Last Friday, one of the students I tutor took the TOEFL test for the first time. We’d been working on listening and speaking and writing exercises for weeks to help get her ready. She’ll take it again next year, because both she and her parents are desperate to get over the magic number “100” that many of America’s most prestigious boarding schools require as a minimum for entry.
We’ve had a number of disruptions this week to our schedule — taking a history test she missed, reviewing all the parts of the TOEFL she remembered, and catching up on a few assignments she missed — but yesterday she brought out a new TOEFL review book so she can start prepping for next year’s re-take.
I shook my head. “Put that away.”
She looked confused but followed me up to the library. I sat her down at one of the long tables, and returned a few moments later with a history of England, and a book on botany and another on animals, two on business theory, three on American history and sociology, one on architecture, and one introduction to art history.
I asked her to pick one.
She said, “But we need to prepare more speaking parts.”
“We are,” I said. “Here, architecture…” I flipped through some pages to some line drawings and dense text. “Read. Aloud.”
“I’ll just read silently to myself.”
For the next ten minutes, she read a dense and difficult passage aloud about Romanesque architecture and art. As she read, I pointed to the illustrations and showed what the following words meant: transept, nave, groin vault, barrel vault, arcade, arch, pilaster, mouldings, chancel, choir, rood screen, parapet, corbel, buttress, altar, tympanum, clearstory, triforum.
Then we read another section of a book about botany, with illustrations. New vocabulary, new words to stumble over. New concepts. New sentence structures. Scientific terms and modes of thought contrasted with art historical concepts. Odd sentence structures from people who study buildings and people who study plants.
“This is hard. Harder than the test.”
“You’ve taken the test. You know what to expect. Now you need to practice reading aloud, understanding English in any context you encounter. Every one of these books contains difficult words in new contexts. Except for the TOEFL, you’ll never talk in one-minute segments again with thirty seconds of preparation time. You’ll talk in three or seven minute segments with no preparation time. And to do that… you’ll read aloud, from these books, based on the practice curriculum suggested by all the different sections of the TOEFL you took last week.”
“That’s why you told me to remember the sections of the test I took, and what I had to read about.”
“Yes. I’ll be away tomorrow… Read aloud from three of these tomorrow, look up words you don’t know, study pictures and diagrams in context. And work on that ‘v’ sound. You still haven’t got it right.”