Monday, June 13

My new TOEFL book - How is it different?

When I tell people (professors, students, publishers, book sellers) I have written a complete TOEFL iBT guide, they all say: "Great. How is it different?"

Let me explain.

Put all the TOEFL iBT texts on a table—Kaplan, Barrons, Longman, Delta, Cambridge, PrincetonThompson, ETS's Official Guide—and open them up. What do you see? They all teach to the test. That means their teaching methods (pedagogies) follow the structure of TOEFL iBT. Because reading is the first test section, these texts all teach reading strategies first. Next, they teach listening strategies then speaking with writing strategies last. In other words, the structure of the TOEFL iBT dictates their pedagogy. Not my new text. The structure of the TOEFL iBT does not control my pedagogy. I control my pedagogy. And my pedagogy breaks the cookie-cutter, TOEFL teaching mold.

What is my pedagogy? And how is it different? Simple. My new TOEFL text does not teach to the test. It teaches to the test-taker. That means you, the test-taker, are my first concern. What is your first concern? Getting the highest TOEFL iBT score possible. My job is to help you reach that goal by showing you the steps. What is the first step? Learning how to write American-style, fact-based and opinion-based arguments. Why? Because classroom experience proves that test-takers: 1) can't write/or are not familiar with American-style essays, and; 2) don't realize that the TOEFL iBT is all arguments. That's right: all arguments. How does all this affect scoring? If you don't understand basic argument development, you will not get a high score. It's that simple.

The fastest way to learn argument development is by learning how to write essays. What is an essay? An essay is an argument. Because all test-takers need to learn how to write essays first, my new text starts with the writing section. Test-takers then recycle (another unique feature of my text) the argument strategies learned in the writing section when learning speaking and listening strategies with the reading section last. In other words, I have reversed the test section order. Instead of teaching reading, listening, speaking, writing (like all TOEFL books do), my new text teaches writing, speaking, listening, reading. Why teach reading last? Because the first three sections (writing, speaking, listening) will give you all the strategies (and confidence) you need to conquer what for many is the hardest section: reading. 

Why do all those other texts start with the reading section? Because they all teach to the test. Because they teach to the test, each test section is taught separately with no rhetorical (or scoring!) connection between each. It's like saying: "Okay, this is the pineapple section (reading), the orange section (listening), the banana section (speaking), and the mango section (reading)." What they don't teach you is that the TOEFL iBT is all fruit! Not my new text. I teach you that the TOEFL iBT is all recycled fruit (recycled arguments). And to get the highest possible score, you must first learn argument development. That begins with the writing section. That is one way my new book Scoring Strategies the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide is a new approach to preparing for the TOEFL iBT.

Also, the strategies in my new book - as in all my TOEFL books - are real-world TOEFL strategies, tested and developed in American university TOEFL classrooms and test-proven on the official TOEFL iBT. That means the strategies you use I use every day in a real TOEFL classrooms at a real American university. In other words, buy my TOEFL books and enter my TOEFL classroom.

Bruce Stirling – TOEFL Pro

Saturday, June 4

Should I use my personal experience on the TOEFL iBT?

Yes. Four constructive tasks on the TOEFL iBT measure your ability to use your personal experience ("personal knowledge") when developing an argument.

1. Independent speaking task #1
2. Independent speaking task #2.
3. Integrated speaking task #5.
4. The independent essay.

For the reading and listening sections (selective tasks), of course you must use your personal experience (personal knowledge of English). If you don't, how will you answer the questions?

Remember: The constructive tasks (speaking and writing) are designed to measure your ability to speak and write (develop arguments) both subjectively (first person) and objectively (third person) This is one way the TOEFL iBT measures grammar proficiency. The reading and listening tasks are designed to test both your active vocabulary and your passive vocabulary, as well as grammar. This is another way the TOEFL iBT measures language use proficiency.

WARNING! If a TOEFL instructor (or a TOEFL online pay site) tells you not to use your personal experience ("knowledge") on the TOEFL iBT, it is time to find another instructor (and ask for a refund from the pay site!).

Want to learn more writing and speaking strategies? It's all in Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT.
My new text - Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide - will be published this summer.

The Pro

Friday, June 3

Main topic vs. Opinion - What is the difference?

What is the difference between a main topic and an opinion? Students often ask this in my TOEFL classes and in my essay classes. Many think they are the same. Actually, there is a difference - a big difference. Look at the two sentences below.

A. I think California was the best trip ever.

B. I think California was the worst trip ever.

In sentence A, the writer will write about California. California, therefore, is the main topic (also called the main idea or main subject). The writer's opinion is “…was the best trip ever.”

In sentence B, the speaker will speak about California. Once again, California is the main topic. However, the speaker's opinion is “…was the worst trip ever.

As you can see, the main topic (California) is the same in both sentences. However, the writer and the speaker express different opinions about California (best trip vs. worst trip).

Technically, California in both sentences is the main topic while the opinions are the controlling ideas. A controlling idea is what the essay is about, for example:

A. I think California (main topic) was the best trip ever (opinion-controlling idea).

In this essay, the writer will give positive examples to support her opinion.

B. I think California (main topic) was the worst trip ever (opinion-controlling idea).

In this argument, the speaker will give negative examples to support his opinion.

A fast and easy way to identify the controlling idea in an argument is to ask this question: "What about it?" For example, look at the premise of a fact-based essay below.

The great white shark is an apex predator.

The main topic of this fact-based essay will be "The great white shark." Controlling idea = What about it (the great white shark)? It is an apex predator = controlling idea.

The great white shark (main topic) is an apex predator (controlling idea).

Next, look at this thesis from an opinion-based essay.

Personally, I think Californian wine is the best in the world.

Main topic = Californian wine. What about it? (It) is the best in the world = controlling idea.

Want to learn more TOEFL writing strategies or how to write opinion-based and fact-based essays? It's all in Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT.
My new text - Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide - will be published this summer.

The Pro

© Bruce Stirling 2011

Free Online TOEFL practice

Check out this link for lots of free TOEFL practice material.

The Pro

Why do people love chocolate? Use reasons and 
real examples to support your argument.

Wednesday, June 1

Independent Speaking Tasks - the KISS rule

When developing responses for independent speaking tasks #1 and #2, many test-takers try and develop big topics, for example:

Prompt: What was the greatest invention of the twentieth century? Use examples and reasons to develop your argument.

Personally, I think the greatest invention of the twentieth century was discovering DNA. Why? Because DNA is...It's good and...important...for life and medicine...and...

At this point, the test-taker blanks out. To blank out means to stop thinking because your brain is suddenly empty (blank). I see this all the time in the TOEFL classroom. Why has this test-taker blanked out? Because she's trying to develop a topic that is too difficult. Why is it difficult? Because it's forcing her to use her passive vocabulary (see active v. passive vocab). The discovery of DNA is a great topic. If you're a doctor, talk about it (it's part of your active vocabulary). A biologist? Talk about it. A nurse? A dentist? Talk about it. If not, do not touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Remember: The speaking raters don't care about your opinion or big topics. Serious. The raters simply want to know if you can develop and deliver a verbal argument in 45 seconds (with 15 seconds development time).

Also, be careful about the topic: the discovery of DNA is not an invention. It is a discovery. An invention is, for example, Edison inventing the phonograph or Bill Gates inventing DOS. Make sure you read the prompt and understand it. Make sure you are on topic not off topic.

Look at the next response. Notice how I'm using my active vocabulary and talking about my own experience.

What is the greatest invention of the twentieth century? That's easy. Cutting-and-pasting. Why?

For example, I'm a TOEFL author. My new TOEFL book is 700-pages long. If I were using a typewriter - and I wanted to go back to page 10 and insert a graphic in the middle of the text - I'd have retype page 10 again. Then I'd have to glue the graphic between the text. What a pain! As a result, it'd take me forever finish my book. However, by using my computer's cut-and-paste function, all I have to do is cut the graphic from its page, then paste it wherever I wanted. Piece of cake.

As you can see, cutting-and-pasting is the greatest invention of the twentieth century. Have you ever wondered who invented cutting-and-pasting? I have. That person is a genius. 

One of my TOEFL students said the greatest invention of the twentieth century was the hair dryer. It was a great response. Hilarious - and so true. But more importantly, she'd remembered the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Remember: Keep it simple by talking subjectively (about your own experience) and using your active vocabulary. By doing so, you will make fewer mistakes. Fewer mistakes = higher scores.

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

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11