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Do you have suggestions for students preparing TOEFL test? –as an online English teacher (part 2)

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Khaye, Online English Teacher and Trainer at Acadsoc.

Khaye, Online English Teacher and Trainer at Acadsoc.

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Some of my trainees, as online English teachers at Acadsoc, experienced or newbie, dropped me messages after reading my blog last time. Their queries were mostly about what to do after guarantee a good English base for their TOEFL students. Of course, reciting vocabularies and grammar points are necessary, but they are just the first step towards a good performance in TOEFL. In the past, when I was still teaching in a language school, helping Chinese, Korean and Japanese students to hit their dreamed score in TOEFL, I found something interesting.

For instance, in a 12 weeks’ TOEFL guarantee program, what I felt the most difficult part was, the last 3 weeks. Usually, in the first 50% of the time, ESL teachers will improve the students’ English level and exam skills in all perspectives, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, then Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. Followed by mock exams and answer review, students can further learn more skills and see how to turn their English knowledge into scores. Here comes the dilemma for many TOEFL trainers and teachers, how? How to ‘inspire’ what your student has already learned and captured? How to improve their communication and usage of English in real life?

As I mentioned in my previous suggestions for TOEFL preparation, vocabulary and skills are both essential and necessary, which stand as the foundation of a skyscraper. We, as teachers, should not focus on brickwork to increase its height, but rather to correct its direction when constructing, avoiding the collapse of this building. Since we know, the best way to strengthen foundation is self-practice, instead of pushing them to learn or trying to copy what you know into their mind. It requires patience, undoubtedly and moreover, some skills of our online English teachers.

Like any chemical reaction, it requires catalyser and raw materials. To trigger the passion of your students, teachers need to find catalysers. I emphasise the ‘s’, plural here because different students have different strengths and weaknesses in English. And for some students, they are a big fan of a particular celebrity or show great interest in a certain territory. It indicates they are more likely to express, to defend something if they love it.

relief students from templatesFor example, my student named Ken, was a high school student when I first met him in my class. His parents planned to send him to the US for a bachelor degree, but unfortunately, he failed several TOEFL tests. I knew from his parents that the school admission required at least 100+ of TOEFL scores while Ken’s score teetered around 95 in the past tries due to weakness in writing and speaking. As I firstly supposed, Ken might have difficulty in a few slippery knowledge points or merely be careless in the test.

To prove my assumption, I called for a mock exam and carefully observed his performance. I could tell from his answers that he had paid effort to many training courses and self-practices before. His sentences were well-structured, grammars were correct, and evidence was given to back his points. I checked his vocabulary and failed to find any sign of overused or unusual words. Then, what was the problem? What stopped him from hitting 100+?

Lack of emotion, I finally realised the answer after comparing his work to some public speeches I found on YouTube. Ken could not persuade examiners that his words were coming from his mind instead of any TOEFL-prep books. Though TOEFL is an official language test, human beings, not robots are evaluating attendees’ work. And naturally, it is an instinct of humankind to prefer real words, not false ones.

The topic I gave him was about environment protection and asked if he agreed or disagreed to carbon emission trading, as a global policy among countries. His opinion was disapproval of this policy, claiming that mainly developed countries benefited from it while developing countries had to pay more for their economic growth. I asked him later the other day, why he pick this angle. He remained silent for a few minutes and told me because it was suggested by another TOEFL trainer to include something macroscopical, something big when discussing environment protection. And I brought up next question, did you ever heard of Kyoto Protocol which ruled carbon emission trading or did you know anything else about this trading? He seemed hesitated but finally opened his mouth. ‘To be honest, I only heard those words from the news, and I knew China has signed this protocol.’ he replied.

I asked Ken to try again on this topic, from something he knew and experienced before. To my surprise, this time, he chose to agree on the trading. He began with ‘Obviously, the climate was getting more and more abnormal in the past few years…’ And he used the phenomena of ‘warm winter’ in China when sometimes people had to wear summer clothes even in winter, as the evidence. In conclusion, he stated that he did not know too many details of the global policy, but every resident on this planet is obliged to protect our mother Earth by all means. After finishing his answer, he looked willing to say more about this topic even the time was over. His speech was not so tremendous as last one but sounded more real and persuasive to listeners.

Hobbies, daily experience, sense of value, something they are crazy on…Many things can be the catalyser for your student to express their mind. As teachers, it is our proud and success to get our students out of templates and drafts, from talking like a parrot, from saying others’ words. Don’t forget the intention of TOEFL, to evaluate students’ capability in expressing their thoughts academically and reasonably. Examiners are not expected to hear any well-designed answer. No matter how well you camouflage your words, your tone, pause and many other little details will betray you.

It is easier to follow your heart in speaking than writing. In independent writing task (30 minutes), we are given more time to consider and design our essay carefully. However, it brings side effects to many Chinese students.  From my observation, most of them still addict to templates and imitating other’s work.

independent writing rubricsFor attendees who struggle to hit 20 in writing task, it may be a shortcut to reach their goal by using templates. However, for higher-level students, models will cause an adverse outcome, restricting their performance in TOEFL writing to hit a score above 25.

The risk is, once if you forget a part of your template, i.e. the evidence, you have no idea how to continue writing the article. Using Ken’s instance, how can he finish his answer if he forgets the supportive case of discrimination in developing countries of carbon emission trading? For such an opinion, it must be backed by convincible academic work, numbers and official documents. Putting subjective feeling after this viewpoint is apparently helpless and unpersuasive. Unlike speaking, where it won’t ask too many details from you regarding your speech, essay writing is serious and rigorous. Examiner can see if the writer is confident and sure about his/her points by examing evidence and logic.

Hence, I made the same suggestion to Ken for TOEFL independent writing. Every time you see a topic for an independent essay, there should an instinctive thought come up in few seconds. For example, agree/disagree on sth, you will have your answer within 60 seconds. It is a very subjective or even emotional feeling, but don’t let it slip away. Grab that little spark in your mind and then develop your opinions. The reasoning and evidence always come from something you are familiar with, daily life, knowledge and experience.

For instance, if I am assigned the task to finish an essay on agree/disagree of globalisation, the first answer comes up in my mind is ‘Yes, I agree.’ And then, I shall consider why I agree, by listing out the benefits of globalisation.

A. Globalization will stimulate international trade and benefit the economic growth of many countries who heavily rely on exporting goods.

B. Globalization will lower the price of products in supermarkets because there will be more brands engaging in competition.

C. Globalization will increase the frequency of cross-cultural communication, which can be beneficial for education and art.

D. Globalization will bring more job opportunities to undeveloped countries by the outsourcing of international companies.

For most templates and TOEFL-prep ideas on the internet, they will advise you to follow option A or C. However, ask yourself before determining your direction: Do you know what you are discussing? Besides the evidence and reasoning in the template, are you confident in making your own? Frankly speaking, I will choose option B or D though they sound less insightful. Since I know a lot about the price war in supermarkets and how imported goods are changing our lives. And I am a benefactor of international outsourcing, for being freelance and online English teacher instead of spending hours on my way to language schools. As discussed above, real thoughts are always favourable to examiners. And trust me, they can feel if you are willing to write more about your points or just finishing a task.

That’s the reason why to follow your heart and instinct when writing. As I believe, from the perspective of materialism, all ideas in your mind come from somewhere. Ken and I can quickly raise an opinion on a topic because we hold a specific sense of value. And our senses of value are from knowledge and experience. It indicates that all our ideas are subjective, but they must be supported by our cognition. When someone is asked to discuss a topic he/she has no clue on, it is impossible for them to make it reasonable and abundant.

My suggestions may sound different from what you heard before. However, those suggestions are not only for TOEFL but suitable for other language tests and improving one’s English level as well.

I always remind myself, TOEFL preparation intends to assure your students smoothly adapt to campus life in the US. If we are producing high score students who merely know how to handle English tests, we are unqualified as English teachers and TOEFL trainers. I aim to achieve a full-scale growth of my students in using English for academia, daily communication and preparation for job hunting in the future.

Please feel free to leave your feedback. I appreciate your time to finish my piece of work!

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