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’

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!