Love Your Score: Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Prep

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Love Your Score:  Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Prep

Implementing new words regularly after you've learned them is one of the best ways to promote retention, so tying your language lessons and test prep back to upcoming holidays and seasons is a perfect recipe for making sure that you are finding phrases and idioms that you are ready to use. Furthermore, finding emotional and personal connections to the new terms will help you remember and recall them later.  Valentine's Day is both timely and emotional, so below is a roundup of practice that you'll love.

1| Your love language: phrasal verbs related to love

Daily spoken communication for native speakers is largely based on using Phrasal Verbs. Phrasals are considered more casual, making them useful for everyday speaking and listening, like interacting in English with those closest to you, as it will convey your message in the correct register.

In addition to learning Phrasal Verbs that the TOEFL loves asking about, check out this awesome infographic from Cork English that lists Phrasal Verbs related to love here.

2| What are the odds: Valentine's Day Math

Most students focus on the humanities when they practice TOEFL-style listening. Show mathematics some love with this Ted Talk from a mathematician.  Hannah Fry delivers her Talk with a sense of humor, asking us what are the odds, statistically, of finding that person you are compatible with.

3| The science behind attraction

When those in love have a physical connection, native speakers say they "have chemistry." Practice note-taking with a Ted Talk about pheromones, the scents and chemicals responsible for creating those feelings of desire. This talk even starts with a brief overview of the history of this word, so if you are a logophile, the beginning of the lecture is sure to catch your attention. (PS-logophile isn't really a common term, as explained in this post, but it is made up of up common Greek roots. Learn more words based on common roots here.)

4| The economic impact of Valentine's Day

Most people associate holiday spending with the Christmas season, but Valentine's Day also has a huge impact on the economy.  For a quick read with a focus on spending trends for February 14th, check out this passage from Mint. 

Ever considered how all those packages arrive after you've placed your order? For a no-frills listening passage, take notes on this Ted Talk on the  logistics behind how all those online orders get fulfilled.

5| History of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day might be associated with flowers and love, but there is a darker side that seems to have been forgotten. Practice reading in English with a passage from NPR on the not so rosy history of Valentine's Day.

6|  Valentine's Day Idioms

While there are many idioms related to the body more generally, the heart, in particular, is frequently the source of figurative language and idiomatic expressions.  Grab the infographic to become familiar with the top phrases, or check out this post for all of the sayings using the word heart.

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7|  True love: vocabulary related to honesty

The best type of love is often referred to as true love.  Check out this video lesson that you will truly benefit from on vocabulary related to being honest.



Bonus topic | Fall in love with the independent essay

Get some Valentine's Day-inspired independent essay questions.  Download your 4 free prompts below!

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Which Valentine's inspired practice strikes your fancy?  Tell me which one caught your eye in the comments below.

How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

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How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

Why Listening Matters-- And Why It Is So Hard To Listen, Especially in a Foreign Language

There's a lot of advice out there on how to be a better listener, even for native speakers. While one can find articles for how to be an active or empathetic listener, which offer techniques and cultural expectations that can greatly enhance your daily interactions, these strategies are often not taught in formal classroom settings and do not always take into account the additional struggles faced by non-native speakers. According to BBC's Learning English, listening is the skill that occupies most of our time, making up 45% of communication for adults.  Yet, it continues to be a frequently overlooked skill. 

In his Ted Talk full of tips for making you a more attuned listener in any language, listening expert Julian Treasure bemoans the lack of formal listening instruction in schools.  In this way, foreign language students are at an advantage as this is a skill that is practiced while in the second language classroom.  However, how many people are actually given instruction on how to do it properly rather than just having an instructor read off the answers to the questions?  When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking. Below, learn 5 strategies for successful listening and proper note-taking   

When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking

5 Essential Strategies for Better TOEFL Listening and University Note-Taking

1| Set up your notes for the type of listening passage given

When listening to a conversation, divide your paper into 2 columns, one for each speaker. This will help you keep your notes organized, making it easier to find the answers to the questions when you are working under serious time constraints on test day.

When working with any listening that has more than one speaker, often the other person responds by voicing their agreement, approval or support; their confusing or lack of clarity; or their disapproval or disagreement.  Remember to pay attention to both content and tone.  As soon as someone replies with a strong positive or negative, use a quick symbol to record this.  I recommend using a check mark or a minus symbol before taking note on the other information in the reply.

 When it comes to lectures, there are three major types you could encounter the day of the test.   You can either here a lecture where only the professor speaks, a lecture with student interactions, or a seminar-style class.

 A seminar-style course is not very likely, but if the professor informs or reminds listeners that this is the structure, be prepared to hear multiple speakers and have the professor simply guide the students rather than give the majority of the information.  

Treat lectures with student interaction similarly to conversations, noting in particular how the professor responds, affirmatively or not, to student supplied answers.  Let questions from the professor or the students guide your note-taking.  These questions can act as subtopics, helping again to locate the information from your notes quickly when the time comes.

The most difficult type of lecture to take notes on are those that only have one speaker.  The professor will often introduce the main topic in the first few sentences.  Be sure to take notes on lists (as those easily convert to multiple choice questions), definitions,  and subcategories.

              Read more: 3 Qualities of Strong Notes for University and TOEFL Success

2| Don't attempt to take notes on everything someone says

On the TOEFL, you can and should take notes, but you only have the ability to note take on scrap paper.  Most people can type faster than they can handwrite notes, and, as a result, your strategy must adjust accordingly.

Strong listening really boils down to the ability to differentiate between what matters and what doesn't.  Consider, if the lecture were given in your native language, what would you identify as important.  The content of what is important does not change.

Even if you were able to write down every word when you are actually attending lectures in the university program you wish to attend, you would not want to do that.  First, you would not actually be processing what the professor says and you wouldn't want to review the dictation you had taken in order to prepare for your midterm or final.  Second, you would not be truly processing the information that is incoming.  Even if you could do that on the TOEFL, remember, right answers tend to use paraphrases rather than the same exact language from the lecture.

           Read more: 9 Podcasts To Listen to for TOEFL Prep

3| Anticipate the questions

No matter what section you are preparing for, you always want to make sure that you predicting the questions that will come up.  Thinking like the test-makers instead of the test-taker is one of the most important mental shifts one can make for more successful test taking.

Questions on the TOEFL listening fall into several common categories, and your notes should reflect each style of question. Detail questions, like those found on the Reading section, are quite common.  Look out for lists of 3 in order to prepare for detail and negative detail questions.  Those detail questions could also take the form of charts rather than simple multiple choice, especially if there are more or less than 3 items that fit a particular criterion the professor has outlined.   The Listening is more concerned with structure, function, and attitude than the Reading section, so be sure that your notes reflect this as well. While frequently a small snippet of the recording will be played again for those types of questions, by taking note on the attitude the first time, you can use the replay to confirm what you already know.

4| Keep in mind the natural stress patterns in English

Remember, English is a stressed timed language. This means that stress normally occurs at regular intervals rather than on each and every syllable in every word. This is why the subject, verb, and object--known as content words-- receive more stress and are as a result easier to catch than the other function words. The good news is, the content words tend to be the ones that questions will be asked about.

When the usual stress pattern is broken, note it. If the stress has been placed on a word that isn't expected, the entire meaning and tone of the sentence has likely shifted. 

5| Take the hint

Some phrases are the equivalent of the speaker telling you to take notes. This isn't just an artificial, contrived component of the exam. Instructors frequently will set expectations or encourage students to pay particularly close attention to a subject.   The professor might actually provide gentle reminders, make recommendations on how to prepare or what to review or to take note on.  These may become speaker's purpose, function, or even detail questions on the test.

Rhetorical techniques like repetition are another way that the instructor is trying to highlight a given point. If the instructor is saying the same word or phrase (or a synonym for it) again and again, this will almost certainly come up on the exam.  This is almost always how detail questions get developed.

Being familiar with casual phrases utilized in speech and their respective purposes will help you make the most of these clues.  Grab the 2 page TOEFL Listening Phrases At a Glance to printable to become familiar with more than 30+ phrases you'll want to know for TOEFL lectures and university level classes.

Key Takeaways

Having a set system for note-taking based on the types of questions you anticipate will come up will help make you better prepared for the TOEFL now and for midterms and finals down the road. Prioritize content, note tone when multiple speakers are involved, and look for common phrases that set expectations to improve your listening comprehension.


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What is the hardest thing about the TOEFL listening section in your opinion?  Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Want Language Learning and TOEFL Success in 2018? Don't Make These Resolutions (Make These Instead)


How to perfect language resolutions and TOEFL goals

Although we all know that we can resolve to develop new habits at any time, as one year comes to a close and the next begins, people from all corners of the world are taking stock of last year and deciding how they want to make 2018 different.  Although many create New Year's resolutions, few stick to them. Though exact figures vary, Business Insider claims that 80% of resolutions fail by February, and according to Forbes, only 8% of people stick to their goal for the entire year.  When your resolutions are tied to your academic and professional goals, you can't afford to be another statistic.  Discover why resolutions fail and learn how to make SMART goals regarding your studies.

Why Most Goals Don't See the End of January

While many of the most common resolutions relate to health/fitness/wellness, for those who are crafting education-focused resolutions, there is significant overlap regarding what derails all resolutions regardless of their exact category.  

The single biggest reason why people fall off the wagon so quickly is that they get completely discouraged and entirely give up after the most minor slip up.  Instead of seeing the value in incremental progress, most resolution-makers see their resolutions as all-or-nothing propositions and they get frustrated by not seeing immediate results.  That means if you do indulge on New Year's Eve, it makes it difficult to kick off January 1st being true to your newly minted study schedule (or any other resolutions you came up with), and missing even one day significantly decreases the likelihood of continuing with that resolution.  When it comes to the TOEFL, this means that students who vow to write an independent essay every day are setting themselves up for a major disappointment when after the holidays they are so tired from celebrating that they can't bring themselves to turn on their computer come January 1st.  For those that overcome this barrier, you still may run into the problem of feeling disappointment when after a week of sticking to your goal of reading a TOEFL passage each day, your TOEFL score has not yet increased by 20 points.


Set the Foundation For Better Language Resolutions

While the technique of reflecting before coming up with resolutions is by no means revolutionary, it is a necessary part of the process, and one that too many people gloss over.   Have you made resolutions in the past?  Did you stick with them?   Consider what motivates you and reconnect with your why-- the main reason you are doing something.  Why are you taking the TOEFL? Why are you learning English?  After you have your answer, post it in a visible spot that you will refer to regularly.  This will at least help you stay a bit more motivated when you are tempted to spend some time on Facebook rather than compose a TOEFL practice essay.  After contemplating your big reason why, break it down into smaller components in order to create specific and actionable goals. 

While the SMART method of goal setting is not unique to education, it is an extremely valuable tool for reshaping goals to make them more likely to come to fruition.  SMART is an acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable/Attainable, Relevant/Realistic, and Time-bound.  By decreasing the number of resolutions you make, creating a realistic timeline, and getting specific about what you want to learn and why, you can help create resolutions that you can stick to.  When it comes to the TOEFL, making sure that your goal is attainable means starting with a practice test.  How can you know what is attainable without knowing your starting place?  When it comes to being realistic, make sure each of your language learning goals relates back to something applicable to the TOEFL or university level interactions.  While learning for learning's sake is nice, it doesn't make for reasonable goal setting.

In Psychology Today's "5 Alternatives to Traditional New Year's Resolutions," psychotherapist Amy Morin advocates picking one new habit to focus on per month.  This is such great advice and can be easily applied to the TOEFL.  Because the test is such a big undertaking, focusing on learning just one section for an entire month (while completing regular practice tests) can help you see more immediate progress.  It will also allow you the time you need to focus on each of the styles of questions.  In the speaking section, for example, there 6 different styles of questions.  By focusing on just the speaking portion of the exam, you can allocate Mondays to look at Independent Speaking question 1 strategies, Tuesdays for Speaking question 2, through Saturdays for Speaking question 6 and then review and practice problems on Sundays.  By repeating this cycle 4 times, you can master concepts before moving on.

If you do lapse, don't give up.  In fact, go in knowing that this will happen and that it is okay.  Write down motivation to keep going each and every week in your calendar. Skipping one day's study session isn't the end of the world nor will it necessarily have an impact on your overall score.  

Were you overly ambitious with the plan you set forth?  If you realize that your schedule is untenable, revise it.  In business, entrepreneurs are taught to see everything like an experiment.  The same should be said of students.  Because students are not one size fits all, your study plan should not be either.  Factor in your time constraints, for example, right from the beginning, but know that you may need to make changes as you go.  Modifying your study schedule does not mean you failed.  Instead, it means you have a better understanding of yourself and your needs.

Read more: Why You Aren't Actually Studying for the TOEFL (Even Though You Think You Are)

5 Impossible Language Learning New Year's Resolutions (And How To Improve Them)

Flawed New Year's Resolution #1|  I want to improve my English

The most common resolution I hear from students is I want to improve my English.  Like the other resolutions on this list, this sentiment comes from a great place.  The motivation to increase your skills is admirable, but the problem is that this resolution is far too vague.  How will you know that you have achieved your goal?  The original way it is phrased makes it overly open-ended.  Instead, use the SMART system in order to rewrite the goal to what you need it to be.  Take inventory regarding the resources at your disposal.  What will you use to "improve" your English?  Will you use Quizlet to learn vocabulary words, listen to Ted Talks regularly, or follow me and other language teachers on Instagram?  Will you enroll in a class or get a tutor?  What do you have, how do you best learn, where are you starting from, and where do you need to get to?  Whether you are taking the TOEFL or not, defining the word improve is a must in order to come up with a plan of attack.


Flawed New Year's Resolution #2| I want to learn more vocabulary words

Though there is some debate over the exact figure, estimates put the number of words in the English language at around 1 million and counting.  That doesn't account for words with multiple meanings or the variation in meaning that one can get from combining different words into different phrases or different tones.  This means that without focus, the idea of learning new vocabulary words seems futile.  Do you want to learn slang to better fit in with those you work with or attend classes with?  Do you want to learn academic vocabulary that is more appropriate for writing papers?  Do you want to focus on phrasal verbs to have better daily social interactions?  Do you want to be familiar with a list of the most common words tested on the TOEFL, SAT, or GRE?  Knowing the category of words you want to learn about will help give you a direction and knowing how to use them will help you design practice that makes you implement the new term, helping with vocabulary retention.

 I highly recommend learning vocabulary words by groups and learning them at times of the year when they are most likely to be needed will help you find situations to apply those new words and phrases to.   Watch the video for 12 words and phrases related to resolutions, plans, and goals.



Flawed New Year's Resolution #3|  I want to learn 100 new vocabulary words a day

 While it isn't always at the beginning of the year, this is a goal I hear students set regularly.  As soon as I hear it, I know it is only a matter of time until this plan unravels.  Because it is more specific than the previous goal, students feel like they are setting a SMART goal; however, they are forgetting about the other words in the acronym (measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound).  For how long are you going to learn 100 new words a day? What is the purpose of the new words?  While it is measurable, the real problem centers on being attainable: it is extremely difficult to truly learn 100 new words a day.  Students with lofty goals like this often forget to build in time for review.  By the end of the week, if I gave them a quiz with 10 words selected at random from the 700 they attempted to learn, odds are, they will not be able to pass.  Come up with a more reasonable number of new vocabulary words (5 new words a day and then review them regularly and cumulatively).  Do not skip the review when devising your plan.

Flawed New Year's Resolution #4| I will study for the TOEFL

The good news about this goal is that it easily adapts to the SMART model.  Because the TOEFL is a language proficiency test, the exam itself provides measurable intel as to how you have done with this goal.  However, the Achilles heel to this particular resolution is that students often forget to make it time sensitive.  Because students realize that it is often a long process, they simply accept not picking a date to take the test.  Instead, they just say they will study, they will take the test, they will get into college.  Take a practice test and then pick a date.  This will help keep you on the right track.  Of course, once you've selected the end point, be sure to select your goal score and divide the exam into smaller parts to hit milestone goals and to create a focus for each individual study session you schedule.  

A common variation of this is I will study for 3 hours every day.  While the amount of time is specific, there isn't actually a set, desired outcome.  Although you can certainly see if you have sat down to study for that length of time, how do you know if you've made progress?  Every study session needs to have its own sub-goal. 

Flawed New Year's Resolution #5|  I will be fluent in English

Have you ever stopped to define what it means to be fluent to you?  The definition can be a little hazier than you might initially think.  Does this mean that you don't make mistakes when speaking in English?  Well, even native speakers make mistakes, so this doesn't seem to be relevant, realistic, or achievable.  Instead, focus on one specific skill you identify with being fluent, like clearer pronunciation, and then break this into a more specific and measurable skill.  For example, by the end of the month, I want to use reductions to sound more natural in casual conversation.

Key Takeaways

Avoid the make-it-and-break-it pattern that befalls so many by creating resolutions the right way.  Get rid of the vague, open-ended resolutions and create more specific, more measurable ones that you can see progress on to keep your motivation high.  

Still need some more direction?  Know exactly what you should write about every day for the next 30 days with this free printable.

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Did you set a New Year's resolution related to language learning or taking the TOEFL?  Did you stick with it?  Tell us about it in a comment below.

From Podcasts to Points: 9 Podcasts to Listen to for TOEFL Prep

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9 Podcasts You Need to Listen To When Preparing for the TOEFL

In the United States, nearly 1/4 Americans listened to a podcast within the last month, according to a report from the Pew Research Foundation, a figure that is climbing year after year.  Podcasts are becoming a way of life for many individuals, but they also present a great opportunity for language learners.  Podcasts can be a great TOEFL prep tool because their format lends themselves to test prep and as the podcast listenership increases, so do the amount of quality shows being offered.

Why Podcasts

The most obvious reason why podcasts are a great fit for TOEFL prep is that the format is most similar to what you listen to on test day itself.  While watching television, documentaries, or Ted Talks can offer good practice, their visual nature might mean that you are not truly getting the true note-taking experience that you should need for something like the TOEFL.  With few visual clues on test day, you need to rely on what you can hear only.  Podcasts come in this format to begin with, but many will include show notes or transcripts that you can use to check against the notes you've actually taken.

Additionally, podcasts are fantastic because they allow you to multitask.  As an absolute podcast addict myself, I love spending time listening to podcasts while I"m doing other solitary activities.  Before getting into the car, going on a run, or cooking dinner, I love to have a podcast to make the most of my time.  It makes me feel more productive and helps me use my time efficiently.

Don't use podcasts exclusively for practicing note-taking.  If you decide to listen to podcasts while doing other tasks, you can increase the amount of time spent engaging with English.  This can help you internalize stress patterns, making speech sound more natural.

Additionally, for podcasts that come out regularly, simply subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it goes live.  Instead of needing to find Listening Practice, the practice will come to you naturally, making you more likely to follow through.  This can help keep you on a regular schedule as episodes tend to broadcast the same time each week.  Get additional motivation to listen to the podcasts by using push notifications so you listen right away.

Don't feel like podcasts end with consumption.  Instead, many of the podcasts can leave you with new words to use, new strategies to implement, and new ideas to make small talk about.  This is particularly true if you are listening to a podcast that features current events. 

Some students make the mistake of only looking at podcasts that are designed for English language learners, but for advanced students like those preparing for the TOEFL, be sure to select a mix of those designed for non-native speakers and those that are produced by and for native speakers.

TOEFL Prep Podcast Round-Up: What Podcasts To Listen To

D2B English

Down 2 Business English is a business focused podcast that covers current events and trends.  Hosts Dez, Skip, and Samantha frequently make small talk before the strictly business portion of the conversation takes place, and this is also quite valuable for learning slang.  As they move into the business conversation, listen for definitions of terms.  The trio takes on interesting and relevant topics that make this podcast appealing even if you aren't interested in business.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The business conversation casually mixes in business terms and concepts.  This will be helpful for growing your vocabulary in this discipline but also in regards to listening for definitions of new terms.  The conversations mirror the types of conversations that you might hear if a student goes to see a professor during office hours as one host will sometimes provide definitions or clarification and the other might ask about a term that they anticipate the audience will not know.

Business English Pod (Specifically the Business English News)

The Business English podcast is another great option for those who plan on joining the corporate world either before or after they take the TOEFL.  While some episodes offer advice for business interactions, like making small talk or placing phone calls with clients, the episodes labeled Business English News are particularly useful for students intending on studying any major.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The Business English News episodes in particular parallel the integrated essay nicely.  Typically the episode will start with a summary of the current understanding or thought process on a topic and then the rest of the lecture will go into detail about the opposite, clearing up a misconception, or emerging information and trends on the topic.  Take a look at Episode 40 on Renewable Energy here.  Additionally, the length of the episodes is ideal for TOEFL prep.  Although the lectures on the integrated section won't be of nearly that length, the lectures in the Listening section are often about six minutes long.

6 Minute English

The BBC's 6 Minute English is a fantastic podcast designed for more advanced language learners.  One topic is discussed for the length of the episode, and the topics focus on trends in society.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: The information from 6 Minute English is great for small talk.  They cover topics from fads in health, technology, food and so much more.  The tone between the hosts is casual, but they incorporate facts and academic terms throughout, making it great for practicing TOEFL note-taking.  Use those facts you've written down to add to casual conversations next time one of these current events comes up during the course of everyday conversation.

BBC Radio's A History of the World in 100 Objects

While this podcast no longer produces regular episodes as all 100 objects have been featured, this specialized podcast presents an extremely academic and in-depth look at one object per episode.  This podcast sounds like a series one might find on the History Channel.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: The TOEFL covers a number of different academic disciplines.  This podcast is great for getting additional exposure to anthropology.  The objects date back hundreds of years.  Given the variety of objects covered, interdisciplinary connections can be seen with art, economics, and much more.  The level of detail in each of these podcasts make it useful for TOEFL listening.

ESL Pod's English Cafe

Expand your vocabulary with ESL Pod's English Cafe.  This podcast covers cultural topics regarding famous Americans and significant locations, commonly confused words and phrases, and a ton of new vocabulary that you can find in the show notes for the episode.

Why it is great for TOEFL prep: These episodes feature a number of shorter segments.  The portion that features a tutorial on commonly confused words and phrases is an excellent tutorial that can help you avoid mistakes on the productive sections-- Speaking and Writing-- of the exam.

I Will Teach You a Language

This podcast, delivered in English, is on the topic of language learning.  Olly Richards, a renowned polyglot, shares his own insights on language learning and interviews other language learning experts.  This podcast goes live twice a week, so you have tons of new content to digest.  There are a ton of worthwhile episodes to listen to but stay focused by beginning with this list of his most popular episodes.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: This podcast goes beyond simply listening to English; this podcast features actionable items related to the process of making your language learning experience more efficient and effective.  Covering topics from best practices for flash cards to finding more time for practice to overcome problems with fossilization and pronunciation, Olly provides many useful tips that can be applied to English learning and even test prep.

Luke's English / Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast

Luke's English Podcast is great for those who are looking for British English pronunciations as well as entertainment.  With nearly 500 episodes regularly over an hour long, there is a nearly endless supply of listening material here.  Luke is incredibly honest and entertaining.  He expresses his views on a variety of real-world topics from friendship to fatherhood to television shows and everything in between.  (Bonus- for quick vocabulary tutorials, check out Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast, too!)

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Because Luke regularly works humor into each episode, this podcast presents a great opportunity for increasing your listening stamina.  This is one of the most vigorous in terms of length, but Luke's engaging personality will make it easy to stay interested. 

NPR's Ted Radio Hour

To get a well-rounded dose of academic English, don't miss Ted Radio Hour.  This weekly podcast gives you the same type of quality information and insight you expect from a Ted Talk in a convenient podcast format.  Hear from experts in a variety of fields share a wealth of knowledge, providing tons of chances to expand your vocabulary in everything from psychology to computer science.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Ted Talks are given by academics, so you are sure to encounter plenty of TOEFL level terms.  Additionally, because these experts are speaking to a generally educated audience, they will be sure to give plenty of background information and define industry jargon, which will make you comfortable with locating this type of information come test day.

NPR's Hidden Brain

Humans are fascinating, in no small part because of how our brains function.  This podcast is never dull, exploring the inner workings of the mind.  Psychology, anatomy, and physiology dissect the inner workings of the human brain in an attempt to discover why we do with what we do in terms of money, crime, exercise, nostalgia, and so much more.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep:  Practice English while also getting a better understanding of how to find your inner motivation, to become a better decision maker, and to make more accurate predictions.  Episodes like Deep Work, detailing methods of immersing ourselves in meaningful work to make progress,  or Summer Melt, explaining the annual deterioration of what has been learned during the months we take off during the summer, might even change the way that you plan your prep time.

Key Takeaways

Podcasts are exceptional sources of free English practice material.  As an advanced language learner, don't limit yourself to podcasts designed for non-native speakers alone.  By combining a mix of ESL focused podcasts, general language learning podcasts, and podcasts intended for native speakers from a variety of disciplines, you can increase your listening time while gaining access to new vocabulary and tons of new ideas.


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If you love podcasts, you are probably a big fan of technology.  Don't use your phone and laptop for the Listening section alone.  Take all of your TOEFL prep into the 21st century by getting Trello for the TOEFL-- your organization system for all your TOEFL resources.

Showing & Accepting Thanks: Words You Will Be Thankful You Know on the TOEFL and Beyond

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Showing & Accepting Thanks: Words You'll Be Thankful You Know on the TOEFL

Words for being polite are always one of the first lessons taught in a foreign language class.  However, there are tons of additional ways to say thank you in English that you wouldn’t be taught on the first day of class.  Sound more like a native speaker by utilizing these other ways of saying thanks.  Your TOEFL score will thank you, too.  

On the TOEFL, understanding when people have offered or accepted thanks will help you better understand conversations on the listening section and make you well-prepared for the function questions (the ones that feature a short section of the recording and ask what the speaker’s purpose is).  Remember, the conversations featured are designed to mimic common university conversations, so if you can understand the function of these phrases on test day, you will be able to utilize them when you yourself are going to ask your professor a question or a favor.


How to select the right phrase of appreciation

Why are there so many different ways to show appreciation in English?  The way you have chosen to say thank you needs to be appropriate contextually.  You should select the right way of saying thanks (or accepting thanks) based on the method of delivery (written or verbal) and the magnitude of the gift, favor, or gesture.

Typically showing thanks in writing is considered more formal.  You also should consider the relationship between the person giving and expressing thanks.  Often phrases that are more casual are also more appropriate for peers, friends, and family whereas phrases for interacting with your instructor or boss tend to be more formal.

General phrases for expressing thanks

In regular everyday interactions, these phrases are acceptable for most situations.  Thanks is appropriate even for minor situations like holding a door or passing someone the items they’ve purchased.


Thank you

Thank you very much!

Thank you so much!


Casual phrases for saying thanks

For everyday interactions with those you are close with, consider something more casual and with more personality.  If a friend surprised you by bringing you a cup of coffee or they reminded you that you have homework due so yours won’t be late, these phrases will come in handy.

I owe you/I owe you one- In other words, you have done a favor for me, and I will repay the favor soon.

You are a lifesaver! - You have improved this situation or helped me avoid a problem

You are the best! - In other words, you compliment the other person for having done something wonderful for you

You really bailed me out-In other words, you have saved me from getting into trouble

Thanks for having my back- Thanks for showing me support

Thanks for giving me a hand- Thanks for helping me do something (You can also add with in order to specify what this person helped you with)

On the TOEFL these phrases would most likely come up in a conversation between two students. If one student has helped the other study for a midterm, for example, they might be a lifesaver.  If one helped the other find a building on campus, they might owe the other person for having taken the time to provide assistance.

Casual replies (how to say you’re welcome)

If someone uses one of the above phrases with you, reply with one of these casual ways to say you’re welcome.  These are great for conversational, informal situations.  Remember, your response should be chosen from the context and from the level of gratitude the person has already expressed.  If you hear someone use these phrases on the TOEFL, that means that they have agreed to a request made by the original speaker and thanked them.  

Many of these phrases stem from the idea that you are dismissing the thanks as unnecessary because the task was so expected or minor.  This does not come off as rude, but suggests that you are being overly kind or generous by having said thank you in the first place.  This does not mean that you were wrong to say thank you, though!

No problem

No worries

No big deal

Don’t mention it

Sure thing


Not at all

It’s no trouble

Of course

Happy to help

Happy to be of service

It’s nothing

Think nothing of it


It’s the least I could do

It’s my pleasure

My pleasure

The pleasure is all mine

For TOEFL function questions especially, be careful not to take these phrases too literally.  If you look at some of them word for word, you may guess that the person is indicating not to talk or agree to something, but that is not the case when these phrases are used in reply to thanks.

More formal ways to say thanks

For professional interactions, like those in the workplace or between a student and professor, you should upgrade the degree or formality used.  Many of these phrases can be used in both written and spoken interactions.  While they all use thank you as a basis, they are made more advanced by being more specific to a particular situation.

Thank you for your consideration- Use this during the application process for an internship or job

Thank you for your time- While this can also be used upon leaving a job interview, this can also be used to thank a boss or a professor for spending their time listening to your question or proposal

Thank you for coming here today/Thank you for coming in/Thank you for being here- When an employer or professor has asked someone for a meeting, this phrase is often used to open discussion

Thank you for your support- Used to thank someone for helping, sometimes financially or in terms of time dedicated to a specific cause 

Thank you for bringing this to my attention-Used to thank someone for providing information

Thank you for having me-Thanks for inviting me over

Thank you for your understanding- Used to thank someone for his/her flexibility

Thank you in advance- After making a request, you may want to use this phrase.  It may seem a little forward, though, because you are making the assumption that your request will be granted

Other formal ways to say thanks

While not on either extreme end of the formality spectrum, these phrases indicate deep appreciation

I am so grateful for ______

I thank you from the bottom of my heart

This means so much to me

I couldn’t have done it without you


These phrases all share a common trait: they indicate that you are so overwhelmed with appreciation that you are at a loss for words

I cannot thank you enough- You can also use the contraction can’t, alternatively

I cannot put into words how grateful we are

I don’t know what to say

How can I ever thank you

For very formal situations, try these phrases

Allow me to express my sincere gratitude

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks

I would like to thank you for ______

Please accept my sincerest gratitude

When to thank people

In the United States, it is considered good etiquette to thank those who have given a gift, time, or financial assistance to a person or cause.  Writing a thank you note would be appropriate for any of those situations.  Best practices for a thank you note are that it is handwritten, typically in script, that it is specific, and that it is sincere.  If you are writing to thank someone for a wedding gift, for example, it is expected that you include specific mention of what the gift was and/or how you look forward to using it.  

If you ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation, I would strongly recommend that you write a short note expressing your thanks.  Thank them both for their engaging method of teaching in the classroom and for taking the time to write you a recommendation.

When submitting your resume/CV, be sure to thank the person receiving the application. In this situation, just a sentence is fine. Upon returning from a job interview,  be sure to write a full thank you note to those who conducted the interview.  Check out this great tutorial regarding when and what to say for that type of thank you note in this post by English With a Twist.

It isn’t just a cultural expectation.  More and more research like that cited here by Forbes indicates that regularly showing your appreciation to others helps in social situations in the workplace and with friend groups.


Don’t forget to thank yourself

Studies show that expressing gratitude to others has real, lasting, and positive effects.  Although giving thanks is a regular part of everyday interaction in the United States, often we overlook ourselves in terms of showing appreciation.  Gratitude journals have become all the rage.  Why not take advantage of this extra opportunity to practice English, especially considering that cultivating a grateful mindset has been linked to better sleep, self-esteem, and physical health.

Key Takeaways

Showing gratitude has been linked to building better relationships and living a healthier lifestyle.

In American culture, it is expected to thank others for everything from minor interactions, like passing a piece of paper to a colleague, to getting a gift, so having an arsenal of phrases for expressing thanks at your disposal will help select the best fit for any occasion.  Being able to draw upon the right ones in your everyday life means you will be fully prepared for any method of saying thanks that appears in the TOEFL function questions.

As my way of showing my gratitude to my blog readers, get 30 independent essay prompts to help get you TOEFL-ready!

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The Complete List of Election and Campaign Vocabulary for the TOEFL & ESL Classroom

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Advanced Election Vocabulary Made Easy for the TOEFL

History and politics frequently make appearances on all sections of the TOEFL.  While the election for the Presidency only occurs every 4 years in the United States, elections at the federal, state, and local levels take place on the first Tuesday of November each year.  Whether you want to brush up on these terms for test day or you simply want to be more versed on current events, these words are must-know.  (Keep reading all the way to bottom to make sure you anticipate exactly where you will find them on the test). 

Because there are so many terms, don't try to memorize them in a random or alphabetical list.  Give the terms some context by seeing them grouped with similar term

The Big List of Election Vocabulary By Category

Words related to the election process:  

Those interested in running for office (known as candidates) for public office will seek election for a term (set period of time-- in the US, a President serves for a 4 year term, with a two-term limit)  by delivering stump speeches (standard, rehearsed speeches delivered again and again to multiple audiences) in order to make voters aware of their platform (the formal set of principal goals that he/she stands for) with the hope of increasing voter turnout (the amount of people who come out to vote--voting is not legally required in the United States) and convincing swing voters to cast their ballots in their favor come Election Day 

Words related to the people involved:

An incumbent is a person who currently holds that office.  This is widely considered an advantage.  The candidate taking this person on is known as the challenger.  You may also see the word nominee-- the person who is selected to represent his/her party in an official capacity.  A campaign manager is an official advisor to the person running for public office.  The person who wins is often allowed to make appointments of those who have helped them during the campaign to positions of prominence within the administration.  At the presidential level, the highest positions are those within the president's cabinet--his/her official inner circle and closest advisors.  The members of the electoral college are those that make the official decision as to which candidate will be selected as president as the United States does not follow a strictly popular vote model.  The running mate is the candidate selected for the lesser of two closely associated political offices (usually used to talk about the Vice Presidential nominee).  A front-runner is a person that is most likely to win the election while a dark horse is a candidate (or competitor) that little is known about and does unexpectedly well

Words related to being partial/impartial:

Words like progressive or conservative or the official party names like Democrat or Republic are often used to indicate that someone has strong and public ties to one parties beliefs and affiliations.  The word bias means that someone favors one group over another unapologetically.  Politics in the United States is notoriously partisan.  Gerrymandering is the controversial practice of manipulating voting boundaries in order to help one side or the other.  

Words related to negative campaigning:

The highly partisan nature of American politics means that often candidates will resort to mudslinging (the use of unjust or unwarranted insults and accusations) and attack ads (an advertisement designed to wage a personal attack on the other candidate).  Propaganda is the material that is viewed as biased or misleading and is designed to promote a particular political point of view.  Spin is a type of propaganda designed to sway or persuade public opinion to see an issue, event, or public figure in a particular light

Words related to money:

While you might encounter phrases related to how the candidate plans to spend money if elected (like taxes, budget, and deficit), canvas and war chest are used to refer to how much money the candidate has raised (through fundraising efforts like canvassing) and how much the candidate has left (in the war chest).

Words related to the voting process and the outcome:

A straw poll is an unofficial ballot conducted to test public opinion.  Absentee voting is a ballot completed by mail in advance of the election because the voter cannot go to vote at his/her polling place in person the day of the election.  Electronic voting refers to voting using electronic means to cast votes (like a computerized machine).  Ballot just means a process of voting, typically in writing and in secret.  Journalists and politicians may conduct exit polls in order to try to determine who has won before the official ballot count has been tallied.  If the race is tight, a journalist may report that it is too close to call.   With a slim margin, one party may call for a recount to make sure that the tally is correct.  If the race is very one-sided, it will be referred to as a landslide.

Elections and Exams: How Elections Show Up on the TOEFL

Election vocabulary can show up on any of the 4 sections of the test.  As politicians have historically been important public figures, biographies of politicians are quite common on the reading section of the exam.  They are also similarly found in lectures delivered by professors n the Listening section.                   

Biographies are not the only types of texts that feature the vocabulary found prominently on Election Day.  While campaigns are frequently used to talk about political campaigns, a business class might have a discussion about a marketing campaign or a psychology class might feature a talk about why certain candidates are perceived to be likable (or unlikeable).  The aftermath of an election or the causes for a certain election outcome can also become passage topics.

Student government is very common at American universities, and as a result, you may even see these words in campus situations like Speaking Question 3.  In Speaking Question 3, you will read a passage that makes an announcement about something that is happening on campus and then you will hear a student voice his/her opinion on the subject.  The student council may be in charge of this message or the school might be launching a campaign to get student interest or involvement in a particular issue.

Perhaps the most common place to see these vocabulary words is on the writing section of the TOEFL.  Of course, you might see an independent essay question related to elections-- like what qualities should a leader of a nation have--but more likely, you will see integrated essay questions that feature topics related to elections.  Subjects here could include what types of voting should certain countries use (electronic, computerized mail in, etc.), what methods of campaigning should or shouldn't be legal, what caused a particular candidate to win/lose.

There are many excellent online resources to find passages to help you practice with election day vocabulary.  The New York Times Room for Debate section features passages that can easily be turned into integrated essay practice on topics ranging from how, if at all, Election Day should evolve to the future of the electoral college to social media and selfie culture's impact on voter turnout and casting ballots.  Take practice to the listening section with Ted Talks on the struggles that come with a country's first election  or think about the relationship between gender and public office with this lecture.

Key Takeaways

Campaign and election vocabulary is a likely candidate to make an appearance on the TOEFL.  Become familiar with these important terms ahead of time so your score can turn out the way you want it to.

Want to practice now?  Get the free election independent essay pack.

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When Being Polite or Friendly Backfires: Avoid These 5 Errors on The TOEFL and in University Life

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Will Being Polite or Friendly Cost You Points on the TOEFL?

When learning a new language, you need to know more than just the vocabulary and grammar structures.  Understanding cultural rules is just as important as knowing the language rules, and as a result, topics regarding everything from spacing to hygiene to body language are often touched upon in the language learning classroom.  It is good to know how to be polite in the language that you are studying, but is it possible that sometimes what we perceive as politeness is actually costing us points?

Like many other types of rules, the rules regarding politeness are situationally dependent.  In other words, the context of the situation may determine what is polite and what is not appropriate.  In fact, sometimes what you may perceive as considerate might be the very thing that is preventing you from making progress on the TOEFL or developing good relationships after test day.


On the TOEFL iBT, you must type your answer to the independent and integrated essay.  While you already know that being able to type quickly and accurately is important for being able to reach your goal score within the time limit, the way in which you type does matter.  You may have noticed that people tend to put things that are extremely important in all capitalized letters in order to draw the reader's attention to that word or phrase.  Perhaps you've gotten an email or text message that says you need to be in a specific location at 9 AM SHARP, for instance.  While it is true that native English speakers will sometimes use all caps in order to bring your attention to valuable information, you do not want to do this on test day.  Writing your entire essay in all caps will not suggest that your essay is important.  Instead, think of writing something in all caps as the equivalent of yelling as that is how most native speakers will read it.  If you've ever received an email from a colleague written in all caps, it will seem either like they are very mad at you or it will seem unprofessional.  On test day, it will be impossible for the grader to understand if you know the correct rules regarding capitalization if you capitalize everything. After you get into the university program you desire, if you send an email in all caps, it is likely to be received as pushy and offensive.  On both test day and in emails to your professors or fellow students after the TOEFL, make sure to avoid using all caps.

2| Using slang or text-speak (and emoticons/emojis)

When texting, many native speakers will use the letter u to mean you or other similar abbreviations for common words.  In a casual situation between friends, this would not seem unusual.  Even though an abbreviation like b/c or btw could be understood by a native speaker test grader or professor, it would seem incredibly inappropriate for that audience.  Always use formal language and a formal register when writing in these situations.

While you don't need to give a title for your independent or integrated essays on the TOEFL, you will need to write a subject line if you are sending an email to a professor.  Don't leave the subject line blank and don't use cutesy emoticons in the subject line, either.  While this would be okay if you are emailing someone who you are close with, emailing someone in a position of authority, especially if you select an emoji like the kissy face will seem very awkward and uncomfortable for the person receiving your email.

3| Thank you for reading my essay

If you are writing an email, it is considered polite to thank the other person.  In fact, many people use some variation of thank you as their closing (the part before they sign their name).  However, on the TOEFL itself, you absolutely do not want to finish your essay or your speaking response with the sentence "Thank you for reading my essay."  First, it is not the standard convention to do this in a formal essay in English.  Second, you might be hiding an excellent last sentence.  Because the scorers will be reading your essay quite quickly, they might overlook the strong closing sentence that you composed before this fake one that isn't actually contributing to your essay overall.

4| Being too blunt

Wasting another person's time-- whether this is the scorer of your essay or your current course instructor-- is inconsiderate.  In American culture, there are certain expectations regarding the set up of the ensuing conversation or essay, and skipping this could seem strange, pushy, or blunt.  For writing, your first sentence should be related to the topic but should not provide your entire answer to the question yet.  In speaking, it is even more important to correctly introduce the request that you are making.  Phrases like "do you have a minute" before making a request are considered standard whereas simply saying "I need X" seems impolite or even self-centered.  

On the TOEFL, you are likely to hear these types of phrases in the Listening section if a student is going to see a professor for clarification or to ask for a favor.  Look for modals and phrases like “Would you mind _____” or “Could I ask you a quick question.”

5| Saying it doesn't matter

Frequently students try to be extremely accommodating, trying to show respect to those who are in a position of power, whether this is the essay scorer or their instructor.  One way people try to show how agreeable they are is by letting the other person make a decision or by trying not to take any stand on an issue as a way of circumventing potential controversy.  For independent essay questions, the TOEFL frequently will ask you for your opinion on a topic. You absolutely want to take a clear position.  It will make for clearer writing and allow you to more completely develop your thoughts.  It is also easier to compose an essay where you aren't trying to split your time between all sides of an issue and will not cause you to potentially contradict yourself.  Some students, in an attempt to make sure that no one is offended, try to entirely avoid giving an answer that favors one side.  Non-native speakers might do this by using the phrase "I don't care."  Without context, however, this can come off as extremely rude.  It sounds like you are dismissing the topic as ridiculous, unimportant, or even stupid, inadvertently creating a situation that is probably more offensive than just having stated your actual opinion in the first place.  If in situations outside of the exam, you want to indicate that you are deferring to the other person to make the choice, use a phrase like it is up to you to sound just like a native speaker.  On the TOEFL listening, you might even hear two students use this phrase when deciding what club to join or a professor say it to a student in terms of what topic they should choose for a paper.

Key Takeaways

Stay polite and contextually appropriate by following these guidelines on the TOEFL and in university interactions.  Put into practice what you’ve learned by practicing with 30 free essay prompts today.

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Don't Be Afraid: 7 Ways To Use Halloween To Inspire Your ESL/TOEFL Classroom This Season

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How To Use Halloween To Inspire Your ESL/TOEFL Classroom

Treat Yourself To Fun TOEFL Practice

If you aren't changing your lesson plans to correspond with the time of year, you are missing out on a golden opportunity to increase student engagement.  While language teachers frequently utilize seasonal and holiday vocabulary, test prep teachers, too, can take advantage of student interest and capitalize on the calendar to take the relevance of test prep to a new level.  Don't limit practice to what is in the test prep book.  It is possible to keep the content academic while still harnessing the enthusiasm for the given season.  

Students of all ages are frequently intrigued by Halloween and who can blame them.  Dressing up in costumes and going trick or treating are not celebration staples in many places outside of the United States.  For students studying abroad in the United States, Halloween themed lessons provide important cultural context in addition to an opportunity for seeing how academic vocabulary is utilized outside of test prep practice books.  While you might want to forgo teaching a straight list of Halloween vocabulary like Jack-o-lantern, werewolf, and vampires, there are many options for drawing upon Halloween as the source of inspiration for practicing skills seen on all 4 sections of the TOEFL.

Here are my top 7 ideas for how to bring Halloween into the TOEFL prep classroom.


1| Incorporate academic vocabulary by diving into the history of Halloween

Passages that trace the origins of food and other cultural topics are commonplace on the exam.  The History channel offers in-depth examinations into the origins of holidays, and Halloween is no exception.  The History channel uses a high level of vocabulary, with their passage on Halloween's origins earning a 10-12th grade bandwith reading difficulty, sure to present a serious challenge for any language learner.  Make up questions to go along with the passage yourself or make the students take on the role of test-maker and create their own questions and answers to correspond with the passage.


2| Financial aspects of Halloween

Do you know how much money the average American consumer spends on Halloween?  While many associated spending money with Christmas, consumer trends surrounding Halloween make for a great way to incorporate another discipline in the mix with a reading passage like this one from The Atlantic.  Want to get students to practice taking notes on stats they hear instead of those they read?  Consider reading the passage aloud.  Give students an economics-focused passage to create the variety they need to be prepared for any subject come exam day.  


3| Speaking & listening practice: Halloween costume inspired games

Have a little bit of leftover time towards the end of class after having gone over a tough academic topic or dissecting a long practice test with the class?  Let students casually get to know one another and practice speaking/listening skills with a short game. 

Have all students in the class write down their answer to what costume they would most like to wear and why.  Each response should be very short.  Mix them up and have students try to match the answer to their classmates.

For another take using the same skills, play 20 questions.  Show students a picture of a Halloween costume (like Spider-Man, for example) and have the remaining students ask yes/no questions until they figure out what the costume is!


4| TOEFL writing prompts

Keep your TOEFL class more traditional by making students complete full-length independent essays.  All of the prompts can feature Halloween in particular. Have students peer review a classmate's essay on the same prompt. Here are some examples:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Holidays, like Halloween, are only important for children.
  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? People spend too much money on holidays.
  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? American Halloween traditions should be adopted by more countries across the globe.
  • Does your school let students and staff dress up for Halloween?  If not, have students write a persuasive piece reflecting their position on this question.

Download the set of questions in a convenient printable perfect for classroom use.  When students hand them in, consider hanging them up around the room to decorate and capture the Halloween spirit.

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5| Halloween movies ideas

Take a totally untraditional route in order to stave off burnout before it sets in. 

While endless worksheets and reading passages might get monotonous, most students have a nearly endless patience for watching TV shows or movies.  Get students to locate new vocabulary from a scary movie of their choosing. Take the opportunity to teach students some vocabulary that might appear in film classes that find their way into the exam and use scary movies as examples. Have students put together their own reading passage on elements of horror movies to familiarize themselves with common reading passage structures.

Note: You may want to give students a heads up regarding how scary (or not) any of the given Halloween movies might be.

6| Halloween-inspired lectures

Many of these talks are inspired by the creatures most closely associated with Halloween.  Halloween is more than just witches and mummies. Have students practice biology terms with lectures on bats and spiders. Put psychology in center stage with lectures about fear and serial killers.  Ted Talks are great practice for students as they combine intriguing topics with academic vocabulary and organization.  With 10 spooky lectures lined up, students will be able to get quality note-taking practice on a bunch of hair-raising topics.

7| Practice vocabulary and pronouns with candy

What can make memorizing vocabulary or practicing grammar more palatable?  Candy corn, Reese's Pieces, and Hershey's candy bars! Use candy as an incentive for correct answers on a grammar worksheet or take any reading passage (extra points if it focuses on candy) and ask students to locate antecedents placed throughout. 

Key Takeaways

Just because standardized tests don't always reward creativity doesn't mean you shouldn't incorporate some. Don't be scared to use Halloween to allow students to practice the skills needed for all 4 sections of the exam.

Conceding Points to Score Points: Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

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Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

How do you convince someone to agree with your opinion on a certain topic?  While there are many factors that determine if a reader will ultimately agree with the position you take in an essay, trust may be the single most important.  But how do you get someone to trust you when the only connection is your writing?  To win over your reader every time, you need to carefully consider your word choice as well as the supporting details you choose to feature. However perhaps the most underrated method for getting readers to trust you is to acknowledge the other side.  In other words, to use concessions. 

The word concede often has a negative connotation.  While the word concede does mean to surrender, as in when a losing candidate officially declares that they have lost and the other person has won, in writing, the word concede typically refers to the strategy of showing that the opposite side does have a valid point.

Concessions can be as short as one sentence in which the writer demonstrates something's accuracy or advantage followed immediately by an independent clause that moves into stating why the other side is still the clear victor.  Common words and phrases for introducing concessions are: admittedly, although, even though, while, however, yet, and despite.

The TOEFL itself features many examples of concessions as they are common in academic writing.  Look for them at the beginning of the integrated essay lecture.  Most of the time, the reading passage and the lecture disagree, with the professor starting his/her lecture summarizing the gist of the lecture and following it up with an opposing viewpoint.

Concessions: A rhetorical strategy used across disciplines

Too many students assume that acknowledging the validity of a point made by the opposition is a sign of weakness.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Ignoring the other side entirely or making it seem like it has nothing going for it often just feels inauthentic.  By using a strategically placed concession, you are essentially showing that you are trustworthy. You aren't so biased that you cannot even admit that there is another side. Instead, you are showing how reasonable you are by making a small concession to a reasonable point that others would find convincing.

If you want to see how effective concessions are, just imagine the last political debate you watched.  If one candidate is doing everything in his/her power to avoid talking about the other side, it seems like this person isn't being completely forthcoming or totally reasonable.  However, if they first make a brief concession, stating that yes, there are one or two solid points that the opposition makes before diving into why his/her position still is the more advantageous, people can more easily buy into this idea even if they were not initially inclined to believe this.

Using concessions to build trust isn't exclusive to the realm of politics, either. A common piece of business advice is that people buy from those they know, like, and trust.  This exact formula can be applied to writing for certain types of standardized tests.  On the TOEFL, sharing personal experience is a completely appropriate way to support your position, and while that isn't always the case for formal writing situations, this certainly increases the know factor for this exam.  Like can be achieved through a combination of word choice and examples given.  While diction can also help when it comes to the trust factor, the concession is a great strategy to use to establish that content as well can contribute to creating confidence in the writer.

The When and Why to Use Concessions on the TOEFL

On the TOEFL, you do not need to dedicate an entire paragraph to crafting a concession.  While this might be necessary if you are writing an entire term paper length essay, a TOEFL essay tends to be 4 or 5 paragraphs in length.  As a result, devoting an entire paragraph to a concession would be overkill.   Rarely, ETS will ask you a compare/contrast question, when you should devote equal time to both positions.  For the vast majority of test questions, simply staying with one position with succinct concessions built into the paragraph is the most effective strategy.

Instead, try to use concessions in your topic sentences (the first sentence in each body paragraph) or following your topic sentence before introducing a key example in your body paragraph.

In addition to being great practice for cultivating trust in any type of writing assignment that you will need to craft in your university program, using concessions has two other fringe benefits on the TOEFL specifically.

First, it allows you to showcase your knowledge of transition words.  Because concessions require you to talk about the other side before switching to your primarily point, you will need to ease the reader in, guiding readers through this change in idea through well-placed transitions.  Using transitions that introduce contrast, like however, on the other hand, or yet are useful ways to create cohesion between ideas and sentences, helping to create the flow that ETS graders are looking for.

Second, concessions frequently force the writer to utilize complex sentences and subordinating conjunctions, providing a variety of sentence structure.  Are you the kind of person that relies on simple S-V-O sentences again and again?  There is an entire subsection of subordinating conjunctions that are used for introducing contrast.  Words such as although, while, and whereas can not only introduce a concession but also get you out of your simple sentence rut.  Varying sentence structure signals to the essay scorers that you are comfortable with more grammatically advanced types of sentences.

Key Takeaways

Use concessions (the acknowledgement of the validity of the opposite side) to increase your credibility as a writer, vary your sentence structure, and create flow in your own independent and integrated essays, just as professors in the integrated essay lecture do.

Now that you know what how concessions strengthen writing, practice putting them in your own essays by downloading One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.  Get 30 TOEFL independent essay prompts to practice with right now!

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TOEFL Grammar Series: How Mastering Pronouns Will Help You On Every Section of the TOEFL [Video Post]

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How Mastering Pronouns Will Help On Every Section of the TOEFL

Grammar is a topic which is often overlooked on the TOEFL.  Because the TOEFL does not have an explicit grammar section, students tend to see it as a lower priority.  While there is no section that tests grammar exclusively as is the case on other standardized tests, most students will readily admit that it is still necessary to know the rules and to use good grammar when producing open-ended responses on exam day.  But is being knowledgeable about grammar topics helpful for the receptive skills, like the Listening and Reading Sections?  In a word: yes.  

One set of grammar rules that comes into play in a big way on all four sections of the exam is pronoun rules. Learn the most important pronoun rules, then find out how to apply them to the test.

Pronoun Guide: An Overview Of Six Types of Pronouns

When most students think of pronouns, personal pronouns immediately spring to mind.  This makes sense because they are the ones students recall through muscle memory developed when learning how to conjugate verbs.  However, personal pronouns are only a small subsection of pronouns.  In fact, not all pronouns truly fit the description of being a word that stands in place of a noun, the general definition that most grammar books boil it down to.  Pronouns can be divided into a number of categories, the biggest of which are indefinite and definite pronouns.  Within the category of definite pronouns, you will find even smaller subcategories, such as personal, possessive, reflexive, reciprocal, relative and demonstrative.

Unlike indefinite pronouns which do not point to something specific, definite pronouns go by this name because they reference something clearly called an antecedent.  Because indefinite pronouns are not linking back to something mentioned earlier, they are less likely to be on the TOEFL.  However, the rules for indefinite pronoun agreement can get a little tricky, which is why they commonly show up on the SAT as even native speakers struggle with them.  Because indefinite pronouns are not as heavily tested on the TOEFL, we will focus our attention on the types of definite pronouns.

Personal pronouns are the ones that typically stand in for a person or a group of people.

 They include I, you, he/she/it, we and they.  These pronouns need to agree with their antecedent in number, gender, and case.

In other words, you need to know how many people the noun being replaced represents and, depending on the situation, if those people are male or female. Case refers to how the word is used in the context of the sentence.  Is it the subject or object?  (This is why it is grammatically correct to write My friend and I traveled to Spain last summer but not My friend and me traveled to Spain last summer.  When deciding if you need I or me, you need to determine what case is being used in that sentence.)

Possessive pronouns indicate belonging.

 If you want to show that an object belongs to someone, instead of using 's, you can use the appropriate possessive pronoun.  The most complicated rule here for possessive pronouns is to remember that the word itself is noting belonging, so there is no need to add the apostrophe s.  Many students try to add the apostrophe to words that already end in s, like her's, but that is incorrect.  The one that confuses most people, even native speakers, is its/it's.  Remember, its is possessive already (it's is for the contraction it is).

Reflexive pronouns and intensive pronouns

Both reflexive and intensive pronouns usually end in -self or -selves.  Reflexive is when the subject is also receiving the action: Don't feel bad for him.  He did it to himself. Intensive pronouns, also called emphatic pronouns, are used to stress who performed the action: I made it myself!


Relative pronouns are a unique group because they do not replace an antecedent.  Instead, they connect the noun to a word or phrase that modifies or gives additional information.  These words include who/whom/whose and which/that.  In order to determine which relative pronoun to use, you must consider both the case (subject, object, possessive), the necessity of the following information (known to grammar lovers everywhere as restrictive and non-restrictive clauses), and whether or not the initial noun being modified is person or a place/thing/idea.  


Demonstrative pronouns help create cohesion.  They frequently point back to an antecedent in the previous sentence, which students do not always anticipate when working with them.  Demonstrative pronouns explain which one(or), pointing to a specific thing(s).  They are used frequently in conversation, but they can also be used in writing to create flow between sentences.  Demonstrative pronouns must agree in number (singular/plural) and distance.  Use this/these to show that something is close by whereas use that/those to make something seem further away or to the feeling of distance.

More of an audial/visual learner?  Watch the video I've created on this topic


Pronouns For Each Section of the TOEFL

Now that you know the most common pronoun rules that show up on the exam, you will want to know where each of these topics will most likely appear. This will give you a leg up, making it faster for you to draw upon this information.

Writing section

Whether you are writing for the TOEFL or for your university level class, using pronouns effectively is important for clear, concise communication.  Pronouns can create cohesion in your essay, making neat transitions between sentences and ideas through the use of demonstrative pronouns that begin sentences and alternating between relative clauses and adjectives to vary sentence structure.

Furthermore, using pronouns reduce unnecessary redundancies in your writing.  You do not need to mention the name of the same person over and over again.  Instead, after the first usage, replace the antecedent with the pronoun. 

Eliminate grammar mistakes in your writing by knowing the pronoun rules.  Have you been that person debating whether or not you need to put an apostrophe in yours, theirs, or hers?  Now that you know the rules for pronouns, you won't be tricked by these silly grammar errors that constantly find their way into student produced essays.

Ready to put what you've learned about pronouns into practice in your own essay writing?  Grab 30 days of TOEFL independent essay prompts in a convenient 2-page download.

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Speaking section

One major pronoun problem that is particular to speaking is the use of personal pronouns.  Too often students will make mistakes with personal pronouns in spoken English when they would never have made that mistake in written English.  By understanding the importance of both gender and case when it comes to selecting the correct personal pronoun, you can cut down on errors made.  If you find you have accidentally switched over from he to she, use I mean to correct your mistake.  Do you hear native speakers use the wrong form of I/me all the time in informal speaking situations?  While that likely happens regularly in everyday life, do not replicate this when speaking your response on test day.  

Additionally, now that you know the purpose of intensive pronouns, you can incorporate them into your own responses.  English is a stress-timed language.  If you use an intensive pronoun, make sure that your speech pattern indicates that emphasis as well.

Listening section

On the listening section, the quality of your notes almost always has a direct correlation with the score you receive.  Based on your knowledge regarding pronouns, you will better be able to understand the strategy the professor is using for making a group more specific (like using relative pronouns in order to make something more specific, which may show up as a detail question), the use of demonstrative pronouns to connect one sentence to the next, or points of particular interest through the use of intensive pronouns to highlight something that is remarkable or surprising.

Reading section

The Reading section most directly tests your pronoun knowledge.  Referents questions make up one of the most common types of TOEFL reading question.  At some point for each passage that you've read, a definite pronoun will be undermined.  The question will then ask you what that pronoun refers back to.  In other words, you will be asked to identify the antecedent of a word in the passage.  Armed with the knowledge of pronoun rules, you will be able to make the correct selection each time.  

Though possible, it is unlikely that EST will ask you about a personal pronoun.  However, you may be asked what a possessive, relative, or demonstrative pronoun is pointing to.

Be sure to follow the rules listed above so that the answer you select makes sense with all of the rules for that type of pronoun.  For example, the relative pronoun who is used specifically for people, so I don't want to select an answer choice that features an inanimate object.

Pronoun referents questions are one of the best types of questions to focus on for the Reading section because once you think you've found the correct answer, you can check it.  When you think you've located the proper antecedent, put that word back in that sentence where the pronoun stood.

Remember, Pronoun Referent questions are just one type of commonly asked Reading question.  Get your free Reading Questions Tracker here to keep tabs on all types of questions as well as your progress.

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Key Takeaways

The TOEFL infuses grammar concepts throughout the exam.  By understanding how pronouns can be used to eliminate redundancy, to create cohesion, to modify nouns, to imply case or gender, to add emphasis, or to indicate literal or figurative relationships, you will be able to score points on questions that directly test pronoun knowledge, such as referents questions on the Reading section, as well as those that indirectly do so, like using pronouns to create flow in your own writing.

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