What is a “complex” sentence?

What is a “complex” sentence?

Of all the misunderstood grammar terms in the English language, “complex sentence” is perhaps the one that occupies the very top spot.

The problem essentially results from the fact that the word complex has one meaning (very complicated) in everyday language, but a very different meaning in formal grammatical terms.

Not realizing this, most students assume that being asked to write complex sentences means that they are supposed to write sentences that are extremely long and stuffed with all sorts of high-level constructions when that is not at all the case. (more…)

How to write an overview paragraph for Academic Training Task 1

How to write an overview paragraph for Academic Training Task 1

One of the biggest and most common traps that IELTS candidates fall into when writing Task 1 Academic Training essays involves spending too much time citing specific figures while overlooking the bigger picture that graphic(s) are used to convey.

To be clear: Your goal in Task 1 is essentially to tell a “story” about the graphic(s) so that a reader can quickly understand a general trend or phenomenon, not just provide a series of specific details and statistics. To that end, you must identify the overall takeaway and present it to the reader in a condensed way (no more than a sentence or two) so that the figures you cite can be understood in context of the larger idea.

Although the IELTS Band descriptors may not spell out the point of Task 1 quite so explicitly, they are perfectly clear about what is required to score Band 7 in Task Achievement: successful candidates must have a paragraph that presents a clear overview of main trends, differences or stages.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about an overview paragraph is that it should consist of a general description in words and by definition should not include details, i.e., specific numbers. Imagine that you are describing the graph to a child—your explanation should be that clear and easy to comprehend. (more…)

Should you make up evidence in your IELTS essays?

Should you make up evidence in your IELTS essays?

The short answer: No. Just don’t do it.

The longer answer: If your English is strong enough for you to convincingly insert made-up statistics into your essays, then it is probably unnecessary for you to do so. Basically, if you write at a solid Band 7.5/8+ level; have experience citing statistics in English in your writing for work or school; and want to have some fun with the test, then by all means, go ahead and make up a study or two. If you are among the other 97% or so of test-takers, focus on improving your grammar, vocabulary, organization, and ability to explain your ideas clearly.

I suspect that for most test-takers who decide to invent statistics or other types of research, the thought process goes something like this:

Research from prestigious universities looks very impressive, so if I make up a study from, say, Oxford or Harvard, then that’ll make my argument really strong. And a common number like 75% will look fake, so I’ll make up something really random like, I don’t know, 68.3% because that’ll seem more convincing. (more…)

Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Given the number of colleges that are going, and now staying, test optional, it’s reasonable for students to wonder whether they still really need to sit for a standardized test. I suspect that there’s a fair amount of confusion surrounding this issue, particularly among students who have limited access to knowledgeable admissions guidance. Given that, this piece is intended to provide some general guidelines for when traditional standardized testing is, and is not, necessary.

So, do you need to take the SAT or the ACT?

The short answer: probably.

The long answer: probably, but it depends.

If you are only planning to apply to schools in the University of California system (which no longer considers SAT/ACT scores), and there is effectively no chance that you will later decide to apply elsewhere, then no, you do not need to take the SAT or the ACT.

If you are applying to less-selective test-optional schools (>50% acceptance rate) and can comfortably afford to attend without financial aid, then the choice of whether to take the SAT or ACT is up to you (particularly if you have strong grades and good AP scores).

If you are so staunchly opposed to standardized testing that taking the SAT or the ACT would represent an intolerable violation of your deepest-held principles, then you do not need to take one of those tests (although if you fall into that category, you presumably would have applied only to test-optional schools pre-pandemic anyway).

If you do not fall into one of those categories, then yes, it is a good idea to take the SAT or the ACT, or—a less good idea—both. (And for the record, I am not just saying this because I’m the author of a series of SAT and ACT books. Really.) (more…)

4 Canadian universities American students should know about

4 Canadian universities American students should know about

During my post-college/pre-tutoring admin stints in two Ivy League humanities departments, I became heavily involved in the administrative side of graduate admissions and consequently developed a familiarity with many reputable undergraduate programs located outside the U.S.

Over the years, I’ve come to take this knowledge for granted, but I became newly aware of it recently while listening to Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin of Tests and the Rest’s interview with Brandon Miller, an immigration consultant who has helped many American students study in Canada at the post-secondary level. Although the discussion was extremely informative from a logistical and financial perspective—I actually had no idea that U.S. federal loans could be applied to Canadian institutions—there were a handful of schools and programs that I would have liked to hear (more) about, hence the inspiration for this post.

So that said, these are four Canadian universities/university programs that, in my experience, often fly under American applicants’ radar but that deserve a serious look from anyone considering attending college outside the United States.  (more…)

12 skills you need for Band 7+ in IELTS Writing

12 skills you need for Band 7+ in IELTS Writing

Note: you can download this post as a pdf.

This guide covers 12 of the skills whose mastery generally corresponds to a score of Band 7 or above in IELTS Writing. It is by no means comprehensive—writing well in English involves far more than what can reasonably be covered here—but I have done my best to select the top concepts that IELTS candidates find particularly challenging, and that apply at a general structural level regardless of the topic or type of question involved.

To be clear: you do not need to be able to do every single thing on this list flawlessly in order to earn a Band 7 score. There is some room for error. But you must be able to do most of them, and do them consistently, in order to produce responses that contain mostly error-free sentences; remain clear and on-topic throughout; and are sufficiently cohesive and coherent.

Also, please note: The list below assumes that you know how to use standard spacing, punctuation, and capitalization. If you have difficulty with those aspects of English, you need to work on them first (more…)

My top tip for IELTS Listening: put your finger on the text

My top tip for IELTS Listening: put your finger on the text

In many way, IELTS Listening is as much a test of attention and multitasking as of aural comprehension. Regardless of accent, the recorded voices on the tape speak more slowly and clearly than people generally do in real life, and they do not use the kinds of slang* and idiomatic language that can be confusing to many non-native English speakers.

The difficulties of the Listening portion lie elsewhere, in processing the written information on the page and the spoken information on the recording at the same time, and in connecting one to the other. In principle, this is simple because the two convey the same information. However, they may not always be identical: the written portion may restate the recording word-for-word or, at certain points, it may paraphrase/condense the spoken part. When the latter occurs, it is easy to become confused and miss essential information simply because it takes you a few extra seconds to figure out which phrase or sentence on the page corresponds to what you are hearing. And in Listening, every second counts.

An additional challenge is that multiple-choice questions accompanied by a long list of answer choices are physically separated from the rest of the text, making it necessary to continually jump back and forth between different parts of the page while you listen. There’s a lot of content to manage, and if you spend just a couple of seconds too many re-reading an answer choice and stop paying close attention to the recording, you may miss the information you need to answer the following question. (more…)

7 Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test

7 Tips for the IELTS Speaking Test

 

1) A question is a general prompt; it is your job to “develop the topic”  

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but this is undoubtedly the single biggest issue for many IELTS candidates, especially in Part 1. In non-test life, when someone asks you a simple yes/no question such as Do you live alone or with other people? it’s perfectly fine to just say By myself.

An IELTS response that will put you on track for a high score, however, is something along the lines of I live in a house with a couple of other people right now, but I’m actually planning to move into a studio in a couple of months. I get along with everyone pretty well, but to be totally honest, I’m the sort of person who does better alone, so I’m really looking forward to having my own space.    

It’s ok to speak until the examiner cuts you off. You only get points taken off for talking too little, not for talking too much. If you are not naturally talkative, you will need to practice pushing yourself to keep giving more information than what certain questions seem to call for. Although this may seem deceptive on the IELTS’ part, it’s actually right there in the Band Descriptors: high-scoring responses are “fully” developed—by definition, that involves giving a lot of information. (more…)

Five tricky types of subject-verb agreement

Five tricky types of subject-verb agreement

I originally did this list as an Instagram post, but then it occurred to me that I should put it up here as well, so here goes in slightly expanded form.

First, remember that the singular/plural rule for verbs is the opposite of the rule for nouns:

Third-person singular verbs end in -s (it works, s/he does, the graph shows).

Third-person plural verbs do not end in -s (they work, they do, the graphs show).

1) Compound subject = plural

A compound noun consists of two nouns joined by and. These subjects are always plural, regardless of whether the individual nouns are singular or plural. This rule is easy in principle but can be surprisingly difficult in practice.

Correct: A stressful atmosphere and poor management are often responsible for employee burnout.

Incorrect: A stressful atmosphere and poor management is often responsible for employee burnout. (more…)

Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

Sign up for the international students’ newsletter

In recognition of the fact that many of the students who use Critical Reader guides are located outside the United States, we are launching a monthly newsletter specifically for students international students applying to universities in the English-speaking world (focus on the United States and Canada).

Sign up below, and get news and information about admissions, testing, visas, and scholarships.



Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

Now available: recorded webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers

I’m happy to announce that my Working with Struggling Older Readers: What Tutors Need to Know is now available at video.thecriticalreader.com. Although it is geared toward SAT/ACT tutors, it can be adapted by anyone working with struggling older readers in middle school or above.

The program includes the following: 

Part 1 (53:00) covers some of the background issues that influence the reading process and that can interfere with students’ ability to connect letters on a page to authentic language. (If you’ve read my series of blog posts on this topic, some of the material will probably be familiar, but I encourage you to watch this part regardless since it summarizes the major issues and provides important context for Part 2).

Part 2 (1:47) is a step-by-step guide to a series of systematic, age-appropriate exercises designed to help older readers process sound-letter combinations more accurately and fluently so that they can focus on the meaning of what they read. (more…)

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

How to write a body paragraph for the IELTS Task 2 essay

Although it is very important to make a good first impression on your examiner by writing a strong introduction to your Task 2 essay, the body paragraphs are where your overall mark will really be determined.

Body paragraphs form the substance of your essay, and so it is important that they be structured logically (Coherence and Cohesion), and in a way that allows you to respond to the question as directly and thoroughly as possible (Task Analysis).

Because the Writing test requires you to apply so many skills at the same time, it can be very helpful to have a standard body-paragraph “formula” that can be used for virtually any question.

Once you have determined the focus of your paragraph, each new idea can be introduced with linking device + point.

You can then discuss that point or give an example to illustrate it using no more than two additional sentences. The limit prevents repetition, over-explaining, and going off-topic.

(more…)

Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Update: Webinar for Reading Tutors

Slowly but surely, I am making progress on my webinar for tutors working with struggling older readers.

After a crash course in using Zoom to record PowerPoints, numerous attempts, and much time spent finagling computer-camera angles in my office, I’ve actually managed to produce what I hope is a serviceable recording. (I was having a bad hair day in pt. 2, but I’m hoping that everyone can deal;)

There are two parts: a shorter (approx. 40 mins.) introduction part, in which I summarize some of the key issues and background information (the Simple View; the Matthew effect; the three-cueing system); and a longer recording (1:45), in which I present and demonstrate a series of short exercises based on the sequence developed by my colleague Richard McManus at the Fluency Factory in Cohasset, Mass.

Although I spend a lot of time going over the exercises, they can actually be done in about 30 mins. and can thus be split with regular test prep. I’ve also tried to actually integrate SAT/ACT-based materials into the exercises as much as possible.

I’m currently working on the materials packet (probably in the range of 70-75 pages) and will hopefully have the whole thing ready by the week of November 7th. I haven’t yet determined the overall price, but the packet will be included along with the webinar because it would be pretty ridiculous to explain all of the exercises without, you know, actually providing them. Initially, I was going to focus on the ACT since that’s the test where speed and processing issues tend to become most apparent, but because the SAT is the more popular test, I’ve integrated some material from that exam as well.

A few points:

First, the webinar focuses on decoding issues rather than “reading” in the traditional test-prep sense. I want to be super clear about this so that people aren’t surprised.

Now, I understand that when reading issues are discussed in the context of older students, the assumption is that the conversation needs to focus on comprehension rather than letter-sound correspondences, but often that’s a false dichotomy. If a student is having difficulty reading the literal words on the page, and doing so fast enough to connect them to actual language, their comprehension is going to suffer.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work the other way around. There is absolutely no way to address a decoding issue via discussion of a text. Strong readers are not able to decode words because they have a personal connection to them; they are able to decode because their brains have “mapped” numerous letter-sound patterns and stored them for automatic retrieval so that they can process text at the speed of sight.

If a student is chronically guessing, skipping, and misreading words, particularly if they’re also reading slowly, something in that process got interrupted or was never developed properly, and their overall reading will not improve significantly until it’s addressed. And if you’re working with a student who reads very slowly and has comprehension problems, it’s entirely possible they have a decoding problem that no one’s ever picked up on. This happens far more often than you might imagine. (On the other hand, if a student can decode quickly and with 100% accuracy but can’t understand what they read, the material in the webinar probably* doesn’t apply to them.)

Obviously, you need to continue to discuss vocabulary, meaning, summarizing, etc. But if you’re a tutor, you probably already know how to do that just fine and don’t need any help from me; it’s the other piece that people generally don’t know about. I certainly didn’t, and it would have made my life a heck of lot easier when I was tutoring. At the very least, it would have given me a framework for understanding a lot of the difficulties I was seeing and saved me from 10 years of trying to figure out what to do about them.

Next: Even if you’ve read my blog posts on these issues, I’m still going to recommend that you watch Part 1 because I think I’ve managed to really crystallize the issues and bring them into focus in a test-prep context. I spent many, many hours (weeks, actually) organizing and rewriting slides to make things as clear as possible, and the exercises I cover in Part 2 will really only make sense in that context.

Finally, I have received some requests for one-on-one consulting, but I’m going to ask that even if you’re interested in working with me privately, you view the full webinar first. If what you see piques your interest and you want to learn more, then feel free to get in touch.

 

 

*Richard McManus has a famous story about a student who appeared to be reading aloud perfectly but understood virtually nothing that she read. He was baffled until a colleague recognized that the girl couldn’t hear vowel sounds properly. They worked on the vowels, and her comprehension improved markedly. Sometimes decoding problems aren’t obvious.

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

To make your IELTS writing more idiomatic, stop trying to use idioms

Fiona Wattam at IELTS Etc. recently put up an excellent post on some of the trickier aspects of using idioms well in IELTS essays, and it got me thinking about that topic as well. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a very popular subject: a quick Google search turns up almost four million results, some of which offer very contradictory advice.

I spent a lot of time thinking about idioms while writing (and repeatedly rewriting) that section of my IELTS grammar book, and at a certain point—perhaps after my tenth revision?—I came to a realization and finally managed to put the issue into words: using idioms is not the same as speaking or writing idiomatically.

I realize that statement might sound very contradictory so, to use a frequently memorized Task 1 General Training phrase, allow me to explain:

Essentially, the problem lies in the similarity of the terms idiom and idiomatic. One could very reasonably assume that they refer to the same thing, but in reality… not quite.

Generally speaking, idioms are fixed phrases in which words are frequently used in non-literal ways. For example, the American idiom out of left field (a baseball reference) refers to something said or done very unexpectedly.

The word idiomatic, however, does not just mean “filled with idioms.” Rather, it is a more general term that describes language in which words are put together naturally, the way a native speaker would arrange them.

Now, idiomatic language may contain idioms in the sense of fixed, non-literal phrases—indeed, it often does, since English makes considerable use of these expressions—but that is not necessarily the case. Rather, using language idiomatically is a matter of using the type of language that is appropriate to a given situation. This is what you need to be able to do to receive high marks in Writing and Speaking. 

You can also think of it this way: Just using idioms will not make you sound more like a native speaker. Using idioms the way native speakers use idioms will make you sound more like a native speaker.

As Fiona pointed out in her post, this is not a simple task. It involves, among other things, (in)formality, age, social status, and what type of language is currently “in”.

That’s a lot of factors to take into account, and unfortunately there isn’t any room to get things wrong. Idioms are idioms because they’re fixed by definition: you can’t make tiny changes such as adding, changing, or omitting articles, or making singular nouns plural, without creating constructions that sound obviously and immediately wrong to a native ear.

To take just a few examples I grabbed from social media:

It should be, “There’s no use crying over spilt/spilled milk” (no “the”).

Or this:

 

It should be “as old as the hills” (outdated; almost never used).

This should be, “It runs in the family.” The present continuous cannot replace the simple present.

 

Misusing idioms in ways they’re misused above will actually make your English sound less natural than not using idioms at all.

To add yet another layer of confusion, idiomatic language is often associated with informality, but it can actually be used in more formal situations as well. The two types of situations require different types of constructions, however. In Task 2 essays, the real challenge is using idiomatic language that is appropriate for formal contexts.

One of the biggest problems here is that the idioms ESL students learn are in fact clichés, or phrases that are extremely overused and that make a writer or speaker sound unoriginal (and sometimes very old-fashioned). These types of phrases are also informal and should not be used in Task 2 or Task 1 Academic Training essays. Unfortunately, most IELTS idiom lists are filled with them.

Common examples include it’s a piece of cake (to describe something very easy); every cloud has a silver lining (something good can result from something bad); once in a blue moon (very rarely); and every coin has two sides, or there are two sides to every story (people can interpret the same situation in opposite ways).

It’s not a bad idea to be familiar with these phrases since you will probably encounter them sooner or later, but you shouldn’t go out of your way to use them.

On the other hand, idiomatic language associated with more formal situations tends to fall more into the category of collocations—words or phrases that are typically used together by native speakers. A few examples from this post include take into accountyet another layer, and could reasonably assume.

Of course, things aren’t so simple here either: some collocations are informal only; others can be used in both formal and informal situations; and still others are primarily used in formal situations.

This also goes beyond “phrasal verbs = informal; single-word verbs = formal”. Some phrasal verbs are in fact perfectly acceptable in formal situations, while some single-word verbs are perfectly acceptable in informal ones.

For example, consider the following example (adapted from a real essay):

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by offering the facility to hit the gym.

The writer gets it right in the first part of the sentence: speak highly of is an outstanding example of a formal-only idiom/collocation. In an informal context, a person might say I’ve heard such great things about you! This is Band 7+ vocabulary usage.

The problem occurs at the end of the sentence: the phrase hit the gym is something that would normally be said in casual speech, e.g., Ok, guys, I’m outta here. I’m gonna hit the gym for an hour or so and then head home.

In addition, the writer refers to friends and companies, plural, so the plural facilities is more natural than the singular facility here. (And if the writer were to use the singular, rather than the would need to be used before facility since there are many such facilities in existence.)

The student has a good general grasp of English, but the details aren’t quite right. Errors like this throughout an essay can easily knock an overall Writing score into 6.5 range.

Some examples of more idiomatic—that is, more formal—constructions would be as follows:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by offering workout facilities.

Or:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by providing facilities for them to work out. (Note that workout is one word as a noun, two as a verb.)

Or:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by making workout facilities available to them.

Or even:

Some of my friends speak highly of their employers because they feel their companies show an interest in workers’ wellbeing by making exercise facilities available on-site.

Note that while none of the rewritten phrases contains an idiom in the sense of hit the gym, they are all far more idiomatic than the original version. 

In the Speaking test, and in Task 1 General Training letters to friends, this is reversed: you should absolutely make an effort to use informal collocations such as hit the gym (e.g., Working out isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do, but I make an effort to stay in shape. I try to hit the gym at least a couple of days a week after work.) But for purposes of the IELTS, you can probably skip most idiom lists (with perhaps a few exceptions) and focus instead on “collecting” collocations when you read or listen to English produced by native speakers.

Yes, this requires much more active though; however, you’re much more likely to 1) remember various expressions and 2) use them correctly if you can associate them with a specific context. Your goal is always to write or speak the type of English that is most appropriate at a particular moment, and that’s something no word list can possibly teach you.

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

Coming soon: webinar for tutors working with struggling readers

At the beginning of the summer, after I did my series of posts for tutors who have unexpectedly found themselves working with struggling high-school readers trying to prepare for college admissions tests, I started putting together a presentation for a webinar to address the major issues at play and demonstrate some of the exercises that can be used to help remediate such students.

Alas, my summer and the beginning of my fall got hijacked by my IELTS books, followed in rapid succession by necessary updates to my GMAT, ACT English, and ACT Reading books (followed by the IELTS again).

I’m happy to announce, however, that I finally seem to be back on track and am planning to record the webinar in the next week or so, and then people can access it at their convenience. I’m also doing my best to put together an accompanying materials pack that includes all the exercises covered. (more…)

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

“IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary” is now available

The print version of my IELTS grammar and vocabulary guide covering both Academic and General Training is now available on Amazon as well as the Books page. If you’re studying for that exam, or are a tutor who prepare students for it, here is what you need to know.

IELTS® Writing: Grammar and Vocabulary is based on a simple premise: to write a good essay, one must first be able to write well at the sentence level.  

Many IELTS Writing guides focus on overall essay organization and construction and treat grammar and sentence-structure almost as an afterthought. And if they do emphasize these aspects of English, they often include example sentences that are much simpler than those required by the exam, or that are not fully relevant to the kinds of topics it involves. As for books written by non-native English speakers… well, I’m not even going to go there.

This is book is different. To the greatest extent possible, it focuses on direct application to the IELTS. It shows how specific structures are particularly suited to certain topics and scenarios, and points out traps to avoid. It also walks readers through the process of constructing “complex” sentences without losing control of their writing, and covers common errors that many test-takers do not even realize can easily (and quickly) prevent them from achieving their desired score. (more…)

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

As you may have heard, the ACT is tweaking its Reading test to include some graph- or chart-based questions similar to those on the Science test and the SAT Reading test. I’ve received several inquiries regarding these changes, so I wanted to let everyone know where things stand in terms of my materials.

First, yes,  I will be updating The Complete Guide to ACT Reading, although not immediately.

Unfortunately, the 2021-22 ACT Official Guide does not include any sample passages accompanied by the new question type; as of July 2021, the only example I’ve been able to locate is the one posted on the ACT website, and, well… It doesn’t seem particularly well done (to put things diplomatically). In the absence of any material from administered tests, there’s also no way for me to tell how well it reflects what the actual exam will look like. (more…)

The three types of conjunctions, and how to punctuate them

There are three main types of conjunctions in English. Some words in different categories have identical meanings, but they have different grammatical functions. As a result, they are punctuated differently when used to begin a clause or sentence.

Although the conjunctions discussed below may also appear in the middle or at the end of a sentence in certain contexts, this post concerns their placement at the start of a sentence or clause only.

 1) Coordinating Conjunctions (“FANBOYS”) 

There are seven coordinating conjunctions, known collectively by the acronym FANBOYS:

These words are placed in the middle of a sentence to join two independent clauses and should follow a comma. Although the punctuation is often omitted in everyday writing, you should make an effort to use it because the comma serves to clearly separate the parts of the sentence and helps the reader follow your ideas more easily. (more…)