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 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


‘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!


TOEFL iBT ® Reading Sectionで安定的に28点以上取るために ― by 岡田徹也

皆さん、こんにちは。TOEFL/GMAT/GRE講師の岡田です。TOEFL iBT ®で100点突破を目指している方は多いと思いますが、Reading Sectionで安定的に28点以上が出せる力を身に付けることで100点突破の可能性は大いに高まります。私はReading Practice Advancedというクラス(安定的に28点以上のスコアを出すことを目的としたクラス)を担当することが多いので、今回は「Reading Sectionで28点以上を取るために鍵となること」についてお話ししたいと思います。

1. 時間配分
「時間との戦いを制する者がReadingを制する」と言っても過言ではありません。クラスの初日に課題分析をしていただくのですが、ほとんどの方が「時間配分が上手くいかないこと」を課題に挙げます。この課題克服のための一つの方法が、28点以上を取る人と同じようなペースで読み・解きする感覚(体内時計)を身に付けることです。例えば、クラスでは、私が実際に解いたペースとほぼ同じペースで問題にチャレンジする、という演習を行っています。初めてこの演習を行うと、ご自身が普段解いているペースと異なるため慌ててしまい実力が発揮できない方がいます。しかし、この練習を数回行っていくと28点以上を取る人のペースにも慣れ、多くの方はクラスの最終日には28点以上を取る人と同じような時間配分で読み・解きする感覚(体内時計)を身に付けています。なかなか独学で同じようなことをするのは難しいですが、一つの方法として、「10分経過の時点で7番目または8番目の問題を解いている」、「最後から2番目の問題(Insert Test Question)と最後の問題(Prose Summary Question/Fill in a Table Question)を残り3分で解く」という2点を意識しながら演習を行うと良いでしょう。

2. Question Types
ETSが公表しているQuestion Typesは10個ありますが、28点以上を安定的に取れる方は苦手なQuestion Typesというものがありません。「24点~26点は取ったことはあるが、なかなか28点を越えない」という方は、例えば、以下のような課題があることが多いと思われます。
・後半に出題されるFactual Information Questionsの正答率が低い
・Rhetorical Purpose Questionsで簡単に解答できる問題とそうでない問題がある
・Sentence Simplification Questionsでハイライト文が長いと正答率が低い
・Insert Text Questionsは正解を知った後で考えれば分かるのに、自力で解くとなかなか上手くいかない
・Prose Summary Questionsの正答率が安定しない
まずは苦手なQuestion Typesを把握することが大切ですが、ここでは課題克服のためのコツの一部をお話ししましょう。例えば、Prose Summary Questionsの正答率が安定しない方は「本文に記載がある些末な情報が書かれている肢」を選ぶ傾向にあります。本文に記載がある情報だと選びたくなりますよね。しかし、要約として「些末な情報」は不適切です。では、「些末な情報」と「要約として適切な情報」をどのように見分ければいいのでしょうか? 一つの方法としては、選択肢を見比べながらどちらが些末な情報かを考えます。Prose Summary Questionsには、「正解となる情報」と「それを具体的に説明している情報(本文に記載がある些末な情報)」の両方が選択肢になっている場合があります。

「Reading sectionで28点以上を取るために鍵となること」についてまだまだお話ししたいのですが、あまり長くなるのもどうかと思いますので(すでに長いかもしれませんが)、今回はこの辺りで失礼します。私のブログの内容が少しでも皆さんの目標達成にお役に立てたら嬉しいです。

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


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.

TOEFL iBT®: Campus Conversationのススメ — by 松園保則


前のバージョンのブログでは、TOEFL iBT®の「アカデミック」なコンテンツを何度か書きました。久しぶりに書く今回のブログでは、角度を変えて「Campus Conversation」について触れてみたいと思います。

TOEFL iBT®は「アカデミックな題材」という印象が強く、TOEFL iBT®に関する話題の中で影を潜めているのが「Campus Conversation」です。Campus Conversationとは、The Official Guide to the TOEFL® Test Fourth Edition p. 14の“Conversations in an Academic Setting”に該当するもので、Listeningにおいて2~3題、Speakingにおいて2題(Task 3&5)登場します。

私はアゴス渋谷校でTOEFL Listening関連のクラスを長年担当していますが、このCampus Conversationに対して苦手意識がある生徒さんが案外多いと日頃感じています。また、TOEFL対策において、講義形式の題材を優先してCampus Conversationを後回しにしている方も見かけます。講義形式に対する対策が大事なのは言うまでもありません。ただ、私としては、Campus Conversationを苦手とする方はもちろん、これから留学するかどうか悩んでいる方や、日常会話独特の言い回しをたくさん知りたい方などにも、Campus Conversationの題材を使った学習を強くオススメしたいと思っています。以下に、その理由をいくつか挙げてみます。

* * * * *

1. 生の会話の速度に慣れることができる
Campus Conversationでは、2人の登場人物がある話題について3分程度会話をし続けます。その速さは、(英語圏を中心とした)留学先で繰り広げられる会話の速さとだいたい同じくらいだと私は感じています。Listeningに不慣れな方でCampus Conversationの題材を初めて聞くと「とにかく速い!」という印象を持たれる可能性が高いでしょう。そういった題材の音声を聞いたり、音声を聞きながらその音声をまねて後を追うように発する(これは「シャドーイング」という練習法です)といった練習を繰り返すうちに、自然とCampus Conversationの速度にも慣れてきます。結果として、「生」の会話の速度に対して「速い!」という印象が薄らいでくることが期待できます。

2. 留学生活を疑似体験できる
Campus Conversationでは、大学生(または大学院生)を主人公とした、キャンパスライフに関する話題が数多く登場します。履修手続き、講義やディスカッションの準備、コンピューターラボの使い方、寮生活におけるトラブルなどがその典型例です。このような話題に多く触れることは、別の見方をすると「留学生活を疑似体験している」ことになります。TOEFL iBTを受ける方のほとんどは、「今後留学すると決めている方」や「この先留学を検討中の方」だと思いますから、Campus Conversationの題材を通じて、「自分が留学するとこんなことが起こるんだなぁ」、「こんな問題点が起こったらこう対処してみよう」といった発見に繋がり、モチベーションアップも期待できます。

ちなみに、TOEFL Listening Campus Conversationでは、抱えている問題点に対して話し相手の女性に呆れられる男子学生や、4年生なのに1年生の授業を履修していなかった男子学生などの「ダメ男子」がよく登場します(笑)。

3. 口語独特の言い回しを多く学べる
Campus Conversationでは、口語独特の言い回しがよく使われていて、中には読んでも意味がつかみにくく感じるものも登場します。例えば、The Official Guide to the TOEFL® Test Fourth Edition p. 144で以下のようなセリフが出て来ます。

How far along have you gotten?


これは、学生があるレポートの相談をするために教授に会いに来た場面で使われています。その際、教授が学生に対して「(そのレポートは)どのくらい進んでいますか?」と聞いているのが、先ほどの文の意味です。なお、far alongは「(プロジェクトなどが)進んでいる」という意味の表現です。


ちなみに、TOEFL iBT Listeningの過去問を分析する中で、”get the hang of(…のコツを掴む)“という表現に遭遇したことがあります。この表現は、私がイギリスの大学院に留学していた頃に、論文の指導教官に対して授業に関する相談をメールでやりとりしていた中で、自分が考えたアイデアに対して指導教官が”You’ve gotten the hang of them, Yasu!(ヤス、コツを掴んだわね!)と返答してくれた時に使われていた表現です。留学中に指導教官からいただいた表現に何年も経過した後にTOEFLの過去問で遭遇するというのは、この仕事をしているからこそ起こることなのだろうと感じています。

* * * * *

「生の会話の速度に慣れることができる」、「留学生活を疑似体験できる」、「口語独特の言い回しを学べる」といった良さを噛み締めながら、Campus Conversationの題材を是非ともフル活用していただきたいと願っています。

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’

「何となくわかった気になっている症候群」を脱しよう — by 小林朋子

こんにちは。TOEFL / IELTS講師の小林です。今日は、英語を何となくわかった気になっている現象を脱することについてお話します。



Room for a kitchen table, intended to be used by the household for informal family meals rather than by the kitchen staff for preparing meals, was provided.

文中にカンマがあるので、時間をかければそれ程難しくないと思います。文構造は、Room was provided. です。文構造を捉えられないと、intendedが動詞かな?などと思ってしまうことがあるようです。文の構造を捉えることによって、正確に読むことができるようになります。因みに冒頭のRoomは無冠詞なので「部屋」ではありません。場所とか空間といった意味です。


These conditions are hostile to plants, making it difficult for new growth to become established in the enriched soil.

makingがどういう使い方なのか、またmaking itのitが何を指しているか理解できますか?makingは分詞構文、itは仮目的語で不定詞to become~を指しています。高校生くらいで理解できる構文です。


While most physicians refused to deal with Beethoven after encountering his ill temper, supporters of his music refused to abandon him because of the radical changes he had brought about as a composer.

冒頭のWhileは対比の関係を表します。何と何が対比されているでしょう? 「ほとんどの医者がベートーベンを診ることを拒否した」という内容と、「ベートーベンの支援者は彼を見捨てることを拒否した」。ざっくり言えば、一方はベートーベンを見捨て、他方は見捨てないという対比です。さらに支援者が見捨てない理由も述べられています。「作曲家としてベートーベンがもたらした根本的な変革」です。つまりこの一文の中に、対比と因果の論理関係が含まれています。このような論理関係は文と文の関係でもよく見られます。TOEFLやIELTSの英語を読むときは、どのような論理展開になっているのかをしっかり意識して捉えていくことが重要です。これはリスニングの講義を聞くときも同じです。


TOEFL iBT受験料が$235に値上がりしました — by AGOS教務部

最近TOEFL iBT本試験の受験申込をした受講生やスタッフから、「受験料として$230ではなくて$235を課金された」というお話を伺いました。しかし、昨日(日本時間で2016年12月9日)まではETS公式サイト上の料金表では依然$230のままでした。そこで、複数の講師がプロメトリックやETSに直接確認したところ、間違いなく「$235に値上がりした」との返答を得ました。本日、改めて公式サイトの料金表を確認しましたら、我々の問い合わせに呼応するかのように$235に改定されていました。(過去10時間以内に訂正されたものと思われます。)


スピーキング・テストの大きな誤解 — by 柳沢洋美




まず、日本人によくあるのが巻き舌です。よくある巻き舌単語?がbecause(なぜなら)です。巻き舌の方は「ビコォーrズ」と発音されます。スペルにすると、becauRseです。あるいはso(だから)がsoR「ソォーr」。こういう方は、いたるところにrが混ざってしまいます。これも採点官にとっては非常に聞きにくい英語になります。巻き舌を直すのは時間がかかります。でも直せます。ご自分の英語を音声として録音して、聞いてみて下さい。あるいは人に聞いてもらってみて下さい。ちなみにアゴスには発音矯正のクラスがあります(あ、宣伝になってしまったJ LOL )。自分ではなかなか直すことは難しいときはプロの力を借りましょう!


Traveling is something / I really enjoy doing. / I travel / whenever I have the chance. / Yes, / traveling is expensive / so I cannot take trips all the time. / But every month / I try to take a short trip / somewhere new in Tokyo.