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July 2017

Congratulations Marwa on your S28 on the TOEFL iBT!

By | Speaking 26+, TOEFL iBT | No Comments

I met Marwa in February of 2017 when she was fumbling around in the dark, trying to tackle TOEFL all by herself. She knew she needed help but she felt overwhelmed by all the options available and didn’t want to waste her time.

She booked her first lesson with me and I helped demystify the Independent Speaking section of the TOEFL iBT. She sent me two speaking files – one for Task 1 and one for Task 2. She also sent me her notes and the transcripts of these speaking files. I gave her a detailed Score Analysis of these two responses and gave her feedback on her strengths and weaknesses. We focused on Topic Development, Language Use and Delivery – the 3 categories that she was going to be graded on in the Speaking section of the TOEFL iBT exam. I gave her specific suggestions on how to improve each one of those elements so she could raise her score from a S24 to a S26.

She told me she was impressed with my organization and knowledge of the exam and that she wanted to book another class so we could discuss the Integrated speaking section. I told her she  had to choose either Tasks 3&5 or Tasks 4&6 because it was too much to cover in just one 60-minute class. She then realized on her own that if she really wanted to make progress and reach her goals, she should purchase a package of lessons. We worked together for about 4 months and on June 24th she took her exam.

She got Reading 26, Listening 27, Writing 25 and Speaking 28!


“I can’t describe how I felt when I saw my results, I cried, I laughed, and I felt like I’m going to burst out of happiness, and the funniest thing is that I woke up my kids two minutes after seeing my results at 5 a.m. Thanks to Sierra and everyone on English Success Academy without their help, I would have never pass the TOEFL obstacle. Now, I can fulfill my dream and press the “go” button on my life.”



Read more about Marwa’s experience in her own words here below…

My name is Marwa, I’m from Sudan and I have been living in the U.S. for almost 12 years now. I’m a mom of 4 kids, 2 soccer loving boys and twin daughters who are almost three years old. I talked about my kids because I want you to imagine how busy my life is, and If you think you’re busy and you can’t do it, just remember me a mom with 4 kids, who runs around all day long to and from soccer practices, playgroups and physical therapy for her daughters, got more than 26 speaking after a long struggle with TOEFL.

My first time taking TOEFL was way back in 2008, it was good but I didn’t get the required score. So I decided to move on to the FPGEE and since my scores weren’t that bad, I kept telling myself I will get the score if I took it one more time and I’ll be lucky. I took FPGEE in 2012 and was a piece of cake for me and I went back to TOEFL and took it for the second time,  but the surprise that my scores wasn’t good enough. I was so disappointed on myself and I decided to go for a pharmacy tech certificate and my goal was to add a writing class and a keyboarding class in addition to the phramcy tech classes. I tried taking TOEFL  for the third time, and luck wasn’t on my side this time either, my scores were 24 and 22 on Speaking and Writing respectively.  After getting my results, I was so devastated and I lost hope in fullfilling my dream of being a pharmacist.  I had a new plan this time which is forgetting about being a pharmacist and finding something else, so I went back to college and I earned a certificate in  Basic office skills. All the jobs that I applied for needs 4+ years of experience and my twin daughters were so young at that time, so I thought may be I need to rethink my plan and try to make my dream come true this time. In addition, my FPGEE is going to be expired soon and of course, it is imposible to study again and retake FPGEE.

I took it again for the fourth time and my scores were the same as my last one, 24 on S and 22 on W.  I knew at that time there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was, as we all know the score reports are not helpful because they are so general.  For all those previous tests I studied by myself because I didn’t think that I need a professional help and I thought that I don’t need to spend any money on preparing for TOEFL. After my fourth time, I knew that I needed to change how I study for TOEFL and try something new. I kept looking online for anything that can help, there were so many options, and to be honest I choose English Success Academy before reading any reviews. I wanted to try it first and see if I like their teaching style or not. I booked my lessons with Sierra, she is so kind, enthusiastic, passionate about teaching, and caring too. She made me feel very comfortable and gave me confident in myself from the first class and supported me emotionally the whole time. I took classes with Sierra over a period of three months and over this short period I felt that I improved a lot. Sierra’s method of teaching is so creative: creating more thoughtful flash cards which contain way more information other than words and meanings, tackeling each task separately and after perfecting it move th the next, bulletin board for all speaking tasks flash cards, helpfull videos on pronounciation, strategies and tips on writing which are totally different from all other sources and books that I saw in the past five years. Jaime’s books, 24+ writing and The Advanced Speaking Guide, are two the best books because they’re concise and they cover everything you need to know to get the 24 and 26 on writing and speaking. Also, Sierra helped me alot by creating a shedule for what to do each day so I can spend time working on all tasks and to not foreget about Reading and listening. Sierra’s advice was to practice a lot and rest the last week before the test, and on the test day smile and be confident and believe in yourself.

I did exactly as Sierra told me, I was smiling the whole time and I felt confident that I can get it this time. 10 days later, at 4:58 in the morning, I  had my score report and it was amazing: R:26, L:27, the surprise S:28, and finally W:25. I can’t describe how I felt when I saw my results, I cried, I laughed, and I felt like I’m going to burst out of happiness, and the funniest thing is that I woke up my kids two minutes after seeing my results at 5 a.m. Thanks to Sierra and everyone on English Success Academy without their help, I would have never pass the TOEFL obstacle. Now, I can fulfill my dream and press the “go” botton on my life.

Congratulations Marwa! I’m so proud of you!

Transcript of my video interview with Mary – an Egyptian pharmacist who scored S28 and W27

By | Speaking 26+, TOEFL iBT | No Comments

Here’s the transcript for my video interview with Mary – an Egyptian student who scored S28 and W27 on her TOEFL iBT in June after working with me on and off for over 9 months. Click below to watch and listen to the video!


Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4Kg4nqTUx4&feature=youtu.be

Sierra: Here we go, alright Mary… it’s good to see you. So, basically we’re meeting just to talk a little bit about what your experience has been since you passed TOEFL. We don’t say “passed” but since you got your Speaking score of 28. Bravo! And um one of the things I just want to share with some of the other students I’m working with is just your path, how you got there, I know that you know, you and I had lessons together on and off for 9 months. So, maybe we could start talking about what that was like because we didn’t see each other all the time, we had some breaks in between. So, what was that like?

Mary: Yeah, we started on the writing package at the beginning and that took around 1.5 months. And I remember we jumped into the speaking package and at the middle I felt overwhelmed and asked you for a break, and it took around 1.5 months also as a break, it was at Christmas time, and then we started again. I think we need time, sometimes we need to take a break to digest and absorb everything that I got because you know just you give me a lot of information and I didn’t get all of that at the same time. I’m working and I have a family, so I can’t you know gather all this together, so I needed to take a break 2 or 3 times a break. So, it wasn’t full 9 months, we took 3 breaks.

Sierra: Exactly, you did some self-study and we stayed in touch… And you like absorbed everything, we talked about it.

Mary: Yes, we need that.

Sierra: I remember when you said to me, “Sierra, is it OK if I take a little break?” And I said, “Of course it’s OK!” I want encourage other students to do that and also to understand that you can’t rush this you know, I mean we talked a little bit about TOEFL, obviously, it’s an exam and our purpose is to get a certain score but it’s a language exam.

Mary: To learn a language, you have to build it as layers. You can’t learn a language in one day or two days, you have to work on it and to be patient. You have to have a good foundation at the beginning and have a good grammar and good vocabulary, and then finally you can work on your delivery. So, you need time, you need to be patient. And one good thing about TOEFL is that it’s all related to each other, all of them are about English. When you practice Reading and Listening, you will benefit of course from these two sections on the Writing and the Speaking. Like you can find some passages at the Reading, and then you might find it at task 6 at the Speaking, so you’ll be familiar with these terms.

Sierra: Exactly! We were talking about how you did a lot of outside reading and listening, even though we didn’t actually practice that in class together, we talked about building your foundation and how important it is also for stamina to be able to last and to feel relaxed during the exam. Part of it is just… You know, raising your reading score is not just about getting a number. It’s because if you do well in Reading, you feel a lot more relaxed through the whole exam. And you did that a lot! I know you went to a library and you did sort of exam-style practice where you would go through the whole 4 hours, and that was really useful for you, right?

Mary: Yeah, and I did that 2 months before the exam. I used to go to a library at 9 o’clock, and move from there at 2 o’clock. From 9 to 12, I worked under timed condition, on the time restrictions for the test.  And I remember around 1 to 2, I usually reserved a study room at the library to be able to practice the Speaking. And you know, at the day of the test, it was kind of normal, like I was used to that, I wasn’t exhausted or overwhelmed. It’s 4.5 hours, it’s overwhelming, it’s stressful, so when you are used to it, it’s kind of a normal day. Like it was one of the days when I used to go to the library. It was very helpful!

Sierra: You were totally prepared, like physically too, cause we say it’s like a marathon you know. And also, like you said, some of the topics recycle. I remember you telling me when we were practicing, “Oh, I’m so glad I read about this because I saw the same topic in task 4 when I was doing a speaking response”, or it’s the same thing as task 6, so… And discovering that on your own is great. I was actually telling another student of mine this morning. We were working on the Listening section and we were looking at the transcript and she said, “Oh, if this was a Reading passage, it would be a lot easier for me.” And I said, “It will be!”

Mary: Like task 1 and 2 at the Speaking, you can find them at the Independent Writing. It’s kind of the same, it’s all about English.

Sierra: Totally. And then I just wanna talk a little bit about what it was like for you when you got back to work because part of what we talked about your drive to accomplish, to achieve the scores that you wanted, it’s not just about passing TOEFL. You know, you’re a pharmacist and you want to help people, and you were already working at a pharmacy. And you had some experiences that were kind of disappointing for you… Talk to me a little bit about that.

Mary: You know, as a pharmacy technician it’s not only about how to pronounce the name of the medications, sometimes you get a lot of phone calls. So, when you cannot understand people or they cannot understand me, the most important part was that they couldn’t understand me a lot. And I’ve been working there for 3 years, and all these past three years, I didn’t feel any difference. I wasn’t working on improving myself but when I started working on the pronunciation, and you told me like there’s some key points like in English there’s some syllable that we have to stress more to be fully understood. Like the word “insurance”, we used to say it in a different way for Arabic speakers, so when I knew that we have to stress the last syllable, I was fully understood, so I don’t fear this word anymore. I used to hear “Sorry, could you repeat it again? Could you repeat that again, I don’t understand you.” I felt embarrassed and I felt down a lot of time but now I think I’m more confident, I know how to pronounce the words exactly right and they can understand me, it’s a huge difference.

Sierra: That’s the thing! A lot of the students that come to me, they have this… It’s like tunnel vision, it’s like “I have to pass TOEFL, I have to pass TOEFL.” And I know you do, and I know it’s important but sometimes the strength that you find from imagining what you life is going to be like after TOEFL, and how you’re going to help people, and the fact that learning or improving in a language, getting better at English is not just going help you get a 26, it’s going to help you communicate better, and you’re going to feel more confident. And I think that confidence that you gain while you and I were working on your pronunciation made you feel like “You know, I can say this right. I’m going to be confident at work, I’m going to talk to the people that I work with and to my patients, and the clients that are there. And I’m so glad that you’ve seen that, a positive improvement there, because the exam is over, you got the scores that you need.

Mary: Yeah, I didn’t just want pass the TOEFL, I just wanted to be confident about myself. I’ll be standing in a pharmacy sometimes by myself, so if I struggle or the people can’t understand me, how can I deliver a good customer service? How could I help the people?

Sierra: Now you feel more confident.

Mary: A lot.

Sierra: So glad, I’m so glad! I think the only other thing we talked about, we mentioned we were going to discuss… The experience of someone we refer to as “serial test-takers,” or the advice that sometimes you hear, or you see that on the Internet, or a friend will tell you, “Just keep taking the exam, you just have to keep taking it. The more you take it, the closer you will get. That’s how you get the score you need.” How do you feel about that?

Mary: Like when I took my first test, it wasn’t a bad result, I got 24 at the Speaking and a lot of my friends told me, “You have to keep taking the exam, you’ll get it, one time you’ll get it.” But I wasn’t totally convinced about that. I thought that I need to work on my English, I work at a pharmacy and I know the challenges, I work with a lot of foreigners, a lot of African and Indian people, and sometimes I can feel how they feel embarrassed. I know they passed the TOEFL a long time ago, and they didn’t require this score, but I didn’t want to be like them to be honest. I want to be totally confident, so I thought that I should work on my language first to be able to pass. And it’s not only about passing the TOEFL. And you know and why spending all this money on taking the test over and over and feeling bad about yourself without recognizing your problems and difficulties. I wanted to know what are my problems, that’s why I didn’t do that.

Sierra: Plus it’s like… Taking TOEFL is stressful, not doing well on TOEFL, or not getting the score you want is stressful, and stress creates a situation when sometimes it kind of blocks you and you’re not able to learn. And so students I have that continue to take the exam, I tell them, “Take a break. Wait. Let’s see how you are when you are outside of that element.” And that’s often what allows them to be able to take in new information and to make progress because when they’re under stress, you know, you just can’t. Plus, it’s expensive!

Mary: And you have to know… To get a diagnosis – what you problem is to be able to work on it. Sometimes people get Reading high and the Listening low, and they keep messing around with these scores and…

Sierra: Yeah, you don’t know why! ETS Score Report doesn’t tell you!

Mary: Yes, you have to know your problems and start to work on them, and focus on them more. Yeah, I didn’t like that idea about taking the test, it’s not a practice, that experience is not a practice. You can practice at home, you can work on your problems more…

Sierra: And how did you know what your problems were? How did you figure out what you needed to work on?

Mary: When I got a Score Analysis.

Sierra: Yeah, that’s one of the things… It’s eye-opening for a lot of students when someone tells them, “Look, these are the sounds that you need to work on, this is how we are going to do that, these are the steps we’re going to take to fix the errors that you’re making.”

Mary: Having a plan.

Sierra: Yeah, exactly! And being organized. And I congratulate you, you are wonderfully organized and I loved when you would send me pictures of your study corner and all the flashcards you put up and everything. I’ve used that with a lot of other students as inspiration.

Mary: Thank you Sierra. Thanks to you.

Sierra: I won’t keep you too much longer, thank you so much for everything and obviously we’ve already said this but we’ll stay in touch. And I’m looking forward to hearing about your life after TOEFL.

Mary: Yeah, it will be changed, of course.

Sierra: I will talk to you soon, ok? Have a great day.

Mary: Thank you so much, Thank you Sierra.

Sierra: Thank you

Mary: Thank you

To learn more, see my recent post where I share a letter she wrote about our experience together: http://sierra-forest.com/my-student-mary-scored-a-28-in-speaking-and-a-27-in-writing-on-toefl/

My student Mary scored a S28 and a W27 on TOEFL iBT!

By | Speaking 26+, TOEFL iBT | No Comments

Yes, a 28 in Speaking! We’re ecstatic!

Mary and I have been working together on and off since October of 2016. Last month on June 9th, she took her exam for the third time. She started preparing last year but after taking the exam twice and scoring a Speaking 24 she decided to look for a professional to help her reach her goal of Speaking 26. A friend of hers had studied with English Success Academy so she came to us for a score analysis and private lessons. After 9 months of private lessons with me, she finally scored R25, L26, S28, W27!

Here’s what she wrote about our experience after receiving her scores…

“My name is Mary, I am pharmacist from Egypt and mother of 2 kids. I came to the USA in 2012 and I started to work as a pharmacy technician in 2014. Like most of the foreigners graduates, I started working on my degree to get a good position in the country. It was in 2015 when I decided to take my FPGEE test and I passed like most of the people. When it came to the hardest step, and of course I mean the TOEFL, I said to myself “I will try to do it by myself” because I thought my English is not that bad.

So, I worked for about 4 months from one of the most popular free websites, and I took my first trial in may 2016 but at the test center, I was shocked that most of the students who were taking the exam with me, were almost responding the same way I did, like I heard them delivering their responses and using the same formula that I used. Later on, I got my scores and I got R26, L19, S24, W25. Then, I decided that I will give it another shot and that was a month later, this time I got R24, L24, S24, W21. I was disappointed and I didn’t know what my problem was, in addition of a lot of bad experiences from the people around me who were stuck for almost 4 years at the TOEFL, and even some of them got their FPGEE expired because they couldn’t pass their TOEFL. The situation was really depressing and I was feeling like I am lost.

After that, I met one of my friends who was trying really hard for 4 years to pass the TOEFL and she told me that she took some online classes and she passed it finally. I got all the info, that I needed from her and started emailing them. It was English Success Academy. First, I scheduled a Score Analysis with Jaime Miller and she identified all my weaknesses and gave me a plan to work on, she gave me the option to work by myself or getting some help from English Success Academy.

Actually, I didn’t feel confident that I will be able to do it alone, so I decided to book some classes with one of their teachers, it was Sierra. What made me choose her is that she said that she moved to live in France, and that she totally understands the challenges that can face new language learners. I believed that someone who is living the same conditions I am in, would be the best person to help me. We started our first classes in October, and I can tell that I mastered the Writing in a very short time. I don’t know how she did it, but I started to feel confident about myself, especially, when she told me that I don’t need to write 530 words to get a high score, knowing that was really helpful for me and stress relieving because I am a slow typer and didn’t use the computer that much in my home country.

After one month and a half we moved to the speaking section. Sierra worked on teaching me how to organize my time wisely and how to use the 15 seconds which is a very short time to prepare my response, she worked on reducing my accent and all the letters that as an Arabic speaker might have problems on. She made for a weekly schedule, to help me find time to absorb and practice everything we took in classes. Furthermore, she didn’t forget working on my reading and listening at the same time, she used to tell me that in order to get high scores in speaking and writing, I should keep my listening and reading ones high as well. After months of practice and hard work together, I was ready to take the exam in June 2017. And I couldn’t believe it I got R25, L26, S28, W27. My total is 106!

I don’t know how to thank you Sierra, you gave me the fuel all the time and kept pushing me and taught me how to think positively about myself. You taught me how to feel relaxed in every speaking task, when you told me smile before every task. Texting me the day of the exam and sending me all these kind words, believing that I’m ready to take the exam and that it was MY DAY, all these and more and even all the words can’t express how I want to thank you. Now, I can move on and get closer to be a certified pharmacist. All thanks to you Sierra, you are an awesome teacher, and overall a great and kind person. Thanks to all the staff of the English Success Academy.”

Congratulations Mary and thank you for your hard work, dedication and trust. I am so proud of you!