To improve your sentences

I had two workshops and one one-on-one session yesterday. One of the workshops was on TOEFL writing and the other was that of Speaking. I really appreciate all the positive participation. Good sessions, weren’t they? Since I had already taught the entire structure (that would rake in a higher score) to the same group of participants already, yesterday’s workshop focused on the quality of each sentence. Even a perfect organization would not bring you a 5 on the scale of 5, if each sentence has plural errors. To improve the quality of each sentence, there are two considerations:

  1. Reduce the number of errors by following strictly what your grammar book dictates.
  2. Use a different (thus more sophisticated) sentence structure to impress the rater.

We did both yesterday.

A problem arises when you try to do it yourself: you don’t know how to improve your sentences. Otherwise you wouldn’t have to think about it in the first place. In that case, my advice would be to read for that specific purpose.


Choose a simply written book whose background knowledge you already have. If you are a business person, choose one book out of the business book corner of a bookshop. Then you start to read it carefully to find a sentence you have never written thus far to express the same meaning. The next time you write an essay, use the sentence instead of the one you would otherwise write. You are sure about the context where that particular sentence is used in the book, so it goes well with the context, too.

I personally have acquired new sentences and sentence structures just like that. It is worth trying. At least you can read a book, which itself is a good thing to do.


To read it all the way through, or not to read it through

All the test-takers will find this question the most profound of all: Should the entire passage be read first or should the questions be read first?
The answer depends on your ability and your current score (or your goal).
If your score is below 80, wouldn’t it be impossible to read through the passage in just about 5~6 minutes to get the gist (as well as examples and details to support the main ideas) and confidently move on to each question? My advice is to directly go on to Question 1. After you read the question and four answer choices, you read the corresponding part of the passage (which appears on the screen) specifically to search for the answer.
This strategy is effective because you can set your purpose of reading the passage before you start reading. Whatever activity you may get involved in (sales promotion, for example), you will have a better result if your goal is clearly set. If you think “the larger number you can sell, the better you feel.” You will not be able to put your desire into action, thus failing to “feel good.”
The same it true of the TOEFL reading. The reading passage is as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean. It is hard to get the whole picture of the ocean by sailing without a purpose. If your goal is to see if there are dolphins in the five-mile radius of Oahu, an island of the State of Hawaii, your goal is more likely to be reached.
If you can read the entire passage in 5 minutes before moving on to the questions, however, you should. Having already understood the main ideas and details, you stand a better chance of getting the correct answers. But if it takes more than 10 minutes to read the passage, you should take the “Question prior to Passage” approach. The passage is not worth spending as much as 10 minutes without knowing what to answer. The ultimate goal is to get a higher score.
What if it takes 7 or 8 minutes? That’s when you take the topic into consideration. If the topic is familiar to you, you can make it to the end of the passage faster and better. If it is not familiar, the “Question prior to Passage” approach is in action.

Think carefully before adopting the “late-entry” strategy 

Everything has a flipside. Entering the room later than most people would give you an edge, as far as the reading section is concerned, but it also has a disadvantage – some people would even regard it as fatal. By the time you start the Speaking Section, most others would be working on their essays in the Writing Section. Just imagine. The entire room is replete with a mechanical sound of typing on the key board. It’s already a prohibiting area. There should not be any one sound that breaks this thick ice … except your lousy response to the prompts. 
Are you sure you can keep responding in a sane manner in such an unbearably tense atmosphere? Only when you are, will this “late-entry” strategy work.

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.


“making” a test

I am now writing a textbook for the prep school I’m working at.  This book will be used for the novice – intermediate  learners of English (high school freshmen) with or without an intent to take TOEFL in the future. Three instructors take their own responsibility for each part of the book. Mine is to make questions (and answers) that are similar to those of the actual TOEFL test.

Sounds like a routine job that bears nothing worth mentioning. Well, I feel the very opposite.

I can get correct answers to the actual TOEFL reading questions (or whatever section), so just reading a given  passage and thinking about correct answers does not give me any new knowledge or deepen my understanding of the TOEFL. That’s when making, as opposed to answering,  questions works. If you try to make appropriate questions for the reading passage, you will have to take into consideration far more things than just answering questions.

First, a type of question should be determined. Should I ask an “Inference question” to give learners an opportunity to think really hard? Should I ask a “factual question” so that the learners can practice skimming for the relevant information quickly?

Second,  part of the passage to be singled out for the question should be determined. If I want to make the question harder, I will pick up a sentence that is harder to understand. At the same time, I want to make sure that the learners understand what the passage is all about, so maybe I should choose a sentence that shows the main idea of the passage. If I do this all the time, however, the questions will be similar to one another. There need to be some details to be asked for a change.

Third, I make four answer choices. This is where the test-“maker” can (or cannot) show his ability to test the learners’ ability. It is important to know how they misunderstand the sentence in question, and what phrases they find misleading. It is well-known that the correct answer choice, if made by a layperson, tends to be longer than the other three choices. I should avoid that, too.

Finally, which of the four choices should be correct? This is a matter of psychological issue which I don’t know much about. In Q1, the answer was B. Then, what should be the answer to Q2? A? C? D? or B, again? I have a certain formula for this, but I will not share this here (for obvious reasons).

I should also mention how lucky I am because the school has already given me passages from which I can choose for the text. If I had to choose (or write!) passages for the textbook from scratch, the entire task would take 3~4 times longer.

What is the first section of the TOEFL?

It’s Sunday today and the TOEFL is now being administered in lots of different test centers by now.  About one hour has passed since most test-takers started the reading section. I think by now they can predict what they will get in two weeks. The reading section is the most important section and it can be a good indicator of what outcome should be expected.

It’s not like I am emphasizing the relative importance of reading in learning English. Instead, I’m talking about the order of the four sections. I would not recommend going to the test center with your iPod on, which most people do for the purpose of “getting themselves used to English.” If you successfully get used to the English language by listening to it for 30 minutes, you should question the validity of what you have done so far. You have been studying for countless minutes thus far, but you are not confident yet. At this point, it would be of little use to try to get used to English just by listening for 30 minutes.

On the other hand, many of the test-takers today (I’m talking about tens of thousands of them world-wide!) must have repeated the first couple of sentences of the first passage in the reading section, totally unaware of what they were reading. After repeating several times, they finally knew that they understood nothing. Whatever they do or however they do it, the sentences on the screen do not make any sense to them.

Why? This is easy to answer. They had not prepared for the test enough. They focused on listening until the last-minute, wrongly convinced that they would make it to the reading passage. Alas! They just could not read a sentence. You have made a lot of preparation until the day before the test day, but on the very test day, your preparation should continue. One thing no one can avoid would be reading. After all, it is the first section and by the time the section is over, most people have lost their motivation.


Complicated but easy. Simple but hard.

When I teach the reading section of the TOEFL, I sometimes find it surprising to see my students understand some of the difficult ideas expressed in very complex sentences. They are adept at “decomposing” the entire sentence into some meaningful chunks and putting them together to understand the whole.

However, I find it even unbelievable to see my students struggle with the interpretation of a rather easy sentence. The whole sentence is made up of all those words you will have learned one year after you start to learn English.

That’s probably a common phenomenon throughout the world. When you bump into a very difficult word like “egalitarian” you just look it up in your electronic dictionary. Very easy. Straightforward. No trick. But what about “tout”? What about “in”? What about “it”?

The word that doesn’t give you any impact so you need to repeatedly try to remember it intentionally: tout.

The words whose meanings really depend on where in the passage they are used: “in” and “it”.

What if the sentence you are reading consists of only those words? There is no key word –  the word that gives you a general idea of the sentence in one word. Your understanding or interpretation totally relies on the context.

Those are simple English. Many people including experts argue for getting used to simple English, as if it took very little to learn it. On the contrary, my students find simple English very hard, while very complicated English easy to understand.

Simple English is not that simple.