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Academic English Cambridge Exams EAP Featured IELTS TOEFL Writing

Exam Prep Writing: Beginning an Essay with an Effective Hook

December 16, 2016

Many writers (both native English speakers and English learners) agree that beginning the essay is often the most difficult part. For English proficiency exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge FCE and CAE, this is certainly the case!

Take a look at this sample TOEFL Agree/Disagree statement. How would you begin an essay? (For tips on TOEFL Agree/Disagree, check out our article that contains useful hints.)


Learn more TOEFL Writing Tips (and how to construct an Agree/Disagree essay) on the CISL Blog.

Writing Prompt:

Do you agree or disagree with the statement below?

There is nothing that younger people can teach older people. 

Use specific examples to support your arguments. 

Would you know how to begin an essay on this topic? Learn how to write a great “hook” (first sentence) and you will not have this problem again!

Students Writing

A strongly written essay will also include conjunctions: learn about how to use them effectively in our article about Coordinating Conjunctions.

Using the hook in writing

A “hook” is given its name because it hooks the reader. It’s the first sentence, and it entices the reader to continue through the paragraph and essay.

There are many types of hooks. Let’s look at a few.

Hook 1: A Question

Begin your essay by posing a question to your reader. It gets them thinking!

Example 1: Have you ever had a teacher who was younger than you?

Example 2: We become wiser as we get older . . . but can we learn from those who have experienced less of life?

Example 3: Have you ever had a teacher who was younger than you?

Hook 2: An anecdote

An anecdote is a personal story. Writing sections of proficiency exams ask you to use specific examples to support your opinion: with an anecdote, you are beginning with one!

Example 1: I will never forget walking into the classroom and seeing Vlad: even with his kind face, I thought to myself, “How can I teach someone who is significantly older than me?.” It turns out, I could.

Example 2: I’ve learned so much from my teachers and professors in elementary school, high school, and college . . . but I may have learned the most from my experience as teaching assistant to small children.

Example 3: Can the students be the teacher? I certainly think so after volunteering at a local elementary school.

Hook 3: A fact

In a test setting, it might be difficult to remember an exact fact or statistic. However, this is useful if you are writing research essays at home and can access a library or a computer. Even without a computer, this can still be a possible hook: check out some of these examples.

Example 1: You must complete four years of college and two years of additional training to become a high school teacher.

Example 2: Most companies ask for “2-5 years experience” from applicants.


Familiarize yourself with the many prompts you can get in TOEFL with our article on the Types of TOEFL Writing Prompts.

Hook 4: Set a scene

Grab their attention: tell a story! The reader will continue reading just to hear your ending!

Example 1: Jason watched as George slowly typed on the computer keyboard, carefully pushing one key at a time while looking confused and dismayed. “Can I help you?” Jason asked. “Sure,” George replied. “I’m trying to email my daughter a photo, but I don’t know how to attach it. This email thing is so confusing to me.”

Example 2: Looking around the classroom, Anna completed her lecture. “And that is how you publish your own webpage. Any questions?” A student in the back, a middle-aged gentleman with wire-rimmed glasses, raised his hand. “Just one question,” he said. “How did you learn all of this before learning how to drive?” The class laughed, and so did Anna. “Well,” Anna said, “I studied programming in high school and was well-versed in coding before I entered college last year.”

Hook 5: A quote

Without access to a computer, it might be difficult to remember exact quotes from famous individuals. However, your quote does not have to be from someone famous.

Example: “Yoga until you’re 90,” Sindhu kept saying during our yoga teacher training. With this in mind, we learned the best ways to practice yoga without putting strain on our bodies. Little did I know, in a few months my students would actually be near 90: I was soon to take a volunteer position as a yoga teacher for a retirement community in my town.

Hook 6: Your thesis!

Your thesis is the main idea of your paper. If you don’t feel like writing a catchy or creative hook, then begin your paper with your thesis. This direct approach is often very effective!

To write a powerful and concise thesis, check out our article on How to Write a Thesis with Predictors.

Example 1: I am a firm believer that everyone has something to offer, regardless of age; therefore, it is my opinion that the young have much to offer the elderly in regard to education.

Student Studying Writing Computer

Do you know how to write a thesis? Check out our article Writing a Thesis with Predictors for tips!

Hook 7: A misconception

Example 1: Many believe that the youth of today are misguided, self-centered, and irresponsible, and therefore have little to offer in regard to educating the wiser elderly population.

For more information on CISL’s intensive TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge CAE and FCE classes, check out CISL’s website.

Featured IELTS Learning Materials Listening Practice

IELTS Writing Part II + Lyrics Training

August 30, 2016

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
― Albert Einstein

Would you like to use music to improve your English? We suggest an incredible website, Lyrics Training!

With this website, you can watch music videos from some of the most popular artists. Under the video are the lyrics, but words are missing. You add the words while the music plays, and Lyrics Training will keep score to see how well you do! Players can choose different levels, such as Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced, so that they can play at the appropriate level.

image1 IMG_1659

Check it out!

It’s incredible how the internet has changed language learning. The internet has also changed many things about the entertainment industry. We are looking at this topic, along with the IELTS Writing Part II.

IELTS Writing Part II

With the IELTS Writing Task 2, you must write a minimum of 250 words.

You are given a prompt (a topic). In the essay, the IELTS committee will see how well you:

  • Give an opinion and justify this opinion with reasoning, facts, etc.
  • Discuss a topic
  • Summarize details
  • Illustrate problems and provide solutions
  • Support all of this reasoning by presenting arguments, personal examples, etc.

In short, you must approach a topic, discuss it at length, and present an opinion or solutions.

Let’s look at some Writing Task 2 sample topics.


In this topic, you are asked to state why you agree or disagree (and why). You should use your personal experience, which would probably include:

  • If your government censors music.
  • Other types of censorship you’ve experience (did your parents censor the TV or computer when you were a child?)
  • Violence that you’ve encountered in movies, film, or video games.

In this topic, you are asked to state why you agree or disagree (and why). Your answer will probably include discussions on:

  • The laws on what minors can and can’t do in your country
  • Any examples you have of singers/performers who reached fame at any early age
  • Your government’s influence on matters such as these


Your answer might include the following:

  • How you obtain your music (do you download? Watch online? Buy CDs? Why?)
  • The laws your country currently has regarding illegally downloading music or movies
  • A discussion about who owns the internet and who can police it

For more information on the IELTS exam, check out the following:

 Cover photo from Shutterstock. 

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English Test Proficiency: How Your TOEFL, IELTS, and Cambridge Scores Equate

July 14, 2016

CISL is proud to have 45 years of English test preparation experience, including Cambridge preparation and TOEFL preparation classes at CISL San Diego and CISL San Francisco and IELTS preparation courses at CISL San Diego. Are you taking an exam soon to meet your personal, professional, or academic goals? We can help! Our small class sizes and passionate teachers will provide you with the tools necessary to ace your next exam.

With so many English proficiency test possibilities, it’s easy to get confused. What IS each test, and how do the test scores equate to the scores of other proficiency tests? Use this simple chart to see how your TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge, or TOEIC test scores equate to the scores of other tests, and also see what your approximate CEFR (Common European Framework) level is. For a more detailed chart, check out CISL’s complete English Test Proficiency Equivalency Chart.

Are you not sure which test is right for you? Check out our useful article Choosing the Right English Proficiency Test and make an informed decision regarding which test is best for your academic or career goals.


If you are planning on taking an English proficiency test, make sure that you are prepared! CISL offers intensive TOEFL Preparation Courses, Cambridge Preparation Courses (including CAE, FCE, and PET), and an IELTS Preparation Course. Before you take your test, make sure that you also check out some of our articles on Cambridge, TOEFL, and IELTS. Your writing, reading, and speaking scores will surely improve after implementing these tips and completing these practice activities!

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Useful Idioms about “Importance” for English Proficiency Testing

May 10, 2016

Are you planning to take a proficiency test (like IELTS or TOEFL or Cambridge FCE/CAE)? If so, your writing, reading, speaking, listening, and grammar skills will be tested. But what exactly is an examiner looking for, and how can you improve your score? One of the most important things that you can do is learn to naturally use English idioms and expressions. Command of the language in this way will improve your score.

Don’t know which test you should take? Check out our article “How to Choose the Proficiency Test That’s Right for You.


Useful Idioms for English Proficiency Testing

Describing something/someone important

You will often be asked to talk about someone important during a speaking test, such as in Part 1 of Cambridge FCE/CAE or Part 1 of the IELTS Speaking Module. You might also be asked to talk about a past event or experience. These idioms are perfect for describing important people or situations.

The “big cheese”

  • Definition: an important person
  • Example: “One word to describe my childhood? Perhaps ‘chaotic.’ We moved a lot when I was a child. My father was the big cheese of a corporation and every time they opened a new office, he had to oversee the planning and development.”

The head honcho

  • Definition: an important person
  • Example: “My goal in the next five years? Well, my career goal is to be the head honcho of my own insurance firm, but I suppose I won’t achieve that within the next five years. Still, I have made it my goal!”

A gold mine

  • Definition: full of resources
  • Example: “One of the most important people in my life is my grandfather. He’s a gold mine of funny stories about his crazy antics as a child, but he also gives incredibly good advice.”

Carry weight

  • Definition: to be important, to make an impact
  • Example: “One of the most recent challenges I’ve had is in my job. We had to create a new marketing plan, and at the moment I’m not sure if the plan will carry weight in the future. Time will tell.”

Interview Business English

Describing something/someone unimportant

A drop in the bucket

  • Definition: unimportant, ineffective
  • Example: “The thing I like the least about learning English is probably phrasal verbs. I try to learn a few each week, but it just feels like a drop in the bucket.”

To not give two hoots

  • Definition: to not care
  • Example: “I recently changed companies and I’m much happier now. At my last company I felt like they didn’t give two hoots about their employees, and it didn’t motivate me to work very hard.”

For more information on improving your scores on proficiency testing, check out these articles:

Click here to learn more about CISL’s test preparation classes for IELTS, TOEFL, and Cambridge ESOL.



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Grammar Lesson of the Month: Punctuation Basics (the colon vs. the semicolon)

April 2, 2016

This month, CISL Blog’s Grammar Lesson of the Month is taking a detour from the usual articles on English tenses, clauses, and other grammar terms. Instead, April’s lesson will focus on improving your writing through proper use of two important punctuation marks: the colon and the semicolon.

  • colon  :
  • semicolon  ;

What’s the difference, and when do we use them?


Use 1: Headings and Descriptive Titles


  • “Punctuation 101: How to Use Commas and Apostrophes” (article title)
  • “Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir” by Padma Lakshmi (book title)

Use 2: Time and Bible verses


  • It’s 12:35 right now.
  • He quoted John 3:16 from memory.

Use 3: To list items


  • I need you to get the following things from the store: milk, eggs, and orange juice.
  • My mother gave me three things for my birthday: a necklace, a purse, and some money.

Use 4: To emphasize a second part of a sentence

We use this when what comes after the colon is shocking, important, or needs emphasis.


  • My father gave me this advice: never lie, because the truth always comes out.
  • The older I get, the more I realize one thing: people never change.
  • Two things in life are certain: death, and taxes.
  • During my wedding, I felt one emotion: happiness.



Use 1: To join two complete sentences that have a similar theme.


  • I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12; my mother also was older when she learned.
  • Joseph decided to leave a little early; everyone else decided to leave early as well.

Use 2: To join two sentences with a conjunction like HOWEVER, NEVERTHELESS, or THEREFORE.


  • Here you can’t drive until you’re 18; therefore, young people use public transport.
  • I couldn’t find the sweater you wanted; however, I found this cute sweater in a different color.
  • He won the lottery; nevertheless, he continued working at his job.

Note: this semicolon is optional. Each of these sentences could also use a comma before and after the conjunction. This is a stylistic choice that you make as a writer!

Use 3: To make detailed lists, usually with cities and states (or cities and countries) in order to clearly separate the locations rather than use many commas.


  • For work I’ve traveled to New York, New York; Bangkok, Thailand; Madrid, Spain; and London, England.

Incorporate the colon and semicolon into the writing portion of your IELTS, TOEFL, or Cambridge CAE or FCE exam, and you’ll be sure to gain extra points for creating complex sentences.


Need more writing tips? Check out some of our other articles: