3 Steps to Improving your TOEFL Essay

26 Aug

The essay component, otherwise known as the Independent Writing component of the TOEFL test is a major contributor to your overall score and is often cited by my students as a difficult part to improve on.  Of the 50 minutes for the Writing Section of the TOEFL iBT test, 30 minutes are giving for writing a 4-5 paragraph, 300-350 word essay.  You write your essay in response to a given writing topic. 

Three steps to Improving your TOEFL Essay:

Focus on the first step and then move on to the second, and finally the third.  In other words, the steps are sequential and one should be mastered before focusing on the next. 

Step 1 – Concentrate on Content and Form.  Is the structure of your essay correct?  Is there a clear introduction, thesis statement and conclusion? Do your ‘body’ paragraphs each have one clear point and supporting details?  Is your essay accurately answering the question given and reflecting the writing sample provided (ie: is it logical)? Have you given examples where necessary?  Are your topic statements clear and is your writing concise?  Do your paragraphs flow from one to the other? Here’s an Essay Sequence Planner and Flow Chart to consider.

Step 2 – Focus on Accuracy.   Clean up the grammar, spelling and punctuation that all work to polish an essay and make it more pleasing for the evaluator to read.  Have you used a variety of sentence structures? Consider peer-editing with another student or friend.  Often editing another person’s work helps you learn more about your own areas of weakness.

Step 3 – Work on your Speed.  Now you want to try to get your polished essay done as quickly as you can.  If you spend 30 minutes, four times a week, that’s 4 essays a week you’d be writing.  Of course, while speed is the final step in polishing your essay-writing skills if you lack clean form, content and accuracy, then your essay is not going to score well.

If you’re looking for free online sample questions and essays, here’s a few places to start:

Happy TOEFL essay writing everyone!


Create Review Tests using Google Docs

4 Jun

If you’re not a fan of Google Docs, I can’t say that I understand you.  Granted, it takes a bit of getting used too, but Google Docs makes my life a whole lot easier.  I use Google Docs: to create New Student Information forms which they can send to me individually, allowing me to get a better feel for my students; to give reviews and tests; to embed forms on my blog; to create and store presentations; to give homework and assignments; to get feedback from students and parents; to create and store documents, spreadsheets and more.  You can access your Google Docs account from any computer or smartphone with an internet connection. Convenient.  Practical.  

I hear Google Docs is changing, and I’m not sure on all the changes that will take place.  But, I doubt it will be less useful so I hope this blogpost doesn’t become outdated too quickly.  Here’s a link to help you get more familiar with how you can use Google Docs as an Educator

How to make a Review Test using Google Docs.

First you need a Google account, like Gmail, and when you are at the Google homepage, you can see a tab at the top labeled ‘Documents’ which you click.  If you’re unfamiliar with Google Docs, either dive in or watch a YouTube video to learn more.  The red box to the left labeled ‘Create’ allows you to choose which type of doc you want to make.  We want to make a review test, so click ‘form.’  

Add a new question by clicking the box with the green cross on it, top left.  There are different types of questions you can create.  Text, paragraph text, multiple choice, checkboxes (for multiple or singular answers), choose from a list, scale, and grid.  You can choose to make the question mandatory or not by checking the box to the right of the ‘Done’ button.  I try to add a variety of question styles to any review test I make to keep it interesting.  Choose the type of question and get started making your review test!

Tips for Creating:

  • Start with text questions having them write their name, class time, and any other information you’d require.  
  • If you have a lot of questions, consider doing page breaks, where students will have to click a box labeled continue to move between pages.  It breaks up the monotony and feels like progress to the test-taker.
  • Change the theme – personalize your review test with images, logos and font styles. You can see the ‘Theme:’ button on the top of the page. 
  • Move the location of questions if you need to by clicking and dragging.  
How to Send the Test to your Students:
Go to Google Docs and open the form you’ve created. You’ll see a nifty spreadsheet that has your questions lined up along the top and the rest blank.  Click on the sub-heading ‘Form (0)’ and you’ll see a drop-down list of options. You want to ‘Send Form.’  Choose from your contact list, or enter manually, who you want to email the test to.  
How to Check Your Students Answers:
Once a student completes the form, their answers will appear along with a timestamp on the spreadsheet.  You can check your answers from here.

PROs and CONs:

  • CON: Students can take tests on behalf of another person.  You really don’t know who is taking the test.  Therefore, it’s better for review tests, sample tests or information forms rather than for graded tests.
  • PRO: Paperless.
  • PRO: They can work on it over the weekend, not eating up class time.
  • CON: You need everyone’s email address.
  • PRO: You can see a summary of responses by clicking on the “Form (0)” drop-down list to immediately see which questions were difficult, easy.  Good feedback for review tests as you can see what you still need to work on before an exam.  

Great!  If I missed anything or you have another use for Google Docs that I didn’t mention here, please let me know by leaving a comment! ^^

The Best Ways to Learn English

8 May

Students eager to add English to their language fluency repertoire often find themselves trying a variety of learning methods and materials looking for the magic key that will instantly make them good at English.

Films, TV programs, radio, books, music, private tutoring or even travelling overseas to participate in an intensive language experience and education program are all great ways to learn ESL with good results, depending on the sincere efforts of the learner.    I’ve had students employ some or all of these methods as part of their English-learning adventure, and while I can’t attest wholly to their individual effectiveness as this would truly depend on a list of nameable factors, I can pass along my suggestions as to what methods seem to be the most enjoyable and popular among my avid-ESL-learning students here in busy Seoul.


Sift, sift… What, then, is the BEST way to learn English?  Permit me to offer my humble opinions and then let’s take a closer look at this eye-popping Kaplan International Colleges infographic to see what results they’ve surveyed.

Learning English, or any language for that matter, is a fluid, ebb and flow process of learning, assessing, reflecting, forgetting, re-learning, focusing, taking time off for things that come up in life, re-strategizing, studying…. In other words, it is a human process.  We are each unique learners and bring our own lives to the process of language learning.  It isn’t easy and there isn’t a magic key.

  • A comprehensive approach with lessons and activities planned around the interests and needs of student is what I think is the path to successful, confident second-language use.
  • A focus on conversation/experience with a native speaker – either in group classes, 1-1 tutoring, or by travelling to an English Speaking country like the USA or Canada to infuse yourself into culture and language.

And now the bright and sparkly Kaplan International Colleges Infographic titled “How to Learn English”:

 After Thoughts: 

Only 8% of people think of Canada as an English study destination?  How sad…

Many of my students LOVE to study with the TV Program “Friends,” and find it applicable to real-life casual conversation.  Other popular ones, as this infographic demonstrates are CSI and Gossip Girl.

Films, yes, but I don’t know many who prefer using them over studying with a native speaker or using TV programs which are shorter and more manageable. Yet, they’re popular.  There are some difficulties for the educator to use movies as a basis for lesson planning for the classroom, but do-able.

Using music and song is a great way to learn idiomatic expressions and slang, therefore making it good for informal, everyday conversation and listening practice.  Especially great for the audio-linguistic learner.

Comics are popular in Korea, and after reading some inspiring ones, I love seeing younger students get really involved and creative making their own comics with imagination and spontaneous ENGLISH!

Great work Kaplan! ^^


Why Students Continue Studying

24 Apr

Why Students Continue Studying

STIR it up! The four main reasons students choose to continue studying ESL with a particular teacher. If students feel a sense of improvement, are satisfied with the teacher’s teaching style, feel your individualized attention and are being taught course content relevant to their needs – chances are they’ll continue studying with you. Great food for thought for ESL Tutors!

Experiential Learning for the ESL Classroom – Philosophy and Activities

20 Apr

I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.


There has been a lot popping out at me on reflective teaching practices these days, like a hint that’s perhaps telling me to learn more about this topic and to make more time for professional reflection, and among other thoughts, it’s brought to mind the important role that reflection plays in experiential learning.

Experiential learning is not only for learning within L1 classrooms, it can be applied in the ESL Classroom because it builds on the principles that when students are cooperatively engaged in a motivating project, task or experience, and then reflective or mindful of the results and how to further apply them, they are actively participating in the learning (and self-teaching) process.

More than field trips to museums, ponds and post-offices – this is a method of learning with practices that can successfully be applied in the ESL classroom.

A Touch of Experiential Philosophy

Experience-based, task-based and project-based learning becomes experiential when elements of reflection, support and transfer are present after the learning experience (Knutsen, 2003).

In the early 1980’s, educational psychologists Mezirow, Friere and others “stressed that the heart of all learning lies in the way we process experience, in particular, our critical reflection of experience.”   They thought of learning as a cycle that begins with an experience, continues with reflection and ends with action (Rogers, 1996).  And while thereseem to be some discrepancies in the phases of teaching (or facilitating – a word I prefer) experiential learning, I think the heart of the philosophy is satisfied with the four: Exposure, participation, internalization and dissemination.

Experiential learning begins with EXPOSURE, experiencing something, either first hand or through simulation, that is of interest to the learner and is perhaps something the desire knowing about or become interested in during the process.  The educator has introduced the topic, task or project, selling students on it and highlighting expectations.

Through PARTICIPATION, the learner cooperatively participates in an experience using ESL which typically involves group work, and therefore – communication, peer-guidance, taking on roles, responsibilities and following time-lines.

Next comes the critical process termed INTERNALIZATION, where  the educator facilitates reflection on the experience and encourages students to draw attention to how they participated in the process, and their feelings about it.   The importance of this part of experiential learning process can’t be undervalued and it can take careful consideration and experience for an ESL educator to get students thinking and talking here.  Reflection is how the student will come to learn about themselves – how they participated, what roles they assumed, what they found difficult or easy about the task/project, the challenges of group work (especially in some cultures where individual success tends to be the primary focus..ahem..South Korea).

Finally, a process termed DISSEMINATION occurs where what has been learned in the classroom is brought into the real-world.  It’s hoped that the learner successfully transfers the newly acquired knowledge or assumptions from the experience into future actions and opportunities for learning.

Experiential Learning Activities for the ESL Classroom

Sounds good.  A realistic experience, motivation, reflection…key words that resonate  and a process that makes sense to my senses, exciting me as an educator.  Great, so what types of activities would exemplify experiential learning?

Keeping in mind that the ESL educator needs to provide the situation and structure for the experience, but also facilitation for students’ reflection on the process and even on the cultural difficulties of teamwork (thinking Korean students here^^;), the lesson plan needs to reflect this.  The educator can adapt lessons to suite beginner to advanced ESL learners.

Think – do my students have a need/desire to learn this?  Are they interested in this?  How can I pull their personal skills and experience into the project/task?  How can I get their feelings invested into this?  How can we reflect on it without my pushing them uncomfortably?  And of course, as you may have guessed, do we have the time and tools to invest in a project/task such as this?

This list is not extensive – just something to get us thinking.  Please add some of your own ideas by commenting to this blog post!  ^^

  • Making  a poster
  • Making a PowerPoint presentation
  • Conducting an interview
  • “Re-Branding” a commonly used product
  • Dramatizations
  • Role-plays
  • Journaling
  • Making a video
  • Situational English – bringing the world to the classroom (restaurant, airport, etc.)
  • Making a music video
  • Creating a gameshow
  • Making a mock job or travel fair where each group represents a different profession or country
  • Making a trip itinerary
  • Creating a survival English booklet
  • Debates
  • Re-writing and illustrating fairy tales
  • Making or joining a book club
  • Creating a class website
  • Making a social etiquette book to help travelers or business people new to their country
  • Writing a research paper
  • “Teach a class”  – where they design and implement an English lesson, teaching it to the class.
  • Create a treasure hunt using clues (or even QR codes?)
  • Organizing a Fundraiser
  • Making a comic book
  • Doing a magic show
  • Puppet show

Examples of Experiential Learning in Action:

  • An adult ESL learner and business professional, participates in a classroom simulation – he’s bringing an important new client to a restaurant for small talk and a casual meeting.  The students have key topics they’ll need to discuss, but mostly the conversation is unprompted.  The teacher has set up a mock restaurant scene in the classroom to help them feel they’re really in the scene.  They’ll video-record the simulation, watch it, and reflect upon the process with the facilitation of the teacher.  They’ll hand in one page of reflective writing to the teacher next class.
  • A class of university students has been divided into small groups that have each been given a profession to explore and research – lawyer, doctor, anthropologist..  The class is going to give a mock job fair, with each group creating a small dramatic presentation on why others should choose their professional career upon graduation.  As part of their preparation, each group is encouraged to interview someone who is really in the profession they’ve been given (the professor has already prepared the contacts with industry professionals ahead of time, who in fact, also speak English^^).  Individually, each student is responsible for  journaling about the process as they go along.  The mock job fair day has all the groups presenting.  Afterwards, the professor does a great job of facilitating the reflection process and getting the students to discuss their experiences.  Many students realized that working in groups was more difficult than they expected, and some were surprised to find themselves in a leadership role.    A female student who was first aggrieved to learn their group had chosen CEO when in fact she wanted Artist, came to realize she learned a lot about being a CEO and was now more keenly interested in business.  They’ll journal about their personal reflections and hand in their journals to the professor.


Kelly, C. (1997). David Kolb, the theory of experiential education and ESL.  Japan: The Internet TESL Journal, v.3, no. 9.  Found online at http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kelly-Experiential/

Knutsen, S.  (2003).  Experiential learning in second-language classrooms.  Canada: TESL  Canada Journal, v. 20, no. 2.

Rogers, A.  (1996).  Teaching adults (2nd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Pre

The KOTESOL Seoul Chapter Conference

12 Apr

I attended the KOTESOL Seoul Chapter Conference held at Sookmyung Women’s University on March 31st, 2012.    The conference theme was “Students Finding Their Voices.”

It was my first KOTESOL Conference, and I was happy to meet some amazing educators who are teaching in schools all over South Korea, “Tweet-up” and lunch with the newly formed #KELTchat group on Twitter, and of course learn from some of the presentations and presenters there.  Here’s a little of what I came away with:

Educational Uses of QR Codes

Michael Jones, a lecturer at Woosong University in Daejon, had some novel ideas for making smartphones work in the classroom through creative uses for QR Codes.  It was a highlight of the conference for me and I wasn’t alone.  Some attendees were practically jumping in their seats.  He demonstrated how to use QR codes to deliver content, set up paperless tasks, create multimedia projects, get immediate feedback or doing quick quizzes (using QR Codes and Google Docs – Forms), and attending to administrative tasks.

Teaching to Multiple Intelligences

Stafford Lumsden, a Teacher Trainer at Gyeongin National University of Education in Incheon, gave us a review on multiple intelligences based on Gardner’s (1983) theory that there exist dominant cognitive abilities and strengths in learners that teacher’s can use to meet their students’ needs.  He had a great handout on select activities that are best for each type of learner, and recommended that we ESL Teachers vary our classroom activities to suit all types of intelligences.

Warm-Fuzzy After-thoughts

And of course, like the benefits of all great meetings of like minds, I was nourished and inspired.   I often feel isolated in my profession as an ELT in Korea, despite there being many other ELTs in Seoul, I still am in a small neighbourhood, talking and working with Koreans on a daily basis.   And so meeting with other kind and informed educators at the KOTESOL conference rekindled my teaching fires, the light from which spreads outwards and hopefully inspires my students, and in turn their parents? (^^)

Nomination for Fascinating English Teacher Blog

11 Apr

The Fascination Awards are an annual collection of thought-provoking teaching blogs that stimulate conversation and provide quality content to English language learners and English language teachers alike.  I’ve been nominated for the category English Teacher Blogs!

Voting starts on April 23rd and I’ll provide the link here on my blog.  Please vote! ^^

Pronouncing Contractions of Will: “It’ll be easier with this!”

22 Feb

After a recent private tutoring session with a student, I confirmed just how difficult pronouncing contractions of will (‘ll) and will not (won’t) can be for English language learners (ELLs), and more specifically perhaps for Korean learners of English.

I thought about giving a quick resource here for pronouncing the pronoun + will contractions.  This is by no way an official guide to pronunciation, but can prove helpful for those who are having some troubles as my student was.  If you’re looking for a quick go to pronunciation reference that includes an auditory sample, check out Dictionary.com.

Contractions of Will with Pronunciation Key:

I + will                   —> I’ll                        [ahyl]

She + will             —> She’ll                    [sheel; unstressed shil]

He + will               —> He’ll                     [heel/heal; unstressed eel, hil]

We + will              —> We’ll                     [weel; unstressed wil]

They + will          —> They’ll                 [theyl]

It + will                —> It’ll                        [ittle]

Jennifer + will   —>  Jennifer’ll         [-ul]

Contractions of Will Not with Pronunciation Key:

I + will not             —>   I won’t                     [wohnt, wuhnt]

She + will not       —>   She won’t

He + will not         —>   He won’t

We + will not        —>   We won’t

They + will not    —>   They won’t

It + will not           —>   I won’t

SungBae + will not   —> SungBae won’t

Using Contractions in Conversation:  I also like to remind all of my students that when speaking  in conversation, using contractions makes for more natural English.  For example, “I’ll see you later” rather than “I will see you later.”   Conversely, you shouldn’t use contractions when writing English unless you’re writing an informal communication to a close friend.

Learning English while doing Taekwondo?

14 Feb

My Korean husband and I started the English Kids Gym & TaeKwonDo here in Hwagok-Dong, Seoul, last October and we’re happy to admit to being really busy!  What a motivation.  Most parents who comes to us say, “What a fantastic idea!  I’ve never heard of learning English while doing play exercise, yoga and taekwondo.  How did you come up with this idea?”  Truth is, we are such a new concept in Language Learning here in Korea that most parents have difficulty understanding exactly what it is that we’re about.  (The business bureau didn’t even know how to classify us!)

And while it feels great to pave new paths in the often overly-strict, pressure-overloaded English language education system in South Korea, we are also proud to impart healthy, active lifestyles.

We feel our approach is essential to the future of English language learners in Korea, many who feel English is a subject and not a benefit with real-life applicability.

Our Teaching Approach and Methods

Our teaching approach is a blend of the Communicative Approach, Direct Method, and Audio-Lingual Method.

Our techniques to impart speaking and listening language learning include the use of situational English conversation exchanges, visual aids, pantomime, play, repetition of language patterns, modelling proper language habits, reinforcing correct responses, and using context to help induce meaning.   Our primary focus is on speaking and listening.  Some writing is encouraged for home study, but there is no homework or pressure from us to complete the work.

English Kids Gym and TaekwondoEach 50 minute class focuses on imparting real life, practical English expressions, vocabulary and phrases, that students come to understand through repetition and context, while at the same time doing physical fitness, play, sports, yoga, and taekwondo.  Grammar learning is inducive, meaning it’s something they’re learning without even realizing it, like a pattern they can later modify in new contexts because they’ve come to understand the grammar inductively.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, we like to think we’re helping Korean children and students to learn English  in a fun and natural way, as a native speaker may acquire English as their first language.

Goals for our Students

  • To find English education enjoyable and to feel comfortable and confident using English in everyday settings – in the classroom, community and at home.  We feel this will help them in future English learning pursuits.
  • To learn and grow in a non-threatening, pressure-free environment.
  • To be introduced to native Canadian pronunciation, tone, colloquial expressions, vocabulary and slang.
  • To use English to communicate with teachers, community members and peers in a natural way.
  • To become more familiar with Canadian culture through.
  • To promote physical fitness, wellness, and nutritional health in a safe, encouraging environment.

Developing ESL Vocabulary with Clusters

30 Jan

There are many strategies to consider when wanting to teach or learn vocabulary.

Hands-on vocabulary learning seems to be the most effective that I’ve found, as having students use multiple senses when learning a new word seems to increase retention.  Although, with this method the word gain is slow and it’s not always practical in the common classroom setting.  Instead, I often try teaching vocabulary that is related to eachother, together – clusters!

Clustering, or using semantic clusters, basically means learning words around one theme  or idea.  These themes or ideas can be quite large such as “the world” (learn: countries, ocean, continent, to discover …) or can be more focused such as “coffee” (steam, espresso, to roast …).

A few ideas on how to teach using clusters:

  • use theme-based ESL lessons instead of grammar-based.  Grammar can be “snuck” into the lessons along with vocabulary that is related on a particular theme.
  • use brainstorming charts where one word branches to another with visible cluster-like appearance.
  • challenge students to find appropriate synonyms (words that have the same meaning).
  • play Scattergories or Scrabble with a theme.
  • If teaching reading, try to use a variety of resources – news articles, journals, dialogues, stories, podcasts – but with the same theme.  This will increase the kinds of vocabulary that students are exposed to (expressive vs. written, for example).
Take advantage of some online resources! ^^

Cluster/Cloud Graphic Organizers and more Vocabulary graphic organizers – free printables

Teaching and Developing Vocabulary article by Houghton-Mifflin Reading.

Dictionary.com Word of the Day to help you increase your own vocabulary.


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