It is simple only if…

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to hold a monthly workshop this year. Well, up to this day, I still keep this promise, because tomorrow is my January TOEFL Speaking / Writing workshop.

In this year’s workshop, I have decided to accommodate no more than four participants. Therefore, it’s not so much a lecture that gives them a general idea about what good responses are, as a one-on-one session where I give specific feedback to each response so that they can get their responses as closer to the ideal as possible. I am sure that they will have a tough time tomorrow. All the participants have already practiced enough (all of them must have taken the TOEFL plural numbers of times), but they will be strongly advised to change their attitude and the way they present their responses tomorrow. Without a change, they will end up repeating the same less than ideal response the next time they take the TOEFL. It will only produce exactly the same score.

For those learners whose score is just as good as 100, a change in the way they respond to each prompt would mean a better result. Since they have enough knowledge about the language, they will never make a change in the wrong direction. As long as they make a change, therefore, it is a good thing.

The thing is that very few people can think of how the responses should be changed. They have no idea, so they repeat the same. It even means that the more they practice, the more fossilized their responses become.

Tomorrow, I will help them break the fossil into pieces.

If I were to summarize in 10 words what I will do tomorrow, that would be the answer.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

It is simple. I mean it.

Only if you have energy, motivation, patience, flexibility, determination, readiness to change, responsibility for all that is at stake, and a motivated, self-sacrificing, experienced instructor.

The last one, I guarantee.


What’s it for?

About an hour ago, I started to do research on books, those best-sellers and new arrivals, under the category of “TOEFL”. I sometimes do this because I need to be always on top of what’s taking place in this field. (If a teacher like me did not take time to do this, who could afford to spare time for this unproductive routine?) Besides, I haven’t written an article yet on Top 20 TOEFL-preparation printed books that I was asked to submit by All About more than a year back. Yes, I have enough reason to surf (or kayak) through amazon (

This may be something that all those web-site designers and programmers have already noticed, but I realized NOW that the ranking announced by amazon is not based so much on how many books have been sold for a certain period of time, as on when a copy was ordered last time.

One of my books was ranked below 100th when I started to do the above research (two others were included on the top 10 list). I got disappointed, but cannot blame it on anyone else. It’s just that I should write a better, more instrumental book. Then I started to move on. An hour later, when I took a glance at the ranking, Whew! the same book of mine was ranked 18th. I also knew there were three in stock. Now, two.

What does this mean? With only one purchase, the ranking went from below 100th all the way to a whopping 18th? Obviously, my article of Top 20 TOEFL books will not be in tune with the ranking.

Magic at the test center

Could you give me sample responses of today’s speaking class?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because I would respond negatively to this request…at least as far as familiar topics are concerned.

Describe the most beautiful building you have ever seen.

The first building that you come up with is, let’s say, the Eiffel Tower (located in Paris). Then you develop your point of view on this structure: what it looks like, how tall it is, whether you have been there or not, what part of it is the most impressive, etc. When you have no time left (out of 45 seconds), your response is over.

So far, so good. The rest of the class will be spent on how you can improve your response. There are some words, phrases, or factual information that you should / could have used to get a better score. You may also need to improve your pronunciation. That way, you will be able to respond much better to a similar (or exactly the same) prompt the next time you take the actual TOEFL test. (Questions of independent tasks repeat themselves.)

At this point, the problem is ….should a sample response be distributed to students so that they can read it aloud and assimilate it – the purpose of which is to repeat it at the test center?

Probably,  you haven’t done it yourself, or you haven’t taken the test yet if you make such a request.

There is a magic sentence you will hear at the test center that resets your memory, and your prepared sample response will be gone as soon as you hear it. Instead, your instinct will always arise to compromise your ability to stay cool and think logically.

OK, what would my sample response be? I would introduce the Kinkaku-ji (the Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto to let students know how they can develop their idea. However, if you try to learn the sample by heart, you should be in for a disaster.

You see a prompt at the test center. “Describe the most impressive building….” You say, “Yay! I know the answer! It’s Kinkaku-ji!” Now, you try to remember what you have once learned by heart…only a part of it emerges from your hippocampus, but still you keep struggling. Then you hear this magic sentence.

Now begin speaking after the beep.


All your struggle to search for the memory ends with the beep. Everything will be gone. You will have to start thinking again from scratch when the clock has already started.

I know it.

Take a sample response just as a sample. What is more important is to improve yours.

A numerical target

The year 2015 just began. Only three days have passed since then. Still new. Brand new. Or so people think.

When a new year comes, it is always time to make a New Year resolution. I am not sure this universally applies to everyone on the planet, but some people seem to like making such a plan or a determination. People discuss losing weight this year, studying for the TOEFL this year, or quitting the current job this year.

I personally don’t do this. I mean, I don’t express my plan in a generic term like that. That would get me nowhere. Or wherever I can go, that would mean I have reached the goal for the year. If I say, “I will lose weight this year!” and on the very New Year’s eve, I get on the scale, and I find I have lost 0.5 kg. “Yay! I did it!” Can I proudly say this? In a sense, I did it, but in a more reasonable sense, I didn’t make it. Besides, in order to lose weight, what did I do for that year? Probably nothing worth mentioning. I may have tried to avoid sweets after dinner, but I couldn’t. I may have gone out to jog for a while, but let up soon and dropped by a convenience store to get some sandwiches. I may have ordered one beer instead of two, ending up more because it was fun talking with friends over beer.

Many TOEFL test takers around the world are by now hoping that their scores improve this year. However, “improve” alone cannot complete your resolution. You will have a similar end of the year 2015 to the above hypothetical situation of mine.

My humble advice therefore would be that your dream be expressed numerically. If you just want to “improve your TOEFL score,” it doesn’t tell you exactly what to do for that goal. But if you want to get a score of 23 in the Listening Section, or if you want 3 more points in the Speaking Section, and if you know where you are now, you can deduce what you need to do.

No problem to read English books for fun, but if you think you will be able to “improve your TOEFL score” by reading without a particular purpose, you will end up saying on the New Year’s eve, “Yay I did it! I got 78! Last year, my score was 77!”

It will take you another 30 years to get into business school.