TOEFL: preparation for Stanford

TOEFL: preparation for Stanford

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an exam that students have to take to enter universities in the USA, Canada, in some European and Asian countries. Below I’ll share how I prepared one of my students for this exam. 

Once I had to prepare a student for TOEFL. Bogdan had a master’s degree in Maths (HSE) and applied for the PhD programme at Stanford. Bogdan had extensive and deep knowledge of Maths, he successfully passed all Maths exams in Stanford with the highest grades. He also had an interview and impressed the educators with his academic background. However, there was only one thing he was lack of: he had to score a minimum 100 in TOEFL iBT. Bogdan attempted to take the test twice and scored between 80-90. He also had only 3 weeks to prepare and retake the test as there were strict deadlines for application.

I sent him a trial test to see where he stands. He was good at reading and listening tasks, he almost didn’t make any mistakes. Although he had low scores in speaking and writing tasks, as is often the case.  As we were lack of time I decided to concentrate on his speaking and writing skills to improve his results. We met mainly to practise speaking and discuss the mistakes in listening, reading and writing. 

Listening and reading

We decided to do only past papers to cram and get the hang of it. In addition, he wouldn’t lose his skills of doing these parts of TOEFL. I sent him the tests, he noted the time he did them for and the mistakes he made which we analyzed when we met. This way I also could see his “weak point”, focus only on necessary grammar or vocabulary aspects and give some extra exercises to practise it.

Writing and Speaking by weeks

Week 1

I clarified the purposes, goals and strategies of both speaking and independent and integrated writing tasks; explained what he should focus on, what lexis and structures it’s better to use and what should be avoided. He also noted down new vocabulary and I encouraged him to use it right away in his writing or speaking to put it into practice. One of his tasks was to include at least 3 new words or structures from the list in writing or speaking. This way he remembered it well. As for homework, I set about 3 independent writing, 3 integrated writing tasks and 10 speaking tasks but without strict timing. He could use a dictionary as well. I wanted him to plan properly, consider the tasks carefully, to think them over; to pay attention to the range of vocabulary, grammar structures he uses, coherence and cohesion, communicative achievement and other assessment criteria. I also wanted Bogdan to acquire the skill of looking for words quickly and thinking of arguments. As for speaking, I also asked him to record himself several times, assess the pros and cons, change what’s necessary and send me the final audio file.

When we met, we discussed in detail every recording and piece of writing: I said what must be changed, what he had to pay attention to, what should be added, what should be left out. We discussed the importance and practised paraphrasing, idioms, phrasal verbs, examples, structure, repetitions, synonyms, linking words, arguments, etc. Then I asked him to redo the tasks according to my comments. I really like this approach as it helps me and students to analyse the essays and recordings as I can listen to it several times; students can assess and evaluate themselves, it draws their attention to the mistakes and flaws. We also did a lot of spontaneous speaking practice where Bogdan had to think on his feet. I also advised him (before getting down to every task) to write down 5 neutral (or new) phrasal verbs and idioms that are very frequently used and to try to put them in where and when possible.

Week 2

It was the same regarding the number of tasks but I asked him to set the time limit this time. However, he still could use dictionaries. This way he was closer to the exam situation step by step but still had a “handicap” to enrich his vocabulary. I must say, his writing and speaking became much better although he had time restrictions. He used lots of new vocabulary, collocation; made fewer mistakes. His speech and pieces of writing had a better structure; he became more fluent. 

Moreover, this time, when I was checking his work, I didn’t correct mistakes myself but highlighted the parts that could be improved, changed and told him to think them over and send me the edited versions.

I also sent him articles about different general exam tips, samples of good writing and speaking tasks.

Week 3

It was similar to the previous ones but this time Bogdan had to do all the tasks according to the exam procedure: with time limits and without any extra materials. Additionally, I advised him to take the test twice with a 2-3 days break. It often happens that students, especially when they have the exam for the first time, become so nervous as the atmosphere isn’t familiar to them, the situation is stressful itself; therefore they lose several points not due to their lack of knowledge but due to their mood and state. 

So he did the test twice: his first result was 98 and the second result was 100!

I must say he was very diligent and persistent. He spent at least 3 hours a day doing English tasks. He really pursued his goal.

I wish you to have such great students and to find an individual approach and an exam preparation strategy for each of them!

Наринэ Егорова

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