Thursday, May 24

Your brain and low reading section scores

Many of my TOEFL students ask me why their reading scores are so low. There are myriad reasons. One reason is the student does not have enough vocabulary thus is unable to infer a connection between a new word/phrase and its context. Another reason is the student is not familiar with basic rhetorical strategies specific to argument development (remember: TOEFL is all arguments). The third reason is the internet and the negative effect it is having on your brain. Let me explain.

The internet is a distraction device. It is designed to make you click, click, click. By doing so, you do not concentrate. Instead, your brain jumps all over the place as you chase hyperlinks and text messages. The result is you do not read. Instead, you glance at words and phrases, then move on. This fact is supported by research: the average American spends 30 seconds on a web page. 30 seconds! Why so short? Because we love chasing links. We love surfing the web. We love bouncing all over the web like a crazy, out-of-control ball. This is exactly what Google wants you to do.

Contrary to popular belief, Google is not in the internet search business. Google (herein all web services) is in the advertising business. The more you click, the more money Google makes from advertising. The only problem is your brain loses the ability to concentrate for longer than a minute. Worse, you have trained your brain not to read long passages on the web. You know the feeling. Right? When you try reading a long passage on the web (like this one) your brains revolts. Why? Because your brain is happier jumping around. Jumping around is the drug, and you are addicted. You brain loves jumping around on the web inasmuch as it requires no thinking, no concentration, no reading. In short, web surfing is anti reading; more specifically, the web is anti deep reading. Google knows this. Google does not want you to read. Reading on the web is bad for business. Really bad. Instead, Google wants you to jump from one ad to the next. Google does this by feeding your addiction with hyperlinks.

Deep reading. What is it? Deep reading is the process of reading a page, a book or an essay from start to finish with no distractions. You read each word, sentence, paragraph, page and chapter from start to finish. You do not jump around. By doing so - by deep reading - you train your brain to concentrate for long periods of time. As you concentrate, you make literary connections. You identify arguments and metaphors and rhetorical strategies and new words. By doing so, you form arguments; you reflect, you learn, you grow. In short, deep reading is the process of intellectual development. Call it brain training. You are training your brain to read in a straight line, from A to Z. This is called linear thinking. The web is anti linear thinking. The web is all about random thinking, disconnected thinking. The result is you lose the ability to intellectualize, to concentrate and, worse, to think deeply.
Paper-based books are all about deep reading. Deep reading is just you, the book and your brain in a cozy chair on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There are no distractions. You and the book are one. Kindle is trying to be a deep-reading device. Yet by being connected to the web, Kindle is still a distraction device. Remember: Amazon, like Google and bing, etc., makes money from advertising.  

Question: What was the last book you read from start to finish, paper, ebook, or otherwise? If you say, "You can't remember", then you are not alone. Sadly, traditional book reading - deep reading - is an endangered species. Even reading this passage is making you restless, right? You want to click away, right? Right.

How does TOEFL fit in? The reading section on the TOEFL test is a deep-reading test. Correct answers depend upon your ability to make literary connections, such as inferences, comparisons, and logical fallacies. To do so, you must be able to deep read, and fast. In other words, you must concentrate and solve problems in an hour. Yet your brain refuses to cooperate. Why? Because the brain you bring to the TOEFL test is an internet brain. Your internet brain is a distracted brain. The web (Google) has trained your brain to click, click, click. The result is on test day, your brain is fighting itself. Your brain wants to click, click, click away from the reading section but it can't. It is trapped and miserable. The result is you can't concentrate. If you can't concentrate, you can't focus. If you can't focus, you can't read. If you can't read, you can't find the right answers. If you can't find the right answers, you will get a lower reading score. You will get a low reading score (and a lower final score) because your internet brain hates deep reading, yet the reading section is a deep reading test. Therein lies the problem. Your internet brain vs. the TOEFL reading section. The new digital world vs. the old Gutenberg world.

So what can you do to get a higher reading section score? Simple. Before the test, limit your web surfing and read, read, read with no distractions. More importantly, train your brain to deep read. Your brain will scream, "No, no, no!" The choice is yours.

Friday, May 11

Sample ETS Essay - Let's rate it!

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.

Tuesday, May 8

TOEFL Tip #3

If you can speak English conversationally, you will do well on the TOEFL iBT. True? No. 

There is no connection between being a proficient English conversationalist and a high TOEFL iBT score. I have known many test-takers who were fluent conversationalists yet struggled with TOEFL. Why? Because when you speak English conversationally, you are safe within your active vocabulary (see active vocab). TOEFL, however, tests your passive vocab and your ability to analyze (reading and listening) and deliver arguments (speaking and writing) by contextualizing under a time pressure.

That said, being a proficient conversationalist is definitely a plus. If you are, make sure you understand argument development.

TOEFL Tip #2

TOEFL is a vocabulary test. I hear this all the time. And it is wrong. The TOEFL iBT is not a vocabulary test. It is an English-language proficiency test whose main testing tool is the argument (the essay). If you do not understand basic argument development (read: basic western style rhetoric), you will not score above 90/120. I know. I see this all the time.

Yes, a large vocabulary is essential when taking the TOEFL iBT, but it is only one part of a proficient argument. Think of it this way: Vocabulary is like the cheese on a cheeseburger, the cheeseburger being your argument. If the cheese is cheap processed cheese, you know, the stuff that tastes like plastic, the cheeseburger will taste terrible. Ah, but if the cheese is aged Wisconsin organic blue cheese - now that's an argument for a great cheeseburger! Note in this analogy how the cheese supports the meat, just like vocab supports an argument (the main meal).

Spread the word. TOEFL is not a vocabulary test. The TOEFL iBT is an English-language proficiency test whose main testing tool is the argument. That is what my TOEFL texts teach. That is why my TOEFL texts are different from all the rest.


TOEFL Tip #1

You cannot pass or fail the TOEFL iBT or PBT.

TOEFL simply measures English proficiency (skill + knowledge) on a scale from 0 to 120 with 120 being the highest proficiency level. 

If a TOEFL instructor says, "Hey, I can help you pass the TOEFL test," start looking for another instructor.

Remember: You cannot pass or fail the TOEFL test.

The Pro