.

Want to know more TOEFL iBT scoring strategies? It's all in the book.


- Madame Pro calculating TOEFL scores -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

Chinese High School Students Love the U.S.


IN her ballroom dance class, Li Wanrong has learned to tango and cha-cha. At lunch one day, she tried a strange mix of flavors — pepperoni pizza, the spicy sausage and oozing cheese nearly burning her tongue. Then there was that Friday night before going clubbing for the first time when new friends gave her a makeover, and she looked in the mirror to see an American girl smiling back wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and fierce eyeliner.

“I say ‘wow’ a lot,” says Ms. Li, a freshman at Drew University, a small liberal arts school in Madison, N.J.

Against her parents’ wishes, she studied for and took the SAT in Hong Kong, a three-hour bus ride from her home in southern China. She told them she was going there to do some shopping. Her parents eventually came around, persuaded by her determination and a $12,000 scholarship that would take some of the sting out of the $40,000 tuition at Drew, which her high school teacher had recommended.

Describing her whirlwind transformation to college kid sometimes leaves Ms. Li at a loss for words. And sometimes the cultural distance seems too much, especially when facing dining options in the cafeteria. “Sometimes I feel when I go back to China I’ll never eat a hamburger ever again,” she says, laughing.

Ms. Li is part of a record wave of Chinese high school graduates enrolling in American colleges, joining the fabric of campus life as roommates and study partners and contributing to the global perspectives to which colleges are so eager to expose their students.

Saturday, November 27

The Pro's Speaking Strategies

How are the Pro's speaking strategies different from all those other TOEFL texts? I mean, a speaking strategy is a speaking strategy, right? Wrong. Let's work out the difference with an example.

You want to buy a car, a Porsche 911, Turbo S Cabriolet, but you also want to save the planet, so you look at the Green Car. Okay? Okay. So you're looking at the Green Car and you see a big red button beside the stereo. Hmmm? What is that big red button for, you wonder? You ask the salesman.

"Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what this big red button is for?"
"Sure," the salesman says. "It's a red button. Nice, huh? I love red. Very sexy."
"Okay," you patiently reply. "So what does it do?"
"Do? Like I said, it's red."
"But what does it do? Make the car go faster, do my laundry? What?"
"Don't worry about that," the salesman says. "It's red. Trust me. Just push it."
"Why? Don't ask why. Just push it. Trust me. It's red. And big. Now will that be cash or charge?"

This is how standardized TOEFL texts teach speaking (and writing) strategies: there is no connection between the strategy taught (red button) and why you should use that strategy (push the button). In other words, there is no cause-and-effect. It's all cause ("Just push the button!") Now look at the Pro's method.

"Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what this big red button does?"
"Sure," the Pro says. "This red button is a speed maximizer. Push it once? You go fast (score 3). Push it twice? You go really fast (score 4). Push it three times? You'll think you're in a Porsche (score 5)."

As you can see, the Pro is all about cause-and-effect: use this speaking strategy (cause), get this score (effect). Scoring. That is what TOEFL is all about.

Want to push more buttons? It's all in the book.

Got a TOEFL question? Ask the Pro!

"The red button is a speed maximizer."

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11.

iBT or PBT? Which One to Take?

PBT means paper-based test. The PBT is the original TOEFL test started back in the 1963. There are four sections: listening, structure, reading, writing. 

With the popularity of computers, the PBT changed to the CBT, the computer-based test. The CBT was replaced in September, 2005 by the iBT, the internet-based test. The CBT is no longer available. That means you have two choices: the PBT or the iBT. Which is right for you?

First, check with your school, agency or institution to find out which TOEFL score they require, PBT or iBT. Most North American schools, agencies and institutions accept only iBT scores. Why? Because the iBT tests speaking proficiency (why test speaking read the article). North American schools, etc., want to know if you can speak English. Remember: The PBT does not test speaking. 

Also, the iBT is arguably the more difficult test. Why? Because of the speaking component and because you must write two essays. The PBT has only one essay. Also, with the PBT you can look at the listening section answers as you listen. For the iBT listening section, however, you see the answers only after you listen. Much harder.

So what should you do? Don't take the PBT simply because you've heard it is easier. Take the iBT. Only take the PBT if the iBT is not available. And remember: check with your institution first. Don't take the PBT, then apply, and find out that Princeton only accepts the iBT. You will waste your time and your money.

Friday, November 26

Apple Computers - A Brief History

From this...

To this...

News - The Pirate Bay Loses Appeal

IDG News Service - Three men found guilty of being accessories to crimes against copyright law for their part in running The Pirate Bay have lost their appeal, while a fourth man still awaits trial.

The three, Fredrik Neij, Peter Sunde, and Carl Lundström, were originally each sentenced to a year in prison, but the Svea Court of Appeals reduced their sentences on Friday: Neij must now serve 10 months, Sunde eight months and Lundström four. However, the court raised the damages they must collectively pay, from 30 million Swedish kronor (US$3.6 million) to 46 million kronor.

One Strategy for Writing and Speaking

All TOEFL texts teach different strategies for speaking and writing. That means you must learn six speaking strategies and two writing strategies. That takes a lot of time. As a result, you spend more time learning strategies and less time practicing them. Not good. In Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, I teach you one test-proven strategy: argument mapping. An example of how it works is illustrated below. If you can write an independent essay, you can develop not only a response for speaking task one, but responses for all speaking tasks plus the integrated essay. Simple, right? Right. Want to know more? It's all in the book.

Click here for Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT

© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011

Thursday, November 25

My TOEFL Vocab Text

This is my other TOEFL text, 500 Words, Phrases and Idioms for the TOEFL iBT plus Typing Strategies.

How is my vocab text different from the rest? Other vocab texts give you word lists. You then memorize those lists. Unfortunately, memorizing word lists is not an effective TOEFL strategy. Why not? Because if you do not use a word in context, you will forget it.

My text, however, gives you a new word, such as myriad. You then recylce this word across four different quizs. The page below tells you how it's done. Why is vocabulary recyling an important TOEFL strategy? Because you are applying a new word in four different contexts. By applying it in four different situations, you will remember it on test day.

Why typing strategies? Let me give you some real-world examples. A student in one of my TOEFL classes always scored 5/5 on her essays - which she wrote with a pen. I asked her to type an essay and she said, "I don't know how to type in English." I couldn't believe it. That's means she would get a low score (0!) when taking the official iBT. This is not an isolated case. It happens with the integrated essay too. My TOEFL students score high when writing integrated essays by pen. They score a point lower when typing - a full point! Why? Because they can't type proficiently. It's that simple. Poor typing = a low writing section score = lower TOEFL iBT score.

Remember: Learn how to type proficiently in English (take the typing test). This is a critical TOEFL strategy all instructors and TOEFL texts ignore. If you can't type, you will waste time writing your essays. If you waste time making corrections, you will not be able to develop your essays. This, in turn, will result in low writing scores and a lower over final TOEFL iBT score.

Want to learn more? It's all in the book.

Click here to buy 500 Words, Phrase, Idioms...

- Can type -

- Can't type -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011

Audio Short Story by Bruce Stirling

Listen to my short story - The Family - read by famed British actor Christopher Eccleston (Dr. Who, Gone in 60 Seconds, GI Joe, Elizabeth). It was produced by the Tate Modern Art Gallery, London UK as part of their TH 2058 series (see TH 2058 at The Tate Modern).

listen to The Family by Bruce Stirling

25 Million TOEFL Test Takers

According to ETS, more than 25 million people have taken the TOEFL test since the test was first introduced back in 1963. That's a lot of essays...

read the article

ACT and SAT Writing Tests

American universities are serious about writing—very serious. They want students who can write and write well, not in four years but now. As you know, TOEFL measures writing proficiency; however, many colleges think a TOEFL writing score is not enough. Many schools also measure writing proficiency using the ACT Writing Test.

Below is a sample prompt from the ACT Writing Test

"Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position."

Sounds hard, right? Actually, it's just a big TOEFL prompt. Serious. Notice that it's really just an opinion essay with a big explanation describing the context. In fact, if you look at it closely, it's really just the introduction paragraph to an opinion essay! No big deal, right? Right. If you can write a TOEFL opinion-based essay, you can write an ACT essay. My TOEFL text, Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, shows you how.

What, you say, a TOEFL text can teach me how to write an ACT essay? It's true. Remember: An essay is an essay is an essay. The structure does not change. A TOEFL opinion-based essay is just a really short (very short!) graduate thesis, and graduate thesis is a very long (really long!) TOEFL opinion-based essay. In other words, if you can write a proficient, opinion-based TOEFL essay, you can answer an ACT essay (and a graduate thesis!).

You might also have to write an opinion-based essay for the SAT. 

All graduating American high school students must take the SAT. Universities like SAT because it measures the proficiency level of all high school subjects. SAT, like TOEFL and ACT, also has a writing section (surprise, surprise!) Below is a writing prompt from a recent a SAT test.  

AssignmentIs it absolutely necessary for people to study the creative arts? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

As you can see, the SAT wants you to write an opinion-based essay. That's good news. Why? Because SAT students also use Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT when preparing for the SAT writing test. One TOEFL student of mine also took the SAT, and got 4 out 5 on the writing section. Not bad, huh? Why? Because an essay is an essay is an essay. The only thing that changes is the name of the test.

Want to learn how to write essays for TOEFL, ACT and the SAT? It's all in the book.


 Do you agree or disagree?

Prompt courtesy of act.org
Prompt courtesy of The College Board
 © Bruce Stirling 2010-11 

Wednesday, November 24

What is a good TOEFL score?

What is a good TOEFL score? My TOEFL students ask me that question all time, and I always reply, "What score do you need?"

For example, let's say you want to apply to Yale or Princeton or Colombia. These are top schools. The best. That means you need to get the highest TOEFL iBT (not PBT!) score possible. The rule with these schools is the higher, the better. 100/120 at least. Why? Because you're not just competing against Americans. You're competing against the world. And remember: Your TOEFL score is only one part of your admissions package. For these schools, you must be the best in your class - your country! You must also demonstrate leadership or some other special talent that separates you from everybody else. To get into these schools, perfect grades and a perfect TOEFL score are not enough. What makes you special? That is what Yale and Princeton and M.I.T. want to know.

Note: Harvard does not require a TOEFL score. Submitting one is optional (read Harvard's TOEFL policy). Why? Good question. I guess Harvard figures if they let you in, you're pretty much a genius and already speak fluent English - and a couple of other languages - so why test your English. Note: As a university, Harvard is often ranked #1 in the world, right up there with Cambridge and Yale.

Okay, so you don't want to go to Yale. You want to go to a regular school. In that case, before you take the TOEFL iBT, contact the school and find out what TOEFL score you need, then aim for it. For example, if you need 79/120, and you score 79/120 on the TOEFL test, 79 is a good score. If you need 90/120, and you score 90/120 on the TOEFL test, 90 is a good score. However, if you only score 82/120...? Not so good.

As you can see, a good TOEFL score is the score you need. Don't stress out thinking, "I want 100! I want 100!" if you only need 79. You're not trying to impress your friends (though scoring 100 would be totally cool!) You are trying to get into an English-speaking school.

Remember: "Wanting" is different from "needing." A good TOEFL is not the score you want. It is the score you need.

Remember: Before you take the TOEFL test, contact the school(s) or licensing agency you are applying to and find out what TOEFL score they require.

- She Knows the Score -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

Conclusion Strategies

A fast and effective way to increase your independent essay score (and your independent speaking scores!) is to add a conclusion strategy. Look at the following conclusion strategies. Each is designed to maximize scoring.

a. Suggestion

For this strategy, start with a transition, restate your opinion, then end with a suggestion.

In sumI assert that television is a bad influence on our childrenInstead of watching so much television, parents should make their kids read a book, or make them go outside and play.

b. Suggestion + Prediction

For this strategy, start with a transition, restate your opinion, then end with a suggestion and a prediction. Note how the prediction contains the auxiliary verb “will” to describe a future action.

In the endI posit that it is better to save the money that you makeThe best thing you can do is put your money in the bank. In a few years, that money will help you buy a new car or help you go to university. 

c. Warning + Prediction 
For this strategy, start with a transition, restate your opinion, then end with a warning that contains a prediction of future events.

It goes without saying that television is a bad influence on our childrenIt is creating a lot of fat and lazy kids who will develop serious health problems when they are adults.

Remember: The raters will look for a conclusion strategy. A conclusion strategy demonstrates development, topical unity, and language use = a higher independent essay score and a higher independent speaking score = a higher TOEFL iBT score.

Want to learn more conclusion strategies? It's all in the book.

Got a TOEFL question? Ask the Pro!

- TOEFL Raters Are Hard to Impress -


© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011

LimeWire Shut Down - The Police are Watching

see the notice on the site

Microsoft Wins Big Copyright Case

read the article

Tuesday, November 23

Body Paragraphs - Common Problems

When developing body paragraphs for your independent essay, avoid these problem areas: 1) serial topic listing; 2) lack of topical unity; 3) topic redundancy.


Look at the following body paragraph from an actual independent essay.

A new airport in my hometown will create new jobs for young people. A new airport will also help increase taxes. In addition, a new airport will bring more people to my home town. Best of all, a new airport will help create other businesses that will support the airport, such as hotels and restaurants. Finally, a new airport will reduce unemployment. As you can see, a new airport is a good idea. 

Looks pretty good, right? Let's take a closer look. First off, grammatically, this sentence is perfect. However, notice how each sentence introduces a new topic. We can actually put the topics in a list, like this:

A new airport in my hometown will:
1. create new jobs for young people
2. increase taxes
3. bring more people
4. create support businesses
5. reduce unemployment

Note how the writer has created a list of topics and put them in a series (one after another). This is called serial topic listing. Okay, so what's wrong with that? The problem is each new topic should be a new body paragraph. That means this independent essay should have five body paragraphs! The second problem is a lack of topic development. This is a serious problem. How can you fix it? Simple. Instead of making a list of topics, focus on one topic and develop it, for example:  

A new airport in my hometown will create new jobs for young people. In my hometown, when young people graduate from high school and college, they leave right away and go to the big cities. In the cities, there are more jobs and a better future. However, if we had a new airport, the young people would stay because there would be new jobs. There would be jobs like construction and catering, as well other jobs connected to the airline business like hotels and restaurants. This would be good because more new jobs means the young people will have a reason to stay and develop the economy of my hometown.

Remember: A lack of topic development - especially in the body paragraphs - is the number on reason why test-takers score low on the independent essay. I know. I see this problem all the time. To get a high score, avoid serial listing. Focus on one topic per paragraph and develop it.


Look at the following paragraph. Can you identify the problem?

A new airport in my hometown will create new jobs for young people. In my hometown, when young people graduate from high school and college, they leave right away and go to the big cities. For example, my boyfriend went to America and is now living in Manhattan. He is a systems engineer and he got a good job and wants to become an American citizen. I am thinking about joining him because he has this really great apartment and I want to study English, and maybe look for a job in design or something. This happens a lot. Young people are always leaving my hometown. This is not good. But if we had jobs, maybe we would stay.

This paragraph starts off really good. The writer focuses on young people leaving her hometown because there are no jobs. Then, she gives the example of her boyfriend and develops the topic of living in America. Living in America? What happened to the airport? As you can see, living America is new topic. At the end, the writer jumps back to the topic of the airport, new jobs and young people. Confusing? Yes. This is an example of a lack of topical unity. The writer starts off saying apples, apples, apples, then suddenly says oranges, oranges, oranges, then jumps back to apples, apples, apples.

Remember: A lack of topical unity is a common problem. It will result in a lower score. To get a higher independent essay score, focus on one topic per paragraph.


Look at the following paragraph. Can you identify the problem?

A new airport in my hometown will create new jobs for young people. In my hometown, young people need jobs because jobs are good for young people. Jobs are good because they give work to young people who need jobs. I am young and I need a job so new jobs are good for young people like me. New jobs will help not only young people but all people. So new jobs are good for everyone, old and young. I support the airport and new jobs.

This is an example of topic redundancy in a body paragraph. Redundancy means repeating. In this case, the topic of jobs is repeated, over and over. The result is the writer is not saying anything, just filling up space.

Remember: The writing raters are trained to look for serial listing, a lack of topical unity, and topic redundancy. Avoid these problem areas and you will increase your independent essay score.

Want to know more about body paragraph strategies for speaking and for writing? Check out my TOEFL texts.

The Pro