Last year at this time, I was teaching on behalf of the U.S. Embassy’s Opportunity Fund, working with at-risk students in Ethiopia, helping them prepare for and apply to colleges and universities in the United States. This included preparation for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), Personal Statement essay writing, and of course, training for the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). All three are necessary for admittance to U.S. universities such as USC, Brown or Cornell, securing these students a path out of East Africa and paving their future with an education which will in turn help them reach their dreams.
This summer I find myself once again teaching TOEFL, this time to Chinese university students, most of whom have a vastly different set of educational realities which face them, including postgraduate degrees abroad and applications to some of the world’s leading high-tech companies.
Yet it is the same amount of motivation which I have found in classrooms around the world — students understanding the importance of English and the role it plays in acting as a gateway to global ambitions. The use of an adjective to describe a noun isn’t what will lead to aspired accomplishments, rather it is universal acceptance which comes with learning a second language and the social adaptation which underscores the importance of tests like TOEFL, measuring not only linguistic ability, but cultural understanding as well.
Two hours a day over the course of four weeks I worked with students at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) on speaking and listening skillsets associated with the TOEFL test. Contrast transition words providing clues to important shifts in the speaker’s content while intonation and variations in pitch highlight meaning and connotation.
The topics of our listening examples shed light on Americanisms, where distance is measured in miles and where weight is abbreviated as lbs. The 30 students in our class laugh at the unfunny jokes, feign interest in the topics discussed, and gaze at words like vitriolic; the whole time understanding that this is a necessary means to an end. Intensive linguistic learning takes place on a different set of gears than in a regular 16-week semester, but still, lessons are shared by all, with myself careful to facilitate learning, not to master.
With previous experience teaching TOEFL courses in Ethiopia, and before that, South Korea, I feel confident that my practice within a Chinese context has likewise gone smoothly, encouraging student learning through cooperation, giving them ownership over materials which at times may seem as foreign to them as the idioms often mentioned in our listening exercises.
As the teacher, I am able to learn too, gaining cultural insight from my students, much as was the case in Africa, as each set of students learns differently. Grateful for these global opportunities, I hope that my instruction through TOEFL pedagogy will similarly give these students the same international prospects I have been afforded, expanding their worldview while opening a linguistic gateway to the world.