Rote-learning works.

Everyone knows that motivation helps you achieve your goals. Looks like children’s math ability partly depends on their motivations. Besides, according to a recent TIME magazine article,

As for study strategies, those who said they tried to forge connections between mathematical ideas typically improved faster than kids who employed more cursory rote-learning techniques.

 
This research shows the importance of connecting things in the brain. Or maybe it shows the futility of rote-learning.
 
I understand this especially as far as educators are concerned. They abhor rote-learning. I read quite a few books on learning a foreign language written by scholars worldwide, but I found virtually no one person pointing out the importance of this mechanical memorization. I know.
 
What I want to say here, however, is that those TOEFL learners who need the score as soon as possible should not believe this very “sound” and “ideal” way of learning. The above article refers only to the general improvement of children’s ability, but exactly what are you aiming at? 
 
It is important to set a long-term goal, for sure, but that will not get you the required score. The most effective, tested and proven, way of realizing this short-term goal is to cram as much knowledge and as many test-taking strategies as you possibly can.
 
You may have to store in your hippocampus as many topics and episodes that you can discuss in the speaking section.
You will have to learn abstract words that you could not learn through experience like “sublimation.”
You will have to learn to correctly spell “Australopithecus” so that you can use it in the writing section.
 
It takes almost forever to learn all these by connecting to your experience in the real world. Rote-learning can reduce the amount of time necessary to learn them.
 
Haven’t you realized this phenomenon where you can understand a certain idea not because you tried to connect it to something you already know, but because you memorized it?
 
My understanding is that mechanical memorization helps your understanding. Come to think of it, what you are learning for the TOEFL test is all for the academic life when you go to America. That’s the basis on which to enjoy your campus life, to make friends, and to achieve your academic goals. Without the process of memorization, I doubt these goals will be achieved within the time allowed for you. 
 
As far as the TOEFL is concerned, time management is everything. Manage time well. One learning strategy you should take for that purpose is rote-learning.
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Change! seems like a good attitude.

I hope everyone had a good time on 12/25. That was for me the first day of the 5-day TOEFL winter program. In this program, my primary purpose is to help students become autonomous learners with the right mindset. After all, it is they themselves that will have to take the test, not me.
 
On Day 1, quite a few people are not well aware of the TOEFL test itself, so I will not ask them to dare write an essay. That is not my cup of tea. If you don’t know how to write, the first thing is to get a blue print of what a good essay looks like. Otherwise, their writings will be harshly corrected, which I don’t want to do (both for them, and for the purpose of using time effectively).
 
Some students, however, may have to respond to the question without any prior knowledge of the writing section of the TOEFL. If that’s the case, they will have to review really hard when their responses are returned. This is really important. If they do not go over the first writing, the next time they write on the same topic, they will end up making the same errors (both in grammar and organization). If that happens a couple of times in a row, this “undesirable version” of writing will be settled and instilled deep in their blood. 
 
I know there are many people like this – those people whose scores remain the same no matter how hard they try. If your score is 3 (out of 5), and you don’t like the score, but you keep writing exactly in the same way because that’s the way you are accustomed to, then your score will be the same. It’s that simple.
 
It is very important to change, change radically and dramatically.
 
This transformation of the way your perceive and respond to the TOEFL questions is the key to success. You work hard, but you repeat the same thing, then you will see your score stay as it is. However, you work hard, and you try to change the way you do things, then you will see your scores gradually or dramatically improve. 
 
Change, as is often the case with politics or anything else, seems to be the right attitude when taking on the TOEFL.

Understanding the difference between the raw score and the converted score.

Merry Christmas!
 
Today is the first day of the 5-day crash course for the TOEFL test. I was reading the Official Guide to the TOEFL just to remind myself of some of the important ideas that I would have to introduce in class. One thing I would like to share here is this score conversion table of the reading section.
 
When the raw score is in its 10s, one additional raw score means one additional converted score. However, if your converted score is already 25, it is really tough to improve your score. Look at who can get the converted score of 29, for example. When you get 41 correct answer out of 45, you will get 29, but you still get 29 when you get 44 correct answers.
 
What does it mean?
 
Obviously, the higher the score is, the harder it is to get a better score (even if your reading ability has improved)!
 
I am sure many test-takers feel their learning curve has hit a plateau and every time they take the TOEFL, they get the same score…but that was the trick behind it. Don’t worry, your ability is improving.
 
Therefore, if you look for a better score, I doubt it is a good idea to focus on the reading section especially your score has already reached 25. Instead, you should pay the most attention to the listening section, in which one additional raw score means one additional converted score throughout the entire continuum. If your listening score has improved, it will definitely affect the scores of the speaking and writing sections very positively. 
 
The listening section, instead of the reading section, is the key to success in the TOEFL test.

You can also hear grammar rules.

I am not about to judge which way of teaching English grammar is to be more highly appreciated. 
 
I bumped into one website about English grammar, in which the sentences “Enjoy summer better. I already enjoy it good.” were analyzed (in response to the question from a reader).
 
It seems to me that Japanese teachers would explain it in a very different manner. They would use more technical terms and say, “The word better is a comparative that comes from both good and well. In this case, an adverb is needed because there is no noun for an adjective to modify. Therefore, it is a grammatical error to say I already enjoy it good. It should be I already enjoy it well.”
 
From the Japanese perspective, “Enjoy summer much.” is correct because “much” indicates “a great deal.” 
“Enjoy summer well.” is also correct because “well” represents a good skill with which to do something.
Therefore, “Enjoy summer more.” and “Enjoy summer better.” are both correct, but “Enjoy summer good.” is not acceptable.
 
That is OK…in this particular case.
 
But how about this? “Which do you like better, tea or coffee?”
 
This sentence has been traditionally found in many of the English textbooks issued by Japanese publishers. In fact, I learned this sentence back when I was 13…more than 30 years back 🙂
 
“Better” is a comparative of “well” or “good.” In this sentence, you cannot say, “I like coffee good.” (“good coffee” would be all right, but “coffee good” would indicate something else and would not answer the question correctly.) It is thus concluded that “better” is a comparative of “well.”
 
I used to think…”I like coffee well?” What does that mean? Do I like coffee skillfully? Shouldn’t we say “Which do you like more?” That sounds better because you can say, “I like coffee very much.” 
 
I used to think like that.
 
Now, I think rather differently.
 
Maybe I should say “Which do you prefer?” Why? Because that’s what people usually say. “Which do you like better?” is also OK. Why? Because that sounds idiomatically correct. (in other words, that’s what they say.)
 
This aspect of learning English is very important. We should sometimes forget about grammar and look at what people (native speakers) usually say. If that’s how they say it, so be it. You should not start exploring how it is congruent with prescriptive grammar. Japanese learners are often criticized for sticking to grammar rules. They should sometimes accept what they hear as it is. 
 
By the way, a colleague of mine who is from New Zealand cut in our discussion about “which do you like better or which do you like more” and said that “Which do you like best?” was good. We ignored it as if he were not there 😉

To study alone or to study with a teacher?

Some people prefer to learn English with their teachers, but others don’t. They seem to stick to the principle of learning by/for themselves. These people often ask me how to study English without outside help. Come to think of it, it is very funny, because my job is to give learners outside help.
 
In the interest of time and effort, I make it a rule to encourage those “autonomous learners” to keep at their good work, knowing that most of them will fail.
 
They follow all the new ways of learning. 
They keep buying new books.
They rent all the movies (and enjoy them with the subtitles).
They try to get first-hand language experience through short trips.
 
After all those unproductive years, they will find themselves still struggling as to “how” to self study English.
 
I am not too sure if this is an issue specifically for the Japanese learners. I know some of them put too much emphasis on self study to refuse to go to school or get other people’s assistance. This virtue of perseverance seems to have been rooted for a long time in its history.
 
I personally do not mind asking for help, though. If only I could have when I was learning English myself back in the early 1980’s. Please be reminded that in those days,…
 
there was not a word “the Internet,”
there were very few people from English-speaking countries living in the very countryside of Japan,
I had to take a ferry to get an English book, because there was no book shop available that sold English books in my neighborhood,
my junior high school teacher didn’t know English,
my high school English teacher encouraged us NOT to repeat his English because he knew his English was bad.
 
That was the environment I was studying English. I had NO CHOICE but to study for myself.
 
If you think this way, those Japanese citizens who are looking to self study English without outside help will not be able to do it in the conventional sense of the word “self-study.” They are living in a totally different world. With the advent of the Internet and mass transportation, you can easily make friends with native speakers of English both online and in person. Lots of schools are available if you live in a big city like Tokyo. You could even feel like studying abroad while in Japan. Why not make the most of it?
 
OK, let’s get back to the question “how to prepare for the TOEFL test.”
 
If I were to start the preparation from scratch, I would…
 
1) learn basic grammar, vocabulary, while reading difficult passages word by word and try to learn important sentences,
2) go to language school or do a (short) home stay in an English-speaking country,
3) read TOEFL preparation books and take the actual test a couple of times,
4) choose the prep school or correspondence course that best caters to your language level.
5) while you keep 1).
 
If you still stick to self-study, the above procedure 1) should be done independently. Studying grammar or building your vocabulary is only possible if you make a considerable effort yourself; whereas you get all the techniques and mnemonic aids from prep school. The knowledge you get from school, however, will not work if you neglect 1).

A piece of advice

The other day, I wrote about the TOEFL facebook page. Today, I found the following piece of advice on “listening.”
 
It goes like…
 
When you’re trying to figure out a speaker’s meaning, listen to how they say it, not just the words they use. They will often repeat important words or say them louder. The gestures they make while they’re talking will also help you understand what they’re trying to say.
Oh, well…
 
Is this tip of any value as far as the actual TOEFL is concerned?
 
“listen to how they say it”… doesn’t give test-takers any clues as to how the rock cycle is completed.
“often repeat important words…”…but the questions may come from other details of the passage.
“gestures…”…I just wish lectures in the listening section were given through videos instead of a picture (in which you will find the same person as you saw in the previous question.)
 
As a matter of fact, in taking the TOEFL test, test-takers are to be deprived of all the natural means of communication in our daily conversation. They have no choice but to maximize their concentration and make themselves “all ears.”
 
Watching a movie without the subtitles (one of the biggest reasons people study English) is far easier. 
 
Movies have…
 
a context
gestures
“move”
and non-verbal communication like facial expressions.
All this can be of great help in understanding what is going on in the film.
Let’s get back to the TOEFL.
 
Do we pay attention to gestures, facial expressions, or the tone of voice when listening to a lecture on “some features of igneous rock? Therefore I do not think it is a good exercise to focus too much on these non-verbal means of communication. Rather learners must practice being “all ears.”
 
Many learners have a hard time understanding spoken English. Why? Because it IS hard. Do we just give up because it is hard? No way. Then what does it take to achieve that goal? 
 
a strong will power
patience
can-do spirit
 
Everyone including me has once or twice thought like “Oh, I’m just not cut out to be a good learner.” “English is not my cup of tea.””I should start to find something else to write on my resume.” “I could survive without the ability of English.”
 
“Listening” is not for the faint-hearted. If you don’t understand a lecture, you have to give it another try. If that is not enough, give it another. The thing is that you must keep listening until you get to understand it. It’s that simple. There is no need to make it more complicated. 

An Indonesian student

I just heard of the official facebook page of the TOEFL and I “liked” it. I was expecting to find some vivid and first-hand report on what questions were asked in the last actual TOEFL test, but come to think of it, ETS would never allow it to happen, knowing that it is violating its own regulations. Shame.
 
Now what is the real raison d’etre of this page, then :-(?
 
but I have found an eye-opening comment by a test-taker from Indonesia. S/he would like to get into the University of Tokyo.
 
I see…and s/he is on this page…
 
From the Indonesian viewpoint, studying abroad may mean coming to Japan. If study-abroad requires a score of the TOEFL, then such a score will be required when coming to Japan (although ignorance of Japanese will turn out a disastrous campus life). 
 
Interesting. We take the TOEFL test to get out of Japan, but it may be true that they take the TOEFL test to get into Japan. I don’t know if this is really the case, but it sounds interesting.
 
The thing is we don’t use English at university in Japan. Obviously international students will be required to learn Japanese to understand lectures. 
 
As I understand, English is easier when it is spoken. A professor may utter…
 
For more than a decade, our nation has been experiencing an economic hardship like never before. Well, many companies are losing money. You can’t afford a new house, a new car, or a new food product even. People are losing their jobs. They don’t know how to make a living any longer. In this economic recession, what is the government supposed to do? Today we’re discussing the theory of John Maynard Keynes…”
However, the Japanese language, even when it comes to speaking, is just as hard as it is in a written form.
「えー、この十年以上もの間におきましてですね、我が国は未曾有の経済危機に直面しておりまして、えー、多くの企業が赤字に転落し、消費者においては、住宅需要が冷え込み、新車の需要も然り、新商品の食品にさえ財布のひもが固いという状況なのであります。失業率が上昇し、生計を立てることすらままならないという、この不況下で、政府の経済政策はいかにあるべきか、このようなことを、今日はケインズの理論を主に紹介しながらお話ししたいわけであります。。。」
A direct (mechanical) translation of the above English passage will never be like this. 
 
If you think this way, it seems much harder for an Indonesian student to come to Tokyo than it is for a Japanese student to get into university in the United States.