When should you start working on the TOEFL?


If you live a normal life in your own language environment, the first time you hear the term TOEFL would be the time you have to seriously start working on the TOEFL. Up until you graduate from university and start your career, English may have come across as nothing more than a school subject. Not now. Now you are a chosen candidate for your company’s next-generation MBA holders. Some business people may be already outstanding in their ability of English, which is why they are selected as such. However, most candidates are not that good at the English language and are selected therefore based on not so much their English ability but their performance and attitude toward work (which should be a better criterion because these MBA holders are supposed to contribute to management in the future, not to teaching English). Although such being the case, if you want to get a head start on your career, achieving a certain TOEFL score can make a big difference. You may not need it now, but will definitely need it by the time you become thirty. It is therefore that college graduates in non English-speaking countries should start working on the TOEFL test as soon as their career starts. If you are exempt from the score or passed over for the opportunity, so be it. But if you have been chosen as a candidate, you cannot turn back the clock any more.


Killing two birds with one stone

I WAS WRITING for a new post last night. When I got it all done, I published it and let my followers know about it via Twitter and facebook. Then I deleted all of it.

As I read the post again, I got the impression that there might be some people who would become disappointed and even hurt. In the article, I introduced a negative attitude (or so I think) of average Japanese learners of English and blamed it for their inability to speak English. This topic is a very sensitive issue to discuss. Some authors and publishers, as well as institutions, take advantage of it to make a profit. This is because there is enough demand from consumers, or (novice) language learners who cannot improve their ability. Therefore, I thought I would end up discouraging all those learners by pointing out what could otherwise have been ignored.

If so, and this is a mere speculation, then that’s not what I had intended. As a language teacher, my job does not lie so much in discouraging learners as in encouraging them to learn more and get better results.


Thus no sooner had I published the post than I deleted it.

Then, what good does this new post have? After writing all this, I now realize this has such a cathartic effect on me. I teach (the TOEFL) writing for a better score, but the act of writing itself can make you feel better. You can kill two birds with one stone.

p.s. If you do not understand what I wrote about in the first half of this post for the lack of specific description, never mind. It is all written for my own sake 😉


Easy tasks can be difficult.

Here is the hardest part of learning a foreign language as an adult learner.

This learner, Ken, is a civil engineering expert who has just started his research for his doctorate dissertation. Since he needs to improve his English for his presentation (he has never studied abroad), he decides to go to school to learn English. His use of the second language is limited basically to the academic settings, so the TOEFL would serve his purpose, his adviser suggested.

That has brought him to this speaking class.


This hypothetical learner is very good at thinking logically and analyzing an issue. He already knows all the necessary technical terms to explain his major. The only thing he has in common with the other learning mates is the lack of English ability.

However, TOEFL familiar topics will ask you whether you prefer to eat out or eat at home,  which of the three meals is the most important to you, or what was your favorite toy when you were a child. Many of the TOEFL test takers are happy to discuss these issues. This is especially true if they are still high school students – those whose memory about their childhood is still vivid. This hypothetical student, however, is, in my opinion, overqualified.

He is not interested in the toy he played with in his childhood, nor does he want to talk about it. He is not interested in the language per se; his interest lies in his major.

Ken’s case sounds a bit too extreme, but in general, adult learners would be more sympathetic with Ken’s struggle of discussing with his teenage learning mates what his favorite toy was. Familiar topics should be dealt with in the speaking test to measure one’s ability to have a casual talk with his/her friends. However, they may be an affective factor in discouraging him/her from displaying the otherwise enough ability to get by.

Successful learners

This morning I recommended a book on earth science, which I read on my way to and from work. Earth science is a topic that appears most frequently on the actual TOEFL test. If you are not good at listening comprehension, a little acquisition of this type of knowledge will be a big plus. Well, what I wanted to say is something different. One of my friends and co-workers (teachers), who is also the coauthor of our previous book, has already ordered the book from amazon.com. It was just a matter of 30 minutes or so after I posted the recommendation. See? This is what distinguishes successful learners from unsuccessful learners. Successful learners always do. They are doers. Unsuccessful learners always think. They are thinkers. However, when you think about the book and decide not to read the book, isn’t it just like you didn’t think about the book at all in the first place? You will learn nothing from this act. On the other hand, successful learners can always learn from their deeds. That is partly why the above coworker is also a respectable translator.

Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin.

I really like to integrate reading skills into writing skills. After all, what you read, no matter what, so long as it is written by someone whose English is better than yours, is a good example of writing. It will not pay off if you just enjoy reading it. There should be quite a few principles by which it is written. We should apply them to our writing.

TOEFL is a test that measures our ability to do all the above. If you look at the writing scoring guide, all the criteria, including very basic ones like spelling errors, apply to reading. “Spelling? What does that have to do with reading?” If you have a question like this, I can tell you that I have seen countless numbers of  test-takers who misunderstood the passage because they confused two different words like “nothing” and “noting”.

When you are reading, therefore, you are practicing writing, and vice versa. Efficient learners study both at the same time.



I know there are two main types of motivation: instrumental motivation and integrative motivation. If you have set a certain score of an English proficiency test as a future goal and work on it, you have instrumental motivation. This is probably because you know that your test score will affect your future career path. Some Japanese companies require the candidates for managerial positions to have a certain test score of an English proficiency test. The higher position means the higher salary, and the higher social status means the more personal satisfaction. There is no doubt that quite a few people are involved in this test (in most cases, the test is TOEIC). If you keep studying English for this purpose with instrumental motivation, however, the English uttered by you may turn out a bit weird from the viewpoint of those who study the same language with integrative motivation.  Some people like me want to join the circle of native English-speaking people at the beginning of their pursuit of the language. If so, they are more likely to choose a book with lots of sentences actually uttered by native English speakers. The content, as well as its conversation structure is different from that of test preparation books. Test prep references, on the other hand, cater to test-takers whose primary purpose of learning English is to get a good score on the test. Accordingly, those books offer what seems too logical, and they have limited numbers of topics in them. This affects learners’ perception of what English conversations should look like. Many learners with instrumental motivation find it hard to keep the conversation going, because that not what the proficiency test asks them to; on the other hand, many learners with integrative motivation find it hard to make a grammatically correct sentence or stop excessive use of slang and colloquial expressions. Overwhelmingly difficult as it seems, an ideal learner must take an integrated approach to mastery of the target language.


The December TOEFL workshop will be offered on 12/6. More info at http://www.shikenyajuku.com/


Three questions you should ask yourself before starting to prepare for the TOEFL test.

It is test-takers’ first duty on their To-do list that they should order a good reference book for the TOEFL from Amazon. Most of them would carefully read reviews and hear former test takers reflecting on their books. They probably end up clicking the order button of those books whose reviews are good and friendly and which are ranked high.

They may receive an appropriate book the following day, but most of them will find the book disappointing. It will be either that they don’t understand the book at all or that their knowledge has already covered the book. This is due mainly to the ignorance of two important considerations.

1) You should know where you are.

The best way to do this would be to take an actual test. If your score is 80 or above, then, your choice of the ETS Official Guide will be appropriate. If your score is lower than 60, you will never be able to read the Official Guide. However, the Official Guide is one of the best-selling books under the section of the TOEFL in Amazon. This means that most of the customers cannot enjoy the book or utilize the knowledge and wisdom in it to apply to the next TOEFL test.

2) You should set the goal before looking for a good book.

On the shelf of a bookshop you can see TOEFL reference books whose test taking strategies are just as varied. You will have a hard time choosing which strategies to take: whether to read the entire passage first or read the questions and answer choices first; whether to focus on the academic topics or the familiar topics; or whether to write more than 500 words or not more than 300 words. It all depends on the score you are aiming at.

3) Is your (possible) test score really above 40?

If your score is below 40, it will be nearly impossible to understand all the strategies. If you know them, you cannot utilize them in the actual test, because you don’t understand what is going on in the test. You will even have a hard time getting the gist of the reading passage. You will have difficulty keeping yourself awake throughout the listening section. You can say or write virtually no words. If that’s your situation, your TOEFL guides will be reduced to worthless debris.

Therefore, ask yourself these three questions before starting to prepare for the TOEFL test.