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.

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

 

Using Natural English – by James Cort

Hello and welcome to the instructor blog! I’m James Cort and I teach TOEFL Speaking and Pronunciation and Fluency (発音矯正) at Agos.

The year is finally coming to an end, and the winter holidays will soon be upon us. Many of us are looking forward to some time off work or school, some may be travelling overseas and others preparing for important examinations. Whatever your plans, before we forget the year at the next忘年会 (end-of-year party), let’s reflect on our academic progress and consider how to make next year even more successful.

“Well… I can understand you, but it doesn’t sound natural.” Have you ever heard this from a native English speaking friend, colleague or instructor? You might then note down the corrected sentence that your teacher offers. However, you may not understand where you went wrong or how to sound more natural in the future. Today I’m going to talk about naturalness: What is natural English? Why is it important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests? How can you learn to use it?

What is natural English?

Natural English simply means the English that native speakers actually use. This can be quite different from the English you find in many textbooks, and drastically different from English directly translated from Japanese.

Unnatural English is often caused by several types of errors. Have a look at the examples below.

Error Example Natural English
Inappropriate vocabulary choice ‘My friends and I gathered at the bar.’ ‘My friends and I met up at the bar.’
Word order ‘I went to a Japanese traditional restaurant.’ ‘I went to a traditional Japanese restaurant.’
Register (formality/context) ‘There were many people at my birthday party. Moreover, it was very enjoyable.’ ‘There were loads of people at my birthday party and we had a good time.
Direct translation ‘I entered university in 2010.’ ‘I started university in 2010.’
‘Textbook’ English For the first time, I ate dinner at Cici’s some days ago. It was so-so.’ I tried Cici’s the other day – it wasn’t great.’
‘Japanese’ English ‘I went to the hot spring to refresh my mind.’ ‘I went to the hot spring to unwind.’
Wrong collocation (collocations are words that go together) ‘The temples in Kyoto are very amazing.’ ‘The temples in Kyoto are absolutely amazing.’

If you’re told that your English sounds unnatural, then it’s likely that it contains at least one of these errors.

 

Why is natural English important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests?

The ability to use natural English is vital for both TOEFL and IELTS. This is especially true for the speaking sections, where you have limited time to think about and plan your response. TOEFL speaking is graded holistically, which means the grader gives you a score based on their overall impression of your response. Of course, more natural speech will make a better impression, so you’ll get a higher score. The IELTS speaking examiners use very clear and detailed grading criteria, and producing more accurate and natural speech will help you to reach the higher bands.

How can you learn to use natural English?

So, how do you improve? Memorising the corrections your teacher gives you is vital, but this can be a slow process. Here are three important steps you can take to speak more naturally.

  1. Increase your exposure to natural English

The first step is to expose yourself to a lot of natural English material. Tedtalks, Youtube and online radio are great free resources. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video are useful paid resources. Most of these have English subtitles available that can help you with new language. After listening or watching, make a note of new language, practice shadowing, make your own sentences and say then say them aloud. The material doesn’t have to be difficult. The important thing is to expose yourself regularly to natural English, and try to copy how the native speakers use the language.

  1. Consider the Context

Whenever you hear new words or phrases, think about the setting. What is natural in one context may sound very unnatural in another. Ask yourself: ‘Was the setting formal or informal? Was it at work, home or school? Was the topic serious or light-hearted? What’s relationship between the speakers? What’s the emotional state of the speaker and listener? How is the speaker using intonation? Etc.’ Questions like this will give you clues as to when and where you can use this language.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone

It’s easy and safe to use what you learnt in high school. But if you act in the same way, you’ll always get the same results, you won’t make progress and your TOEFL or IELTS scores won’t improve. Get out of your comfort zone and try out what you’ve learned in the real world. Use the new language with friends, with co-workers, in class, for homework and eventually on your TOEFL and IELTS tests!

 

Try these tips and see if you can start sounding more natural in 2017, and improve your TOEFL or IELTS speaking scores!