Felix’s Struggle to Reach his TOEFL Goals

There is no easy street to getting a high score on the TOEFL iBT, and Felix knew too well that it would be a monumental battle. Nonetheless, a citizen of Indonesia, Felix was focused on getting admitted into the University of Canada in Vancouver, and his previous scores of 71 and 78 were short of the academic English requirements. Therefore, he joined an Online TOEFL Course “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT” so that he could get TOEFL iBT vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking practice in order to score higher than 80/120 on the TOEFL iBT exam.

Felix took the first and perhaps most arduous step and started learning the 1,700 college-level words in the vocabulary course. At first, he read the lists over and over, but the meaning of the words did not stick in his mind. After a couple of weeks of frustrating practice, Felix e-mailed what would be the first of dozens and dozens of questions to his TOEFL mentor Michael Buckhoff.

“I can not seem to remember the words I am trying to memorize,” Felix wrote, as he desperately sought a better strategy to retain the words he had been studying.

His TOEFL iBT mentor responded by video, telling Felix to create a system of note-cards in which Felix should write the word on one side of the card with the definition and sample sentence on the other. Felix rejected the idea outright.

“It would take me more than 35 hours to write all the words onto note cards,” Felix told his TOEFL iBT mentor. “There has got to be an easier way to do this.”

“Do you want to learn these words or not?” asked his TOEFL iBT mentor.

Finally, after some discussion, Felix realized that part of his essential vocabulary study would be to create the note-cards of the words and then study them regularly. Furthermore, he downloaded the audio files of the words and put them onto his smart phone. Now he could listen to the pronunciation of all the words which helped to reinforce his memory of them. It took a while, but, after 7 weeks of study, Felix started not only to learn the words but also to recognize them while he did his daily practice of 45 minutes of extensive reading practice. Furthermore, Felix started to use some of the words as he completed independent and integrated speaking and writing practice tests he completed for his TOEFL iBT speaking and writing mentor to score.

As he continued to follow his iBT study plan, Felix took the second step and began working on his pronunciation problems. First of all, he completed a vowel and consonant pre-test, after which his TOEFL iBT pronunciation mentor informed him of specific vowel and consonant sounds that he needed to practice. It was hard work, but Felix completed all the recommended exercises to improve his intelligibility. Slowly, he was reducing his non-native speaker accent, and most importantly he was speaking more clearly. Second of all, Felix, per the instructions of his TOEFL iBT pronunciation mentor, completed his second diagnostic pre-test, this time to diagnose problems that he might be having with grammatical word endings, syllable division, word stress, sentence rhythm, intonation, thought groups, and blending. Felix noticed that his second pre-test was much more difficult and more comprehensive than the first one he took. Thus, it was no surprise when his TOEFL iBT told him that he had considerable problems with sentence rhythm, intonation, thought groups, and blending. Like before, Felix went through all the recommended lessons and even practiced them two or three times. After 4.5 weeks, Felix felt confident enough to complete the post. His feedback from his TOEFL iBT pronunciation mentor was generally positive even though he still needed to continue to practice in a few areas.

After learning a lot of vocabulary and improving his pronunciation, Felix began the third step of improving his grammar. He took a grammar pre-test to see what his weaknesses were and discovered a few kinks in his rope so to speak: gerunds and infinitives, the simple past tense, adjective clauses, parallel structure, and subject-verb agreement (particularly, the third-person present singular inflection -s). Felix had suspected that he had grammar weaknesses, and now he could actually complete lessons and skill-building exercises to improve his grammar proficiency. To help him remember, his TOEFL iBT grammar mentor told him to start keeping a grammar journal in which he could write down the new grammar structures he was learning. In addition, Felix also began recording his speaking and writing grammar errors by jotting down his garbled sentences along with a corrected version of them. He was always adamant about reviewing his grammar journal. Furthermore, as he did his daily reading practice, he would also highlight sentences with advanced grammar and then add them to his grammar journal as well. He also made audio recordings of many of the new grammar structures that he was learning and would play the audio recordings from time to time until the grammar became more and more natural to him. After a lot of study over of a period of 3.5 weeks, Felix completed the grammar post-test after which he discovered that he had made some significant improvements. For example, on his TOEFL Grammar Post Test, he scored 78%, which was a lot better than the 39% he scored on his pre-test. He was making progress.

Felix’s fourth step toward his academic English language proficiency was to improve his listening comprehension proficiency, and the first lesson he completed was TOEFL Listening Lesson 1, which taught Felix why note-taking is important and how he could take notes more effectively during the listening, speaking, and writing sections of the exam. Furthermore, Felix was put on a routine of 15 minutes of daily listening practice for a period of 6 weeks. He also began completing listening practice tests, forty in all, to measure his listening comprehension. In addition, as he completed his listening practice tests, his TOEFL iBT speaking and writing mentor instructed him to use his notes to speak and write about the lectures. Many test-takers tend to lose points during the integrated speaking and writing tasks because they may omit an important point(s) from the listening passage, so, as Felix practiced speaking and writing about the lectures, he always checked the listening scripts to make sure that he did not miss any points or that he did not change the meaning or misrepresent any points. At first, Felix had a lot of trouble with his listening comprehension. He could understand a lot of details, but he could not figure out what the main point was. This frustrated Felix to no end, but he kept at it, and, after hours and hours of listening practice, he started to figure out the main idea and the most important details. It was a slow process, but his progress was steady.

The fifth step that Felix had to take was to improve his reading comprehension, but this would not be an easy task. In an effort to concentrate on reading, Felix slowly read his TOEFL passages when he took his previous TOEFL exams, but he was terribly distracted. In effect, he could not concentrate which led to about 20% comprehension. His TOEFL iBT mentor, aware of some of Felix’s challenges, advised him to do five specific things in order to improve his reading comprehension. First, Felix was advised to begin a routine of reading 45 minutes a day. Newspaper, magazines, and books were recommended, and while he read, Felix was advised to take notes on the main and most important supporting points. Following this strategy would help Felix become an active reader and the constant daily reading practice would help his concentration and comprehension. Second, Felix was advised to continue his vocabulary practice, and he continued his vocabulary learning of 1,700 college-level words. Third, Felix was instructed to start completing the speed reading practice tests in his Online TOEFL Course. His TOEFL iBT mentor told him that faster readers have better comprehension than slower readers since they have fewer distractions. As a result, Felix started the slow process of completing 70 speed reading practice tests–from 100 words per minute to 350 words per minute. It was not easy, but slowly he began to increase his reading speed and his comprehension. Fourth, Felix began a series of skill-building lessons so that he could identify the TOEFL iBT question types and the strategies for answering them: main idea, rhetorical, implied detail, organizational, schematic table, and chart questions. “There sure are,” Felix thought, “a bunch of TOEFL type questions.” However, as he went through the video lessons, he became more and more confident on what test-taking strategies he should use during the TOEFL iBT exam. Fifth, now it was time for Felix to begin completing TOEFL level reading practice tests so he could use his extensive reading, vocabulary building, speed reading, and familiarization with TOEFL iBT reading test-taking strategies. After a few reading practice tests and after a few adjustments, Felix started scoring between 23-26 points out of 30, which was much better than his previous 19 out of 30 in the reading section of the TOEFL iBT exam that he took. Things were looking up!

Now that Felix had worked really hard to improve his vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, and reading proficiencies, he was ready to tackle the most difficult parts of his course–writing and speaking. In fact, Felix had already been using his notes to write summaries and to give oral responses of the reading and listening passages that he had been practicing. He had been doing this at the advice of his TOEFL iBT mentor. However, he had not gotten any feedback yet on any writing or speaking responses.

Felix was now entering the sixth step toward improving his academic proficiency by completing the writing section of his Online TOEFL Course. First, Felix completed a series of skill-building lessons so that he could become more acquainted with the format of the independent and integrated writing task. He learned how to create sharply-focused thesis statements and how to provide relevant supporting detail for both types of writing tasks. Once he felt confident, he began submitting writing practice tests. His strategy was to complete three integrated tasks first, after which his TOEFL iBT writing mentor gave him three areas of feedback: (1) Felix needed to create a more sharply-focused thesis statement which included the main point of the reading and listening passage. (2) Felix needed to review TOEFL Grammar Lesson 12, 16, 19, and 26, all of which would help him to improve his sentence structure and mastery of verb tenses. (3) He needed to practice his listening comprehension a little more because he was having trouble getting the gist of the lectures to which he had listened. These three areas of improvement would not be that difficult to master, so Felix definitely felt that he was close to reaching his integrated writing proficiency goals. After a while, Felix felt that he had developed better control over his integrated writing, so he completed several independent writing tasks. To his surprise, these writing tasks threw him for a loop, with some asking his to agree or disagree to a statement. Other types of prompts asked him to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of an idea and then take a position. Furthermore, one of his writing prompts asked him to compare two things and then explain which one was more beneficial to society. That there were several different types of independent writing prompts, each one requiring a specific organizational pattern, frustrated Felix because he had only memorized one template for the independent writing tasks. In this regard, Felix was informed by his TOEFL iBT mentor that, instead of memorizing a one-size-fits-all template, he should decode the question first and then decide how to best organize his response to a question. In effect, Felix was asked to demonstrate some critical thinking on his part so that, when he took his next TOEFL iBT exam, he would be able to tackle the independent writing task effectively no matter which type of prompt he was given. In time, Felix developed a better approach to the independent writing task and gradually began to improve his score. His Online TOEFL Course included 43 integrated writing tasks and 40 independent writing tasks; therefore, Felix continued posting several practice tests weekly, each time, getting a score, feedback, and lesson recommendations to improve his score. Felix also liked that after he completed an independent writing practice test, he could always see a model essay showing him the most effective way to organize and develop a response.

Felix learned a lot in terms of how to coherently organize and develop his writing practice tests; hence it was natural for him to then proceed to the speaking section, the seventh step of his Online TOEFL Course. Felix joined the the Voxopop Discussion Group for his Online TOEFL Course so that he could start posting independent and integrated speaking practice tests, and after the first few recordings, his TOEFL iBT speaking mentor scored his practice tests between 15-18 points out of 30. However, that was not his goal; instead, Felix needed to score higher than 22/30 on the speaking section. However, before he could reach his goal, he needed to improve his pacing in the sense that he had too many awkward pauses and hesitations when he spoke, he needed to learn how to vary his intonation more, and he had to correct several stubborn problems with his grammar and word choice. Working closely with his TOEFL speaking mentor, Felix gave it everything he could. When it was all said and done, he completed more than 196 independent and integrated speaking practice tests, and during this time, Felix was able to work out his pronunciation and language use problems.

Finally, the time came for Felix to take the TOEFL iBT for the third time, and, even though he was a bit nervous, he felt confident that he would be able to reach his goal. In fact, after the took the exam and got his results back, he leapt with joy as he saw his score on the computer screen: (97/120) R=22, L=23, S=23, and W=29. The first thing he did after getting his TOEFL score was to thank his TOEFL iBT mentor for tutoring him for 4.5 months. Felix had more than met his university requirements of getting 80/120 or higher.

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