Setting Goals in Your TOEFL Preparation Studies

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“If you aim at nothing, you will hit the target every time,” a sign read as I entered the humanities building at Riverside Community College in Riverside, California back in 1989. In other words, if you apply this idea to your TOEFL preparation studies, you should definitely set some specific goals if you want to make meaningful improvements. However, what goals should you set and exactly how do you articulate and implement them in a way that will help you to meet your target score and subtotals scores in the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections?

What have I done so far in my TOEFL studies?

Take a minute to examine what you have done so far with your English/TOEFL studies. For example, maybe initially, your English proficiency skills were too low to study for TOEFL, so you instead focused on improving your basic vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, and speaking areas. Not sure whether or not you are ready to prepare for the TOEFL iBT? Consider the following questions.

1. Can you read an academic passage at 300+ words per minute with 60-80% comprehension?
2. Can you clearly read out loud a 200-240 word academic passage in 60 seconds without a lot of pauses and hesitations?
3. Can you complete a TOEFL reading, listening, speaking, or writing practice test within the time limit of the test? For example, can you type 450-550 words in 30 minutes about a personal experience topic?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you should focus more on improving your basic English proficiency skills rather than studying from a TOEFL book or participating in an Online TOEFL Course.

What do I need to achieve by the end of my TOEFL studies?

Once you have examined what you have done so far and whether or not it is the right time for you to formally begin your TOEFL preparation studies, you need to articulate your goals that you want to achieve by the end of your TOEFL study. Your goals should be explicitly stated in the form of the overall and subtotal scores that you will need. For example, if you want to get accepted into the nursing program at Loma Linda University in California, you will need an overall score of 104, with minimum subtotals of 26 in the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections. Or, if you want to get a graduate degree in film production at the University of California, Los Angeles, you will need a overall score of 105, with minimum subtotal scores of 25 in all sections. You absolutely need to have a target TOEFL score in mind when you begin your TOEFL preparation studies.
How can I state my goals in a specific way?

As you begin your TOEFL preparation studies, you should specifically state your vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking goals. Here are some examples of how you can state your goals in a tangible way that you can actually measure:

Vocabulary: I will acquire a college-level vocabulary base of about 2,000 words.

Pronunciation: I will work on reading an unfamiliar passage 200-250 word reading passage out loud without a lot of pauses and hesitations in 60 seconds or less.

Grammar: I will work improving my basic and advanced grammar so that I can use these structures naturally in speaking and writing.

Listening: On M, W, F, and Sun for 25 minutes, I will watch news, documentaries, history shows, and science programs. During these practice exercises, I will take notes on the main and most important support points, and then write two 150 word summaries and will deliver two 60-second oral summaries weekly.

Reading: On T, TH, Sat for about 25 minutes, I will read and take notes on the main and most important support points of newspapers, books , and magazines. Using these notes, I will write two 150 summaries and will deliver two 60-second oral summaries each week.
Writing: I will aim to type 250-350 words in 20 minutes about the main and most important points of a reading passage and a lecture. I will complete at least two integrated writing practice tests each week toward this aim. In addition, I will try to type 450-550 words in 30 minutes about a personal experience topic. To accomplish this, I will complete at least two independent writing writing tasks.

Speaking: I will spend at least two hours every day using English by talking to native speakers, and I will complete TOEFL speaking practice tests on a weekly basis.

Which of my goals are most important?

There are two specific ways that you can find out which goals are most or least important: You can spend $200+ to take the official TOEFL exam, or you can spend $45 to take a full-length TOEFL iBT four hour practice test. If you choose to take a practice test, make sure that all sections are graded, especially all six speaking and both writing tasks. Once you take the TOEFL exam or a practice test, you will know which areas on which you should focus the most. For example, if you scored 27/30 on the reading section of the TOEFL exam but only 18/30 points on the speaking section, then you will need to focus more of your efforts on the speaking section.

In addition, after you examine why you scored 18/30 points on the speaking by looking at your TOEFL score report, it will become evident to you that you need to focus more on your grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation because your score report tells you that you have problems in those areas. I have taught about 200 students over the last year, all of whom scored 24/30 points on the speaking section. In every case, my analysis showed that they all had problems with pronunciation, and, once they had solved those delivery issues, their scores shot up to 27+ on the speaking section. Studying harder not smarter, you should definitely make sure you focus on your goals that will help you to strengthen your weak areas.

How do I break my long-term goals into smaller more manageable ones?

It may be overwhelming at first when you look at all the goals you have set. However, if you break your goals into smaller ones, you may find it easier to manage everything that you need to do. This is especially important since you will be creating a calendar on which you list the items daily that you need to do in your TOEFL preparation studies. “A goal is only a wish,” someone once said, “if it is not written down.” In the following, you will see what it is like when you break the 7-essential skills needed into smaller, more manageable tasks:

Vocabulary: I will learn 20 new words a day by writing each vocabulary word onto a 4 x 6 inch notecard. On the back of each notecard, I will write the definition, a sample sentence, and some synonyms and antonyms of each word.

Pronunciation: I will first learn how to clearly pronounce the vowel and consonant sounds of American English. Then, I will improve other important areas of my pronunciation so that I can speak fluently without a lot of pauses and hesitations: syllable division and grammatical word endings, word stress patterns, sentence rhythm, intonation, and thought groups and blending.

Grammar:  I will work on mastering adjective clauses/phrases, adverb clauses/phrases, and noun clauses/phrases so that I have good control of these structures when I speak and write.

Listening: Each week I will listen to National Public Radio (NPR) on M, W, F, and Sun for at least 25 minutes on each of these days. On each day I will listen to at least two news programs and take notes. On M and F, I will write a 150 word summary of a news segment. On W and Sun, I will give a 60 second oral summary of a news segment.

Reading: On T and Sat, I will spend 25 minutes reading two articles from the Wall Street Journal Newspaper. Using my notes, I will write a 150 word summary of one of the articles. I will also prepare and record a 60-second oral summary. On TH, I will read for 25 minutes from a book, take notes, and then use my notes to write a 150 word summary an deliver a 60-second oral summary from two chapters of the book.

Writing: I will complete two writing practice tests each week. I will practice first by learning how to write an introduction + thesis for the independent and integrated writing tasks. Then I will work on writing the body paragraphs + conclusions. Once I understand the structure of the two writing tasks, I will set time limits on how much time I take to write a 450-550 word independent or 250-350 word integrated writing task. First I will set time limits at an hour for the independent writing task and 45 minutes for the integrated writing task. Eventually, I will lower the time limits to the official time of 30 and 20 minutes for the independent and integrated writing task.

Speaking: . I will complete at least two speaking practice tests each week, and I will record myself answering the 45-second independent speaking prompt so that I can evaluate my speech in term of delivery, language use, and topic development. Similarly, I will complete at least two integrated speaking practice tests weekly so that I self record and self-evaluate them as well.

What time limits do I need to set on the goals that I am setting?

Generally speaking, if you have already taken an official TOEFL exam or at least a full-length four hour iBT practice, you have a baseline of your reading, listening, speaking, and writing abilities. If you know what target score and subtotal scores you need, you can take your target score and subtract them from your current TOEFL score. For example, if you need an overall score of 100 and if you current score is 80, then you need to improve your overall score 20 points.

It is quite easy to set approximate time limits on your study if you keep in mind the 5-10 points of improvement rule for every 30 days of study. In other words, if you study about 2-3 hours every day and if you can getting a lot of exposure to English every day, you should be able to improve your TOEFL score approximately 5-10 points for each month you study. Therefore, improving your TOEFL score from 80-100 will take you about 2-4 months.

Another time limit you can set considers the subtotal score improvement that you seek for the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections. Generally, it may take as many as 45 hours of study to improve a subtotal score 1 point. Therefore, if your current speaking score is 23 and you want to score 26, you should plan on spending 135 hours of practice. Or, if you want to improve your writing from 18 to 24, you should plan on spending 270 hours of practice to get that result.

At first, spending four months on improving your TOEFL score may seem like a daunting task, but remember the famous saying from a Chinese philosopher: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Therefore, if you need the TOEFL start now, and remember that it may take you longer than you think to reach your goals. However, you eventually will reach your goals if you diligently study and have a good plan to help you improve your English.

How will I know that I have met my short-term goals?

If you have written some specific, measureable goals, then it will be easy to measure them.
Vocabulary: Look at how many words you have put onto notecards in your first month of study. You should have 600 words by now, right?

Pronunciation: This one is hard to measure on your own, so you had better hire a tutor or teacher that specializes in accent reduction. To measure this, you will need to take a pronunciation pre-test to see what problems you are having with vowel and consonant sounds. For example, let’s suppose that you are completing a lesson on the [I] and [i] vowel sounds as shown in “bit” and “beat.” Once you practice the lesson, you should e-mail some voice recordings to the TOEFFL speaking specialist. If you TOEFL speaking specialist tells you that you have mastered the two vowel sounds, then you know that you have met your short-term goal in this area.

Grammar: If you have set a goal of learning adjective, noun, and adverb clauses to improve your language use, did you study lessons relevant to these topics? Did you write some sentences down that exemplifies these grammatical structures? Are you comfortable using these structures in your speaking and writing? For example, listen to some of your speaking practice tests that you have recorded. How many of these dependent clauses are you using? Are they correctly used? You can use the same type of analysis as you look at some of the writing practice tests that you have been completing.

Listening: To measure this, ask yourself, by looking at your calendar or journal that you are keeping regarding your TOEFL study, whether or not you have been listening to NPR three days a week for 25 minutes. Did you, as you planned, write 150 word summary and deliver a 60-second oral summary of a news excerpt?

Reading: Twice a week, are you reading news articles from the Wall Street Journal for 25 minutes? Are you using your notes to write a summary and to deliver a 60-second oral summary? Also, you also doing these reading and language-use activities one a week as you read two chapters from a book of your choosing. Check your TOEFL journal or calendar to see how you are doing in this area.

Writing: How long does it take you to write a 450-550 word independent writing practice task? How long does it take you to write a 250-350 word integrated writing task? How close is that to your goal of 30 and 20 minutes. Ideally, you should consult a TOEFL iBT writing specialist to see eventually how close your practice test scores are to your target subtotal scores.

Speaking: Am I completing four or more speaking practice tests per week? How well am I doing in my delivery, language use, and topic development? I highly recommend that you consult a TOEFL speaking specialist to see how you are doing. That way you can get an idea of how close you are to your target TOEFL speaking score.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff, http://onlinetoeflcourse.com

mbuckhoff@aol.com

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