I was recently reviewing a couple of the iBT speaking textbooks produced by Korean publishers, and came across something that surprised and alarmed me.
For independent speaking task 1 in the test, four of the Korean company books I have recommend the following procedure for answering the "open choice" independent question on the iBT:
1. State your topic
2.a - Reason 1 (with supporting details)
2.b - Reason 2 (with supporting details)
When I saw this in one book, I was surprised. When I saw the same essential formula repeated in ALL FOUR books, I got worried. Based on what I had studied about this question, referring to official guides produced by ETS, the approach I have been recommending is different. I was worried because I thought that perhaps I'd had some crazy lapse of memory or judgement. If all four of these books, produced by what are considered "powerful" and "reliable" test prep companies in Korea (the biggest market for TOEFL outside the U.S.), gave this as the most effective formula, perhaps I had gotten it wrong somewhere along the way.
Here is the formula I have been advocating to students in my classrooms and on our site http://www.onlinEnglish.net:
1. Choose/state a topic to talk about
2. Describe the person/place/thing/etc. to create a feel or context
3. Give reasons for choosing that person/place/thing/etc.
Did I have it wrong???
Well, visitors, test-takers and commentators (all people who have taken the actual test on more than one occasion) on OnlinEnglish have claimed this formula (admittedly only one of six overall) helped them achieve scores of 26+ on the speaking section, whereas before they had been achieving low 20s.
That in itself is heartening. There's nothing like the proof being in the pudding.
However, I decided to go back to the official ETS guide again (the one published with McGraw Hill: The Official Guide to the NEW TOEFL IBT, 2006) and just check to be sure my understanding of his question was correct.
Here's what the official guide has to say about it:
"This question will always ask you both to describe something (for example, an important event, a favorite activity, an influential person) and to give reasons." [My underline, their italics] pg.208
There it is, as plain as day. They then go on to explore a sample question asking about an admired teacher, and this advice is offered:
"To answer a question like the one above, you would probably begin by briefly identifying the teacher you are going to talk about... giving just enough relevant information so that someone listening to your response can make sense of your explanation... After briefly describing the teacher in whatever way is useful, you could then proceed to explain what it was about the teacher that made you admire him or her." pg 209-210
Seems I wasn't losing my marbles after all. You are required to do some describing before you get into reasons. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense - in a question where you are being asked about something personally familiar to you - to expect that you create a context for the listener to understand your relationship and experience with the person/place/thing, before asking you to start dishing out rationales.
Advising my students to go about question 1 in this manner results in better scores - I have the proof.
But what about the thousands of poor Korean students, who are rarely game enough to choose a prep book that is not (at least partly) written in their own language and/or written by some sort of celebrated local TOEFL expert? The advice they're being given isn't totally off base, but it is certainly enough to create the potential for points to be lost here in the very first question.
This formula of state-reason1-reason2 actually works quite well for question 2, the paired choice independent question. Perhaps the Korean textbook "experts" figured the formula was for both questions. I think it's pretty clear they're only about 50-60% right when it comes to question 1.
I won't name the textbooks referred to here. Korea has peculiar libel laws that allow you to be charged with defamation even if what you're claiming is completely true... I'll let people figure out the discrepancy for themselves. I would also urge people to always base their formulae and advice first and foremost on the official ETS documents, sites and textbooks.
I'll trust the word of the company that actually makes the test over some so-called 'expert' who may not have even taken the test - any day.
But now it's got me thinking. If these prep books got it wrong for question 1, what about all their advice for the other questions?
Best I take a look and check. Watch this space...