Saturday, April 30

The Reading Section Blues

For many TOEFL students, the reading section is the most challenging section of the TOEFL iBT. Why? Because...

The Essays are Long, Hard and Boring!

That's right. Really boring. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the TOEFL game and university life. You don't always get to study what you want to study. And yes, the TOEFL essays are hard. Very hard. ETS (Educational Testing Services) designs them that way. Why? Because with TOEFL, ETS is recreating the university classroom experience. Are essays in university texts easy? Nope. They are long, hard and boring. One more thing. The reading section essays on the official TOEFL test are much harder than the sample essays in standardized TOEFL texts. How can you prepare for the reading section? Force yourself to read long, hard, boring English material. What about memorizing word lists? That's okay. But if you are not using those words in context every day, thereby reinforcing their meaning and usage, you will forget most of them.

Remember: The best reading strategy for students at the TOEFL level is to read, read, read. Reading forces you to create pictures in your brain (contextualize). When you create pictures in your brain, you identify them with labels. Those labels are words specific to the context. This is how advanced language learners learn. By contextualizing. Word lists have no context; that is why memorizing word lists is not always the best way to prepare for the reading section.

The Essays are Full of New Words!

Yup. Lots of new words. They will drive you crazy - and stop you cold. That is their purpose. For example, you're reading along and you suddenly find a word like xenodocheionology. Even now this word has stopped you, right? Right. How about this word? Triskaidekaphobia? Still stopped? For how many seconds? Five? Ten? (Xeno-what? Triska-who?) The clock is ticking. This is exactly what happens on the TOEFL reading section. New words stop you cold as your hard drive (brain) scans to find the meaning (I know this word! I know this word!). If your brain can't find the meaning, you just look at the word. Why? Because you want to know its meaning (If I look at it long enough, maybe I will figure it out!) The problem is as you are parked on a word, you are wasting time. If you waste time, you won't have time to finish the essays or answer the questions. Obviously, you can't stop and figure out each new word. ETS knows this. That's why there are lots of new words in each essay. For testing purposes, ETS wants to know if you can figure out a new word not from the dictionary in the your brain but from its context (see contextualizing above). That is how advanced language learners learn new words, by seeing how a new word is used in context. That is what TOEFL measures: Are you a proficient English reader? Can you figure out new words from context only? If you can, you will get a high score.

I Don't Have Enough Time!

"There is not enough time to finish the reading section! If I had more time, twenty minutes, I would get a higher score." I always hear this complaint. Unfortunately, you only get an hour to complete the reading section. My students think this is unfair. Maybe. I don't know. What I do know is that the TOEFL iBT was designed by psychometricians. What is a psychometrician? Somebody who studies psychometrics (mind + measure). Basically, a psychometrician studies the human brain and how it performs under a time pressure while doing a standardized test such as TOEFL. Who designed the TOEFL test? The psychometricians at ETS. Using calculators and stopwatches, the ETS psychometricians have proven that one hour is the right amount of time to read 3 long, hard and boring TOEFL essays and answers all the questions. And what do the psychometricians at ETS do with all those TOEFL scores? They measure them and compare them and study them, and make conclusions about your brain. What are those conclusions? The average TOEFL score for the year ending 2009 was 79/120 (see scores). Is 79/120 a good score, a bad score, a typical score? I wouldn't worry about that. Worry about your own score and leave the psychometricing to the psychometricians.

FYI: xenodocheionology means "love of hotels"; triskaidekaphobia means "fear of the number 13."

Got a question about TOEFL? Ask the Pro!

 - The Reading Section -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

Thursday, April 28

The Secret to TOEFL Success

If you want to study or work in an English-speaking country, like Canada or the U.S., you need to demonstrate English proficiency at the highest levels. Enter TOEFL. TOEFL measures English language proficiency at the academic level, a level many non native speakers find a challenge to master. In light of this, many test-takers ask, "Is TOEFL really a true measure of my ability?" Of course not. TOEFL measures only one ability: the ability to communicate in academic English across four disciplines: reading, listening, speaking, writing. TOEFL does not measure creativity. It does not measure initiative or resourcefulness or faithfulness or honesty or integrity or modesty or piety or industry or charity or chastity or humility or propriety. When you think about it, TOEFL measures only a very small part of who you really are. And that can be upsetting, for TOEFL is more than just a stress-filled test. TOEFL is a wall between you and your dreams. I know. I have seen the worry TOEFL causes. Out of this fear and frustration comes the one question I hear over and over: "What is the trick to getting a high TOEFL score?"

Unfortunately, there is no "trick" to getting a high TOEFL score. If someone tells you they have the secret to TOEFL success, don't believe them. If someone did have the secret to TOEFL success, believe me, every TOEFL text would be selling it (mine included). Trust me. There is no trick, no button you can push, no amount of new vocabulary you can memorize, no door you can walk through to find a perfect score. Why not? Because English, like all languages, is far too complex to be reduced to a simple game. However, what most test-takers don't realize is that the design of the TOEFL test itself is in fact a game. That's right: the TOEFL iBT is one big game, a very challenging game, but a game all the same. 

Like all games, TOEFL uses a scoring system to measure player performance. Like all games, the underlying structure of the TOEFL game can be identified and analyzed. Through that analysis, it can be proven that TOEFL, like all games, is surprisingly predictable. In other words, TOEFL repeats itself, just like baseball and soccer and tennis. Okay, so? So if TOEFL is at heart a predictable game, test-takers can develop the strategies needed to beat the TOEFL game. What are the strategies you can apply to anticipate TOEFL's every move? Those strategies are available in my TOEFL text Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT. I will expand upon these same strategies in my complete TOEFL guide due out in early 2011, the title of which is Integrated Strategies for the TOEFL iBT: A New Approach to TOEFL Success.

As a TOEFL author and instructor, I have not found the secret to TOEFL success because there is no secret. However, as a writer, I have reengineered the TOEFL test with the tools of argument development. I've ripped apart TOEFL's engine and seats and dashboard and tires and trunk and transmission and drive train, and discovered what makes the TOEFL iBT tick. Want to know more? It's all in the book.

 Progress is always good. Do you agree or disagree?

© Bruce Stirling 2010-2011    

Monday, April 25

Reading Practice - Check it Out!

The following link is to SAT reading practice online. The SAT (Standard Aptitude Test) is taken by all American high school students when graduating. SAT reading is TOEFL-level and good practice for TOEFL.

All Roads Lead to TOEFL

Fake TOEFL Score

It's interesting how many google "fake toefl score." You want the Pro's advice? Yo, dude, do you really want to call your parents from an American jail? 

Remember: If the CIA and the FBI don't catch you, your professors will. Why? Because the proof is in the pudding. Believe me, it all comes out in the wash.

The Pro

Support the Syrian Revolution

Saturday, April 23

Good Typing - An Essential TOEFL Strategy

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

Wednesday, April 20

Friday, April 15

UK will cut 80,000 student visas

"The home secretary, Theresa May, has unveiled the coalition's compromise package on the student visa system and claimed it would curb numbers by more than 25%, with up to 80,000 fewer coming to Britain each year."

"May claimed that new restrictions on the ability of overseas students to stay on and work for up to two years on graduation would reduce numbers by a further 20,000."

UK tells foreign students: Speak English or get out!

"Let me be clear: you need to speak English to learn at our education establishments. If you can't, we won't give you a visa."
This was the stark warning issued by UK home secretary Theresa May in parliament last month as she unveiled tough new rules for student visas aimed at cutting the numbers of migrants using education as a back door into Britain.

Monday, April 11

Sample From my New TOEFL text coming soon!

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. My new TOEFL text will be available June 2011.

Click on the page to enlarge.

The Pro © 2011

Another Success Story!

Three months ago, the test-taker below sent me an email thanking me for my book Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT. Yesterday, I received the email below from the same test-taker (name withheld for privacy).

Dear Sir

I got a good score, 106/120 (IBT). Thank you again, as I had your book as the most important learning tool in my library.


Congrats to GSR!

Friday, April 8

Sample Independent Essay: What will your friend like/not like about your hometown?

This is another popular independent essay prompt. Everybody who has prepared for the TOEFL iBT has written it. Will this prompt ever appear on the TOEFL iBT? I doubt it very much. ETS tends to use new prompts. But it is good practice nonetheless.

PromptWhat do you think a friend might like and not like about the place you call home? Why? Develop your position using examples and reasons.

What will my friend like and not like when visiting the place I call home, New Delhi, India? Personally speaking, I contend that my friend will like the food however he will not be crazy about the summer temperatures or the crowds.

My friend will like the delicious food in New Delhi. When I am hungry, I go to Sheshraj’s, the best restaurant in New Delhi. The prices are very reasonable and you get a lot of food. The lamb curry is excellent as is the aloo gobi. For a good meal, my friend can spend maybe one American dollar. Eating at Sheshraj’s will definitely give my friend a real New Delhi experience that is both affordable and delicious.
However, my friend will not like summer in New Delhi. The temperature can reach 120F plus the humidity is high as well. This makes New Delhi uncomfortable in the summer. Unlike America, air conditioning is not found everywhere in New Delhi. This is most evident on the trains and buses. With the high temperatures and the high humidity, this can make traveling difficult. Because of these factors, my friend may want to avoid visiting New Delhi in the summer.

As mentioned, New Delhi is crowded. My friend might not like this  because he comes from a small town in Connecticut, so he does not feel the pressure of big city life. Also, he does not see any poverty because Connecticut is wealthy unlike parts of New Delhi which are extremely poor. This might be a big shock for my friend since he is not used to such cultural extremes.

As illustrated, there are many reasons why my friend will like and won’t like New Delhi. However, this should not stop him from visiting. I guarantee he will have a wonderful time.

There is no official word-length rule. However, ETS says an "effective" independent essay will be around 300 words. In this context, "effective" means proficient. Proficient means demonstrating skill and knowledge specific to the task. 

The essay above is exactly 300 words.

Want to learn how to write a high-scoring independent essay? It's all in the book.

The Pro

Wednesday, April 6

TOEFL Tip #25

To get the highest possible speaking and writing scores, you must learn how to think like an official ETS (Education Testing Service) speaking rater and writing rater. ETS raters are trained to follow guidelines specific to speaking and writing. Those guidelines are called rubrics. Rubrics are rules for coherent speaking and writing. As a test-taker, you need to learn those rules. By doing so, you will give the raters what they are trained to look for in spoken and written responses. By giving the raters what they are trained to listen and look for, you will maximize scoring on test day. That is how you play the TOEFL game and win.

Want to learn how to think like an ETS speaking and writing rater? It's all in the book.

Sunday, April 3

TOEFL Tip #24

Many test-takers think the integrated writing task is harder than the independent essay. However, classroom experience proves that for most test-takers, the integrated essay is in fact (surprise, surprise!) easier to write. Why?

For starters, all the factual information you need for the integrated essay is provided in the reading and in the lecture. All you have to do is arrange those facts according to the prompt. However, for the independent essay, you have no facts. You are given nothing but a prompt. To answer the prompt, you must state your opinion, then think of examples to support your opinion. Thinking of examples and putting them in writing is a creative process that tests your automaticity (your ability to think and create without hesitation). Simply put, the independent essay tests your creativity when developing examples. It's true. And it is very challenging. I know. I see it all the time. In contrast, the integrated essay does not test creativity. That is one big difference between these two writing tasks. There are others, of course. Lots more.

Want to learn how to write a high-scoring integrated essay and a high-scoring independent essay? It's all in the book.

What are the qualities of a good doctor?