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Dealing with the TOEFL Study Plateau

At some point, most people hit a plateau—that is, they feel like no matter what they do, they can’t improve. In the case of language learning, the most frustrating and common plateau is the one that occurs at the intermediate level. At this point, it’s still very difficult to read authentic sources (those written for native speakers), but the ones written for English learners are too easy, too boring, or to difficult to find. You may take practice tests and find that you get the same score over and over and over again. If you hit a plateau, don’t give up! Take a look at some of the tips below to keep your motivation up. If you don’t get discouraged, the plateau will eventually end, and you’ll feel that you’ve suddenly jumped a whole level in your English. Trust me—it’s worth persevering.


Reassess your study habits

Study plateaus are very natural, and even the most talented studier (yes, studying is a talent) will have them sometimes. Nevertheless, the plateau is a great time to take a look at how you’re learning and decide whether your current strategies are really working for you. Each week, give one new activity a try. If you like it, or if you think it might be helpful in the long run, incorporate it into your study plan. If not, toss it. Even if you decide to stick with your current plan, testing out new study methods will remove some of the monotony from your study sessions.


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Keep on keeping on

Even if you feel like you haven’t progressed in weeks, keep studying every day. You probably are progressing, and just can’t tell yet. Even if you’re not, it’s better to maintain your current level than to slip backwards, which is inevitable if you stop studying. You can find some tips for keeping yourself on track in my post on avoiding procrastination (LINK ME TO “AVOIDING PROCRASTINATION).


Expand your vocabulary lists

I think one major reason that plateaus happen when they do has to do with the frequency of the language you’re working on. When you’re a beginner, you need to ignore 90% of what you read and hear, and you only focus on learning the very most common words. As you get into the upper-intermediate levels, though, this method starts to fail. You already know the common words. The words that you need to learn now may seem too specific to be useful, but they’re likely to be exactly what’s missing from your studying. So try branching out and learning words and phrases that don’t seem like something you’ve ever seen before or will ever need. You may find that once you learn them, you see them everywhere.


Find a fun way to use English for real

Find a tandem partner. Take a break from your TOEFL book and study English from your favorite movies and TV shows. Look up some English-language jokes.  Especially if you’re at the intermediate-to-advanced plateau I described at the beginning, authentic resources are the best way to overcome the hump.

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