Rumor has it that…

I am taking a TOEFL text this weekend. I only wish I were taking it to get the score to apply for a graduate school. I already have one particular graduate school in mind – I am hoping to finally attend it after I have retired in 15 years’ time 😉 Until that time, I will be reminded of it from time to time to enjoy a daydream. As I often say to my students and clients, I will never give up on this one. Well, then what am I taking the TOEFL this weekend for? As a matter of fact, I will have to see if the rumor is true or false.

Recently a little change in the way questions appear on the screen, as well as some minor details, reportedly has been made. The thing is that these reports come from a casual conversation with a limited number of test takers. I cannot believe it yet. How can I? Many students don’t even remember what they said in the speaking section or in the writing section. It would be unbelievable if they remembered the titles of the passages in the reading section. (So don’t worry, ETS test proctors. Test takers won’t tell anyone what the test questions were, because they can’t!)

It is, therefore, time that I took the test myself. When I take a test, I have a specific purpose of going all the way to the test center (This time it will take a couple of hours to get there. I booked a bit too late. Had no choice.)

Some of the purposes that I have had so far include…

  1. What if I write more than 700 words for the Independent Writing whose “ideal” response will be 300 words?
  2. What if I write as little as 250 words for the Independent Writing?
  3. What if I write more than 450 words for the Integrated Writing whose “ideal” response will be 150~225 words?
  4. What if I spoke like a typical Japanese citizen who couldn’t care less about the actual pronunciation?

… and many more.

As a TOEFL instructor, it is crucially important to know the fine line between the response that carries 5 out of 5 and that of 4, 4 and 3, or 3 and 2. That’s where my students are working hard to overcome. It is my job to indicate the passing line to all those test-takers so that they can prepare and get the maximum score with the minimum effort. That is when I am paid.

This weekend, I will sacrifice the time to study myself, but in return, I will receive another set of secrets of the actual TOEFL exam. Yes, there are lots of open secrets in the test. My job is to create a range of covert strategies out of open secrets. Lots of oxymora

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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.

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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!

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.

The first task at the test center

By the way, the first thing you are supposed to do at the test center is to test your microphone. Since the TOEFL involves listening and speaking, if the headset doesn’t work properly (which is often the case!) it will disrupt your calm and negatively influence your motivation, thus possibly lowering your score. Hence headset check. You are asked to say something for that purpose. Maybe I should refrain from revealing the exact prompt here, but anyways, there are four types of test takers in this case.

  1. those who repeat the prompt until the beep is heard (which indicates the headset is working normally)
  2. those who repeat the response (I live in … I live in… I live in…) until the beep
  3. those who read aloud what the screen says
  4. those who respond to the prompt on their own

This does not affect your score at all, but I like to respond to the prompt on my own. I belong to Group 4.

Below is what I say (The prompt is always the same, and so should the response be).

I live in Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Since it is located in the temperate zone, it has a warm climate. I like this climate partly because I was born and raised in the northern part of the country, where it often snows. One main feature of Tokyo is its function as a world financial center just like New York and London. In the center of the city, we have hundreds of banks and securities firms. It is therefore a very international city where you can see many foreigners. Tokyo is also a cultural center of Japan. We can enjoy Kabuki in the theater just adjacent to the business district.

Just a reminder. I cannot complete this prepared speech. By the time I say New York, I hear the beep and the screen changes. I have never said London … just yet.

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.

When to enter the room?

The reading section is by far the most important section of the TOEFL test. If you make a blunder here you will not be motivated enough already to go on to the next section, which is listening, an even tougher section. this section is not for the faint-hearted. So in the sense that you should be well-prepared for the following sections, you cannot pay enough attention to the reading section.
If you want to really concentrate on the reading passages, you should enter the room after, not prior to, most of the test-takers. If you start the section earlier than the others in, let’s say, a room that can accommodate 30 people, then, you are supposed to hear 29 others testing the microphone, asking the administrator questions, bumping into the table you are sitting at, and making complaints about the malfunction of the PC. I do not believe this is an ideal environment in which to concentrate on the work.
The reading section is, in a sense, a key to success in the TOEFL test. So important is the section that you should even be more careful in deciding when to enter the room. On entrance into the test center, your test already starts.

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.