Tuesday, January 31

The Reading Section Blues

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

The Essays are Long, Hard and Boring!

That's right. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the TOEFL game. ETS (Educational Testing Service) designs TOEFL that way. Why? Because ETS is recreating the university classroom experience. Are essays in university texts easy? Nope. They are long, hard and often boring. 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 is to read challenging material, intellectual material, not facebook posts. Challenging material forces you to create pictures in your brain. This process is called contextualizing. 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.

Remember: Word lists have no context. The result is memorizing word lists is not a good way to prepare for the reading section.

The Essays are Full of New Words!

Lots of new words. They will drive you crazy - and stop you cold. And 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? How about this word? Triskaidekaphobia. The clock is ticking. This is what happens during the reading section. New words will stop you 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 stare 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 answer all the questions. Result? A lower score.

Obviously, you can't stop and figure out each new word in a passage. ETS knows this. That's why there are lots of new words in each passage. 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 figuring out how a new word is used in context. Are you a proficient English reader? Can you figure out new words from the context? The ability to contextualize will result in a higher 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." The Pro hears this complaint alot. Unfortunately, you only get an hour to complete the reading section. My TOEFL students think this is unfair. However, the psychometricians at ETS don't.

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 passages and answer the questions.

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 under pressure. 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."

Want to know more about contextualizing and other reading strategies? Just click on the book.

The Best TOEFL Books

Sunday, January 29

Calculate Your TOEFL Score for Free!

Okay, so you want to know your TOEFL iBT score, but you don't want to give ETS $175.00 and sit for four hours to find out. What can you do? Use the Pro's 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.

So let's say you scored 3.0/5.0. 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. Put them all together and it means you will score in the 75-85/120 range on test day.

Follow these steps to find your unofficial TOEFL iBT range score.

1) write an independent essay
2) get it objectively rated by your instructor (let's say you scored 4.0/5.0)
3) convert your writing score (4.0/5.0) to a section score out of 30 total points (25/30) (click here to convert your writing score to a writing section score)
4) multiply your section score (25/30) by 4 for a test score out of 120 total points (25/30 X 4 = 100/120)
5) use 100 as a mid-point in a ten-point range (95-105/120)

The above test-taker will score between 95-105 on test day.

My method of TOEFL-score estimating is very accurate. Why? Because for years, I have recorded all my TOEFL students' practice scores this way, then averaged 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. Peter averaged between 85-95/120 on in-class practice tests and scored 88/120 on the official TOEFL iBT.

Why do I score this way? Because providing my students with a single TOEFL score, such as 98/120, is not possible when practicing. Even the best practice conditions can not replicate the pressure of official test conditions.

Not convinced? Take a look at the official TOEFL scores for the year ending 2009 (see scores). Notice how consistent they are? 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? Click on the book.

Friday, January 27

TOEFL vs. IELTS: Which is better?

The Pro gets this question a lot. What do I think? I think you should stop worrying about which test is better or easier. If you get a high TOEFL score, you will get a high IELTS score, and vice versa. It is that simple. That said, keep these points in mind.

TOEFL and IELTS both test academic (formal) English.
TOEFL and IELTS both test reading, listening, speaking, and writing.
TOEFL and IELTS are both rhetoric-based tests (thank you Aristotle).
TOEFL and IELTS both use strange scoring systems nobody can figure out.
TOEFL is a private American company; IELTS is run by the British government.
TOEFL is four hours long; IELTS is less than 3 hours.
TOEFL you do in one sitting; IELTS you must come back on day two for the speaking test.
TOEFL you speak into a microphone: IELTS you speak to a real person.
TOEFL uses no graphics for testing: IELTS uses graphics for testing.
TOEFL costs $175.00 in the U.S.; IELTS costs $185.00 in the U.S. (prices as of 1/24/12)

One big difference between TOEFL and IELTS is the questions. IELTS questions are very British: long and wordy whereas TOEFL questions are very American: clear and to the point.
What about British vs. American English? That too is a non issue. The difference between these two dialects is negligible; moreover, the subtle distinctions between British and American English don't even enter the equation as far as testing is concerned. Instead, it's all about analyzing and delivering arguments. Why? Because the British and the American educational system are both built on Greek rhetoric (thank you Aristotle).  
The Snob Factor: Some think IELTS is better because it is British and British English, as we all know, is better than an American English, right? Nonsense. If you think TOEFL is easy when practicing, I suggest you reserve judgment until after you take the TOEFL test. The same with IELTS.

Sunday, January 22

Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT only $19.95! What a deal!

Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide is now available for only $19.95 (regularly $49.00!) direct from my publisher Nova Press.

Click here to visit Nova Press.

Saturday, January 21

Monthly Essay Competition!

Write an independent TOEFL essay and win a copy of my best-selling TOEFL text, Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide.


1. Read the following independent essay prompt.

Which has influenced you more, art or science? Use examples and reasons to support your argument.

2. Write an independent essay that answers the above-prompt.
3. Maximum 325 words (the judges will count words!).
4. Submit your essay as a Word doc.
5. Submit your essay to toefl.essay.comp@gmail.com.
6. Submit one essay only.
7. Submitted essays will receive a score but no comments.
8. The judges reserve the right not to grant a winner.
9. The winning essay will receive a free, autographed copy of Scoring Strategies for the TOEFL iBT A Complete Guide by Bruce Stirling.

10. The winning essay will be posted on TOEFL Pro and on TOEFL Pro Facebook.
11. Deadline: midnight 2/29/12

Good luck!

Thursday, January 19

Megupload.com busted!

FBI shuts done illegal file-sharing site.

McLEAN, Virginia (AP) — One of the world's largest file-sharing sites was shut down Thursday, and its founder and several company executives were charged with violating piracy laws, federal prosecutors said.
An indictment accuses Megaupload.com of costing copyright holders more than $500 million in lost revenue from pirated films and other content. The indictment was unsealed one day after websites including Wikipedia and Craigslist shut down in protest of two congressional proposals intended to thwart online piracy.
The Justice Department said in a statement said that Kim Dotcom, formerly known as Kim Schmitz, and three other executives were arrested Thursday in New Zealand at the request of U.S. officials. Two other defendants are at large.
Megaupload was unique not only because of its massive size and the volume of downloaded content, but also because it had high-profile support from celebrities, musicians and other content producers who are most often the victims of copyright infringement and piracy. Before the website was taken down, it contained endorsements from Kim Kardashian, Alicia Keys and Kanye West, among others.

Development = Higher Speaking and Writing Scores

How can you increase your writing and speaking scores? Simple. Development. Development. Development. Let's talk about it.

If you get a low independent essay score, it was probably because you did not give enough specific information (details that support examples). Independent essays that score 4.0 and above have lots of supporting details in the body paragraphs. Those that score 4.0 or less have fewer details. Details (examples) support and develop your opinion (thesis). This is true of the integrated essay as well. An integrated essay that scores above 4.0 has lots of details from the reading and lecture. Integrated essays that score less than 4.0 are missing important details. I know. I see this all the time in my TOEFL classes.

Remember: When you give details, when writing or  speaking, you are also demonstrating language use. If your language use is proficient, it will, in turn, will result in greater coherence = higher writing and speaking scores = a higher TOEFL iBT score.

Why is development so important when writing and speaking? Because, as mentioned, development is directly related to language use. Let's put it to the test. Look at the following photo, then read the two passages. Note: The passages can be both written or verbal.

Response #1

This is a photo of a woman in a dress and short hair. She has a necklace and is not smiling. She looks young. She is ready for a club or something. 

Response #2

In this black-and-white photograph, a poised young woman, probably a flapper, stares defiantly off screen with probing eyes. Around her slender neck hangs a string of exquisite pearls. She clutches them against her breast, pulling them down as if she herself were on a chain. Her deep black eyes, set against ivory skin, radiate confidence, a desire to tempt and be tempted. Where is she going in that sexy, shoulderless dress, that none-too subtle invitation? What is she thinking under that toss of naughty curls? We'll never know. One thing is for certain: the devil is in the details..

You are a TOEFL rater. Which response will get a higher score? It's obvious, right?

Remember: Development. Development. Development. I cannot stress this point enough.

Want to learn development strategies for speaking and writing? Click on my book.

Tuesday, January 17

Does a perfect 5.0 TOEFL essay = A+?

Okay, so you scored a perfect 5.0 on your independent essay. Great. Fantastic! Does that mean you got an A+ ? No. Sorry. There is no connection between a TOEFL score (rating) and the grading system used in American schools, a system based on letters (A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc.).

A TOEFL essay that scores a perfect 5.0 means you demonstrated OPDUL=C. A speaking task that scores a perfect 4.0 means you demonstrated OPDUL=C when speaking. The same applies to the reading and listening sections.

Yes, a perfect score does feel like an A+, but it's not. To get an A+, you have to sit in a real classroom and fulfill a real professor's grading criteria specific to that course.

Remember: The TOEFL iBT measures English language proficiency. English language proficiency, according to TOEFL, is based on OPDUL=C. High scores mean you proficiently demonstrated OPDUL=C.

What to learn more about OPDUL=C? Just click on the book.

Tuesday, January 3

TOEFL tips from ETS

Educational Testing Service (ETS; the people who designed TOEFL) provide this online TOEFL iBT brochure. It is good basic information about the TOEFL iBT.