Extensive reading as prep for the TOEFL

Some learners have made this their New Year’s resolution: “Extensive reading.”
 
I do not intend to offend them nor do I want to deny its importance, but as far as the TOEFL test is concerned, extensive reading works only marginally. If you are time-conscious and have set the goal of getting the required score in a couple of months, then, I would not recommend this way of learning English. 
 
People think of extensive reading as reading a lot of English at a higher speed, but that goes against the reading strategies that you should adopt in taking the TOEFL.
 
In the TOEFL reading section, you are required to answer local quesitons, where you are asked to identify one particular sentence in the passage and to carefully analyze that sentence in comparison with four answer choices.
 
Q5. According to Paragraph 4, what happened in 1789?
 
How would you answer this question?
Any test-taker can detect the word 1789 in the reading passage and start to analyze the sentence that contains it. The problem is that if they don’t clearly understand the sentence, they cannot arrive at the correct answer choice.
 
If you think this way, it would be better if you practice “sentence correction” questions in SAT or GMAT. That is what I would call a reading practice.
 
I know quite a few high schoolers who have stayed in the U.S. for a year as an exchange student and come back in Japan, preparing for the TOEFL test. They are good at speaking and listening, but their reading score is as low as 2 (out of 30! Can you imagine this?)
 
This can be explained beautifully.
 
While they are in a high school in the U.S., they were required to get the gist all the time (whether they read or listened). By the time they came back to Japan, therefore, they were pretty much confident they can get the gist of the reading passage in no time. This actually does not do them any good when they take the TOEFL test, since most of the reading questions are made up of local questions like above.
 
The important thing is when you read, whether you know the topic or not, you need to focus on each sentence and carefully analyze it from the viewpoints of grammar and context. One good exercise can be found in the SAT writing section and the GMAT sentence correction.
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Working by principle

Posting a blog (article) accounts for a big part of my like as a TOEFL prep counsultant. Every day, when you look around, you can see someone who is struggling for the required score of the TOEFL. I write for those test-takers. I always bear the following purposes in mind:
 
1) let them realize that they are competent enough
2) help them study abroad
3) help them go successfully through the admission process
 
These are rewarding enough, but there is more to it than these:
 
4) When I see my student who has come back from his/her university or grad school, and start contributing to society, I feel as if I were making a little contribution to society, too. That is when I really feel rewarded. This is the type of social contribution that I can make myself. Probably people work for the betterment of the society they belong to. As for me, this is what little contribution I can make.

going over speaking / writing classes

More about how to review classes.
When your speaking class is over, 
 
1) forget about whether you can “understand” the lecture or not; focus more on speaking. Simply put, you can read the script of the lecture and practice responding.
 
2) Once you say it again, you sit in front of the computer (which you usually do when you study for the TOEFL) and type out what you have said word by word. Then count how many words you uttered to see if your speech is sufficient in content. A rough estimate is that if you utter 90 words for Q1 and Q2, and 120 words for Q3~Q6, you will get the full score of 4. 
 
(There is no need to see if your speech is grammatically erroneous. Nobody counts your mistakes…even in the TOEFL test.)
 
3) If your speech is short, think of how to fill the gap without repeating the same sentences. This is when your “speaking ability” is improving. The lack of this practice will allow you to make excuses not to have anything else to talk about. 
 
4) When your final response is made, save it on the PC and read it aloud from time to time until you get the knack of it.
 
As far as the writing class is concerned, there is virtually nothing else to do but learn what you got as a sample response. Unlike the reading class, you should read this aloud (it is just 300 words long, after all). 
 
Study
1) how to develop your opinion
2) how to show examples
3) how to refute an opposing idea
4) word choice
5) grammar points already familiar to you but hard to use
6) other phrases that make a difference
 
Learn all of the above until you become confident you can reproduce the entire essay from scratch. This sort of input cannot be ignored if you are to succeed in writing. People tend to write more in order to write better. However, the most important is to read more. Read what you are supposed to write and learn how you can make it.

Reading aloud! … um…really?

It is always troublesome. Students come to class and by the time they come back to the next class, much of what they learned is gone. 
 
You cannot keep everything to your memory in any way, but it is possible not to forget all of them.
 
When your Reading / Listening classes are over,
 
1) Read the passage and solve the questions that follow (again)
2) Read / Listen only to check new words
3) Read / Listen to learn important sentences about the topic (as if you were studying for your history midterm, for example)
4) Read / Listen as you take notes on the sentences that you could not possibly WRITE or SPEAK yourself.
5) Finally read / listen at your maximum speed. 
 
The fact of the matter is that you need to repeat the same passage over and over again. But it is almost impossible to do that unless you have a specific purpose. The above 5 will provide you with some reasons for which you read or listen to the same passage.
 
What I would NOT recommend is read aloud the entire passage. 
 
First of all, it will not do you ANY good if you do that once or twice. According to my (and many other good speakers’) experience, reading aloud is only beneficial if you do that hundreds of times.
 
I would advise learners to read aloud some important sentences or much shorter passages like one paragraph that you think is beneficial. (just like the above 3 or 4)
 
I will write about how to review a Speaking class in the next post.

the most important (but the least known) thing about the writing section

During a recent writing class, we discussed two different example responses. The idea was that students (I hope) would synch with the actual raters in the way they look at the writing responses. Fortunately we already have scoring guidelines based on which the raters make a decision on the test-takers’ scores.
 
Sounds good to hear, and the guidelines are written in plain language, for sure, but still it is hard to give a certain score to an actual essay. Just like everyone else in this business, I can write an essay that earns 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 respectively. It means that I can internalize the whole guidelines, so I can make them even easier for your benefit.
 
From my viewpoint, the most important (but the least known) aspect of this writing section is that 3 (out of 5) means that this particular essay is “hard” to understand because of the author (test-taker)’s inability 1) to write a complete sentence and 2) to organize the entire essay. If you get two 3’s in W1 and W2, your score will be 20 (out of 30). Doesn’t sound bad, does it?
 
In the TOEFL, W=20 means your essay is not up to par. What you have to do to improve your scores is, then, to improve either 1) or 2) above. 
 
I am very sure that 2) will be much easier to do. Since there are not many ways of organizing an essay, you can make it yourself. It will be enough if you focus on what you have written so far, what your goal (conclusion) is, and how you can fill the gap between the two. Forget about your English and focus on the organization. You will see your writing score surging (up to 20 or something in its neighborhood). 
 
Here is a big no-no, however.
 
If you stick to a widely used template, and replace with it what you could have created on your own, you will hit a plateau: there will be no noticeable improvement in your score. This means that you will keep the organization as it is and try to write a better and more complicated English sentence (Point 1 of the above). It will take a far longer time to write the same idea in a better English sentence.
 
You should be reminded that there is no one “ideal” way of completing the tasks in the TOEFL writing section. Whatever it may be, you should choose to explain your response in what you would think is the best (by your standards). That will give you a score 4. Believe it or not, if you get two 4’s, then your score will be 25. Pretty satisfactory, isn’t it?
 
The TOEFL does not require you to display your knowledge on academic writing (who knows something only university students know before getting into university?). Your task is to show your potential to get ahead in the academic writing class. So relax, and show your idea in a very organized manner. It’s not easy, but it’s not too difficult.