Saturday, June 30

Opinions - What you need to know!

If you are preparing for the TOEFL test, you know that your independent essay needs a thesis. A thesis is a fancy word for opinion. Your opinion is the starting point of your argument (essay).

Okay, so you write an independent essay and you think you've got a opinion. Great. But how do you know if your opinion is really an opinion or not without guessing? In other words, how can you give the TOEFL writing raters what they are trained to look for? By following these rules when writing an opinion.

1) an opinion is arguable
2) an opinion is supportable
3) an opinion is never a question
4) an opinion has a topic and a controlling idea
5) an opinion is not a sentence fragment
6) an opinion focuses on one topic
7) an opinion does not announce what you will talk about. 

Look at some examples.

1) Brazil: A great soccer team.

Not an opinion. It is a sentence fragment. It is missing the verb "is".

2) Manhattan is a big city.

Not an opinion. This is a fact thus not arguable.

3) Taking the bus is cheap and I can do my homework on it.

Not an opinion. There are two topics: the bus and homework. This demonstrates a lack of topical unity and a lack of coherence.

4) Personally, I believe that the TOEFL iBT is harder than IELTS.

Opinion. It is arguable, supportable, not a question, has a topic (TOEFL iBT) and a controlling idea (harder than IELTS), is not a sentence fragment, focuses on one topic, and does not announce what the writer will argue. 

Remember: The writing raters will look at your opinion first. Make sure your opinion is coherent (an opinion) by testing it against the checklist.

Want to learn more basic and advanced opinion strategies? It's all in Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL iBT.

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Saturday, June 23

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

The Best TOEFL Books

Thursday, June 7

TOEFL Test-Taker Satisfaction Survey

What could ETS do to improve your overall satisfaction with the entire process surrounding the (TOEFL) test?

Read my response below.

ETS should provide a detailed analysis of each test-section score.

As it stands, the summary analysis of each test-section score on the official TOEFL iBT score sheet is vague to the point of meaningless, even for a native speaker like myself. Test-takers do not want holistic generalities explaining each test-section score; they want the nuts-and-bolts as to why they scored high or low. This is particularly true of low-scoring test-takers. A low-scoring test-taker wants to know where and why he/she lost points. In short, he/she wants an analytical breakdown of each test-section score not a holistic one. I hear this complaint all the time. 

For the cost of the test ($175.00, which is sure to go up), each test-taker should get an analytical breakdown of each test-section score. In short, the test-taker is a paying customer who should get a full accounting of the product (test score) he/she purchased. This is especially true for speaking and writing scores; for example, ETS should explain in detail why I got a 29/30 writing score; more specifically, ETS should tell me where and why I lost one point. Since ETS uses a holistic rating system when scoring constructive tasks, the loss of one writing point reflects not a holistic scoring system but an analytical one. In short, I am left with more questions than answers. The solution is to call ETS and waste time and energy trying to hunt down the rater and the reason why I lost a point. I am a paying customer. I have a right to know. A detailed score report would, however, explain this apparent incongruity in ETS's rating system specific to my writing score and, more importantly, satisfy this customer's right to know.

Further, each speaking and writing rater's score should be accounted for on the test-taker's official score sheet, and averaged out accordingly for a final section score. In other words, ETS needs to lay it all on the table. If there is a discrepancy among rater scores concerning a speaking/writing score, the test-taker, as a paying customer, has a right to a full accounting of the scoring process. This process is not happening.

Test-takers are buying an expensive product: a TOEFL iBT test score. ETS, as the product provider, is obligated to provide any and all information concerning its product to its paying customers. That means providing an official score sheet that gives a complete score breakdown of each test section score as described above. By doing so, ETS will improve customer satisfaction tenfold.

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