A memoir

One university holds its commencement after another at this time of the year in Japan. I am very glad to see those whom I once taught as high schoolers graduate with flying colors. Time flies. Many of them should have brushed up their English while in university, so I am not expecting any of them to come back to me to again prepare for the TOEFL…or am I?

Here is an interesting example that I once heard from one of my students. Her friend got into Sophia university, a prestigious university especially for its Faculty of Liberal Arts, where international students account for a substantial part of the student body. To get into this particular school, high school seniors work hard on their TOEFL scores. Most of them are admitted when their scores reach as high as somewhere between 90 and 100 (as is the case with college admissions, there are many exceptions).

That means if you go to this faculty, you are widely (and naturally) considered adept at English. English being the main language in classes there, they find it hard not to use English in their daily lives.

Well, that’s the background that I would like you to have in common.

The interesting story is…this female student got into this university, and went to a university in the US for one year on the exchange program, and came back to Japan safe, when she thought that it would be a perfect timing to take the TOEFL again (which itself is praiseworthy, isn’t it?) to make sure that her English is regarded as good enough by global standards.

Her score was about 70.

She may have felt so disappointed, so regretful, and so furious with the result, but I don’t think it is that disappointing. It was just that her attitude toward English had changed since her high school days.

Let’s think about the reading section. High school seniors try hard to pick up one sentence that can be a clue to the question and take time to interpret all the answer choices to eliminate the three false choices. When they get the correct answer, their job is completed. What did they get from the passage? How would they react to the passage? How would they connect the idea to what they already know? These are not relevant, because their sole purpose is to get a score.

Let’s think about the writing section. High school seniors focus on what to think of in response to the prompt, because their resource is quite limited (they have lived for only 18 years!). Once they have come up with something, they start writing about it just as if they were replying to an email message from their friends. That is, believe it or not, enough to get a passing score of the TOEFL. The TOEFL is a test that measures your potential to get by in the US academic environment. It doesn’t require you to use the APA citation and format style or anything like that.

How about the speaking section? This student must have had a lot of opportunity to give presentations in class. Since the test is a formal occasion, I can easily assume that she felt as if she had to give a good presentation.

All these “appropriate and normal” attitudes are negative contributors to the TOEFL score.

So I will not degrade what this student has achieved so far if I am informed of how much she got on the test. As I understand it, a test score is valid only when the test-taker has made all the necessary preparation for the test. While she was qualified to get a better score, her lack of preparation and her “appropriate and normal” attitude toward the language led to what seemed disastrous. This sounds paradoxical, but that’s what any test is all about. If you have fallen in love with the eye doctor at a glance and felt nervous and started to close and open your eyes very firmly, who knows, your eyesight might be 20/40, which would otherwise be 20/20.



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