Why background knowledge is vital for TOEFL®/IELTS success

Do you ever feel that your performance on the TOEFL® or IELTS test ‘depends on the topic’? If topics you know about and are interested in come up, you get a higher score, but when you get unfamiliar or boring topics, your score goes down.

Well, a lot of students complain about this, so it seems that having some knowledge about the common TOEFL®/IELTS topics can affect your score. Of course, the makers of TOEFL®and the makers of IELTS would argue that you don’t need any specialist knowledge of any topic to perform  well in the tests. However, it certainly makes things quicker and easier and gives you more confidence if you know something about the topics in the test you’re taking.

In some cases, you can even answer questions without reading or listening. Here are a couple of examples of reading questions from the TOEFL® Official Guide (5th Edition) that I answered correctly without reading a word of the texts. Take a look at this one – can you get the correct answer?

Topic: Politics/History (from Practice Test 1, The Official Guide to the TOEFL® Test, Fifth Edition, p. 226)

3. The author mentions “bankers and investors” in the passage as an example of which of the following?

A. The Democratic Party’s main source of support

B. The people the Democrats claimed were unfairly becoming rich

C. The people most interested in a return to a simple agrarian republic

D. One of the groups in favor of Andrew Jackson’s presidency

If you know anything about US politics, and the history of the Democratic and Republican parties, you can assume that “bankers and investors” are unlikely to support the Democratic party. I don’t know anything about Andrew Jackson (I’m not American, so have never studied American presidents!), but I assume he’s a Democrat because it seems this question is focusing on the Democratic party. So this means A and D are unlikely to be correct. Using common sense, it’s pretty obvious that bankers would not support a return to a ‘simple agrarian republic’, so the correct answer must be B.

Now try this one:

Topic: Geography (from Practice Test 1, The Official Guide to the TOEFL® Test, Fifth Edition, p. 240)

6. According to paragraph 3, one cause of mountain formation is the

A. effect of climatic change on sea level

B. slowing down of volcanic activity

C. force of Earth’s crustal plates hitting each other

D. replacement of sedimentary rock with volcanic rock

I haven’t studied geography since I was 15, but I’m pretty sure that the only option that makes any sense is C.

Now of course, answering questions without reading/listening is not always possible, and you shouldn’t imagine that becoming an expert in a wide range of subject areas is guaranteed to get you a high score in TOEFL and IELTS. Your English study and test preparation are still absolutely essential.

However, increasing your background knowledge about the common TOEFL and IELTS topics can really help you to answer questions more quickly and give you more confidence. In the Speaking and Writing sections, you’ll be able to think of ideas and opinions much more quickly and easily to give better answers.

This is why our new Essential English course is topic-based – to help you  improve your English study and test skills while increasing your background knowledge. If you’d like more information, why not come to a free demonstration lesson of the Essential English course? I’d be happy to let you experience a lesson, and to answer any questions you have about English or test preparation.

You can register for a free demonstration lesson here on these dates in April:

Saturday 6th April, 14:30-16:00

Saturday 13th April, 15:00-16:30

Saturday 27th April, 15:00-16:30

*Before coming to the demonstration lesson, take a look at the following sentence – it has some common Japanese learner mistakes. Can you spot them?

‘Overtime working can have a bad effect to workers’ mental.’

After the demonstration lesson, I’ll explain what the mistakes are, and how to express this idea using natural, high level English.

See you soon!

Mike Thundercliffe, Manager Curriculum and Instruction, Agos Japan

For more information about English study, please visit the Essential English home page here.

How long does it take to improve your English?

This is the question everyone wants to know, but is extremely difficult to answer because there are so many variables. For example, your current level, your past experience of learning, how much time you have to study and practice, how stressed you are with your work, what family commitments you have etc., etc. However, let’s look at some rough guidelines.

Unfortunately, the makers of TOEFL and the makers of IELTS don’t provide any guidance on this. Probably, they don’t want to make promises they can’t keep (because of the variables I mentioned earlier). But we can use the CEFR level system to make some estimates (that’s the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, a system for assessing language levels. Wikipedia entry is here.)

One level of CEFR is approximately 20 points on the TOEFL, and about 1 band in IELTS. On average, to achieve that kind of improvement, it would take around 160-180 hours of guided study. That means learning in the classroom with a teacher on a structured program covering language development and four skills work, with additional self-study that is guided by the teacher.

So if you study English in class for 3 hours a week, and do 6 hours of guided self-study, then that’ll take about 4 to 5 months.

I’m not promising you can do that of course – again, there are too many variables  to guarantee anything. So to make that kind of progress in such a short time means you really have to work hard, not miss any lessons, do all the self-study, and be able to focus for the whole period of study.

But it is possible.

If you’d like more information about your English study, why not come to a free demonstration lesson – we can have a chat about English study after the class.

You can register for a free demonstration lesson here on these dates:

Saturday 30th March*, 15:00-16:30

Saturday 6th April, 14:30-16:00

*Before coming to this lesson, take a look at the following sentence – it has some common Japanese learner mistakes. Can you spot them?

‘Overtime working can have a bad effect to workers’ mental.’

After the demonstration lesson on March 30th, I’ll explain what the mistakes are, and how to express this idea using natural, high level English.

Hope to see you soon!

Mike Thundercliffe, Manager Curriculum and Instruction, Agos Japan

For more information about English study, please visit the Essential English home page here.

Why your English (probably) isn’t good enough to get 100 in TOEFL/7.0 in IELTS

If you’re struggling to reach 100 in TOEFL or 7.0 in IELTS, there’s a strong possibility that it’s not just your strategy that you need to work on. You probably also need to improve your English.

Of course, you may have been lucky and had some great English teachers at school, or you may have had the opportunity to study abroad. But for most Japanese people, even if you went to good schools, your English probably didn’t get to a high enough level to achieve top scores in the TOEFL or IELTS tests. But why is that?

Well, there are two fundamental problems – how you studied, and what you studied.

At school, you probably had English lessons where the students were quite passive – a lot of listening to the teacher, a lot of grammar translation, and a lot of vocabulary tests. This means that you probably have a lot of knowledge of English, which is good, but TOEFL and IELTS are not just testing your knowledge. These tests assess how you can use English in realistic scenarios that you will encounter when you study abroad.

The range of English vocabulary and grammar you studied at school was probably also too narrow, too basic, and quite unnatural. Here’s a real example from a student showing some common problems:

‘My trip to Kyoto was good because I could enjoy various dishes.’

This sentence has several problems:

  1. ‘My trip to Kyoto was good.’ – this is not grammatically wrong, but it sounds a little unnatural. Native speakers are more likely to use a different expression, the word ‘good’ is very common and basic, and native speakers would usually use stronger language to express this idea, like this: ‘I had a fantastic time in Kyoto.’
  2. ‘because I could enjoy various dishes.’ – here, there is some direct translation from Japanese, ‘various’ is used wrongly, and ‘dishes’ sounds unnatural when used in this context. This is better: ‘mainly because of the great food.’

So this sounds much more natural and high level:

‘I had a fantastic time in Kyoto, mainly because of the great food.’

If you can already produce this kind of sentence, then you’re probably at the right level to get 100 in TOEFL or 7.0 in IELTS. If not, you might need to work on your English!

 

If this sounds like you, then check out the second in our series of videos about our new ‘Essential English‘ course here. You’ll find another useful example of how to change your English there.

You can join the Essential English course from April 6th 2019.

The course is specially for TOEFL and IELTS students who are currently scoring 70-89 (TOEFL), or 5.5-6.0 (IELTS) who need to improve their English. The classes are very active and lively – so you’ll get plenty of opportunity to use the language you’re learning, and get feedback from your teacher.

For more information, please visit the Essential English home page here. You can also register for a free demonstration lesson here on these dates:

Saturday 16th March, 14:30-16:00

Saturday 30th March, 15:00-16:30

Saturday 6th April, 14:30-16:00

Hope to see you soon!

Mike Thundercliffe, Manager Curriculum and Instruction, Agos Japan

Why improving your English is key to increasingTOEFL and IELTS scores

Hi, this is Mike, and in this blog post I’m going to explain why improving your English is probably the key to improving your TOEFL or IELTS test scores, and to introduce a new course we’re developing to help you achieve your goals.

If you’re taking TOEFL or IELTS, you may have experience of ‘hitting a plateau’. This is when your score stops going up for an extended period of time. You keep practicing and taking the test, but your score just doesn’t change. It’s a very common problem, but why does it happen?

Basically, when this occurs it’s usually because you’ve reached your limit in terms of your English. It’s important to remember that TOEFL and IELTS are (very accurate) measures of your English level. So if your knowledge of English and ability to use it are too low, you’re not going to increase your test scores beyond your limit, even if your strategy is really good.

To help students overcome this issue, the Curriculum and Instruction team at Agos is currently developing and piloting a new course called ‘Essential English‘, which you can join from April 6th 2019.

We’re designing the course specially for TOEFL and IELTS students who are currently scoring 70-89 (TOEFL), or 5.5-6.0 (IELTS) who need to improve their English.

If this sounds like you, then check out the first in our series of videos about the course here. For more information, please visit the Essential English home page here. You can also register for a free demonstration lesson here on these dates:

Saturday 16th March, 14:30-16:00

Saturday 30th March, 15:00-16:30

Saturday 6th April, 14:30-16:00

Hope to see you soon!

Mike Thundercliffe, Manager Curriculum and Instruction, Agos Japan

 

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!