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.

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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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.

University Vocabulary Words + Conversation Starters You Must Know For The TOEFL (and The First Week Of School)

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Popular University Vocab for the first week of school + TOEFL

There is no denying it, and it isn't just retail store hype anymore; back to school season is upon us.  Although start dates vary in the United States based on region and the level of the institution (with schools in the American south and colleges typically going back to school well before the first work day after Labor Day, which most primary and secondary schools in the Northern part of the U.S. use as their guideline), the academic year tends to start at the end of August or beginning of September.  Heading back to the classroom can be both exciting and nerve-wracking, especially if you have just enrolled at a new school.  If you are thinking about university-level classes, you will have to deal with specific vocabulary that is unique to the college setting and many of the terms that you will encounter during your first week there are words that you are expected to know.  

Even if you aren't heading to a university yet because you still need to take the TOEFL and get to your goal score, knowing these vocabulary words is essential because they frequently appear on the integrated speaking and listening sections of the exam.  Remember, the TOEFL is designed to mimic actual university situations, so it is quite possible that you will hear a conversation between a new student and a university employee or listen to a lecture that takes place on the first day of class.  By preparing yourself for the exam with this vocabulary, you will also be ready to hear these words when you arrive at your college campus.

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On the first day of class, your professor will provide you with a syllabus.  The syllabus is the formal write-up of all the information that you need to know about the class-- the course description (so you will know what you are studying), the grading breakdown, the required course materials, etc.  You will want to pay particular attention to what comprises the grade for the course.  Is there a midterm, a final paper, or a final exam?  If so, is the final exam cumulative (in other words, does it cover everything from the first day of class or just from the midterm on)?  Although it might seem premature to be thinking about the final exam this early, putting these important dates and knowing exactly how you will be graded might help you decide whether or not this is the right class for you and how you will need to structure your time for the rest of the semester.  The professor will also list their office hours (the times when the professor is sitting in his/her office waiting for you to come in and ask any questions you may have) on this document.  In America, it is not considered rude or insulting to ask your instructor questions, and many professors welcome students who want to know more information about a particular topic.

At many American universities, you have roughly two weeks of school to decide if you are going to keep the classes you initially signed up for or if you are going to make changes to your schedule.  This time is usually called add/drop or shopping period, where you can decide to take (or not take) classes without any penalty.  In order to decide what classes you should take, you should speak with your academic advisor.  This is typically a professor in your department who recommends what classes you should take based on your major, the number of credits you need to take, and the number of electives that you have.  Your major is your primary area of study, so many of the classes that you will take will all be related to this topic.  At the beginning of your time at a particular university, you may have to take some core requirements first-- the types of classes that the university has decided all students must take in order to have a well-rounded education.  Keeping track of how many credits you have-- the worth that the university has assigned to your particular class-- is important because it may determine the price of your tuition for the semester as well as how many classes you should take.  Classes outside of your major are known as electives, and courses you must take before you can take a more advanced level class are known as pre-requisites, all key terms for you to know before interacting with your advisor.

After you have spoken to your academic advisor, you may need to see the registrar.  This is the person who approves the official schedule every student takes.

Hopefully, you are able to take all of the classes you want, but you may encounter problems with registering for classes or moving into your dorm room if you have a hold on your account.  A hold simply means that your account has been frozen-- you cannot do anything-- until something, usually a financial problem, has been cleared up.  Perhaps you did not pay the deposit or submit the appropriate medical forms to the university, for example.  If this happens, make sure you talk to those who work for the university in order to resolve the issue.  On the listening section of the TOEFL, you might hear a conversation when a student visits the registrar's office to discover he can't drop a class because there is a hold on his account.  For this reason,  it is imperative to know these words for the test as well as to address real issues that may arise when you arrive on the college campus.  

During the first few days of school, your RA (resident assistant) will be one of the best resources that you have available to you.  He or she is an upperclassman (an older student), so they will know what buildings you will need to go to, who you need to speak with, and what activities are going on on campus.  

If you are living on campus, the RA will likely have a meeting during the first few days where they explain all of the policies for living in the dorms and the emergency procedures.  This meeting will likely involve an icebreaker-- a get-to-know you activity to help you learn a little bit about the other people living on your floor.

Some of the words on the list are important for making small talk, a type of conversation that is expected and considered polite and appropriate in the United States.  Although there are generally good guidelines for what you should and shouldn't say to those you make small talk with, when it comes to your first meeting, there are several key phrases that make sense for you to draw from.   If you lack some confidence in your own speaking skills, just remember, people love to talk about themselves.  These questions give the other person an opportunity to really expand, and by asking follow up questions or prompting the other person to go into more detail, they will do the majority of the talking.  As a bonus, these are the questions that they are most likely to ask you, so if you have an idea of what you are going to say, you will be even more confident that you will be able to adeptly navigate these interactions.

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TOEFL Must-Know Words and Debates About Literature


10 literary words that you need to know for the TOEFL

The topics for the lectures, reading passage, and integrated essays can come from any discipline that you can find at the university level, so you will notice a mix of pieces from humanities as well as the hard sciences as you go through your preparation process.  Although you will not see any passages that are excerpts from classic pieces of literature like those you might find on the New SAT, you may encounter readings or lectures that are based on literature.  Some of these passages may take the form of biographies, providing a detailed account of the author, playwright, or poets life, career, and legacy.  However, more often than not, these literary-based discussions or articles will feature a position taken on a particular work of literature.  As with any form of art, literature leaves room for interpretation and as a result, these are particularly likely to show up as topics for a lecture with student interaction, perhaps a seminar style class, or an integrated essay.

While it would be impossible to be knowledgeable about every piece of literature that might be featured on test day, becoming familiar with some key literary terms will give you an advantage, no matter what piece of writing is being discussed.


Discussions that center on literature tend to focus on ambiguity, those moments that are unclear or intentionally confusing.  The author's motivation for doing something (otherwise known as his/her intent) is often a source of debate among literary scholars. This might take the discussion an interdisciplinary route, especially if the writer is supposedly critiquing the government or a trend happening at the time the work was penned. Similarly, a character's reason for taking (or failing to take) some sort of action might be cause for disagreement.  Is the character actually dynamic (one that changes over time) or has he/she remained the same?  This question is often asked of protagonists though minor characters or villains can draw some attention to.  These topics will likely connect back to important moments in the plot of the main conflict of the story.  Critics might also discuss the meaning of a particular symbol-- what something is supposed to represent in the work of literature-- or what genre the work can be best classified as.  Especially if the discussion is based on genre, expect to hear a list of criteria for putting it into a certain category (or not).

Regardless, when someone is supporting his/her position in this type of environment, they will use textual evidence to back up his/her opinion.  You might hear directly ask a student about this, which may turn into a listening detail question, so be sure to pay particular attention.  Look out for the phrase refer back to the text as well, as they mean the same thing.

Don't feel limited to using these words in a discussion of literature, though.  Although these words draw from that discipline, many of them can easily transcend the field of literature or even art and can be incorporated more broadly into your own writing and speech. Conflicts can be used for any sort of struggle or fight, internal or external, physical or verbal.  This word can be used when discussing countries, wars, and politics or in everyday situations like getting into an argument with one's brother.  Intent-- what you've meant to do-- is similarly useful for both conversational settings and for formal situations.

Although being widely read is a great way to expand your vocabulary, reading classic texts probably won't help you make much headway on test day; however, knowing the terms above and the topics of discussion that usually occur surrounding literature will help you better anticipate the main idea, regardless of which section of the test you find it in.


5 Root Words To Catapult You Towards Your Goal Score [Video/ Cata]


There are tons of vocabulary words you need to learn in order to succeed on the TOEFL and in university level classes.  In order to maximize the amount of words you know, you will want to think about memorizing words that are related to one another.  There are several ways to achieve this.  Memorizing one word and all those in the same word family, several words that are all on the same topic, or words that share the same prefix, suffix, or root.

One reason that it is particularly useful to memorize prefixes, suffixes, and roots is that they are often recycled.  As a result, even though you may not know a particular word on test day, if you recognize the common component--the prefix, suffix, or root, you may be more prepared than you had thought.  

Remember, when studying words for the TOEFL, you want to think about where the words might appear but also where you can use them in responses you produce.

How should you decide what terms to learn first?  Of course, you want to learn those that are the most likely to show up on test day, and if you can stay on track using a list in which words are ranked by likelihood of appearance, this is a brilliant tactic.  However, another way to keep you interested is to use current events in order to get you in the mood to study.  Whether you want to take a silly, bizarre holiday like International Cat Day or an established holiday like the 4th of July to inspire your academic endeavors, harnessing the power of what is going on at the moment can help you better understand puns the day of the event or understand cultural traditions.  If studying a list of 100 words a day listed in no particular order isn't your cup of tea, then why not use the calendar to find additional motivation?

So, let's get the ball rolling.

Cata (from the Greek kata meaning down from, down to, or sometimes against) is a common root that can be seen across all four sections of the TOFEL.

-CATALYST: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.

-CATASTROPHE: an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster

-CATACLYSMIC: relating to or denoting a violent natural event

-CATHARTIC: providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions

-CATAPULT: to hurl or launch

Catastrophe is strongly negative and would be extremely useful to reinforce your point in a conclusion paragraph, stressing how doing the opposite of what you advocate would have costly consequences.  You can use it in the adjective form, catastrophic, too if that fits your sentence better.  Cataclysmic is even more strongly negative and should be reserved for world shattering consequences.

Catapult can be used to answer independent speaking and writing questions when used in a figurative sense.  A career or even a country can be catapulted, for example.  Don't feel like you can only use it for discussing rocket ships.

Now use these new TOEFL vocab words to catapult your score to the next level.  How?  Try to work in at least one of the new words into a practice independent essay response.  Need some practice questions?  Grab my list of One Month of TOEFL Writing Questions for free.

Want to see more videos like this?  Check out the 2 Minute TOEFL series to learn even more terms.  Never miss a new video by hitting the subscribe button.

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