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Preparing for the TOEFL Exam: A First-hand Account

Wen

Wen, studying for the reading comprehension portion of the TOEFL practice test

Many immigrants come to ISP seeking education resources. Within our local network there are several resources for those interested in furthering their education such as English as a Second Language classes, TASC (Formerly GED – High School Education equivalency) and Adult Basic Education. Some immigrants also want to attend College or University. For those students, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) preparation is necessary to be successful at this level. The two versions of the test that we were interested in are the CBT and the iBT.

The CBT is an older version of the TOEFL which offers mainly reading, writing and listening challenges for students. As many international students have strong reading and writing skills, this test offers opportunities to study abroad without strong speaking and listening skills. The iBT is a newer test designed to assess all four language skills; reading, writing, listening and speaking to better prepare students for life as an English speaking student.

In order to learn more about preparing to take the TOEFL exam, we interviewed Wen, a Chinese foreign national who originally came to Ithaca with her former husband who was studying at a local University. Wen previously took the Computer Based TOEFL (CBT) in anticipation of also attending University in Ithaca. In a short amount of time though she became a mother of two and her plans changed since she had to care for her children. As a stay-at-home mother she decided to put her educational goals on hold. But in 2013 she began to once again take the steps she would need in order to further her education by studying for the TOEFL exam.  Wen is also currently volunteering at the BOCES Adult ESL Program in order to gain work experience.  Here is what she had to say about the TOEFL preparation:

ISP: Why did you decide to study for the TOEFL exam?TOEFL-Exam

Wen: I want to go back to University to get a better job. I have to take the TOEFL to get into University. I am trying to get into Cornell but it’s very difficult. I would like to stay in Ithaca because it is familiar and comfortable here. I have a lot of friends here and my children are happy. I don’t want to start over again in another place.

ISP: How long have you been studying for the TOEFL exam?

Wen: I have been studying since July of last year. My teacher, Julie, started a TOEFL class at that time.

ISP: Can you tell us a little about the difference between the Computer Based Test  (CBT) and the Internet Based Test (iBT)?

Wen: Yes, the CBT was more about reading, writing, listening and grammar. Most of the information was written. It did not give me enough listening and speaking practice. When I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew I needed to take the iBT which really requires that you can speak and understand English. The iBT is very different and more difficult. It has speaking, listening, reading and writing. On the writing portion, you have to write a passage based on a reading. For listening and speaking you have to listen to a lecture and a conversation. For the lecture, you listen to the lecture about any topic and then you have to summarize it. You can take notes during the lecture but it is difficult because you have to understand the subject. It can be any subject, like history, biology or geography. Some subjects I am not familiar with, so it is very challenging. The reading really requires that you understand English and write a summary.

ISP: What part of the exam do you think will be the most difficult?

Wen: For me, the most difficult part of the exam will be listening and speaking. I think my pronunciation will be challenging for me to summarize topics that I am not familiar with. I don’t want to take a risk and take the exam too soon.

ISP: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in taking the TOEFL exam?

Wen: I would advise them to train in listening and speaking. International students may be better at reading and writing. Train yourself to talk to people because everyone makes mistakes and you can learn from them. Expose yourself to different cultures so you can prepare for the listening and speaking parts of the exam. Hearing different accents and different ways of doing things can help you answer the hard questions.

If you are interested in attending University or College in the United States, the TOEFL may be right for you. Ithaca has many resources if you are interested. You can take a TOEFL preparation class through our partners at BOCES ESL and TLP or hire a private tutor through one of the universities. For more information, you can always call our ISP offices and speak with me.

– Allegra Lambert

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Guest Post: Creating Community in a Multinational Group of Students

Sasha1The following blog post was written by Sasha Endo who is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for us through the ONA grant.  She also is an ESL instructor for TST BOCES adult ESL classes.  We asked Sasha to give us more insight into what goes on in her classes.  Here is what she wrote:

I feel lucky to be teaching an English as a Second Language class that is quite diverse.  On any given day, there may be as many different countries of origin represented as there are students in the class, and that number increases when counting how many languages are spoken, since some students come in already bi- or tri-lingual.

Of course, while teaching a multinational group of students, some communication challenges do emerge.  For example, students sometimes have difficulty understanding each other’s spoken English, since their accents are often influenced by their home languages, the common sounds of which may not be familiar to speakers of a different language.   And there may be other challenges to communication that are political as well as linguistic: the class often contains students whose countries have tense relations with each other, or that have complicated political histories.

Despite and because of these factors, my biggest feeling of success in the classroom so far has come not from students remembering to use the correct verb tense or preposition, but from a student saying that the class “felt like a family” to her.  It is this atmosphere that I strive for, and in which I believe the most language learning will occur, too.

I think that our classroom routines and activities contribute at least in part to this feeling.  At the beginning of each class, we begin with a “check-in” question, each student sharing something about how they are feeling or what they have done that day.  In these contributions, we learn about how people’s jobs are going, whose children are sick, who likes the heat and who likes the cool weather, and the fact that our lives are at once impressively varied and also full of overlaps and common interests.

Depending on the unit, we also learn about each other through our writing and speaking practice.  I have asked students to tell folktales from their home countries, to present about customs from and misrepresentations of their countries, and to write vignettes about turning points in their lives.  Through these types of expression, we have learned about students’ areas of expertise and previous job experiences that often go unrecognized in the United States, seen people’s pride in their cultures’ uniqueness, and also noticed that many similar milestones of births, and schools, and moving to new places, mark many of our stories about ourselves.

And yes, even grammar can bring out the connections between us, as I have noticed while having students practice these points by sharing information about themselves.  After all, it was during a lesson on the perfect tenses that we realized that the Brazilian student was not the only one who “had ever” watched a Brazilian soap opera; an Armenian student was also a regular viewer of Brazilian soap operas, albeit ones dubbed into Russian.

Occasionally, it feels like it would save time to use more ESL workbooks or other commercially sold materials in class.  But, I think that there is much more to be gained, in both language and emotional terms, from using students’ stories and personalities as the main resources of the class.  Providing ways for students to connect with each other has even led to some friendships that carried over outside of class, and has given us a great environment for using and improving English.

Sasha