Saturday, January 29, 2022

CrAzY Conversation topics to help you practice for the TOEFL

When I used to tutor folks for the TOEFL, they often wanted to learn "short-cuts" or formats to cheat their way to a better score. I used to say that the best way to do well on the TOEFL was the improve one's English. I still feel that way.

To that end, here are a number of sometimes crazy conversation topics so that you have things to talk about while preparing for the TOEFL speaking section. Ideally, you should get a native speaker to ask you these questions and to correct your grammar mistakes.

If a friend told you that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, but she didn’t want to keep it and she wasn’t going to tell him about the abortion, what advice would you give?

Let’s say you were a close friend of the guy. Would you tell him?

If you could read another person’s mind, would you prefer to read the mind of a person who hated or liked you?

Doctors can determine the sex of a baby. Do you think that prospective parents have a right to decide the sex of their baby?

You have two choices of places where you can search for a boyfriend/girlfriend, a church or a singles bar. Which would you choose?

If your boyfriend left you, would you be more angry if it was a gay man he left you for or another woman?

Are you a hunter or a gatherer?

What kind of tree would you want to be?

Would you prefer to be invisible or to fly?

An elephant was given to you as a gift…how would you use it?

Should we really have to wear a seatbelt?

Do you wanna play offense or defense?

Why are manhole covers round?

How lucky are you?

Intelligent life in the universe?

Go to Mars?

Why is a tennis ball fuzzy?

Which actress/actor should play you?

Last gift you gave?

Funny thing that happened to you lately.

You are the only survivor of an airplane crash…what do you do?

You have 2,000 new email messages and only have time to answer 300. How would you do this?

Too many accessories or too few?

Which magical power do you want?

What kitchen appliance would you be?

What kind of car would you be?

Qualities you least and most like in your friend?

6 months with nothing to do. What do you do?

What special meal would you prepare for a friend of a friend?

You work at a bank. Would you lend money to your parents?

Be right or be liked?

You win the lottery. Do you still want to work?

If you were offered a new job in Canada, would you take it? Why/why not? 3 reasons

A friend has bought you a voucher to receive several free dancing classes. You can choose from 1) ballroom dancing  2)  modern nightclub/techno music dancing  or 3) traditional Chinese dancing. Which type of dancing would you choose?

When did you get your ears pierced? Why did you want them pierced? How do you feel about men with pierced ears?

Have you ever tried Facebook? Which Chinese app is most like Facebook? If you could, would you use Facebook?

What do you like the most about Tik Tok?

Would you enjoy gambling in Macao? How much would you be willing to lose? Have you tried gambling? How do you feel about the lottery?

Tiger Woods got into a lot of trouble a few years ago because his wife sneaked a peek at his cell phone messages. Would you ever sneak a peek at a partner’s cell phone messages?

Do you think that fingerprints and retina scans are better than ID cards?

China seemed like a very safe country to me. In the USA lots of people get thrown in jail…what type of criminals go to jail in China?

Tell me a few things about kangaroos.

English is the current world language. Is it a good choice for world language? Why or why not? 3 reasons.

Would you prefer reading a magazine about your favorite hobby or topic or reading about it online?

In the USA there are many manicure and pedicure shops. Does China have these shops as well? Do Chinese women care about decorating their nails very much?

What do you think of the 16/8 diet? You can eat as much as you want between 8 hours of every day but must not eat during 16 consecutive hours.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A possible format for the TOEFL independent essay

I was thinking that if you have to write an essay based on two choices, the following might be a good format to help you save time.

Write one or two reasons for the choice you are going to reject. Then state your choice with no reasons. The reasons will come in the next two paragraphs. 

So let's say the question is: There is a wilderness area with endangered species that can be developed economically to provide more food for a city's population. Should this area be preserved or turned into farm land? 

Personally, I would argue that the area should be preserved, but let's say you disagree with my point of view. Here is a possible intro and guide to writing an essay to support this type of argument.


Introduction: The preservation of endangered species is felt by some to be a moral imperative; it is asserted that we have no right to eliminate species from the face of the earth. It has also been asserted that the elimination of species can adversely affect ecosystems. Yet, when there is a conflict between preserving endangered species and developing land for economic reasons, I feel that wilderness areas should be sacrificed.

Reason 1: The human population continues to grow and we must provide for this growth. Explanation/example.

Reason 2: It is possible to preserve endangered species or relocate endangered species while pursuing economic development. Explanation/example.

Conclusion: In an ideal world we would be able to preserve wilderness areas and pursue economic development. At times, however, there is a conflict in regard to this issue. In this case, I would have to argue that the welfare of human beings trumps that of endangered species.


By the way, "to trump" is a verb and has nothing to do with the current president of the US. "to trump" something means to take precedence over something else, to be more important than something else. This verb has existed in the English language since the 1500s.

Here's a song that I like. It has nothing to do with the TOEFL. Please enjoy it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Practice/example for Question # 3, TOEFL Speaking

Please read this letter to the school newspaper from a person who lives near Urban College.

Dear Editor at UC Student News,

I live in your neighborhood. Your students are a real asset here; I wish we could interact with them more often and more meaningfully.

Has your administration ever thought of building student housing on campus? UC is DEAD from 5pm Friday until 9am Monday. This is such a shame. If you had campus housing I think this whole neighborhood would develop around UC and you'd have bars, music venues, art galleries, better restaurants, bowling alleys, cafes, you name it. Right now there are so few places to eat or have fun here.

Student life would be so much more enriched!!!! The neighborhood would be so enriched!!!! Think of the new jobs you would create!

Right now you've got a commuter college - and that kind of sucks. College is so much more than getting on a bus and schlepping to and from school. Also, getting to UC is such a pain in the behind. It is necessary to take a bus to the nearest subway. If you had student housing, it would FILL UP in no-time, especially if, unlike other colleges/universities, you did not price gouge students. Create nice, affordable housing and the lives of students and the whole neighborhood would be improved.

Please consider this?

Joe, a guy who lives near UC.


Dialogue between students:

Jon: Hey, Tess, I'm so glad that someone from the neighborhood is proposing student housing at UC. He's right, I like the school and students but this place is just dead most of the time.

Tess: Well, Jon, I have to agree to disagree with you on this issue. I say leave UC alone, it's good enough.

Jon: What the heck! I thought you were kind of open-minded and open to seeing things change?

Tess: Well, I am, but not in this case. First of all, look around this neighborhood. It's all middle class housing. I don't see any room, any physical room for development. What are they going to do, tear some houses down to bring in art galleries and bowling alleys? I think the people here might be happy with a nice, quiet domestically-oriented neighborhood. They want houses, not a party atmosphere. The whole area around the school is just filled with houses.

Jon: Well, nobody said there's going to be a party atmosphere, just more things to do, more businesses, more jobs! 

Tess: Also, a commuter college is not, in itself, a bad thing, for one, it's cheaper. Let's be realistic, student housing is always much more expensive than off campus housing. Price gouging is almost inevitable. You and I know that colleges are a business, they'll build student housing, charge a fortune for it, and only the wealthiest students will live on campus and the rest of us will commute from home. This way, as it is now, everyone is in the same boat and everyone can save money. I eat breakfast and dinner at home, and save a ton in rent. I'm sure that I'm not alone. There are enough of us who like the situation as it is that we need to keep it this way. Also, I live in a giant city, I don't need a college campus to have fun, I have the entire city to explore. 

Jon: Yeah, let's agree to disagree on this one. I think you are way wrong, but that's cool. Let's get some Chinese take-out at the only place near campus for lunch today - can we agree on that?

Tess: We sure can!   


Sample answer:

In this letter to the student newspaper, someone from the Urban College neighborhood proposes that student housing should be built at Urban College. He thinks this would benefit the school and neighborhood.

However, in the dialogue, the female student disagrees.

First, she points out there is literally no room for student housing in the neighborhood. It is filled with middle-class housing. She also feels some of this housing might have to be destroyed for student housing or to build places to benefit the students. Basically she feels the residents have a right to a peaceful neighborhood as it already is.

She also feels that commuting to school is just fine. In fact she saves money this way. Furthermore, she doesn't need lots of fun places around campus because she lives in a huge city and can move about freely.

So student housing might benefit both the neighborhood and the school, but the current situation for students and the neighborhood might not warrant change.


Just for fun, one of my favorite 90s bands:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Pieces of advice for the TOEFL speaking questions

For questions # 1 and #2

1) Your reasons should be as short as possible and not longer than a sentence. 

i.e. I go swimming in the summer because it is good for my health. Then: example. 
I also swim because it is a good social opportunity. Then: example.

Describe a common drink that you drink.
I drink tea because it is good for my health./ It is cheap. / It is stimulating. / It is a social custom in my country. (Short reasons)

2) Make sure your example is different from your reason. Some students just repeat their reason in different words. This does NOT work. You lose points by doing this. An example is different from a reason.

3) By the 25 second mark you should be switching to your second reason.

4) Keep your examples realistic and DETAILED.

For question #3

1) Identify what the reading passage is from: an announcement, a flyer, an email message sent by the professor, a letter to the school newspaper etc..

In this announcement from the university we learn that... 
In this letter to the school newspaper a student proposes that...

2) Be aware that something will be created, changed or eliminated according to the reading. You can use these verbs in your answer: In this memo from the Provost's Office we learn that the university is changing its policy concerning ____________. Now students will have to _____________.

3) When you talk about the reading, talk about what is happening and why. Do not talk about the reading for more than 15 or 20 seconds. You can talk about the reading in two or three short sentences.

4) Catch important verbs and key words in the dialogue that you can use in your answer

5) You can transition from speaking about the reading to speaking about the dialogue by saying: In the dialogue the male/female student agrees/disagrees with this __________________. First he/she says....

For question #4

1) Be able to define the topic of the reading in your own simple words. Use subject + verb + object if you can.

"In this academic reading passage we learn that ________ is a __________"
The professor gives 2 examples of this.

2) "When" is useful in defining a term. i.e. Mutualism is when two organisms help each other.

3) Listen for useful verbs and keywords in the lecture that you can use in your answer.

For question # 5

1) Identify which piece of advice sucks the least. Neither piece of advice is going to be a good piece of advice - they want you to think and so they give you two less than desirable pieces of advice. If one piece of advice is impossible, recognize that. Please, use common sense - one piece of advice is often impossible or really bad. Do NOT choose the worst piece of advice.

2) Learn how to use recommend and suggest properly

3) Do not say 'advices' - pieces of advice. Advice is uncountable.

4) State the problem + 2 pieces of advice + I think the student should....+ Further I would not recommend that....... Please study this:

For question #6

1) Determine the purpose of the professor's lecture PRECISELY. The purpose of this professor's lecture is to teach us two ways that plant/insect mutualism occurs. Don't say, This lecture is about mutualism. This shows that a student is lazy and sloppy.

2) The professor will give two examples of his topic. In each example there will be an explanation and after each explanation the professor will probably also give an example of the explanation. Get the explanation and the example and use them both in your answer.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Common Mistakes on the Integrated Writing Section

Here is an example of common mistakes that students make on the integrated writing portion of the TOEFL exam.  Please study this carefully. This is an essay from one of my students with my corrections.

The reading passage provided 3 ways to protect frog populations from decline and the lecturer criticized the practicality of those three proposals.
The student's essay with corrections:

The reading and lecture are both about protecting the frog population from extinction. 

NO!!!!!!! This first sentence is not true. The reading proposes three initiatives to stop the frog population from declining and the lecturer addresses whether each of these initiatives will be possible or practical. 

To say that both the reading and lecture are about ‘protecting the frog population from extinction', therefore, does NOT cover what is really happening. You have to be PRECISE on this exam. If you are sloppy or imprecise, you will NOT score high.

The author of the reading proposes three methods to deal with the declining population of frogs. The lecturer casts doubt on the methods mentioned by the author and believes that none of them will work. 

This STILL isn't good enough.  The lecturer does not say these methods won't work. She says these methods are, generally, impractical. These methods, in fact, DO WORK.

My suggestion for an intro: 

Protecting frogs and their habitats is essential for us since frogs help to eliminate harmful insects from human environments. Yet, just how to protect frogs is debatable. For example, in the reading passage we get three proposals as to how we can preserve frog populations. The practicality of these proposals is impugned, however, in the lecture.

First of all, the author points out that pesticides have a great impact on the declining population of frogs. It is mentioned that pesticides affect the nervous systems of frogs and lead to their deaths. It is also claimed by the author that if harmful pesticides are banned in the areas close to frogs the population of frogs can be protected from being harmed. The lecturer casts doubt on this claim. 

No she doesn’t!!!!!! She does NOT cast doubt on this claim. She does NOT say that pesticides do not kill frogs. She admits that pesticides DO kill frogs BUT she says it isn’t practical to stop using them. If they are not used, farmers will lose money. 

She thinks that prohibiting farmers from using pesticides would result in economical disadvantages. That is, if farmers do not use pesticides the amount of their crops will drop and they will not remain successful in a competitive market.

Secondly, the author suggests that anti-fungal treatment on a large scale should be used to deal with fungal infections in frogs. The author mentions that a fungus contributes to a declining frog population by dehydrating them. The lecturer rebuts this argument. 

No she doesn’t!!!!!!!! The argument is sound – if you use the anti-fungal treatment, you will cure the frogs. The problem is that this solution is also impractical to the lecturer. 

She argues that it is not practical to use such a treatment on such a large scale. Instead, the treatment would have to be given to one frog at a time, and this is absurd. She elaborates on this by mentioning that even if treatment is applied to the frogs, the offspring will not be affected; therefore the problem will still exist. 

Finally, the author states that we can protect frogs from extinction by protecting their habitats from specific human threats like excessive water usage. The article establishes that wetlands and water areas are the main habitats of frogs and they lay their eggs there so these areas must be protected from overuse by people.

The lecturer, on the other hand, posits that the draining of wetlands is not caused by people but it is a consequence of global warming. She puts forth the idea that we cannot slow down the declining population of frogs by protecting their habitats from human development but only by combating global warming.

Yes, the final two paragraphs hit the nail on the head and ring the bell. They are right on target. That's how to write for this test.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Assessing TOEFL text books for the speaking section: which are good and which suck

All of these test preparation books for the TOEFL exam are super expensive. Therefore, I'm going to provide my personal assessment as to which of these books are really useful so that you can study for the speaking section more efficiently and inexpensively.

Try to get your TOEFL books from ebay or amazon - I have most of the TOEFL books which have been published and got them at huge discounts (or students whom I helped to pass the exam gave them to me).


Hackers Actual Test Speaking contains 12 practice speaking tests and 1 warm-up speaking test. For the most part, all 6 questions follow the actual format of the real TOEFL exam (with just a few exceptions). This company did a great job for students trying to pass the speaking section. Kudos to Hackers. You made my job as a TOEFL teacher much easier with this great test prep book - some of my students have scored in the high 20s and even reached 30 with the help of this book.

This book gives you 5 complete speaking tests which were actually administered in the past. With Hackers and this book, you'll have 18 practice speaking tests.

This book provides 2 complete speaking tests and about 150 independent writing topics, which can be used as TOEFL speaking questions for question number 1 or 2. The independent writing topic seems to follow the format of TOEFL speaking question 1 or 2. So if you buy Hackers, the previous book and this book you'll now have 20 complete speaking tests and over 150 number 1 or 2 questions to work with.

This book has numerous TOEFL speaking questions but questions 4 and 6 in this book do not always follow the format of the actual TOEFL exam. It would be an ok book for questions 1,2,3,5 - but be careful because it seems that sometimes the number 5 questions can deviate from the format a bit. Interestingly, if you have a good tutor (like me :P) he/she can play around with the scripts that this book provides so that the material can be made to fit the actual test format. For example:

Again, 1,2,3,5 often seem ok, but 4 and 6 don't always follow the actual test format.

Yet again, 1,2,3,5 are mostly OK, but questions 4 and 6 regularly seem to deviate from the actual test's format.

I hope this helps!  Drop me a line at if you have any questions or want to recommend a good text for the TOEFL speaking section.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

TOEFL speaking question #3 - sample

This sample is based on a situation which happened at an all-women's college in New York:

Notice from the Office of College Security Concerning Dorm Building Safety

As you may have read in the news, there have been two violent assaults against college-age women in our neighborhood within the past three weeks. In coordination with the Office of the Dean, the Office of Security is instituting the following changes within the dormitory system to ensure maximum security for all students of this college.

As has been the case, entry to the dorms will be allowed only if a student has a proper school ID. Visitors are welcome, but they must also show a valid form of ID (State ID or Driver's License or other University ID). The new policy will, however, involve visitors to the dorms. A visitor must now be met at the security desk by the person being visited. The time the person arrives and the time the person leaves will be recorded. Male visitors to our all-female campus must be escorted by a registered student or member of our community at all times. Again, male visitors must not be allowed to move about any of the dorm facilities unless they are escorted by someone from the college community. Unescorted male visitors may be removed from the premises by security and students responsible for these unescorted visitors can be disciplined with a fine or other measures.

We hope these new measures will help ensure maximum safety at our campus. We apologize for any inconvenience.


Meagan: Kelly, someone told me you got fined by the college. What happened?

Kelly: My boyfriend came over to visit. We were hanging out in my dorm room and, basically, at one point he left my room to go to the bathroom.

Meagan: But didn't you read the notice from Security? Guys can't walk about the dorms freely any more.

Kelly: Oh come on. He walked down the hallway to go to the bathroom. I am supposed to escort my boyfriend to the bathroom and stand outside waiting for him? How absurd is that? That is totally messed up. 

Meagan: I can see your point, I'm just wondering where the school needs to draw the line.

Kelly: Well they need to draw the line at what's reasonable and what isn't. They aren't doing that now. The bathroom is literally 10 yards from my room. Security acted as if he was a terrorist when they saw him walking back to my room. They grabbed him by the arm and took him to my room to see whether I knew him, then they wrote me out a ticket right there and then for $100. Why be so damn ridiculous? This was no big deal.

Meagan: Yeah, I have to admit it seems a bit excessive to bust a guy for going to the john. (explanation: 'going to the john' means going to the bathroom).

Kelly: Also, these frigging security guards have too damn much power now. They act like damn fascists. Yesterday I went down to meet my boyfriend at the security desk and the guard said, "Oh you're seeing him again tonight, huh?" I was so pissed off! This new system robs us of our privacy and allows these damn guards to act like our moral superiors.

Meagan: I agree. I'm glad I live off campus and don't have to put up with this crap. 

How does Kelly feel about the new security regulations at the dorms?


Sample Answer:

Due to a couple violent assaults against college-age women in the neighborhood. a college has changed its security policy for its all-female dorms. Basically, male guests must have a valid ID and must be escorted at all times in the dorms.

Kelly has just had a terrible experience because of this policy and is dead set against it. First of all, she doesn't think that the policy has a clear-cut line as to what is reasonable and unreasonable behavior. Her boyfriend was stopped and humiliated by security just because he went to the bathroom, which was only about 10 yards from Kelly's room. She feels it is ridiculous to punish her for something so minor.

Secondly, Kelly feels that this new policy is too invasive and takes away a student's right to privacy. Basically these security guards seem to be making inappropriate and rude comments to students based on who their visitors are and how frequently they come. Therefore they seem to be making moral judgments based on their belief, perhaps, that the students are having sexual relations with the guys they bring into the dorm. 

Clearly, the administration's desire to provide absolute security for its students seems to have some personal freedom glitches.