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Preparing for the TOEFL - Helpful Hints

The Test of English as a Foreign Language is a requirement for international students transferring to U.S. colleges or universities, and preparing for it can seem overwhelming. Here are some tips and tricks I developed while working with a young man of Chinese descent who wanted to pass the test.

As a native Chinese speaker, this young man presented to me with the following issues: a need to acquire more vocabulary, a strategy for understanding and gleaning information from American professors' lectures, and a strategy for facilitating reading comprehension. I learned a lot from this process myself. One of the main sensitivities we American tutors must account for in helping international students with the TOEFL is that the American classroom experience itself is often completely foreign, as are the expectations for students in an American classroom. In working closely with my pupil, I learned that in China, it is common practice for the teacher to hand out copies of the information she will be covering in class, so there is no need to learn the skill of taking notes while someone is lecturing.

That was an important discovery for me: it wasn't that my student couldn't understand what was being said, it was that he had no idea how to listen and write briefly to himself as someone else spoke. In addition to that, often he didn't write down multisyllabic words because he didn't know what they meant and couldn't spell them. I had a flash of inspiration. I don't speak Chinese, and he knows it. I said, "How about this? I'll show you how to take notes even if you have no idea what is being said! Tell me something in Chinese and I'll write it down and read it back to you." He did, and I carefully wrote down the syllables and sounds I heard. When I read it back to him, he was surprised at how well my strategy worked. I had no idea what I was saying, but I had taken accurate notes of the sounds I had heard and I was pronouncing them correctly. I had proven my point that if you just write down what you hear, you may recognize some words you have written when they appear in the questions following the passage, and you may remember more clearly what that section covered. To prove my point further, I had him "take notes" while I spoke some sentences in Spanish. He was able to write down and pronounce what he had written, even in a language with which he had no experience. I showed him that multisyllabic English words can be handled in the same way - just write down what you hear, and you may recognize the word when it is spelled correctly in the question section. I also indicated the verbal cues English speakers use when they are about to say something important: they pause, they speak more slowly, and they repeat themselves - these are the cues American students recognize as important note-taking indicators, but my Chinese pupil had never experienced the American note-taking classroom expectation, and had to learn it as a new skill. He later reported to me that this "TOEFL strategy" was helping him very much in his classes at school, which pleased me very much.

He took the TOEFL in order to get out of his ESL class and into the regular 8th grade English class at his school. A passing score for his school was 60 points out of 120 - he scored 66 points, and is now reading "Romeo and Juliet" along with his English-speaking 8th grade classmates in the regular 8th grade English class.