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.

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.

Successful learners

This morning I recommended a book on earth science, which I read on my way to and from work. Earth science is a topic that appears most frequently on the actual TOEFL test. If you are not good at listening comprehension, a little acquisition of this type of knowledge will be a big plus. Well, what I wanted to say is something different. One of my friends and co-workers (teachers), who is also the coauthor of our previous book, has already ordered the book from It was just a matter of 30 minutes or so after I posted the recommendation. See? This is what distinguishes successful learners from unsuccessful learners. Successful learners always do. They are doers. Unsuccessful learners always think. They are thinkers. However, when you think about the book and decide not to read the book, isn’t it just like you didn’t think about the book at all in the first place? You will learn nothing from this act. On the other hand, successful learners can always learn from their deeds. That is partly why the above coworker is also a respectable translator.