Tuesday, March 29

iBT or PBT? Which should you 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 is the iBT harder than the PBT? 1) Because of the speaking section, and; 2) 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.

The Pro

TOEFL Pro in India

Chinese Blogger Arrested for Subversion

Government arrests online revolutiony, Ran Yunfei.

Ran Yunfei - Arrested for Subversion

Monday, March 28

The Pro rates a sample ETS essay

The independent essay below comes courtesy of ETS. ETS says that this sample independent essay scored a perfect 5. Really? Read and watch as the Pro analyzes it. Note: I have added numbers and underlines for reference.

Prompt: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Always telling the truth is the most important consideration in any relationship. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

(1) the traditional virtue of telling the truth in all situations is increasingly doubted by many in today’s world. (2) many believe that telling the truth is not always the best policy when dealing with people. (3) moreover, the line of a “truth” is becoming more and more vague. this essay will explore the importance of telling the truth in relationships between people.

Intro Analysis: Sentences #1 and #2 repeat the same information. This demonstrates redundancy (unnecessary repetition). Sentence #3 introduces a new topic: how "the line of a 'truth' is becoming more vague". What is "the line of a 'truth'"? I have no idea. This demonstrates a lack of word choice. Also, this sentence does not topically connect with the last sentence. The last sentence is not an opinion. It is an announcement. How can we check to make sure it is not an opinion? Click here; see point #7. This suggests the test-taker is using induction as the method of organization. Conclusion? This introduction demonstrates a serious lack of topical unity and language use. As a result, there is a serious lack of coherence.

(1) we all understand that often the truth is offending and may not be a very nice thing to both hear or say. (2) lies or white lies often have their advantages. the manipulation of white lies is the most obvious the business world. how many times have we heard that some product is “the finest” or “the cheapest”? how many times have we heard that products have such and such “magical functions”? advertising is about persuasion, and many would agree that if a company is to tell the absolute truth about it’s products, no one would be interested in even having a look at the products.

Body Paragraph #1 Analysis: Sentence #1 introduces the topic of "the truth" as being something that can offend. Sentence #2 introduces a new topic: "lies...having their advantages." This topic change demonstrates a lack of topical unity. Also, the business world example is wrong. If a salesperson says this [product] is "the finest," and it's not, then he/she is lying. This is not an example of a white lie. Clearly, the test-taker does not understand the difference between a white lie (idiom) and a basic lie, and the context in which they are used. The raters who rated this essay also fail to understand the difference between a white lie and a lie. Is this paragraph about the truth, white lies, lies, or advertising? This body paragraph lacks topical unity, development, and a lack of language use, specifically the idiom white lie. The result is an overall lack of coherence.    

(1) the same logic applies to human relationships. (2) if your friend had worn a newly purchased dress on her birthday and energetically asked you if it was a worthy buy, would you freely express your opinion that you had never seen a dress as the one she’s currently wearing? and spoil her birthday? unarguably, hiding(entirely or particially) the truth in some situations can be quite handy indeed. confrontations and disputes can seemingly be avoided.

Body Paragraph #2 Analysis: Sentence #1 suggests that the business example in body paragraph #1 is not a human relationship. If not, then what is it? This demonstrates a lack of word choice and topical unity. Sentence #2 also lacks topical unity. What is the connection between the friend wearing a new dress and you saying you had never seen a dress like that before? You are not lying. You (the friend) are stating a fact. Where is the lie, and why? Also, what causes "confrontations and disputes", and why? This paragraph is one big question. It lacks topical unity and development. Combined, these demonstrate a lack of coherence.

however, there is always the risk factor of the truth emerging sooner or later when telling an untruth. the basic trust in any relationships (businessman/customer, friends, parents/children) will be blotched, and would have an impact on the future relationship between both parties. the story of the “the boy who cried wolf” fully illustrates the consequenes of telling untruths. no one will believe you when you’re telling the truth. your word will have no weighting.

Body Paragraph #3 Analysis: This paragraph demonstrates a serious lack of word choice. "Blotched?" What does that mean? "Untruths?" What are they? "Weighting"? What does that mean? A lack of word choice results in a lack of coherence. There are grammar issues as well.

in addition, another “bad factor” of telling untruths is that you have absolutely no control over when the truth(of previous untruths) will emerge. untruths breed pain in both parties: tears when the truth is uncovered after a period of time; fear and the burden of sharing a “secret”. in the long run, it seems that hiding the truth is not beneficial to either party.

Body Paragraph #4 Analysis: Sentence #1 introduces the negative effects of lying. Sentence #2 introduces the topic of breeding "pain in both parties." What is the main topic? It is not clear. Is there an example for support? No. This paragraph, like all the rest, is built on vague generalities. The result is a lack of sustained coherence.

(1) everyone hates betrayal. (2) even if it is the trend to occasionally hide the truth in relationships, it is strongly recommended that not to follow that trend as the risk and the consequences of the truth unfolded overwhelms the minimal advantages one can derive from not telling the truth. afterall, it is understood that relationships are founded on “trust” which goes hand in hand with “truth”. indeed telling the truth is the most important consideration in any relationship between people. always.

Conclusion Analysis: Sentence #1 introduces a new topic: betrayal. Warning: Betraying is not the same as lying. They are two completely different topics, like apples and oranges. Also, the topic of betraying is not topically connected to the introduction. This demonstrates a lack of topical unity and organization. Sentence #2 is wordy. Moreover, it sounds like an Eastern European translating into English, as does much of the phrasing in this essay. This suggests the test-taker is not thinking in English. Combined, these result in a lack of coherence.

ETS gave this sample independent essay a 5. What would you give it? I give it a 3.5. 

Note that this essay is long. However, long does not always mean proficient. Some of the best essays I have rated have been short and to the point. More often than not, a long essay means a lack of coherence (the writer is just writing and writing, and saying nothing).

What would give this essay greater coherence, among other things? Specific examples for starters, one clearly developed and demonstrating a cause-effect relationship in each body paragraphRemember: the prompts says "give specific examples" not "vague generalities."

I rated this essay sentence by sentence. Yet what about rating it "holistically," as a whole, as ETS does (see rating holistically). Doesn't matter. Holistically rated or not, this essay still rates below 4. Why? Because the accumulation of mistakes in all areas of argument development - lack of organization, lack of development, lack of topical and grammatical unity, lack of proficient language use - all add up to a lack of coherence. Remember: Rating holistically means I (the rater) will ignore one or two errors (that, at least, is the theory). In this essay, however, there are too many errors, basic errors, which can't be ignored.

Okay, why so did ETS give this essay a perfect 5? That, TOEFL fans, is the $64,000.00 question.



Prompt: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Always telling the truth is the most important consideration in any relationship. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

Is telling the truth always a good idea? No. Personally, I think that telling the truth is bad for business, bad for love, and bad for jokes.

The truth is bad for business. For example, you sell cars. Your prices are the lowest in town. Are they? No. But what's the alternative? Do you say, "I'm lying, so go across the street because that dealer has better prices"? No. You'd be slitting your own throat. As you can see, lying is part of selling. Do customers know this? Of course. Are they offended? No. Like you, they know that telling the truth is bad for business.

The truth is bad for love. For example, your boyfriend's wearing a new cologne. He says, "You like it?" You say, "I love it!" Actually, you really mean, "God, that stinks!" Do you say this? Do you tell the truth? No. Why not? Because you don't want to hurt his feelings. In the end, you tell a white lie. In other words, you lie to make him happy. Why? Because love is more important than the truth.

The truth is bad for jokes. Last week, I was in a restaurant chilling with Jose when I suddenly said, "Yo, Jose. Look! Over there. It's Angelina Jolie. Serious. She's so hot!" Jose loves AJ. He looked and looked, but AJ wasn't there. Was I lying? Of course. If I told the truth, it wouldn't be a joke. Was Jose offended? Was he hurt? Are you kidding? He does it to me all time. It was simply payback.

As you can see, telling the truth is not always a good idea. Can you imagine if everyone suddenly started telling the truth? Car dealers would lose money, boyfriends would cry, and Jose wouldn't laugh at my stupid jokes.

ETS says an independent essay should be approximately 300 words. The above-essay is 300 words.

Why does the Pro's sample essay score a 5? Because it is a Coherent argument? Why is it a Coherent argument? Because it demonstrates OPDUL=C ("Op-dull-see").

Development        =    Coherence
Language Use

Note: I analyzed ETS's sample independent essay using OPDUL=COPDUL=C is a trademarked, argument proficiency analyzer I developed to rate TOEFL essays and TOEFL speaking task, quickly and accurately.

Want to learn how to write essays that demonstrate OPDUL=C? It's all in the book.


- The Pro at Work -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

Saturday, March 26

Bees are disappearing worldwide

Bees are disappearing all around the world. Bees pollinate 30% of the food we eat.

The Pro

Fake TOEFL Score = Go To Jail

30 months jail for TOEFL cheater. 

The Pro

Proficient Typing - An Essential TOEFL Strategy

One strategy TOEFL texts do not teach is typing. Typing? Bor-ing, I know. But experience tells me that many test-takers are not proficient typists, especially when typing English. Poor typing means you waste time thinking about which key to hit and less time developing ideas for your essays. Also, I bet you practice typing essays on a laptop, right? Right. On test day, however, you will not use a laptop. You will use a standard keyboard like the one below. Standard keyboards are not touch sensitive like laptops. Standard keys are bigger and spaced more. That means it takes more effort to type.

I suggest you buy a standard keyboard. You can get one for $10.00 (or less) on the web. Make sure it is USB compatible so you can plug it into your laptop.

Remember: Proficient typing = greater coherence = higher essay scores = a higher writing section score = a higher final TOEFL iBT score.

So how fast can you type? Take the test. 

DirectionsYou have one minute to type the 60-word passage below. Include all punctuation and capital letters.

Topical unity means you focus on one topic from start to finish. If you suddenly introduce a new and unrelated topic, you are changing topics. For example, you are writing about pizza when you suddenly change to TOEFL. This obvious change in topic direction is called a topic digression. This will result in a lack of topical unity and coherence.

When you are finished, add up your mistakes. If you made one mistake, you can type 59 words per minute (60 – 1 = 59 wpm), two mistakes, 58 wpm, etc. Note: A letter not capitalized is a mistake. A comma in the wrong place is a mistake. A missing comma is a mistake.

WARNING: If you type less than 40 wpm, you need typing practice.

For typing practice, check out my TOEFL text.


© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011

Friday, March 25

Common and Uncommon English Words

Try using these words when taking the TOEFL iBT. Are they common English words? Yes. They might sound strange (and look strange!) but they are common English words.

The link below will take you to English words that are pretty strange. Try using one on the TOEFL iBT. The raters will reach for their dictionaries.

What are the qualities of a good neighbor?


The Pro 

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor (1932-2011)

Thursday, March 24

Active and Passive English Vocabularies

You have two English vocabularies. I call them your active vocabulary and your passive vocabulary. Your active vocabulary consists of words you use every day. Because you use your active vocabulary every day, you make fewer mistakes when speaking and when writing. An example of your active vocabulary would be something like this:

"Yo, dude. What's up?"
"Nothing. How about you?"
"Not much. Just reading this blog."
"Learning anything?"
"Definitely. I love Spanish."

As you can see, your active vocabulary is based on informal conversation. Idioms are also part of your active vocabulary ("dude"). However, you know more English idioms than you actually use. All those idioms you know, but don't often use, are part of your passive vocabulary. Because you don't use these idioms every day, there is a good chance you will make a mistake when using them, especially on the TOEFL test. I know. I see this all the time. On the TOEFL iBT, incorrect idiom usage demonstrates a lack of proficient language use. What should you do? Don't try and impress the speaking and writing raters with a lot of idioms. Use an idiom(s) only if you are 100% sure you are using it correctly. Correctly means the right context.
Look at the paragraph below. Can you identify any idiom problems?

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, out of the blue they leave 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 go crazy 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.

The problem is the idiom "out of the blue." Out of the blue means suddenly. However, "out of the blue" also means unexpectedly. This suggests surprise. Is it surprising that students leave for the big cities after graduating? No. All students do it. It is expected therefore it is not a surprise (not out of the blue).

As you can see, the idiom out of the blue is in the wrong context. The result is a loss of coherence. Notice also how an idiom in the wrong place changes the tone of another wise excellent body paragraph. A native speaker (a writing or speaking rater) will notice this idiom problem immediately. A rater will also notice "go crazy." In this context, "go crazy" means you are so happy you lose control. Once again, wrong idiom, wrong context. Combined, these language use errors will impact scoring.

Remember: Fewer idiom errors = greater coherence = higher speaking and writing scores = a higher final TOEFL iBT score.

Want to know more language use strategies? Check out my TOEFL text Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT and 500 Words, Phrases, and Idioms for the TOEFL iBT plus Typing Strategies.

Before using TOEFL Pro

After using TOEFL Pro

 © Bruce Stirling 2011

A Bestseller

As of 3/24/11, Speaking and Writing Strategies is the #1 bestselling TOEFL text on Kindle.
Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #30,413 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
o   #3 in Kindle Store > BooksEducation > TOEFL & TOEIC
o   #3 in Kindle Store > Books > Nonfiction > TOEFL

The Pro knows TOEFL

Wednesday, March 23

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.

- The Pro calculating TOEFL scores -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

Monday, March 21

Sample Page from my new TOEFL text

The following is a sample page from the reading section of my new TOEFL iBT text, Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, A Complete Guide.

Click on the page to enlarge.

The Pro © 2011

Sunday, March 20

But I have my own writing style!

Great. Fantastic. There's only one problem: The TOEFL writing raters don't care about style. Sorry. They simply want to know if you can develop and deliver two written arguments (independent essay and integrated essay) under a time pressure. The raters measure your ability to write under a time pressure using rubrics (see rubrics). Style is not part of the ETS writing rubrics. Why not? Because evaluating style is a highly subjective process. For example, the famous American writer Earnest Hemingway (Old Man and The Sea) uses a very simple style. Some love it. Others hate it. Who is right? As you can see, judging style is a subjective process, one that enters into the realm of art, and what makes writing a piece of art blah, blah, blah.

Where does art/style fit into the TOEFL picture? It doesn't. Why not? Because the writing raters are trained to rate essays objectively. How? Using rubrics. By rating objectively using rubrics, the raters' ratings will be fair, unbiased, and accurate (that is the theory). If the raters rated style, they could give you any score depending on their likes and dislikes. That, in turn, would be a subjective rating and not fair. Think about it: If the raters rated subjectively, you could answer an independent essay prompt with a poem. Why not?

Also, if you have your own writing style, that's means you are a good writer - a very good writer. Why? Because style means you have mastered all levels of English grammar (spelling too!). As a writer with style, you're not worried about the future-perfect-passive progressive, or parallelism, or fragments, or run ons, or where to put the commas in a compound sentence, or the difference between stationery and stationary, or how to use a colon and a semi-colon. In short, you have mastered English grammar and punctuation so well you don't have to think about it when you compose. So why are you taking the TOEFL test? To impress the writing raters with your style? No. You're simply playing the TOEFL game. To play the TOEFL game, leave the style at home. Instead, give the raters what they are trained to rate: typical essays American high school and university students write. And remember: You only have 30 minutes to write the independent essay and 20 minutes to write the integrated essay. Not much time.

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

Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT

- A Question of Style -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011

What you need for TOEFL Success

As a TOEFL instructor, the first question I ask each new TOEFL class on the first day is: "Okay, so what is an essay?"

From twenty students from twenty different cultures I get twenty different answers.

Then I ask, "Okay, so what is a thesis?"

Twenty different answers.

Then I ask, "Okay, so what are rhetorical strategies?" (see rhetorical strategies)

Nothing. Silence.

This is typical of each new TOEFL class. Conclusion? Most non native, English-speaking students are not familiar with western-style, argument development (remember an essay is an argument).

Why is this a problem? Because the TOEFL iBT is all arguments. Why all arguments? Because argument development is the foundation of the English-speaking educational system. What do students do at U.S., U.K., Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand universities? They listen to lectures (verbal essays); they write essays (written arguments); they read texts (written arguments); they express opinions in seminars and give presentations (argument-based tasks). As you can see, the argument is the foundation of the western-educational system. Where did it come from? TOEFL? Nope. The Greeks about 2,500 years ago. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato. That gang.

How does argument development connect with the TOEFL iBT? Simple. Like I said, the TOEFL iBT is all arguments. That means if you (the test-taker) want the highest-TOEFL iBT score possible, you must understand basic argument development. That is the first strategy you must learn. Right? Right. Do standardized TOEFL texts (you know the ones) teach basic argument development starting on page one? Do they teach the difference between induction and deduction (see induction, deduction)? No. Standardized texts all start with an analysis of reading section questions and strategies, such as skimming and scanning. Yes, skimming is important. Yes, scanning is important. But if you do not understand basic rhetoric (the tools of argument development), you will not get the highest TOEFL iBT score possible. It's that simple. Think of it this way: A typical standardized TOEFL text is like a speeding car. From page one, it is already driving 100 mph while you are standing beside the road trying to jump on. What happens when you try to jump on? That's right. Disaster.

As a TOEFL instructor and TOEFL author, I have identified this disconnect between what test-takers need and what standardized TOEFL texts teach (or don't teach). What test-takers need is a foundation in basic rhetoric before they learn strategies specific to each task. But how is learning argument development possible in a three-month (or shorter) TOEFL course, or by self-study, especially when you have to learn all those other TOEFL strategies?

The solution is to start with the independent essay, the last task on the TOEFL iBT. Why start with the independent essay? Because the independent essay is the foundation essay. By learning how to write an independent essay, the test-taker can quickly acquire basic argument strategies needed for the TOEFL iBT. If a test-taker can write an independent essay, he/she will answer reading and listening section questions more proficiently; they will also answer speaking tasks more proficiently and write integrated essays more proficiently.

As you can see, as a TOEFL instructor, I focus on the needs of my students first. What do my students (and all test-takers) need? An introduction to basic argument development. As an TOEFL author, that is what I teach in Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT. Standardized TOEFL texts, however, do not focus on test-taker needs. Instead, they "teach to the test." This means they teach strategies as the appear on the TOEFL test: reading, listening, speaking, writing. To me, this pedagogy/strategy is counter productive. Why have standardized TOEFL texts taught TOEFL this way for 50 years? Because they have been focused on the test and not on the test-taker. What is more important? The test or the test-taker? It's pretty obvious.

What do test-takers need? An introduction to the fundamentals of basic argument development starting with the independent essay. That is what I teach my TOEFL classes. That is what my best-selling TOEFL text Speaking and Writing Strategies for the iBT teaches. That is what my complete TOEFL iBT text Integrated Strategies for the TOEFL iBT: A New Approach to TOEFL Success will teach when published in 2011.

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


 - Building a Foundation -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11