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.

Write or Not To Write?

Every time you work on the integrated writing task, you may wonder whether you should include this particular detail or not.  This is because you well understand that this should be a summary. This section asks you to summarize what you have heard.

However, the definite answer to this question is that you should include it. In fact, you should include as many details and as many examples as possible in your response.

ETS takes the word “summary” differently than we do. As far as the TOEFL is concerned, you are not required to actually write a summary; instead you’re supposed to write everything that you have read in the reading passage and heard from the lecture. This is how you can get a perfect score even if you don’t have enough skill to summarize the story.

So write or not to write? The answer is obvious. That is why a response worth five points is just as long as 280 words to even 300 words, although on your computer screen you will see an ideal response is 150 to 225 words.

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 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.

Photo vs Picture

First of all, I have to apologize to photographers for all the ignorance that I have about photography.
Another urgent issue came up and it should be dealt with now! That’s the degree of importance of yesterday’s counseling session with a student. 
He was wondering what prevents him from writing an essay that gives him a passing score. This exam is very special and highly competitive. (It should be best avoided to talk more about the exam because it may help identify the student. That is not my intention.)

I read through some of his writings, but I felt like I was looking at a photo. I got the impression that other people would (and can) write like this because it is only a description of what he (and the rest of us) sees. Isn’t it hard to justify your opinion by pointing out some of the phenomena that we see? After all, the raters cannot use such a liberal amount of time to enjoy what they already know. They can enjoy what they do not know yet; your opinion and how you have reached the opinion, that is. Therefore it was my job to give him a small piece of advice to change the way it looks.

I said, “Your writing looks like a photo. Maybe your rivals would write this way. Do you know how many rivals you are competing with? Yes, lots. OK. And there is nothing that reflects who you are. You will regret it if you are judged by something that does not represent you. 

“Instead,” I went on, “you will need to paint. It is always important to draw a picture of what you think you are seeing. Your perception is different from others’. And you must express your perception in your own skills and techniques. That way, your final product would be a picture that can communicate who you really are and what you really have in mind.”
Then I added many specific techniques to make it happen, but I will not share them here. Suffice it to say that in writing,too, your essay should be “picturesque.”

the shorter, the better?

Too bad, you have nothing special to do and have to kill time for a while? Then, please take a look at my tweets. Well, now it’s possible for most people on the planet to understand my tweets, because my recent posts are written in English.

These English tweets are not only for people living in other countries to understand, but for me myself to practice writing English better, and here is why.

Every time I communicate with native speakers of English on Facebook messenger or email or whatever, I realize their sentences are much shorter than mine (or yours).  This has to do with the process of developing your ability to use English. First you can write a short sentence. Then, you can put two sentences together and make them a complex sentence. And then at the third stage you can make it even longer by putting extra ideas in it in the form of insertion. By the time you reach this stage, however, your sentences have become a bit too complicated to understand at first glance.

Writing a long, complex sentence seems like some feat from a viewpoint of novice learners, but it actually is easy. What separates native speakers from non-native speakers is how short each sentence is.  Don’t you think it is better to read less if the same meaning is communicated?  After all the 30-odd years of learning English, I have now reached this point: the shorter, the better.