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.