What would you do with a $1,000 inheritance?

Posted November 14th, 2014 at 4:37 pm (UTC-4)
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1000dollarbillOur American Stories episode for this week is the O. Henry story, “One Thousand Dollars.” The main character, Gillian,  (spoiler alert!) gets an inheritance, $1,000.00, from his rich uncle who has died. But he is not too happy, because he knows his uncle was very rich and had “over a half a million,” according to a friend.

So our hero goes around asking his friends and people he meets in the street, “What would you do with a thousand dollars?” He gets some wild answers, ranging from sheep ranching to buying diamonds, to starting a bar.  In contrast to his uncle’s great wealth and Gillian’s small inheritance, he learns that the people who lived with his uncle each got only ten dollars. This seems like a cruel joke.


Read the story to find out what he decides to do.

After you’ve read the story, you can write a comment here to let me know how you would spend the $1,000. If you’d like, you can apply the current inflation rate. When this story was written, $1,000 would go pretty far. It would be $26,315.79 in 2014 dollars.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Dr. Jill Robbins

Jill produces TESOL-related content for VOA Learning English.

#TravelThursday: Phrasal verbs all about travel!

Posted November 6th, 2014 at 2:44 pm (UTC-4)
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A mother, child, and grandmother speed up on a road in Sichuan province, China

Happy #TravelThursday, friends!

As you already know from studying English, phrasal verbs are everywhere!

Tomorrow on TALK2US, my friend Caty Weaver and I will be discussing phrasal verbs that are related to traveling.

I  thought I would give you a little preview here. Hopefully you can practice these phrasal verbs with us tomorrow (Friday) on Skype, from 1800 UTC to 1900 UTC. We’d love to hear from you!

Phrasal Verbs about Travel:

take off: when a plane leaves and begins to fly. (Example: My plane takes off at 5:45 p.m.)

set out: to start a trip or journey. (Example: I plan to set out at around 7 a.m. to avoid traffic)

held up: to be delayed, to be running late. (Example: I got held up going through security, so I almost missed my flight!)

pop in: to quickly visit a place. (Example: I might try to pop in to that new museum in the city).

check in: to arrive and register at a hotel or airport. (Example: You should check in to your flight at least one hour before it takes off).

stop over: to have a short visit in a place while on the way to your destination. (Example: I’m going to stop over in New York City on my way to Boston).

*Try to write a paragraph using some of these travel phrasal verbs. I’ll be glad to help you out if you aren’t quite sure what one means. And don’t forget to try out these phrasal verbs with us tomorrow on Skype!)


Ashley Thompson
Ashley Thompson works at VOA Learning English. She is a fan of languages, waterfalls and dogs.

#TravelThursday – Wanderlust

Posted October 29th, 2014 at 5:12 pm (UTC-4)
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Sunday market in Hotan, Xinjiang, China

Sunday market in Hotan, Xinjiang, China

The word Wanderlust means a strong desire to travel and see the world. The term actually comes from the German words wandern (to hike) and lust (desire).

Wanderlust isn’t just about having a desire to travel and see famous landmarks. It goes deeper than that. It’s about wanting to experience, on a daily basis, a way of life that is unique to a city or region.

Do you have wanderlust?

For me, a strong sense of wanderlust led me to move to western China. I wanted to know a different part of the world. Wanderlust also led me to staying in China much longer than I had planned.

I must admit, I have felt a very strong sense of wanderlust while reading all of your comments on #TravelThursday blogs! Here are just a few of my favorite comments from readers describing their hometowns as well as their favorite places to visit.

I hope you enjoy them!


giza pyramids, cairo, egypt

AP photo. Giza Pyramids, Cairo.

“Cairo is a historic city with plenty of ancient places to visit. However, Cairo is a modern city at the same time. The culture of Cairo is so rich because of the diversity of the people who have lived in the city. There are Muslims as a majority, and also Christians and Jews. So the city has Pharaonic, Islamic, Christian and Jewish ancient buildings. This richness in culture comes from the diversity of civilizations that emerged from the city in the past. The people of Cairo are so unique. Despite the difficulties they face in their lives and the economic state of their country, they have a good sense of humor. They laugh a lot and know how to enjoy their life and time. Despite the limitation in resources, they are masters at finding smart solutions for their problems.” –Aya Saad, Egypt

Alpine activities - Dolomites, north of Italy

AP photo, Dolomites

“Hello from Italy. I’m very lucky to live not far from the Alps and the Dolomites mountain range. I love to go hiking, but the best for me is enjoying the scenery from the top of the mountain. There aren’t a lot of people, so everything seems quiet and silent. I love autumn, when the air becomes cold, and everything is waiting for winter and show.” -Lisa Nuvoloni, Italy

“I live in Russia, north of the Arctic Circle. In my region, there aren’t big trees, only small ones. I like autumn because of all of the colorful trees. But this period is very short in my hometown, sadly. It’s my dream to see such bright and great forests.” –Zhanna Nord, Russia.

“My hometown is in Dong Nai Province. It is small; there are many fields for planting rice, and places for children to fly kites in the evening. The locals are very friendly, and we have a different lifestyle that sets us apart from other areas. Recently, my hometown has been changing rapidly because Vietnam’s economy is growing, as well as because of impacts of globalization. Anyway, I really miss my hometown. It is a memorable place and I will never forget many things I did together with my family and friends. I agree with you that “Some people may call it a flyover state, but I happy to call it home,” like you wrote. “There is no place like home.”    -Thaihuy Dang, Vietnam

AP photo, Hue palace

AP photo, Hue palace

“I would recommend you to visit my hometown, Hue City, Vietnam. It’s a small city, but very beautiful and peaceful, with a lot of delicious special dishes. This city is the old capital of Vietnam, and has become a travel destination for the rest of the world. Hue is renowned as a cultural and religious city of Vietnam. Welcome to Hue.”  –Thanh Xuan, Vietnam


Ashley Thompson
Ashley Thompson works at VOA Learning English. She is a fan of languages, waterfalls and dogs.

#TravelThursday — Shenandoah National Park

Posted October 23rd, 2014 at 11:01 am (UTC-4)
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photo 4

photo by Anastasia Kolobrodova

One of the things I like most about living in DC is, well, leaving DC. A two-hour drive transports you to places like Shenandoah National Park, which feels a world away.

The colors of autumn are on full display in Shenandoah, which is about 120 kilometers southwest of Washington, DC. Every fall season, people flock to the park to hike in the mountains and take in the beautiful views of the surrounding Shenandoah Valley, in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia.

Last weekend, some friends and I went there to do exactly that.

The drive from the U.S. capital city to the national park takes less than two hours. However, the two places feel very far away. On the way, the road passes by apple and pumpkin farms, country diners, and small towns. The scenery is very different from the city streets of Washington.

Shenandoah is a popular place on the U.S. East Coast for leaf-peeping, an informal term for people who travel to view and photograph the autumn leaves as they change colors. It may seem funny to travel somewhere just to see the changing colors of trees, but leaf peepers are serious about it!

It was no surprise, then, when we got stuck in traffic at the entrance of the park, behind cars with license plates from all over the United States, and tour buses with groups from around the world. Our two-hour drive seemed like nothing compared to how far many other people came to see Shenandoah in the fall.

Sadly, we didn't see any black bears, but we did to take pictures with this fake bear!

Sadly, we didn’t see any black bears, but we did to take pictures with this fake bear!

Once we entered the national park, we drove along the famous Skyline Drive for a few kilometers. Some tourists come just to drive along Skyline Drive, a mountain road 200 kilometers long that provides beautiful views and a chance to see some of the wildlife, including black bears, deer, wild turkeys, and more than 200 kinds of birds.

Of course, my friends and I prefer to hike in nature rather than drive through it!

So, we got out of our car as soon as we could, looked at a trail map, and found a perfect hike nearby. We went through forest, passed an old barn, and enjoyed a beautiful panoramic view. As far as you could see, leaves were many different colors of yellow, red, and orange. It was easy to see why so many people travel to Shenandoah at this time of year.

shenandoah does

Autumn colors

In just a few weeks, of course, the leaves will fall to the ground, and autumn will turn into winter. Snow will cover Shenandoah’s mountains and forests. The bright colors of autumn will fade, and leaf peepers will have to wait another year for their favorite season.

I’m just glad I got there before winter did.

*Do you like hiking? Where is your favorite place to hike? Write about it below, using some of these Travel Words that may be new to you. I’ll be happy to help you out with your grammar and vocabulary!


Travel Words

flock – v. to arrive in large numbers or quantities

view – n. the ability to see something or to be seen from a particular place

view – v. to look at or inspect

scenery – n. the natural features of a landscape

wildlife – n. wild animals

hike – v. to walk for a long distance, especially in the woods

panoramic – adj. with a wide view surrounding the observer

trail – n. a path along a mountain or through or a forest

Ashley Thompson
Ashley Thompson works at VOA Learning English. She is a fan of languages, waterfalls and dogs.

Eight Writing Tips from Famous Authors

Posted October 20th, 2014 at 1:03 pm (UTC-4)
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I’ve been giving quite a bit of writing advice in this blog. But today, you’re going to hear directly from the masters. I’ve compiled what I think is the best writing advice for English learners from famous writers. Notice how similar their advice is. Do great minds think alike?

#GEORGE ORWELL1. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”  George Orwell

George Orwell (1903-1950) was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. He is best known for his dystopian novels Animal Farm and 1984, two of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. Orwell touches on one of the secrets of good writing in English: use as few words as possible. A lot of students think that complex, flowery language is a sign of sophistication. It’s not.


Ernest Hemingway#2. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American author and journalist. He is known for his simple, understated writing style. He is one of the most famous American writers of the 20th century and is known for works like A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway is talking about how great writers suffer for their art. Hemingway suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. He killed himself in 1961.


MARK TWAIN#3. “Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way.” — Mark Twain

Mark Twain (1835-1910) was an American writer, humorist, and adventurer known for his witty, humorous style. His most famous works are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He had no patience for the flowery, romantic writing style that was popular in his time.


Zadie Smith#4. “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.” — Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith (1975- ) was born to an English father and a Jamaican mother. She rose to fame with her first novel White Teeth, published when she was just 22 years old. She has since published three more novels, all of which have received high critical praise. Obviously, Smith’s advice needs no explanation.


E.B. White#5. “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” — E.B. White

E.B. White (1899-1985) co-wrote, The Elements of Style, perhaps the most famous writing guide ever published. You can download the guide for free here. He also wrote the beloved children’s story Charlotte’s Web. White is talking about the weakness of the passive voice and how writers should avoid it. For example “I love you” (active voice) sound much more direct than “You are loved by me” (passive voice). You should avoid the passive voice unless you want to avoid mentioning who took the action.


Vonnegut#6. “Start as close to the end as possible.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American writer known for blending satire and science fiction. Among his best-known novels are Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions. What Vonnegut means here is that good writing is concise. Your writing should be as short as possible without cutting important information.


Maya Angelou#7. “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’…. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.” — Maya Angelou 

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a poet and writer best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her work often centers around the problems of racism, identity, and family. Angelou refers to the “the muse” which is one of the nine Greek goddesses of songs and poetry. Artists often think of “the muse” as a spirit that gives them ideas. Angelou is urging writers to work hard and be patient, and good ideas will come.


Stephen King

#8. “2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10%” — Stephen King

Stephen King is America’s best-selling horror writer. His books have sold more than 350 million copies. Many of his books, such as Carrie, Misery, and The Shining, have been made into movies. In 2004, he published On Writing, a guide for writers. What King means here is that you should cut the number of words by 10 percent on each draft.

Notice how similar King’s advice is to Orwell’s and Hemingway’s. Cut. Cut. Cut. This is good news for English learners. Simplicity is not only easier, it’s usually better.

What do you think about these tips? Do you disagree with any of them? Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

— Adam


Words in this Blog

dystopia n. an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly

understatedadj. avoiding obvious emphasis or embellishment

wittyadj. showing or characterized by quick and inventive verbal humor

satiren.  a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.

muse – n. the genius or powers characteristic of a poet


996115_10152540824740552_2041911695251966795_nI grew up in Washington State (not Washington DC) USA and received my bachelor’s degree in print journalism. I have taught intensive English languages courses in Korea, Argentina, Indonesia, and the United States. After earning my master’s degree in English, I taught college writing courses at several universities. From 2012-2014, I was an English Language Fellow with the US Embassy in Jakarta, where I taught writing skills to Indonesian and ASEAN diplomats. Now I am working at Voice of America, where I produce multimedia content for English language learners.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Posted October 17th, 2014 at 11:07 am (UTC-4)
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ringsIn this week’s installment of American Stories, we present “The Line of Least Resistance” by Edith Wharton. The main character, ‘Mister Mindon,’ finds out his wife is having an affair with his business partner. He plans to divorce her, but something makes him change his mind (read the story to find out!)

A common expression is used in the title of the story: “The Line of Least Resistance.” This expression occurs in classic literature. These days, we talk about the path of least resistance. This expression tells us someone is choosing the easiest ‘path’ or choice of action. I think that this title is telling us that Mister Mindon chose the easiest way to deal with his problems.

The American author Henry David Thoreau once said, “The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.”

What advice would you give to Mister Mindon?

What should he learn from this experience?

path-of-least-resistance-signHow about his wife, Millicent Mindon?

We learn from the story that she likes to give parties, but Mister Mindon doesn’t like parties. She is always the center of attention at her parties, but he is uncomfortable.  It seems to me that they don’t have a lot in common, but many marriages succeed even though the husband and wife are very different.

Imagine you’re a friend of one of these characters, Mister Mindon or Millicent Mindon. Write them a heartfelt letter giving them the advice you think they need to make their marriage work. Or maybe you think they should give up on the marriage. Write and let me know!

– Dr. Jill

P.S. I’m not a marriage counselor by any means! So don’t ask me for advice on  your marriage…

Jill produces TESOL-related content for VOA Learning English.

#TravelThursday – Kansas City

Posted October 16th, 2014 at 5:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Kansas City skyline

Kansas City skyline

Happy #TravelThursday, everyone!

It always feels good to go home. Last weekend, I traveled to my hometown of Kansas City for a few days of fun and relaxation.

It takes about three hours by plane to get to Kansas City from Washington, D.C. It’s a common expression here in the U.S. to call states in the Midwest region “flyover states.” This expression basically means that states in the middle of the United States aren’t worth visiting, but are simply land that you fly over to get from one coast to the other.

In reality, there are many things that make Kansas City worth exploring. Here are just a few!

Kansas City jazz

Kansas City jazz

To start, no visit to Kansas City is complete without checking out the American Jazz Museum, which displays the city’s rich jazz history. One of the major attractions is the Charlie Parker Memorial, dedicated to the famous jazz artist, who just happens to be from Kansas City. The jazz district, at 18th and Vine, is a great place to soak up the jazz culture. And many restaurants and clubs have nightly jazz shows.

Visitors should also soak up the city’s nearly 200 fountains. In fact, Kansas City has the second-most fountains of any city in the world, after Rome, Italy. Many of the most beautiful fountains are located within the Country Club Plaza, an open-air shopping area designed in 1922 to resemble the Spanish city of Seville.

The Plaza lights during the holiday season.

The Plaza lights during the holiday season.

It’s a great area to walk around and explore not only its fountains, but also its artwork, shops, and cafes.

Walking around is definitely a good thing to do after eating some of Kansas City’s barbecue, a method of cooking meat. Many Kansas Citians argue that their barbecue is the best in the country. Other famous barbecue areas include Memphis, Tennessee, and the states of Texas and North Carolina. Each region has its own style and secret ingredients that set them apart.

In Kansas City, the meat is slow-smoked over wood, but the real special ingredient is the sauce. Kansas City barbecue sauce is tomato-based, and also includes ingredients such as garlic, ginger, chili powder, and brown sugar.

Take it from expert barbecue eater and Kansas City local, Steve Thompson (okay, he’s just my father): “I’ve been to Carolina. I’ve been to Memphis and Texas. Tried it all, but KC barbecue is by far the best. Meat smoked low and slow with sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce is perfection.”

Kansas City celebrates the Royals' win on Oct. 15, which sent them to the World Series

Kansas City celebrates the Royals’ win on Oct. 15, which sent them to the World Series

Kansas Citians may be proud of their barbecue tradition, but they’re also proud of the recent (and shocking!) success of the city’s baseball team, the Kansas City Royals. The team just made it to the baseball World Series for the first time in 29 years.

While I was at home last weekend, the city’s famous fountains even had ‘Royal’ blue water in honor of the hometown team.

My mom and I pose in front of one of the many blue fountains.

My mom and I pose in front of one of the many blue fountains.

I was never much of a baseball fan before, but it’s hard not to get excited and to feel Kansas City’s pride. Some people may call it a flyover state, but I’m glad I can call it home!

*What do you miss most about your hometown? Write about a place, food, or experience that you can only get while you’re home. Try using some of the Travel Words for practice! 


Travel Words: 

explore – v. travel in or through (an unfamiliar country or area) in order to learn about or familiarize oneself with it.

attraction – n. a thing or place that draws visitors by providing something of interest or pleasure.

open-air – adj. positioned or taking place outdoors; outside.

local – n. in this usage, a person from a specific city or region.

soak up – phrasal verb. to take in; to experience

set apart – phrasal verb. to distinguish one thing from another.

tradition – noun. customs or beliefs passed down from generation to generation.

Ashley Thompson
Ashley Thompson works at VOA Learning English. She is a fan of languages, waterfalls and dogs.


Posted October 9th, 2014 at 10:26 am (UTC-4)
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Hello everyone!

My name is Ashley, and I’m new here at VOA Learning English. I’ve already met some of you on Talk2Us, but I would like to introduce myself here.

Ashley in Turpan, China.

Ashley in Turpan, China.

I grew up in Kansas, a state in the Midwest region of the United States. Its nickname is ‘Sunflower State,’ because of all of the wild sunflowers that grow there.

In general, most Americans know two things about Kansas: it has good barbecue (a method of cooking meat), and it has tornadoes. If you’ve seen the famous American film The Wizard of Oz, you will understand the tornadoes.

After Kansas, I lived in France and several different cities in China. Now, I live in the U.S. capital city of Washington, D.C.

I’ve studied six foreign languages and I completely understand the difficulties — and joys — of learning a new language.

Every Thursday on this blog, I will combine two of my passions, travel and language, with a weekly series called #TravelThursday.

Each week, I will write about one of my trips or a travel experience. This way, you can learn a little bit about different cities and regions in America. You will also learn some common travel-related vocabulary and expressions in American English!

I love traveling and experiencing new places. But I also love finding new “off-the-beaten-path” places here in Washington, D.C. In American English, we call this a “staycation.” It’s a combination of the word “stay” and “vacation,” and it means you act as if you are on vacation, but are really just exploring the place in which you already live.

In next week’s #TravelThursday, I will take readers on my trip back to my hometown in Kansas. I leave this afternoon, so wish me bon voyage!

What would YOU do on a “staycation?” Describe a place or experience you would recommend to tourists who are visiting your hometown. Try to use some of the “Words in this Blog” that may be new to you. I will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.


Words in this Blog

trip – n. a movement from one place to another, usually a long distance.

off-the-beaten-path – phrase. a place in an isolated or lesser known area

‘staycation’ – n. a vacation spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions

explore – v. travel in our through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about or get familiar with it

bon voyage – phrase. used to express good wishes to someone about to go on a journey (from French language)

tourist – n. a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure

Ashley Thompson
Ashley Thompson works at VOA Learning English. She is a fan of languages, waterfalls and dogs.

Getting started with the TOEFL

Posted October 8th, 2014 at 12:45 pm (UTC-4)
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I-Want-You-Recruiting-Poster-3g03859u-3If you’re interested in studying at an American university, you’ve probably heard of the TOEFL. The Test of English as a Foreign Language is the most widely used language assessment test for American universities. The other major test is IELTS, which Dr. Jill will discuss in a future blog.

Many foreign students are terrified of the TOEFL because it is risky. A high TOEFL score will open many doors, while a low TOEFL score will limit your options for scholarships and admission to top schools. The most competitive universities generally expect an iBT score of 90 or above (out of 120). Others accept lower scores, and some do not require a score at all. Most universities do not publish a concrete cutoff score, but a high score will always be an advantage.


Which version should I take?

There are two major versions of the TOEFL test. The first is the iBT or Internet-based Test. It is offered in most of the world and accepted by nearly every university and scholarship program in the U.S.

The other version of the test is called the PBT or Paper-based Test. It is still used in some developing countries. Many scholarship programs, like AMINEF in Indonesia, will accept PBT results for the initial application, but may require students to take the iBT before official admission. The PBT is much cheaper to take and does not require Internet access. The PBT is also used internally by businesses and government ministries to test the English level of their employees.

Untitled-4The iBT and PBT have very different formats. The main difference is that the iBT is completely online, includes a speaking section, and has integrated tasks (for example, listening, reading, and speaking are mixed together). The PBT has a structure (grammar) section while the iBT does not.

Look here to see which TOEFL is given in your country and to see prices. If you have a choice, take the iBT if you can afford it. The PBT will eventually disappear.

Tips for getting started with TOEFL

1. Plan ahead – It takes a long time to improve your TOEFL score. Many students “cram” or study just before the test. Raising your score will takes months of intensive study. Don’t expect a big lift in your score after two weeks. There’s no easy way to raise your score quickly. You will have to commit a lot of time and energy.

2. Master the basics first – Many students study for the TOEFL before they are ready. You should have at least an upper-intermediate English level before you attempt the test. If you score below 500 on the PBT or 70 on the iBT, review the fundamentals for a few months and come back to the TOEFL later.

3. Get a study guide – It’s easy to find study guides for the iBT. Pearson, Barron’s, ETS, and Kaplan all produce quality materials. Do a practice test once or twice a month. The best study guides will have explanations in the answer key. PBT study guides are difficult to find because the test is being phased out. Longman still produces guides for the PBT but you’ll need a CD ROM player. Locally produced PBT study materials available in Indonesia and Malaysia are usually of poor quality and should be avoided.

4. Use outside resources – Using TOEFL practice materials all the time will make you crazy. Remember, you are learning a language, not a test. You can improve your TOEFL score by making English part of your daily life—listening to podcasts, informal conversation with English speakers, watching movies and reading newspapers, reading English textbooks, texting in English, and writing online comments in English.

Here are some free resources for improving your TOEFL score by making English part of your daily life.


  • VOA Learning English’s American Stories – These are adapted works of literature that provide rich vocabulary and good examples of English grammar.
  • National Public  Radio – this site has audio and scripts of news stories. They speak American English at normal speed, like they do in the TOEFL listening section. Download the podcasts and listen whenever you want. Advanced level.
  • ESL Podcasts – A wide variety of podcasts can be found on iTunes and many other sites.


  • VOA Voice of America English News – The site has stories from around the world with videos and graphics to help you understand stories. Upper intermediate level.
  • USA Today –  Read this accessible newspaper online. The site has lots of graphics to help you understand the stories. Upper intermediate level.
  • The Washington Post – Read this American newspaper for free on the web or on your smart phone. Advanced level.


  • VOA Talk2Us – Practice your speaking with a VOA teacher on Skype.
  • The Mixxer –  Use this free website for language exchanges via Skype.


  • Purdue Online Writing Lab – Check out this survival guide that American college students use for writing academic papers.
  • Facebook messenger – Find English speakers on Facebook who want to trade texts with you.
  • Online forums –  Write comments in online forums, such as newspapers, and Facebook postings.

The bottom line is…

The way to do well on the TOEFL is to know English well. Don’t rely on tips or tricks. Don’t try to outwit the test maker. Think of reading, listening, speaking, writing, and grammar as a single connected concept–communication. The real goal of the test is to measure how well a potential student can communicate in English-speaking classroom. Immerse yourself in English on a daily basis and improvement is sure to follow.

Please post your questions in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you!


996115_10152540824740552_2041911695251966795_nI grew up in Washington State (not Washington DC) USA and received my bachelor’s degree in print journalism. I have taught intensive English languages courses in Korea, Argentina, Indonesia, and the United States. After earning my master’s degree in English, I taught college writing courses at several universities. From 2012-2014, I was an English Language Fellow with the US Embassy in Jakarta, where I taught writing skills to Indonesian and ASEAN diplomats. Now I am working at Voice of America, where I produce multimedia content for English language learners.





Five Ways to Start a College Essay

Posted October 3rd, 2014 at 3:24 pm (UTC-4)
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We’ve all been there. It’s midnight and your paper is due in 8 hours. You are staring at a blank Word document. You have no idea what to write. If only you could write SOMETHING. In frustration, you bury your head on your desk.

The first paragraph of a college essay, or any essay, is usually the most challenging. It’s also the most important because it will guide the structure and set the tone of the entire essay. In a traditional essay, the first paragraph often contains the thesis statement. This statement is one-sentence summary of the paper’s main argument (more on that in future blogs.)

Let’s imagine that your teacher or professor assigned this topic for a five-page essay:

“The SAT is an unfair test for international students and should no longer be required for admission. Do you agree or disagree?”


Here are five approaches to help you with writing on this topic:


Masters of Sex, Atmosphere#1. Tell a Story – Nadia had dreamed of going to Harvard from the time she entered kindergarten. “It was my mother’s dream for me,” she said. Every Saturday, she spent 10 hours at a “cram school” studying for the SAT while her friends went to the mall and watched movies…


Andy Del Gallo#2. Use a Memorable Quote – “All the SAT measures is how well you take the SAT. It does not reveal how smart a person you are,” wrote blogger Amanda Chan. Chan is one of a growing number of SAT critics who argue that the college admission test is culturally biased. . .


Merriam Webster's Word of the Year#3. Define a Word – Most people know that the SAT is an important test used for college admission in the United States. But most people don’t know that “SAT” was originally an acronym for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”. But what exactly is “scholastic aptitude” and how can it be measured?…


Nik Wallenda#4. Present an Amazing Fact – Of the 1.6 million students who took the SAT in 2013, only 43 percent of test-takers met the SAT’s definition for being prepared for college. It is natural to blame teachers and test takers for not studying hard enough. But perhaps the test itself is flawed…


B082050D-93E6-426F-938B-34F13CC94257_#5. Present a Problem – Every year the dreams of millions of international students are shattered over their performance on a single test—the dreaded SAT. Years of hard work are reduced to a single test on a single day. Is the SAT the best way to for universities to choose the best students?


Try brainstorming these five ways to start your essay. It’s no guarantee of success. But if you’re lucky, one of the approaches will get the ideas flowing. If the ideas still aren’t coming, read your class materials again with the five approaches in mind. Sooner or later, an idea will take shape.

Now it’s your turn. Try writing an opening paragraph using one of the five approaches and I will respond with feedback.  I look forward to reading your responses!

Have a great day!


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Confessions of an English Learner is a place for you to practice your writing and share the joys and pains of learning the language. We will post a weekly prompt, to give you a chance to practice your writing and to comment on others’ writing.


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