Jane Birkenhead, February 29 2024

How TOEFL and IELTS Teachers Help

Over the past few years, I've noticed a big difference in the way that students prepare for English proficiency exams like TOEFL and IELTS. As a result of the big increase in resources available online, especially those driven by AI, more students are choosing to study by themselves. 

I actually think this is great. Many students do not need to be in lessons for a long time. However, there are definitely ways that specialized TOEFL and IELTS teachers can help accelerate students' progress. 

I think the issue is greater with TOEFL as many students, especially those who require TOEFL scores for their professional licences, spend longer in the 'take the exam, fail the exam, repeat the exam' loop than IELTS students tend to.

If you read posts in any TOEFL students’ groups, you’ll notice questions like these:

“Can anyone recommend a TOEFL teacher?”
“I’m getting 22 in speaking. Who knows a good speaking tutor?”
“I need a TOEFL teacher for reading . Any suggestions?”

And then the comments fill up with responses like these:

1. “No, you don’t need a teacher. Just watch YouTube.”
2. “Study by yourself.”
3. “Watch X or Y or Z’s free videos”.
4. “Just practice all the past questions.”
5. “Speak faster and you’ll be ok.”
6. “Teachers don’t give you new information.” *
*This last comment is so interesting. We’ll come back to this.

There is so much wrong with all this advice. It’s really bad advice (especially responses 4 and 5!).

Sometimes studying by yourself can be effective, but most students need to work with a specialized teacher so that they make real progress. Working with a teacher is generally faster too, meaning you can move on with your career without wasting money or time on multiple failed exam attempts.

Here are 6 WAYS that I (and other experienced teachers) help students in lessons:

1. Detailed Feedback

This is one of the biggest areas where I add value for students who pay for lessons. I give lots of detailed feedback for everything.

I listen to each speaking response several times and write notes about content, language use and delivery. I notice repeated errors (as these are likely to be fossilized errors) and make sure we have a plan to correct them. I give suggestions about skill building exercises for problem areas.

I analyze each writing response carefully and give detailed feedback for the three main scoring areas. I don’t do in-line feedback because it gets messy quickly and it doesn’t provide any additional information. Instead, I use a colour-coded system of highlighting and font changes to mark errors. Then, I write corrections with explanations, and I add skill building exercises to reinforce the corrections.

I share my own resources with fuller explanations so that students can find out more. The reason I take time to do this is because if you know the reason behind the error, and you understand the grammar rules, it’s easier to permanently correct it.

I give feedback for reading and listening too by noticing the kinds of questions my students get wrong and suggesting skill building exercises to help them improve. I also look at my students’ overall strategies for answering questions and make adjustments with them so they can make better use of their time in the exam.

2. Good Advice and Strategies for Success

Many students who come to study with me have received incorrect or confusing advice.

This might be because they’ve:

I provide good advice along with excellent exam and studying strategies for TOEFL success. I scored 120/120 when I took the TOEFL exam, so I know exactly what’s required to succeed. I keep up to date with any changes that ETS announce about the exam, and I often practice exam questions and test myself.

I regularly give live sample responses for students in lessons and I know how to break down each section, and each question, to practice effectively. I am a qualified English language teacher so I understand the psychology behind language learning.

3. Fossilized Errors

Many students have fossilized errors which they need help to remove. These can be from first language interference or as a result of internalizing, and then repeating errors early on in their language learning experience.

In lessons, I help students to target those fossilized errors with specialized exercises and we work together to remove them. Think of fossilized errors like a habit that needs to be replaced. It’s always easier to break a habit when you have constant support.

4. Reinforcement

Many students know what they should be doing, but they need constant reinforcement so that they can do it with automaticity.

In lessons, I create realistic skill building and exam style practice conditions to help students reinforce their skills. Learning happens best when students are comfortable and confident and this is the atmosphere I strive for in lessons.

The constant practice that we do together complements the knowledge that students already have, and helps them to be best prepared for the exam.

5. Studying Advice and Motivation

Many students haven’t been taught how to study correctly. They might put a lot of effort into studying, and study for many hours, but their studying isn’t effective.

I apply my knowledge from many years as a language teacher, and teach students how to study properly. Often, this results in them studying for less time while being able to achieve more. I focus on building strong language skills, then practicing those skills, and not on tricks and templates.

Studying for TOEFL requires a lot of effort and often takes a long time, but I give my students an endless supply of motivation and support especially when they feel over whelmed with the studying process.

6. Resources

One problem with a lot of language resources is that they are too general for TOEFL students. This is especially true of grammar resources. Another problem is that a lot of resources have been taken from general university-level studying advice, which again isn’t really what TOEFL students need.

With the amount of different resources to choose from, it can feel over-whelming. That’s why I’ve created my own resources to help explain concepts in ways that are relevant to TOEFL.

I have interpretations of the scoring rubrics, grammar and vocabulary explanations, strategies for all the different sections and lots of skill building exercises to consolidate that knowledge. I share these so that students don’t have to waste hours searching by themselves

Finally, remember the last piece of ‘advice’ 

6. “Teachers don’t give you new information” 

which I said was interesting?

So, no, teachers probably don’t give you new information but they make sense of the information you have and help you turn it into knowledge. That’s much more valuable.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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