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.

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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 😉

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

The newer, the more complicated.

The private student I’m teaching today studies English for the TOEFL. The TOEFL she is getting prepared for is not the internet based, but that of two generations ago: ITP (Institutional program also known as paper-based test). Since the score she needs is not like 600 (which can be an equivalent of 100 in the iBT), there is only one thing she should do. That is to learn all the basic rules for the “structure and written expressions” section. Simply put, she should learn basic grammar. There are only limited numbers of rules that are tested in this section, so by focusing on them and practicing them repeatedly, the required score can be achieved.

This is what the average Japanese test takers used to do back in the 60’s up to 90’s (and for some people, still now in the 21st century). They were criticized for the lack of speaking ability, which was then added to the exam.

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This is how tests evolve. Once thought of as satisfactory, the test gradually looks quaint and malfunctioning. This is modified by adding and subtracting items. As far as the TOEFL is concerned, grammar has been removed from the test, while the passage (both reading and listening) has become twice as long, and the speaking and the writing sections have been added. With 4 hours 30 minutes to complete, obviously, the current test looks and is more difficult.

This way of evolution may apply to other tests. You may find a certain test rather simple and easy to pass, but you never know, by the time your child take the same exam, it will have become one of the hardest. Then it’s time you show off your certificate (which you got a generation ago).

 

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.

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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.