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 😉



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.

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


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.

Making the writing task more exciting.

I am teaching the Integrated Writing class (and others) today.

This task is pretty boring, because 1) you know what will happen anyway (the lecturer will question the points made in the reading passage. Three points will be denied one by one), and 2) your personal feeling toward the passage will be ignored.

This is something you should accept, because this question measures your ability to summarize what you read and listen to in an effective manner. There should be no personal attitude playing a role.

However, when you practice, isn’t it more fun to get your personal ideas involved in the summary? I do recommend this to my students (and I will do in today’s class). You will add your opinion of which side you will stand on, after summarizing both passages. 100 words would express your entire idea.

That way, you can made this otherwise banal activity something new and more exciting. When you get into university, you will be required to submit reaction papers. This will be a prototype of such a reaction paper.

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

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