‘Coffee Chat’ Event – Speed Chatting: a great chance to practice speaking – by Mike Thundercliffe

Hi everyone, Mike here. I hope you’re not suffering too much from the summer heat, and found some time to relax during obon!

On August 06, we had our first student ‘coffee chat’ event based on the concept of ‘speed chatting’. This was a free event, and was designed to give Agos students some extra speaking practice in a relaxed environment. It was great to see everyone chatting confidently and having fun, and the teachers enjoyed it too!

What’s ‘speed chatting’?

Basically, the speed chatting format allows students to speak as much as possible, and to work with different students and teachers. It went like this:

  • We had three groups of four/five students, each with a native speaker teacher in the group (me, Danny Robinson and Jim Giguere joined this event).
  • A question (similar to TOEFL Independent Task 1 and 2, or IELTS Part 1 questions) was put up on the screen.
  • First of all, the students had a chance to listen to the teacher answering the question.
  • Then, each student spoke in turn.
  • After each student spoke, the teacher gave some detailed feedback.
  • Each student had the opportunity to talk about the same topic twice.
  • Then we mixed everyone up into new groups, and changed the topic.
  • We had tea, coffee and snacks throughout the two-hour event.

What did the students think?

Here’s some of the feedback from the participants:

  • “It was very helpful to get lots of feedback, and there were a lot of chances to listen as well. It was a very productive time!”
  • “It was a good chance to practice as I don’t have much opportunity to speak to native English speakers and get feedback.”
  • “This session helped me to find some things I didn’t know about, such as linking words and phrases together.”
  • “It was great! I hope this event takes place more frequently. The open, relaxed environment enabled me to join the conversation, and it helped me to build up my confidence.”
  • “By having this opportunity to speak casually, I was pleased that I could find my weakness. Now I know what I need to study more.”

 

 

Are we going to do it again?

Definitely! We are going to run the event on Friday 08 September at 19:00-21:00. The event is open to anyone who has already taken or is currently studying on a TOEFL Speaking Strategy/23 Toppa course, or IELTS Speaking Core/Advanced course. The maximum number of participants will be 16, so please register soon if you’re planning to attend. You can do that here:

Hope to see you there!

Mike

Improve your Vocabulary for TOEFL and IELTS Speaking Tests – by Dan Bates

Hi everyone, I’m Dan and today I’m going to give you some advice on how to improve your vocabulary for your TOEFL and IELTS speaking tests.

I’ve noticed that many of mys students find it difficult to express themselves when it comes to talking about their feelings and emotions in English. All too often, my students will rely on ‘basic’ or neutral vocabulary to describe how they were feeling. For example, “I was happy/sad/tired/angry” or “It was fun/nice”. Using this ‘simple’ or ‘neutral’ vocabulary (in bold) limits your ability to truly express your feelings and can have a negative impact on your grades in TOEFL and IELTS. Only using simple vocabulary in your speaking test can limit your TOEFL score to a 2, or your IELTS Lexical Resource score to a 5.

However, talking about your feelings is an easy opportunity to use some more advanced vocabulary and boost your scores.

So, what should you do? First, learn some less common synonyms and phrases for emotions. I’ll get you started with the emotion ‘happy’.

Common/neutral word Less common word
happy delighted, ecstatic, chuffed (Brit. Informal)

These three adjectives are direct synonyms for ‘happy’, and can simply replace ‘happy’ when describing a joyous occasion. If you can use an idiomatic phrase too, the grader/examiner will definitely be impressed. Here’s an idiom for ‘happy’.

‘happy’ = ‘over the moon

You can also use some collocations using a modifier with the adjective, as below:

‘very happy’ = ‘deliriously happy

You can now express yourself with a number of words and phrases that are sure to catch the grader/examiner’s ear. The great thing about focusing on vocabulary for feelings and emotions is that they are very adaptable to a whole range of questions. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the question is, you can always talk about how the topic makes you feel. Here are some more examples:

Common/ neutral word

Less common word Idiom

Collocation

sad depressed

‘I was depressed when I didn’t get the job.’

down in the dumps

‘I was down in the dumps when I didn’t get the job.’

incredibly sad

‘I was incredibly sad when I didn’t get the job.’

tired exhausted

‘I was exhausted after the tennis match.’

dead on one’s feet

‘I was dead on my feet after the tennis match.’

completely drained

‘I was completely drained after the tennis match.’

angry furious

‘My dad was furious after I damaged his car.’

fly off the handle

‘My dad flew off the handle after I damaged his car.’

absolutely furious

‘My dad was absolutely furious after I damaged his car.’

So, go ahead and find some words, idiomatic phrases and collocations for the other feelings and emotions (you can start here: http://www.thesaurus.com/ )* and then practice using them to answer the following questions.

Speak for 30 to 45 seconds on the following topics:

  1. your happiest childhood memory
  2. your favourite pet
  3. a memorable day from high school
  4. a place you enjoy visiting

Record your speech on your phone then listen back to check you used the less common words and phrases in your answers. Practice until it becomes natural to use these words.

Finally, remember to take risks and do use these words when you take the exam. It’s better to use less-common words (even if you make some mistakes) than playing it safe and using simpler vocabulary. If you can start using these words more frequently, you’ll be ‘over the moon’ with the results!

*When you use a thesaurus, you should also check the synonyms in a dictionary to ensure you understand the nuances in meaning.

Giving Full Answers in Speaking Tests – by Mark Feeley

Hi everyone, and welcome to the instructor blog! I hope your studies at Agos are going well.

I’m Mark, and today, I’m going to be talking about the importance of more fully explaining your ideas in speaking tests, and how this can help you to improve your score. Although I’ll be using an example from an IELTS test, you can use a similar approach to the TOEFL Independent Speaking tasks.

A lot of test takers in Japan struggle to give full answers in the IELTS or TOEFL speaking tests, but it’s very important to fully explain your ideas. This is true for the IELTS or TOEFL tests, but is also crucial in MBA interviews and in the university seminars you will attend in the future.

Take the following example. Here is a typical IELTS Speaking Part 1 question (you may also get similar questions in TOEFL Speaking Task 1):

‘What do you like about the area where you live?’

A typical answer might be:

‘I like my area because it is convenient, and… er…’

The problem here is that a word like ‘convenient’ means many things.  It can also mean many different things to different people, so you should explain what you mean.

A much better answer to this type of question might be something like:

‘What I like about where I live is that it’s convenient. For example, it’s close to the shops, so if I need something to eat I can quickly nip out of my apartment and grab a bite to eat at a local store. Also, there are loads of clubs and bars near where I live so if I want to catch up with my mates at the weekend it’s quite easy and I know it won’t cost me a fortune for a taxi back home.’

As you can see from this example, not only is the answer more clearly explained, but giving a full answer gives you the opportunity to use a wide range of vocabulary (and grammar), including some less common phrases such as ‘nip out of my apartment’*, ‘grab a bite to eat’* and ‘mate’*. By more fully answering questions, you will also therefore be able to demonstrate to the examiner or grader the range of vocabulary that you are able to use.

Also notice how we can use fairly simple linking words (marked in bold in the example) to expand and join our ideas together. The example above uses a simple way of expanding your ideas, like this:

Example 1 → so…→ and…         Example 2 → so…→ and

So how can you improve? The most important thing is to practice a lot, and try recording your speaking. After you have finished, listen to your speaking and ask yourself whether there is anything that you could add to more fully explain your answer. Better still, ask a classmate or teacher to check for you, as they may be able to notice something that you can’t.

I hope you find this useful. Good luck with your studies at Agos!

*‘nip out of my apartment’ = leave my apartment for a short time and come back

*‘grab a bite to eat’ = quickly get something to eat

*’mate’= British English (informal) meaning ‘friend’ – US English equivalent is ‘buddy’

Grammar for IELTS Writing – Using a variety of complex structures – by Danny Robinson

Hi everyone, my name is Danny and I teach IELTS classes here at Agos.  Today I’m going to give you some advice about how you can start to show more grammatical range in your writing.

Why is using a range of grammar important?

To achieve the higher bands for the IELTS Grammatical Range & Accuracy criterion (Band 6 or above) in writing, you have to show that you can accurately and flexibly use a variety (range) of structures, including complex structures. If you only use simple structures, you will be limited to a 5 for this criterion.

This means that you need to be very aware of the structures you are using, otherwise it is very easy to just use the same patterns again and again.  Here are some strategies for avoiding this.

Strategy 1: Changing the order of the sentence

There are many ways that sentences can be structured.  So one of the simplest methods of avoiding too much repetition and showing grammatical range is to simply change the order of the different language “chunks” that make up the structure you are using.  Here is an example of this using a sentence from a typical Task 1 graph analysis essay:

 Over the period shown, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age increased significantly to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010, rising from around 10% in 1990.

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses exactly the same ideas:

Rising from around 10% in 1990, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age increased significantly over the period shown to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010.

Strategy 2: Change the verb forms

Slightly changing the grammar of the verbs can create another different structure:

 Increasing significantly over the period, the number of crimes committed by children under 15 years of age rose from around 10% in 1990 to just over 30% of the total reported in 2010.

Strategy 3: Using a good balance of sentence lengths

However, also remember that good writing is about clearly and precisely expressing what you want to communicate as simply and efficiently as possible.  Unnecessary complexity can also be a problem.  A balance is best.  You should always aim to express yourself in the simplest and clearest way possible while considering the complexity of the idea or information you are expressing.  If you can achieve this balance, it should also have the positive effect of making your writing more engaging for the reader.

A useful starting point for assessing how well you are achieving a balance between clarity and efficiency, as well as showing that you can use complex structures accurately and flexibly, is by considering sentence length.  A series of long complex sentences with several subordinate clauses is just as boring to read as several short simple sentences, and again, may actually reduce clarity by being unnecessarily difficult.

  • Avoid adding subordinate clauses for their own sake:
 The process of industrialization has resulted in the raising of the economic performance of many of the poorest countries in the world.  

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses the same ideas more efficiently:

 Industrialization has boosted the GNP of many poorer countries.

While this first sentence demonstrates impressive complex grammar it isn’t really necessary to express the writer’s point.  It is OK to include some sentences like this, but if all your sentences are this length, your writing may become overly complex and difficult to read.  Also, you will be more likely to make errors, and you will probably find it difficult to include everything you need to say within the time limit of the test.

  • Break up long sentences when possible:
 The immediate effects of reducing government support for the unemployed would probably be to cause protests from charities, to make richer people who pay higher taxes happier, and to scare people on lower incomes, who have long benefited from such programmes.        

 This can be changed to the following sentences, which express the same ideas more clearly:

 Reducing government unemployment support would probably have three immediate effects. Firstly, it would cause protests from charities. Secondly, richer people who pay higher taxes would be happier. Lastly, it would scare people on lower incomes, who have long benefited from such programmes.         

  • Combine short sentences

Equally, if you have a series of one or more very short sentences, see if it is possible to combine them, without losing clarity, by using conjunctions and/or punctuation.  In fact, sometimes this might actually improve clarity as well as efficiency:

 Television can be a useful educational tool. It is a tool that prevents education.

 This can be changed to the following sentence, which expresses the same ideas more clearly:

 Television can be an educational tool, but it may also prevent education.

How can I improve?

Achieving the best balance between showing a range of grammar knowledge and flexibility, without allowing your language to become overly complex and difficult to read requires a lot of practice.  Here are some things you can do:

  • Study different grammar patterns
  • Analyse model answers to see how other people use a variety of grammar
  • Read and analyse texts related to common IELTS topics that you can find in English newspapers and a variety of online sources
  • Apply some techniques to answer real IELTS questions

With study and practice, you can improve your grammatical range and flexibility, and so achieve your IELTS writing scores.  Good luck and perhaps I’ll see you in class soon!