TOEFL teacher tips

Love Your Score: Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Prep

Valentine's Day Inspired TOEFL Practice Blog Post.png

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.

Heart Phrases and Idioms for ESL Students.png


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!

Valentine's Essay Printables.png


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

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

Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of Overconfidence blog post graphic-2.png

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.

Halloween Essay Printables-2.png


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.

TOEFL Teaching Tips: A Practical Way to Assign ELLs Speaking Practice

One problem that many language teachers face is the dilemma of how to create and grade speaking homework.  I know colleagues who have simply told students to practice by having a conversation with someone on a particular topic, and although this would certainly be beneficial, there is no way to hold students truly accountable.  I attempted to create a solution based on what I had done as a language learner in the AP Spanish classroom.  To prepare for the test, occasionally we would be given a recorder and we would have to say our responses into the machine that we would later give our teacher.  To update this, I would have students use their phones to record, such as in the free Voice Memos app on the iPhone and then email me their response.  While this did help to solve the accountability and tracking issues, it still wasn't streamlined. The questions were given separately.  Students needed to input my email address correctly.  If I wanted to have them record more than one response, they might be submitting multiple files, creating disorganization in my own inbox.  In other words, having multiple steps meant there were any number of things that could go wrong.  But last year, my school had a professional development workshop on a new, free app that solves all of these issues.  It was the first time I'd ever heard of Recap, but now I have made it a standard part of the weekly homework I assign to my classes.  

How Can I Get Started With Recap?

Simple! First, you will need to sign up for a free account.  Fill in the relevant information, including the email address you want to link to your account.  

Next, click Add Class.  You will need to create a title for your class and select the way you would like students to sign in.  

It is that easy! Now you are ready to create your first assignment.  Hit Add Recap (the green button) on the right-hand side.  You can type your questions and they will appear as text or you can record yourself asking the questions for students to watch.  Once you've input the questions you want, click the green next button towards the bottom of the screen.  Select assign to the whole class (and you also here have the option to assign it to multiple classes if you have multiple sections of the same course).  Select the amount of time students are allowed to speak for (the default options are 15, 30, 60, and 120 seconds).  You will also need to select a due date.  I personally like to leave the Assess Yourself poll on because it allows students to do a short bit of reflection as well.  Click the green send button.  You've created your first speaking homework! Great work!

What To Do With the Recaps
Once the student responses come in, you can watch the responses by yourself and give them a grade and feedback just as you would have done with the recording sent from a mobile phone.  While this is good, doing this means you aren't taking advantage of one of the most interesting features of the app: the highlight reel.  Foster competition for the best response or the most creative answer by telling them that from the class only a few will be selected for the highlight reel.  I like to also give out extra credit points for some added incentive.  Play the highlight reel for the entire class and after the responses have the students that watched point out what made these responses so successful.  This is particularly useful if you have students preparing for a standardized test like the TOEFL.  Knowing the components of a strong response can be half the battle on those exams.

Ideas For Using Recap
Though the training that I attended was not specifically for language teachers, I think that Recap is particularly well suited for the language learning classroom.  Because Recap lets students respond to open-ended prompts, questions that make good writing questions will also make strong speaking questions.  Encourage students not to write out their entire responses, but just to take notes just as they would do on something like the TOEFL.  For teachers working with lower level ESL students, you can create prompts that allow them to show off their knowledge about specific grammar structures, like explaining what they did last weekend after your class had completed a lesson about the past simple.  For TOEFL teachers, the amount of speaking questions 1 and 2 that you can generate and assign to students is nearly unlimited, making this such a valuable tool.  Have students focus on speaking clearly and fluently in addition to giving answers that are grammatically correct and fully answer the question.  

Go beyond the obvious.  Have students work in pairs and submit a conversation that they have created.  This app would be an outstanding way to preserve role-play activities.  Do you teach English Language Arts (to native speakers or non-native speakers)? I have given students creative assignments related to the novel or short story we are reading and told them to use Recap to record their creations.  I've had students play the part of lawyers giving opening remarks or recording artists making a song or rap, and this app was a great way to submit these recordings. In the coming weeks, I'll be using this app to have my English I class record a slam poem, and I know the results will be amazing. Although this technology is great for capturing creative work, it also can be leveraged to show more concrete understanding of facts.  It can be used to review key concepts from class or reading passages.  For classes full of students that are reluctant writers, I find Recap particularly useful for giving students a different outlet for expressing their opinions.  They can back up their thoughts using information from the text without the pressure of writing a paragraph or an essay.  

Whether you use Recap to modify assignments to create scaffolding to better fit student needs, to allow non-native speakers additional speaking opportunities, or to streamline the process of recording and submitting creative assignments, Recap is a handy tool to integrate into your classroom.  

Want to make grading student work even easier?  Use the printable Recap Speaking Rubric I created.  It uses many of the same criteria that TOEFL scorers look for. And it's free.

TOEFL Teacher Tips: Create Great Listening Homework

As ESL teachers, most of us assign reading and writing homework primarily.  While these are obviously fundamental skills that students need to practice, they are also typically the easiest types of tasks for instructors to assign. Listening and speaking practice shouldn't lag behind because they are more difficult to assign to students for homework.  In fact, by embracing technology and leaving the CDs behind, you might find that listening homework is one of your absolute favorites-- just as I did-- after discovering

For me, was a total game-changer in my classroom.  I had virtually given up on assigning TOEFL-style listening homework because often the students  had purchased used books.  Though using Amazon or Chegg is a great way to get textbooks at more affordable prices, sometimes used books don't always come with all of the pieces they should, such as the CD with the recording of the lectures. Other times, even though students had taken the time to buy a used version of the book that came with the CD, the disk would show up broken or scratched, rendering it unusable.  As an alternative, I would sometimes assign students part of a documentary to take notes on. Although note-taking practice is always beneficial, it wasn't quite as realistic to the test.  That is when I found, which allowed me to ask students to take notes and answer TOEFL-style questions.  The best part was that I didn't even need to worry about collecting paper or walking around the room to see that everyone had completed the questions for homework.  By signing up for a free teacher account at their website, students could directly send me the results.

So, do you want to assign your students listening homework that is level and age appropriate that gets graded automatically?  

That's what I thought.

I've led in-person workshops training other ESL instructors how to use this website, and I want to give you a tutorial as well so there is no excuse not to use this amazing free tool in your classroom.  Also, it is extremely easy to use-- very little learning curve for the website.  

Step 1. Create your account

So head on over to  Click on Register and fill out the information.  Select a username that makes sense for you and your students because students will be able to use the Teachers tab in order to find you and this is organized by username, not first name/last name.  

At this point, you should definitely create a Teacher Code.  This is what your students will type in in order to send their results to use.  Simply select a code that will be easy to remember and update your account.

If you want to be really fancy, you can customize features of your Profile.  After you've registered and logged in, click Teacher Page to add your website and a profile picture.  You can even link a video or create a message for students who look at your page.  These features could be an excellent advertising opportunity for driving traffic to your website, especially if you are interested in starting some type of online tutoring business.

Step 2. Find a video in the public domain   

Now that you've created an account, you can find an already existing video to assign to your students or you can create your own practice questions for your students.  Do you want them to focus on grammar or content?  The quizzes are really flexible so you will find many different styles that already exist.  Also, what kind of listening do you want students to do?  Would they benefit from hearing a lecture or a casual conversation between friends?  For me, I wanted to make my listening practice as similar to the TOEFL as possible, so that was my starting place for step 2.  As a result, I knew that lectures would be a great option for me because they are academic in nature.  I would pre-screen the videos for content that seemed similar to TOEFL content, which meant I needed speakers that had good speed and pronunciation.  

Step 3. Upload your video

Click on the gray Create  Quiz tab.  Copy and paste the embed code from your video's website (on YouTube,, etc.) into the box on  You will then need to title your video.  Your videos will all come up on your teacher page together, so you might want to number them if they should be viewed in order or give them some type of organization.  Use the description and tags features to help other ESL teachers and students find the awesome quiz you have created.  You must also upload a thumbnail for your video.  Videos from YouTube will already have thumbnails created, but you could also make your own using a free tool like Canva.  Once you've clicked the radio buttons for the appropriate level, language, and quiz type, hit next.

Step 4. Create your questions.
I love to create TOEFL-style questions for my students.  The limited amount of quality TOEFL listening material out there makes this a necessity for my classroom.  However, ESLvideo's platform is quite versatile, so you could craft questions that test grammar topics, minimal pairs, or common collocation recognition.

Step 5. Share with your students

It is easy to get your quiz in front of your students.  If you have a website, you can actually embed the video and questions directly into your site.  If that seems intimidating, you could also post or email the link to your students.  Students can also go to the Teachers section of ESLvideo and see all of the quizzes you've posted in one spot.  No matter how you choose to distribute the quiz, make sure that your students have your Teacher Code.  After they take the quiz and get their results, this will enable them to send their scores directly to you.

With ESLvideo, making in-class listening practice or assigning listening homework couldn't be easier.  It is free for you and your students, and the quizzes are automatically graded when students answer the questions. Love the idea but don't want to make your own quizzes?  Sign up below and get notified each time I post a new quiz!

Privacy Policy