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.

Trade-offs between two topics

At different stages, TOEFL test-takers have a different impression on the speaking section. You start to seriously prepare for the test when you are a young adult, just as you come back from your exchange program (which most students of mine did). They have already gotten used to responding to everyday events, so all the familiar topic questions like “Describe your favorite food.” or “Do you prefer to get up early to start the day’s work?” are very easy.


In fact, that’s what these young adults have been doing for the past year. At the same time, they find it extremely hard to effectively summarize a lecture on why dinosaurs became extinct (which, obviously, is an Academic topic). So this hypothetical young adult learner would receive a score report that says Familiar — G(ood), Campus — F(air), Academic — L(imited).

When this student gets older and seriously starts to get back to school (hopefully a grad school for his/her MBA degree), things will have changed. They will always see themselves struggling out of familiar topics. They cannot even develop their favorite food. “My favorite food is Chinese food. I have three reasons for this choice. First of all, it is delicious…” – a response that does not represent what they really have in mind. Such being the case, their score reports will say Familiar — L, Campus — F, and Academic — G.

Which results in the same score of this speaking section.

From my teaching experience – longer than the TOEFL iBT itself –  this phenomenon has always repeated. So much so that I have even hypothesized that there should be a trade-off between the two topics: familiar and academic. This is what makes this section extremely difficult, compared to the reading section, where you can improve your score by one if you get an additional correct answer. The result in the Speaking Section does not form a linear line.

One strategy that can result from the above hypothesis is to focus on the Campus topics, which seem to be topic-neutral. The topic itself does not determine the difficulty level of the prompt.

The next time you take the TOEFL, however, I do hope that you defeat my hypothesis!

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.

If you have nothing else to talk about, create one.

I just posted my latest You Tube video on the importance of making a contrast.

In responding to Q2 of 6 questions of the Speaking Section of the TOEFL, you will end up using this technique. After all, you are asked to compare the two in this question. However, even when responding to Q1, this technique should be utilized to its fullest.

You say,”I would choose to drive to school.” And in 10 seconds, you will give up, saying, “I have nothing to talk about any more! I just drive to school. That’s it! That’s the end of the story! What else do you want?!”

Now, I would like to contend that if you have nothing to talk about, create something to talk about.

That’s when making a contrast works.

As opposed to using public transportation, driving a car is easier. First of all, if you take a bus, you are never sure when the next bus will arrive at the bus stop. …

Nobody asks you to discuss public transportation, but you can, if that’s how you can display your ability to speak.

In the speaking section, you have to display how much you can speak. Otherwise there will be no evaluating your ability. But you have nothing to show your ability with. Now, if you have nothing, you can create something else.

A voiceless class

As a teacher (or instructor or whatever you like to call a profession who talks in front of a group of learners), my voice is very important. I know it is, but not until it is gone… and it IS gone now.

I realized that it was fading in the reading class yesterday. If my voice had completely gone in the reading class, I would have gone through another tough time. The reading class requires the teacher to take initiative and conduct class by doing most of the talking. For the last five minutes I found it hard to speak, no matter how much I coughed, feeling as if something was stuck somewhere in the throat.

I had a cold.

Today I’m teaching a TOEFL Speaking class, which is much more benign to my throat than the reading class. I have already made a lot of material to be used when students practice in pair. While they work on the material, my throat will take a rest. Anyway, I will ask them to gather closer to me today so that I can even whisper to make myself heard. My voice may be gone, but that can be taken advantage of when it comes to teaching.


One of the questions that we will be dealing for today’s TOEFL Speaking class is on obesity. It is a frequently asked topic, so I think it will be to the students’ advantage if we discuss it in detail.

According to the prompt, obesity is becoming an epidemic, and therefore its prevention, as well as treatment, should be taken seriously. At the same time, citizens can make use of common sense to prevent the problem. They should eat more veggies, fruits. More milk, instead of carbonated soft drinks or juice. TV ads on fast food also negatively (and maybe effectively) affect younger viewers. Etc, etc…

I will also introduce one famous lawsuit on obesity: that is Pelman vs McDonald’s Corp (2003).  In a nutshell (as I remember correctly) Pelman frequently used McDonald’s. This led him to become obese, increasing the level of bad cholesterol, causing a range of diseases. Pelman decided to file a class action lawsuit.

It can give my students a good opportunity to think about their lifestyles. After all, many of them will follow such a lifestyle very soon.


Preparation may outweigh vocabulary.

What I wanted to say was that the TOEFL is a test. When it comes to a test, there should always be a certain amount of preparation, especially when you know what questions will be asked. If you know that you will be asked to describe the most impressive book you have ever read, and yet you intentionally try not to prepare for it because you believe this is a language test that does not judge what you say, but how you say it, then, you should be prepared for the consequences. Be better prepared!

That’s what I said in the Daily TOEFL 17 video. If you are interested, visit http://youtu.be/dtLVm9JvnlI

And this week, I taught another speaking class, where we practiced this very hard question.

What are some of the qualities of a good neighbor?

The hardest part, for most test-takers, would be their lack of adjectives that express people’s nature. They come up with “kindness” and turn quiet for the rest of the allocated time. Why? Because they don’t have many “kind” neighbors?

They may even make a complaint or criticize themselves for not having large enough vocabulary. However, vocabulary may not solve this type of problems. After all, their main complaints would be, “I can’t do this even in my native language!” Then, it would be almost impossible to solve this problem by enriching their vocabulary; even if they have the equivalent amount of vocabulary to their mother tongue, the result would not be different.

That is where preparation for the test matters.

We have only several similar speaking prompts. So make your own response to each one of them as you prepare for the test itself.

What are some of the qualities of a good…neighbor / son or daughter/ teacher / student /parent / marriage partner?

Now, you know the question.

It’s up to you if you can make it to the next TOEFL test. If you are ill-prepared, you will end up repeating the complaint: I can’t do this even in Japanese.



My TOEFL Speaking / Writing Workshop will be held on March 22.

Hope to see you there!

Also offered by my English school are…

TOEFL 80 on-ground course

Monthly online course