Eli’s Story: From Non-Learner to Fast Learner (and Speaking 26)

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In the story below, Jaime’s parts are written in black, while Eli’s are in blue.

Eli:

On April 20, 2015 I passed the FPGEE (a test required by the American National Board of Pharmacy when a foreign-trained pharmacist wants to work in America). So, that summer I started studying for the TOEFL iBT, on my own—just like I did for the FPGEE. I took the TOEFL iBT test for the first time on February 12, 2016. I didn’t get the scores that I needed on the sections for Listening, Writing, and of course, Speaking. Then, I realized that I needed help.

One day, watching videos about TOEFL iBT on YouTube, I found Jaime Miller talking about the “5 Score-Limiting Mistakes & 5 Score-Maximizing Strategies.” Every word that she said made so much sense to me that I immediately decided that I wanted to take lessons with her.

So, with Jaime, we broke down the complete test, and organized the studies into more achievable small goals. Between April 2016 and August 2017, we had 88 private lessons (which were either 60 or 90 minutes long). My Listening, Reading and Writing scores all improved… but my Speaking score stayed between 22 and 24—too low for the Speaking requirement: 26.

 

Jaime: 

One day, in late 2017, I was checking my email and I saw something from Eli come through.

subject:  At last we have power!

December 10, 2017

Hello Jaime,

I hope you are great! I was reading and listening about your new program. It is different from the things we did before and it includes private lessons. 

All that I want is to pass the TOEFL. Next month I will be 45 years old, I don’t have all my life to pass this test or to be  a pharmacist.

You know I’m not afraid to try different learning strategies. What’s the price?

Eli

I looked at Eli’s email. I felt so conflicted that I wasn’t sure how to answer. 

On the one hand, I loved teaching Eli. On the other hand, I wondered if we should continue private lessons. Was it worth it for her to pay me—and was it ethical for me to take more money from her?

Our lessons in 2016 and 2017 hadn’t led to the improvement in Speaking that Eli needed, and as a result, I fired myself as her tutor. My classes might be “new” for new students, but for Eli? What could I offer her that was fundamentally different, just a few months later?  

This is the story of how she and I got from that day in 2018 to April 13, 2019, when Eli achieved 26 on the Speaking section of the TOEFL iBT.

From Day 1 of our first series of private lessons, it was obvious to me that Eli was hard-working and dedicated. She developed a high level of comprehension with TOEFL iBT Reading and Listening (regularly scoring between 26 and 30 in each section). 

Plus, she developed very strong writing skills, as well. Her integrated and independent essays consistently scored between 24 and 27 on the TOEFL iBT Writing scale. She had a strong command of English grammar. Her vocabulary was really developing into something beautiful. 

On top of that, she never canceled classes or ignored homework that I assigned. In every way, Eli was a dream student.

Except… The problem was that during dozens and dozens of hours of lessons, I became convinced that Eli could accurately integrate just 5% of the pronunciation concepts we studied into her spontaneous speaking. 

Eli repeatedly demonstrated an intellectual and conceptual understanding of how to pronounce words correctly. Despite that, mechanically, her mouth failed to produce the right sounds in spontaneous speech. In 88 lessons over several months, we worked tirelessly on it. The traction and improvement that was normal with my other students was not happening with Eli.

This is why I wondered if it would be ethical to study together again in 2018, so I began to answer that question for myself by looking back at the notes that I had kept for her. 

I reminded myself that it wasn’t just the fact that Eli’s TOEFL iBT Speaking scores were stuck between 22 and 24.  I know as well as anyone that scores and numbers aren’t everything. Many things aren’t measured on the TOEFL iBT test.  It doesn’t measure humor, compassion, empathy, creativity, or a person’s innate value. The TOEFL iBT test strips away 99.9% of our personality and it transforms us into a number on a point system.  

I’ve had students who were ready to get Speaking 26, but because they got nervous under pressure, they scored just 22 to 24. With the right practice, those students learned to stay focused under pressure and perform. But Eli’s issue had not ever been just this simple. 

By looking at my notes, I remembered the painful reason I fired myself in 2017:  I had discovered a confounding lack of progress from our months of private lessons.

If I’m being brutally honest, in my entire career, I had never encountered another student who made such an honest effort to improve—yet improved so little. I could always feel the ambition radiating off of Eli. She had attended every scheduled lesson. She had never made excuses about rescheduling or canceling.  She had never been too busy to finish her homework—and I have always been the kind of TOEFL teacher to give meaningful assignments that the student can do without me, and the kind of teacher to use our lesson time to cover new topics. Even really ambitious students typically need 7-10 hours to finish all the assignments I give them after a lesson.  And Eli had done it all, every time we met. 

And despite months of gargantuan effort—which, with any other student putting in even 75% of Eli’s effort, should have been leading to discernible improvements—Eli had stayed stuck. 

Let me show you how I knew this. In early 2018, when she requested to resume private lessons, I checked on Eli’s performance level to find out what had changed since August 2017, when we stopped our private lessons. 

Here’s what I heard. 

Question:  What do you miss the most when you’re away from home? 

Response:

Her audio file featured common mispronunciations of vowel sounds that many students make, so I skipped over that. Troublingly, Eli was still struggling to accurately pronounce consonant sounds on a consistent basis. She was also still inserting extraneous consonant sounds in random places, leading to my (and TOEFL iBT grader’s) confusion.

I sighed and clicked to her next audio file. 

Question: What was your first school like?

Response:

Listen carefully and you will hear that at :19 seconds, Eli says “only one blot” instead of “only one block” and at :37 seconds, Eli says “a bid yard” instead of “a big yard.”  

In both cases, the sounds that are mistakes are produced in entirely different locations in the mouth. It always seemed mysterious and suspicious to me that she was accidentally swapping sounds like /t/ and /k/ or /d/ and /g/. 

Non-native speakers might swap /g/ for /k/ — or /t/ for /d/. It’s a common mistake because those sounds originate right next to each other in your throat (Try it! /g/ /k/) or in the front of your mouth (/d/ /t/). But mixing up two sounds that are produced on opposite ends of the mouth?  

As I listened to her audio files, I felt uneasy. I could hear that something serious—something way beyond the scope of lessons with me—was still stopping her from getting the TOEFL Speaking score she needed. 

I closed my eyes and thought back to how things had been. When I worked with her during that first series of 88 private lessons, I had already done everything I knew. I would try to do the same kinds of things with Eli that I did with other students who transformed their Speaking scores from 23-24 into 26-28. I realized very early on that I needed to slow my pace with Eli down.  Way down. Way slower than what I normally did. 

I would routinely confirm that Eli was aware of and understood each pronunciation issue. When I isolated a particular pronunciation feature to an extreme level in lessons, Eli could be accurate…  For a few minutes. Unfortunately, awareness was not enough because she couldn’t maintain control of it. Frustratingly, as soon as she used that pronunciation feature in a bigger piece of English (like in a phrase or a sentence), her accuracy disintegrated like a cracker in the rain. 

Watching Eli practice pronunciation for TOEFL iBT was like watching someone drive down a 500-mile highway in first gear… at 13 miles per hour. It was like Eli’s foot was pressing the accelerator pedal to the floor. Her engine was revving to the max. For such extreme effort, she should be able to shift gears and get up to 60 miles per hour.  But despite everything, Eli was sometimes lucky to go 20 miles per hour. Compared to what I know is “normal” or “possible,” Eli’s effort level was exceptionally high, and it was producing virtually no results in her spontaneous speaking accuracy.

Eli wanted to learn and improve so badly. It pained me that her desire and determination to learn were not enough to make her learn. 

Starting in 2015, I had become intensely interested in cognitive studies. Specifically, I was obsessed with finding answers to this question:  Why aren’t ambition and motivation enough for some students to learn? 

Eli wasn’t the only student of mine who wanted something she couldn’t seem to have. The challenges that I had with a handful of students over the years led me to search for alternative industries of “educational therapy.” I discovered the existence of things like the “Structure of Intellect” assessment (which identified 27 different cognitive functions, including a variety of types of working memory, the ability to find logical associations and rules among seemingly random patterns, and more), the “Belgau Balance Boards” (which wake up the vestibular processing system and accelerate the brain’s processing of information), The Listening Program’s music therapy, and more.

My mentor, Dr. Vickie Bockenkamp, was the first person to tell me about how the topmost vertebra in our spines (known as “C-1” or the “Atlas”) is responsible for a whole host of symptoms if and when the C-1 Atlas is misaligned.

“You have to make sure you get your clients to get their C-1’s checked. If it is misaligned, then nothing else that you do with a client will really take hold. The Atlas alignment also influences eye tracking, and auditory processing as well. Plus, when the Atlas C1 is misaligned it could diminish blood flow to the frontal cortex area of the brain and create ADHD type symptoms.”

“How do you know someone has an issue with their Atlas C-1?” I asked Dr. Bockenkamp.

“Lots of things can cause misalignment:  a cesarean section at birth; a car accident; falling or hitting their head,” she rattled off her list.  “But even just regular stress or sleeping at a weird angle can cause it.”

Duly noted. Despite Dr. Bockenkamp’s strong recommendation, I didn’t just go around evangelizing about the C-1 Atlas vertebra thing. But I did start wondering about all of the complex issues that my TOEFL students might have. 

What were the issues that I never explored because they didn’t fit into tidy little boxes like “English grammar,” “pronunciation,” “vocabulary,” or “TOEFL iBT Test Strategies?” 

I had a chance to find out with another pharmacist I was working with named Victoria. She needed help getting her TOEFL iBT Writing score of 24. After many classes and a lot of homework, she developed a consistent ability to write essays that were the level of quality that TOEFL iBT graders will give a score of 24. Frustratingly then, in real TOEFL iBT tests, her Writing scores would come back at 21, 22 or 23—below the required score of 24. 

One day, inspired by all my new conversations with Dr. Bockenkamp, I started asking Victoria about her physical self. It turned out that she had neglected to mention that she actually suffered from very bad back pain. I had never asked, after all. Combine that with Victoria’s stoic nature, and there’s how you have an invisible problem. It was only when I gave her permission to complain one day, months into our lessons, that we realized that she was actually in agony during the fourth and final hour of the TOEFL iBT test, when she had to sit there and focus on composing two specific essays.

Suddenly, it was blindingly obvious to both of us that we needed to seriously address Victoria’s back pain… because she had already learned all the TOEFL concepts and that wasn’t getting results. I recommended she see a specialist and after a few months of treatment, her pain was manageable enough that she could focus while she wrote—and Victoria took her final TOEFL iBT test and got the scores of Speaking 26 and Writing 24 that she needed to move forward with her pharmacy career in America. 

My breakthrough with Victoria made me all the more certain that Eli had her own invisible problem. If we could identify it, we could solve Eli’s mystery.

Unfortunately, Eli didn’t seem to have any blindingly obvious physical issue. She felt fine. Regardless, she happily humored me in many of my attempts to uncover her invisible issue—much more than any other student in 2017.  

Eli did the Structure of Intellect test and the auditory processing tests. She also went to a local hearing specialist in her city and she did a hearing test to make sure that her ears functioned properly. Did she have functional hearing with a full range of ability to hear all sounds? Yes. 

She also agreed to find a behavioral optometrist and get a special vision test. She also bought the new glasses that they recommended, and she used the balance board that I mailed to her. Amazingly, her TOEFL iBT Reading and Writing scores rocketed to their highest ever within just a few weeks of using that new equipment, even though we didn’t focus on TOEFL Reading or Writing in our classes. It was like something in Eli’s nervous system just corrected itself and a long-standing cognitive “traffic jam” cleared and she could process information faster.

But… Her Speaking score was still stuck at 22-23. In summer, 2017, I would listen to her speak spontaneously in random conversations with me, and I would review the audio recordings that she submitted for homework, I would know why.  She was continuing to inexplicably swap consonant sounds that were nowhere near each other (like the “a bid / big yard” example I gave before). When someone needs a Speaking score of 26, having precise pronunciation is essential. As long as Eli kept making those kinds of errors, she would never get Speaking 26. 

So eventually, I brought up the idea of having someone look at her C-1 (Atlas) vertebra.

“Maybe you should see an Atlas specialist in your town…” I would say a few times over the summer of 2017. And we would talk about it and she’d talk herself out of it.  She wasn’t in any physical pain. She performed fine at her job. It seemed unnecessary. Plus, we had already tried a bunch of things to identify this invisible issue. And none of them had worked, so Eli’s enthusiasm and willingness to try non-traditional solutions was drying up.

I challenge you to convince a rational adult that an unseen, unfelt, unknown issue is blocking them. This is actually the true challenge that adult learners like Eli have. They have good, respectable jobs. They function in the world. They seem fine. To Eli, all her struggle seemed normal. To Eli, everything in her life required this much effort.  As a result, she perceived that everything was fine. 

More confusingly, everyone who studies for TOEFL iBT “struggles.” Almost everyone says things like, “studying for TOEFL was literally the hardest thing I ever did.” You can read about it on Facebook posts and internet forums. Eli couldn’t view her situation in relation to any educational norms, so sometimes I wondered if she wondered if I was just exaggerating things. 

People don’t look for solutions to problems that don’t know—or can’t believe—they have. Even if they are able to entertain the idea that there could be a problem that they aren’t seeing, it’s difficult for them to consider a solution that’s outside where they normally seek help. 

So it’s no surprise that in 2017, Eli wasn’t ready to see anyone about her C-1 Atlas vertebra.

 

Eli:

The thing is that I never thought about chiropractors as real doctors. Many orthopedists, surgeons and neurologists do not recommend visiting chiropractors because you could be at risk of suffering permanent damage. 

 

Jaime:

In August 2017, Eli wanted to continue with traditional methods, namely, private lessons. Basically, she wanted to keep doing what we’ve been doing. 

My greatest strength is also my downfall. It is this:  I am ruthless in the pursuit of a goal. If one method doesn’t get me to the goal, I’ll try another method and then another… and another. I will find and exhaust every potential method to reach the goal.  If I find out that a method doesn’t work, it’s rare that I will repeat the method. 

What I’m trying to explain is why, in 2017, I got to the point where I fired myself as Eli’s teacher.  She didn’t want to stop taking lessons with me but I exhausted my lesson plans and class repertoire. I taught her “all the things” and yet, it was like her brain was covered in Teflon. Nothing substantial that I taught her was sticking.

I never could shake the feeling that we had unfinished business—but I also just had no idea what I was supposed to do. It was heartbreaking.

 

Eli: 

When Jaime and I stopped new lessons, I felt abandoned. I reviewed the recordings of our previous lessons and I bought an mp3 pronunciation course. 

On September 20, 2017, a deadly category 5 hurricane devastated my country. We did not have power during four long months and very limited access to Internet and communications. We had two TOEFL test centers in our city, one was completely destroyed. Even today, it has not reopened yet. So, my priorities changed completely, too. 

During those months of darkness and silence, I promised myself to pass the TOEFL iBT, whatever it took. 

subject:  At last we have power!

December 10, 2017

Hello Jaime,

I hope you are great! I was reading and listening about your new program. It is different from the things we did before and it includes private lessons. 

All that I want is to pass the TOEFL. Next month I will be 45 years old, I don’t have all my life to pass this test or to be a pharmacist.

You know I’m not afraid to try different learning strategies. What’s the price?

Eli

 

Jaime:

I opened my eyes. I sighed. What if Eli still didn’t have the ability to become a clear speaker of English? Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow I’ll answer her.

12 December 2017

Dear Eli,

It’s so good to hear from you.  I’m really happy to hear that you’re doing ok and that you have power again. I can’t imagine what you went through.

I’d like to talk about the details of the program with you. 

This week is a little crazy. Let me get back to you in a few days.

Jaime

In the end, I gave Eli free access it because it was my way of combining an apology (“Sorry that your country doesn’t have any running water or electricity 4 months after the hurricane struck”) with a no-risk-guarantee.  Despite the results of Speaking 26 that I got with other students who were in the program, I wasn’t convinced that Eli would make any progress. 

For the next 11 months, Eli self-studied with the video recordings and I continued to avoid a discussion of private lessons because I continued to doubt if I had anything worth offering her.  

In late 2018, I launched a new program called The 12 Essential Topics, a 6-week cycle of presentations and TOEFL iBT practice sessions that I designed to train students to develop high scores at TOEFL iBT. 

I knew Eli was still struggling with her Speaking score. I finally felt like I might have something that could benefit her. Maybe. Half of maybe. So I invited her to join because it could help her, and I said very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that she could have free attendance. 

Well, Eli found the link on the website and she paid for the full tuition. Eli asked me to write up a letter that she could show her boss so she could get the time off work.  She faithfully attended every single one of the 12 Topic classes—adding about 50 more hours to the time spent officially learning from me—and she did the homework activities. 

“I really love the 12 Topics classes,” she reported to me, saying that she felt the new material we studied was really useful and making her more confident about what to say. 

But despite her confidence, when I listened to her, I could still detect pronunciation mistakes like “big” or “bid.” 

The cycle of 12 Topics wrapped up just before Christmas, 2018. Barely a month went by before Eli was in touch again. I don’t remember if she called or texted or emailed, or if I could just feel it in the wind. 

“Jaime, I’d like to continue studying in private lessons with you.” 

No surprise.  After more than two years, I knew what to say.

subject: proposal for private lessons and “Break Free From Your Past” session

9 January 2019

Dear Eli,

I’d be happy to guide you in lessons again. I want to offer you a combination package that includes private lessons for The ESA Method for Speaking 26 and an introductory coaching session that I call “Break Free From Your Past.” The coaching session will help us tap into some of the root causes of why you’ve been struggling with TOEFL iBT and English. After that, we can start the private lessons for TOEFL iBT Speaking and pronunciation. 

But… In order for you to join, the requirement is that you have to check out your C-1 (Atlas) vertebra.  We never did that and, honestly, if you don’t, I’m really concerned that you’re going to waste money on lessons that won’t get a result. 

Would you be willing to do the Atlas stuff now?

JM

She responded that she was willing.

I was thrilled and relieved to hear that she would find a specialist who matched the criteria I gave her.  Because of that, I felt comfortable with continuing private lessons and discussing a schedule. We started making concrete plans to continue our studies. 

 

Eli: 

Like I said, I never really thought of chiropractors as real doctors. However, after reading about the Atlas vertebra, its clinical significance, and the amazing reviews about a chiropractor in my neighborhood, Dr. Ishi, I decided to try. According to his x-rays from January 17, my neck had developed an abnormal curve, and it was changing the shape of my spine. The doctor set up a plan for me and I decided I would start a treatment plan called Chiropractic BioPhysics®.

On January 20, I did my “Break Free From the Past” session with Jaime. I don’t know that all students are prepared to take the “Break Free From the Past” session, because it requires some degree of maturity. Especially when we are in the beginning of the TOEFL journey, many of us are not prepared for this. Some people think “No, I only want to talk and study TOEFL. Other things could be a distraction.”

In my case, the session was beneficial and it helped to confirm my determination to pass the TOEFL. We spend a great deal of time trying to fit in at school, work, our relationship, but we don’t know ourselves very well because we are too busy to think about it. So with the “Break Free From the Past” session, we can stop and think about what our motivators are, what things in our past inspire us or prevent us from achieving our goals. And when we know, we have options. 

With the results of the “Break Free From the Past” session, I think we can answer some questions, for example, “Do I really want to reach my career goals? Do I really have the willpower to do it? Are my attitude and my way of think preventing me from accomplishing this?”

Another important thing is that the “Break Free From the Past” session was great English practice, because I had to look for vocabulary to express myself, and that is valuable, too! Also, I think that it was beneficial for Jaime as my teacher because she got to know me better and could address better my needs and adapt her feedback.

 

Jaime:

On January 22, 2019, I was in downtown Sacramento in the middle of a workday to pick up a new pair of glasses from my optometrist. As I parked and got out of the car, I saw an email come through from Eli.  The subject line was, “My X rays on the right.”

I tapped her email to open it and I downloaded the photo she attached.  When it finally loaded inside that concrete parking garage, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

That red line! 

I sat in shock for probably a full minute, just staring at the photo. My hunch had been correct. Right there! There was Eli’s invisible issue. Even though Eli never complained about it, had never even felt it, something had been wrong.

In my car, I called Sondra Lauren Champion, a specialist at AtlasPROfilax Northern California in Placerville, California. I had gotten the AtlasPROfilax treatment myself from her over the summer. At the time, Sondra commented on how unusual of a patient I was since I didn’t suffer from any noticeable or typical symptoms—and I simply wanted greater cognitive function. 

“Make me smarter,” I joked as I sat down in Sondra’s chair for the treatment. Naturally, it led me to discuss the work I do with students.  Since that hot summer day, we hadn’t been in touch.

She picked up on the fourth ring.

“Sondra, I don’t know if you remember me but I came and saw you about 8 months ago… I think.  I told you that I work with non-native speaker adults who need to develop very advanced abilities with their pronunciation—and we were talking about how the Atlas and neck position impact their nerve function and the fine motor skills they need for pronunciation…”  I trailed off to see if I had jogged her memory sufficiently.

“Yes!” she chirped. “I remember you.”

“Look, I know this is incredibly random but one of my clients lives on the other side of the country. There was no way she could come see you in California, and, at my recommendation, she found a specialist locally who did an x-ray of her neck.”

“Oh really?” Sondra sounded curious.

“Yeah! Can I text you the x-ray she got? I just got it from her now. I’m super excited and I want your opinion on this because I have no one else I can discuss it with.”

“Absolutely.”

I fumbled with my phone and forwarded her the picture.

“Did it come through?”

“Yes, I’m just getting it now,” she said.  She was quiet for a moment, looking at it.

“Wow,” Sondra said.

“Yeah?” I questioned. “What does that kind of red line mean for someone who is trying to develop extremely precise motor skills for an improved accent?” I asked. 

“It’s definitely possible that the misalignment Eli has could be pressing on some nerves which are responsible for speech, language, and motor skills—and that could help explain why she’s struggled so much with accurate pronunciation.”

When we finished our call, I sent Eli back a quick email, summarizing Sondra’s thoughts. 

Driving home, the feeling of shock continued. After such a long time of wanting proof, it was surreal to finally see it right there on my screen.

I am not the teammate that you want if you’re trying to win any kind of sports or trivia competition.  On the other hand, if you need a teammate who is able to connect dots that appear to be random in order to reveal a meaningful picture that leads to a massive “A-ha!” moment, then I’m your woman.

In January 2019, Eli began Dr. Ishi’s treatment (lovingly termed “spinal remodeling”). She was committed to going 3 times per week for a total of 33 times. 

Eli went to her treatment with Dr. Ishi three times a week. In her typical way, she never canceled or rescheduled. 

Five weeks into her “spinal remodeling” treatment, Eli reported that she was feeling more relaxed, sleeping better and managing her stress at work more easily. That was all well and good, but what she really cared about were her results on TOEFL iBT Speaking.

After doing a bunch of specific, customized study assignments from The ESA Method that I assigned, Eli submitted a full TOEFL iBT Speaking practice test with 6 spontaneous responses. 

On Thursday, March 7, I sat down to prepare for our lesson by listening to her responses. Before I clicked open her folder on Google Drive, I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the dull thud of disappointment that I usually felt when I prepared for her lessons in 2016 and 2017.  

I tried to cheer myself up by hoping that tiny results might be visible from the 15-odd sessions that Eli had done with Dr. Ishi so far… but they weren’t even halfway through their treatment process… so… who knows.

I double clicked on her Task 1 audio file.

Even though the microphone was too far away from her mouth and she sounded like she was at the end of a tunnel, and even though she mispronounced “archeologist“ in the first sentence, there were zero places where she swapped consonant sounds (like “big” and “bid”). Her pronunciation of every word was uncharacteristically accurate. 

I double clicked on her Task 2 audio file.

I made some notes about minor things we should review—like her pronunciation of “would” because she mispronounced it in Task 1 and 2 but… Wow… Listen to her describe that story about the kidney transplant. This was better!

I quickly consumed the remaining audio files for Task 3 through 6. Previously, it would take me 35-40 minutes to do a Score Analysis for Eli because I used to need to listen and re-listen and re-listen and mark down every single teeny mistake—and then I would have to track all the places that Eli added sounds that didn’t belong there. It used to be such a tedious process that I would get a mild feeling of panic and my joints would ache. 

But on this day, her English was so much more fluent, more effortless and more accurate than it had ever sounded before. It took me a total of 6 minutes to listen to her audio files, once through each, and the errors were so infrequent that I could easily take notes. 

I was thrilled.

Slow down there Jaime, I thought to myself. Don’t get too excited. She probably re-recorded each of these responses 2 or 3 times, which is normal for students who are developing this kind of accuracy. 

Wait a minute! I remembered. Didn’t I specifically tell her to submit 6 responses that were original? And doesn’t Eli always follow directions perfectly? 

I grabbed my cell phone and fired off a text…

The first? I didn’t understand. I must have been unclear. I figured that I forgot to explain this to her.

I was expecting Eli to admit that she recorded them 2-5 times each. It’s normal. It happens all the time. In fact, I would be thrilled because her pronunciation had never sounded so good, and the sessions with Dr. Ishi were obviously having an impact.

What????? You could have knocked me over with a feather. 

Her homework submission represented her spontaneous ability. It wasn’t rehearsed. It was spontaneous… and for anyone who ever took the TOEFL iBT test, you know that the spontaneous performance is the one that matters because you have such limited preparation time (15 to 30 seconds) and there are no chances to re-do anything.

If I had been checking any other student’s homework, I would be excited for that student because they were obviously making progress.

But with Eli, it was like she had suddenly transformed into a student who could benefit and see results from the time and effort that she put into studying. Her pronunciation and articulation had become so much more distinctive and clear. The misfirings and “swapping” of sounds (like “big” and “bid”) virtually disappeared. 

When we met for a lesson later that same day, I decided not to even try to hide my shock. We had both been waiting for this for so long. 

“It’s amazing. The progress that you’re making is amazing.  This what I always hoped you would be able to do. This is what I was waiting for in 2017, but it never happened, even after months and months.  What you’re doing with Dr. Ishi is working. You’re finally seeing a result of all the time that you’re spending from studying.” I told her in our lesson. 

“I’m improving?” she beamed.  “That’s really great news.”

“It’s just a matter of time now before you get that Speaking 26,” I said.  “Truly, this is incredible.”

Not only did we identify Eli’s invisible issue, and not only was she addressing it with Dr. Ishi, but we were finally at the stage where we had the sweet, sweet proof of progress.

If it had been night time, you could have lit up the moon with our smiles. I couldn’t get my big, stupid grin off my face.

After that day, Eli followed the study protocols and activities for The ESA Method with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. 

Everyone reacts to the TOEFL iBT test slightly differently. Some students I know feel more confident if they secretly schedule a test. They sometimes don’t tell anyone that they’re going to take it… not even me. For a certain kind of student, that secrecy provides the calm that they need to focus.  It can be too much pressure to have me breathing down their neck and giving them last-minute advice and homework. 

Without telling me, Eli scheduled an official TOEFL iBT test for April 13. She figured that she wouldn’t have the results of the TOEFL test for another 10 days, and because she didn’t really think that anything would happen, she continued her weekly sessions with Dr. Ishi, and the daily review of The ESA Method customized protocols that I had been giving her in private lessons. 

A few days later, while I was leaving for vacation, Dr. Ishi scheduled Eli’s progress check x-rays to do a side-by-side comparison.

The photo on the left is from Eli’s initial x-ray with Dr. Ishi on January 17. The photo on the right is from Eli’s x-ray on 17 April 2019, after 33 treatment sessions. 

The green line shows what is ideal.  The red line on the left image shows where Eli’s neck was before they started treatment. The red line on the right image shows how Dr. Ishi’s treatment changed Eli’s neck. 

According to his measurements and report, the neck bow was 79% in January. By April, the same neck bow had been reduced to 39%. In other words, this was a positive change in the structure of about 50%—which is exceptional.

Dr. Ishi told Eli that he was very happy with their results. They decided to keep their original schedule and continue their sessions through May.

Eli quietly kept waiting for her TOEFL results. 

It was Friday, April 20 and I was visiting my old college roommates in Wisconsin for a long weekend. I hadn’t seen them in years and we were driving around a small sunny town, just north of Milwaukee.  I was doing my best to unplug from work and focus on my friends so I wasn’t checking my phone much.

But then… a text came through from Eli. Trust me, it is no fun to get bad news from students via text message late at night or early in the morning. It is so much worse to get bad news while on vacation.

I asked myself what the chances were that Eli had bad news. I figured she was going to tell me some news about Dr. Ishi’s report, so I opened her message.

I was reading in the car. The radio was going and my very pregnant friend was parallel parking in a quaint little town and three of us were all trying to help her maneuver into the spot without causing more stress. 

I glanced back at my screen. All those little happy emojis were a sign that Eli was thrilled… so I figured there was no imminent risk to my own happiness if I read it.  

I tapped on the image to enlarge it…

Speaking 26. My friends got out of the car. They were headed for a little bridge.  

“Jaime, come on!” they called. They wanted to take a picture.

Hang on… Did she take an official practice test?  Were these the results of a practice test? I was so genuinely confused.

“Hang on,” I told my friends. “Something happened. I’m so sorry. I just… Give me a minute.”

As my three friends wandered over to a cute little bridge crossing an adorable river and posed for some photos, I dialed Eli’s number.

“What is this?” I said, not even bothering to say hello.

“Those are my results,” she said with the hugest smile in her voice.

“The results from what?” I asked.

“From TOEFL,” Eli said.

“TOEFL? Was this a real test?” 

Eli laughed. Yes. It was a real test, and the scores came out uncharacteristically early.

Just like that, Eli was done. 

We hung up and I stood in the sun. 

“You’ll never believe this,” I told my friends. 

 

Eli: 

On Friday, April 19, the TOEFL scores arrived and I saw on the screen of my computer “Speaking 26.”

I called my husband and asked him to read the computer screen in case I was hallucinating. While I took a picture and sent it to Jaime, my husband opened a bottle of wine and we made a toast.

That day, I received the answer to some questions that I obsessed about constantly during the last three years. You might be asking yourself this, right now, too. 

  • Is it possible to get 26, if I start studying the weekend before the exam? No, it isn’t. Those are fairy tales. You have to start early because you have to master a lot of skills before getting 26.
  • Is it possible to get 26 on the Speaking section if I live in a country that doesn’t speak English? Yes, it is. But, it requires a lot of hard work.
  • Is it possible to get 26 if I work full time? Yes, it is. But, it requires a lot of hard work.
  • It is possible to get 26 if you hate the TOEFL test? No, it isn’t. You have to love every reading and lecture of the exam. I usually entertain my family telling them about the new concepts and facts that I learned in my latest exam.

But the most important thing is that the TOEFL is more than an exam. It is a journey, a path. And during that journey, you meet amazing people like Jaime with whom you will learn not only English. Jaime is not just an English or TOEFL teacher. She is a Life Coach. She is young but wise. The things that I have learned with Jaime will remain with me throughout my personal and professional life. 

You only have to believe in You, in Jaime and you have to be open-minded to try new things. I hope you have the strength to keep fighting for your dream — and like Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

How to Find an Atlas Specialist in Your Area

I am not a doctor. I am not qualified to give you medical advice. You need to do your own due diligence and find someone you trust. 

In this kind of situation, where you’re totally new to a particular industry, it is always safest to… 

  1. Find 2-3 individuals who you want to interview. 
  2. Ask all of them the same questions. 
  3. Compare their answers.
  4. Identify who you trust the most. You should also read reviews about the specialist on Google Maps, or whatever other website lists reviews.
  5. Follow that person’s advice.

Where can you look?

What are you looking for?

Job Titles Do they make x-rays? How much does it cost? Treatment Schedule
a chiropractic specialist who focuses on the Atlas or C-1

about $3000, depending on who you see, and some of it may be covered by insurance 3 x week for 3-5 months
a trained, certified AtlasPROfilax specialist

$300, as recommended by the AtlasPROfilax organization 1 treatment that lasts about 15 minutes

I truly believe that if Eli had resumed private lessons with me in January without addressing her underlying physiological issue with Dr. Ishi, she would have been wasting not only her money on lessons with me again, but also her time and energy. Eventually, people can become traumatized by failureand a broken spirit can be nearly impossible to fix, even if you have all the money in the world.