Thursday, April 2

The Reading-Section Blues!

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

The Essays are Long, Hard and Boring!

That's right. Really boring. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the TOEFL game and university life. You don't always get to study what you want to study. And yes, the TOEFL essays are hard. Very hard. ETS (Educational Testing Services) designs them that way. Why? Because with TOEFL, ETS is recreating the university classroom experience. Are essays in university texts easy? Nope. They are long, hard and boring. One more thing. The reading section essays on the official TOEFL test are much harder than the sample essays in standardized TOEFL texts. 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 for students at the TOEFL level is to read, read, read. Reading forces you to create pictures in your brain (contextualize). 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. Word lists have no context; that is why memorizing word lists is not always the best way to prepare for the reading section.

The Essays are Full of New Words!

Yup. Lots of new words. They will drive you crazy - and stop you cold. 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? Right. How about this word? Triskaidekaphobia? Still stopped? For how many seconds? Five? Ten? (Xeno-what? Triska-who?) The clock is ticking. This is exactly what happens on the TOEFL reading section. New words stop you cold 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 look 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 finish the essays or answer the questions. Obviously, you can't stop and figure out each new word. ETS knows this. That's why there are lots of new words in each essay. 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 seeing how a new word is used in context. That is what TOEFL measures: Are you a proficient English reader? Can you figure out new words from context only? If you can, you will get a high 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." I always hear this complaint. Unfortunately, you only get an hour to complete the reading section. My students think this is unfair. Maybe. I don't know. What I do know is that the TOEFL iBT was designed by psychometricians. 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 long, hard and boring TOEFL essays and answers all the questions. And 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. What are those conclusions? The average TOEFL score for the year ending 2009 was 79/120. 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."

Got a question about TOEFL? Ask the Bruce Stirling on

 - The Reading Section -

© Bruce Stirling 2010-11

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