Tuesday, May 31

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

Sunday, May 29

Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT

My latest TOEFL text - Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide  - is finished and now with the publisher.

How is Scoring Strategies different from the competition? In myriad ways. For starters, Scoring Strategies is learner-center. That means I focus on you, the test-taker, and give you what you need for TOEFL success. What do you need for TOEFL success? A foundation in basic argument development, the kind of rhetoric you can expect at English-speaking colleges and universities. Why arguments? Because that is how the TOEFL iBT tests you. All other TOEFL texts do not talk about argument development; they barely even mention rhetorical strategies. Their approach is holistic, a big-picture survey of the TOEFL iBT with little or no in-depth analysis of individual tasks or questions. Scoring Strategies, in contrast, is analytical from start to finish. Each test section begins with an in-depth, rhetorical analysis of those arguments and question-types used for testing. That means no surprises on test day. Best of all, you will become a pro at playing the TOEFL iBT game. Those are just a few ways Scoring Strategies represents a new way to prepare for the TOEFL iBT. 

Remember: I am a real ESL professor teaching real ESL students at a big American university. All the strategies in Scoring Strategies have been tested and developed over five years in my TOEFL classrooms.

Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT. The revolution is coming.

The Pro  

Wednesday, May 25

What to Expect on Test Day

Click here to watch the video

- The TOEFL Police -

Video courtesy of Educational Testing Services (ETS)

Problems on Test Day? Want to challenge ETS? This is how!

Inquiries on Test Questions

After test questions have been reviewed and revised as appropriate, they are selectively administered in trial situations and assembled into tests. The tests are then reviewed according to established ETS and TOEFL program procedures to ensure that all possible versions of the test are free of cultural bias. Statistical analyses of individual questions ensure that all items provide appropriate measurement information.

Although ETS employs extensive quality control checks throughout the development of test questions and the preparation of final tests, typographical errors or flaws in questions may occasionally occur. If you suspect a problem and want to question a test item for any reason, notify the test administrator before you leave the test site.
You may also write to:
MS 42N-208, TOEFL Test Question Inquiries
Educational Testing Service
Rosedale Road
Princeton, NJ 08541-­0001, USA

Or send a fax to 1-609-683-2600 immediately after taking the test.
Please include:
·        the test name
·        the test section
·        the test date
·        the name of the center where the test was taken
·        the number of the test item being questioned, if possible


If you have a complaint about the testing facilities or the test administrator, write within three days after the test date. Be sure to give the date of the test, the name of the test center, and the city and country in which you tested. Send it to:

TOEFL iBT Complaints
MS 16-Z, Internet-Based Testing Network Group
Educational Testing Service
Rosedale Road
Princeton, NJ 08541-6163, USA

For more, click here.

Info courtesy of ETS

Speaking and Writing Strategies - Reviewed

Click on the link to read a review of Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT.

The Pro

Tuesday, May 24

Learn how to write a five-paragraph essay

Many students take a TOEFL class not because they are taking the test, but because they want advanced English practice. Many of these same students want to learn how to write an American-style, five-paragraph essay (intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion). Case in point: In my last TOEFL class, almost half of my students wanted more help writing five-paragraph essays.

The best book for learning how to write American-style essays is Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT. Yes, it is a TOEFL book but it is also great for learning how to write essays. Speaking and Writing teaches you how to write basic and advanced opinion-based essays and fact-based essays used in American colleges and universities. You also learn essential rhetoric strategies including deduction and induction. I also teach you basic and advanced thesis strategies and basic and advanced introduction and conclusion strategies. After you learn how to write a five-paragraph essay, I teach you how to self-analyze your essays using the argument analyzer OPDUL=C. By doing so, you can quickly and proficiently self-correct your essays for greater coherence. Speaking and Writing Strategies does all that using a graphics-based teaching system I call argument mapping. All you have to do is follow the argument maps and you will be writing American-style essays in no time

Remember: Everything in Speaking and Writing Strategies was developed and tested in American university classrooms, including TOEFL classes, business writing classes, and advanced essay classes. Open Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT and you are stepping into a real American university classroom. 
Want to learn how write American-style five-paragraph essays? It's all in the book.

The Pro

Saturday, May 21

2010 Average Worldwide TOEFL iBT Scores

Worldwide average TOEFL iBT score for 2010 = 80/120  (2009 = 79).

Grad student average = 84/120

Undergrad student average = 78/120

Professional licence applicant average = 83/120

Average male score = 81/120

Average female score = 81/120

To find your country's average 2010 TOEFL iBT score, follow this link or this link 

Data courtesy of ETS

Tuesday, May 17

The Pro Rates a Sample ETS essay!

ETS (Educational Testing Service; the maker of TOEFL) says the sample independent TOEFL essay below scored a perfect 5. Really? Read and watch as the Pro analyzes it. 

Note: I have added numbers and underlines for reference.

PromptDo 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. (4) this essay will explore the importance of telling the truth in relationships between people.

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, sentence #3 does not topically connect with the sentence #4. Sentence #4 is not an opinion. It is an announcement. How can you check to make sure it is not an opinion? Click here; see point #7. 

Because there is no opinion in this introduction, 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. The result is a serious lack of coherence.

Body Paragraph #1

(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.

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 (offending truth vs. lies) demonstrates a serious 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?

Conclusion: This body paragraph lacks topical unity, development, and a lack of language use, specifically the idiom white lie. The result is a serious lack of coherence.    

Body Paragraph #2

(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.

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?

Conclusion: This paragraph is one big question. It lacks topical unity and development. Combined, these demonstrate a serious lack of coherence.

Body Paragraph #3

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.

Analysis: This paragraph demonstrates a serious lack of word choice. "Blotched?" What does that mean? "Untruths?" What are they? "Weighting"? What does that mean?

Conclusion: A serious lack of word choice results in a serious lack of coherence.

Body Paragraph #4

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.

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.

Conclusion: This paragraph is a serious of vague generalities . The result is a serious lack of 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. after all, 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.

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. Also, sentence #2 is wordy.

Conclusion: The conclusion - and this essay in general -  sounds like an Eastern European translating into English. This suggests the test-taker is not thinking in English (lack of automaticity). Combined, these result in a serious lack of coherence.

ETS gave this sample independent essay a 5/5. The Pro gives 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 (and a higher score)? Specific body paragraph examples which are clearly developed and demonstrate a cause-effect relationship

Remember: The prompts says "give specific examples."

I rated this essay sentence by sentence. This rating method is called "analytical." 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 a 3/5. Why? Because the accumulation of mistakes in all areas of argument development - lack of organization, lack of development, lack of topical and grammatical unity, and a 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 5/5? That, TOEFL fans, is the $64,000.00 question.


Look at the Pro's Example!

PromptDo 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"). OPDUL=C is a fast and easy argument proficiency analyzer I developed to rate TOEFL essays and TOEFL speaking task.

Want to want TOEFL essays that demonstrate OPDUL=C? It's all in the books.

Monday, May 9

News! - Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, A Complete Guide

My latest TOEFL iBT text book - Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, A Complete Guide - is about a week away from going to the publisher, Nova Press. Scoring Strategies is 799 pages long with 82 great audio tracks. Scoring Strategies has been road-tested in real TOEFL classrooms at the American university level for ten years, and has been edited by an international staff of TOEFL Pro editors.  

What makes Scoring Strategies different? Lots. First off, it focuses on what you, the test-taker, need to get the TOEFL score you want. What do you want? Real-world, test-proven TOEFL iBT strategies. Scoring Strategies delivers. Every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, period, essay, lecture, conversation and comma is connected to a scoring strategy. In short - no fluff. Just serious, real-world TOEFL iBT strategies that will make you a TOEFL Pro!  

Here's another reason why Scoring Strategies is different. As a TOEFL Pro, I have analyzed all competing TOEFL texts (Longman, Cambridge, Princeton, Heinle, North Star). One thing I noticed is that there are very few idioms in these texts. It's true! Serious. Open Longman, and see how many idioms you can find. Good luck. Why so few idioms? No idea. Not in Scoring Strategies though. It is wall-to-wall idioms. Why so many? Because that is how native English speakers communicate - idiomatically, both formally (academically) and informally (non academic). ETS, the people who design the TOEFL iBT, say: "The iBT uses authentic language!" Translated, that means real English. You want "authentic language''? You want real English? Scoring Strategies delivers.

And it doesn't stop there. Oh, no. Scoring Strategies uses my original, graphics-pedagogy to make learning TOEFL iBT strategies fast and easy. That pedagogy I call argument mapping. Argument mapping has made my first TOEFL iBT text, Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT, an international bestseller, both in print (in English and in Chinese) and in Kindle. Scoring Strategies continues and expands argument mapping across all four iBT test sections making Scoring Strategies the first conceptually integrated TOEFL iBT textbook from start to finish. Pretty cool, huh?

Stayed tuned. More to come.

Bruce Stirling - 5.9.11

The Pro at work!

Sunday, May 8

TOEFL Pro on Facebook

If you have a question about TOEFL, taking the test or teaching it, you can ask me, Bruce Stirling, on Facebook at TOEFL Pro.

Calling TOEFL Pro!

Saturday, May 7

Sample Integrated Essay - TOEFL iBT

Organic Food: Model Integrated Essay Response. 

Note how this response uses point-by-point style as the method of organization. Note also the transitions. The writing raters look for transitions. Transitions demonstrate topical and grammatical unity (OPDUL=C).

Prompt: Show how points in the lecture cast doubt on points in the reading.

The reading argues against buying organic food while the lecture supports buying organic produce.

First, the reading professor says that organic food is too expensive. For example, organic strawberries are 50% more expensive than regular ones. She concludes saying you can't feed a family buying organic. It costs too much. However, the lecture professor says organic strawberries are expensive because they do not have chemicals like pesticides that cause cancer. Buying organic, therefore, is an investment in your health.

Next, the reading professor says that organic food is not easy to buy. She says she has to drive a long way just to buy organic rice. It is easier to buy non organic rice at a local store and save time. In contrast, the lecture says you can buy organic food at local stores, such as Wal-Mart. This makes buying organic convenient.

Finally, the reading professor talks about organic milk. Her family can't taste the difference between organic and non organic milk, so why but organic? The lecture refutes this by saying taste is not the issue. The issue is your health. For example, non organic milk has lots of chemicals like rBGH, a dangerous growth hormone connected to breast cancer. Therefore, you should not buy non organic milk.

All in all, the lecture is against buying expensive organic food while the reading supports organic food.

Note: ETS says an integrated essay should be approximately 225 words. This essay is 225 words.

Want to learn how to write an integrated essay like this one? It's all in the book. 

The Pro

© Bruce Stirling 2011

Friday, May 6

One Strategy for Speaking and Writing

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

Wednesday, May 4

Teaching Degrees in the U.S.

The following link gives you all the info you need to know about getting a teaching degree in the U.S., state by state, degree by degree.

Tuesday, May 3

Taking Notes - Help!

Taking notes is a challenge for many TOEFL takers. Why? Because there is so much information, especially in the listening section, and in the lecture half of the integrated essay, and for speaking tasks 5 and 6.

"Is that fair?" my TOEFL students ask.

Yes. Remember: It's all part of the TOEFL game. TOEFL fills your plate with spaghetti and rice and beans and salad and gyros and empanadas and kebobs and couscous and Big Macs and feijoada and sushi and falafels and baba ghanouj (I love it!) and aloo gobi and tempeh and borscht, then says, "Eat!" What happens? You start eating and soon realize, "This is too much, too fast. Stop!"

Unfortunately, you cannot stop. You must continue to listen and take notes even as the food keeps piling up on your plate. In other words, TOEFL is forcing you take notes as quickly as possible. Why? Because TOEFL is testing your automaticity specific to note taking. What is automaticity? Automaticity means your ability to think automatically without stopping to translate or think. That's right. No thinking. For example, I say, "Yo, Pete. What did you have for breakfast?"

Pete: "Red Bull and Cheerios."

Great. Very fast. Very natural. Very automatic.

Then I say, "Hey, Joe. S'up? What did you have for dinner last night?"

Joe: "Ah...Ah...Stuff. You know...Ah...What was the question?"

As you can see, Joe had to think. And think. And think. Did he demonstrate automaticity? Nope.

It's the same with note taking. The faster you take notes (greater automaticity), the more information you will have, the more you will answer questions correctly. The result? Good notes = higher scores.

So is there a strategy for note taking? Yes. The key to taking good notes is anticipating where important information is located in the lecture, discussion, etc. How can you anticipate important information in a lecture, etc.? By understanding basic argument development. As you know, the TOEFL iBT is all arguments. By understanding argument structure, you will be able to anticipate and identify information (both general and specific) that will be tested. If you do not understand argument structure, you will end up trying to write everything down, word-for-word. This will result in notes you can't read, a tired hand, and the need to scream. I know. I see this all the time.

Want to know more note-taking strategies? It's all in the book.

The Pro