March 2014

Preparing the Topik intermediate listening

As I mentioned before, listening just might kill my grade. Well, not kill it, but lower it more than I would like. I have exams 17-33 printed off and I am currently working on finishing the 29th exams listening portion. I have been working the tests sequentially and trying my best to listen to the tracks outside of just studying but it’s honestly hit and miss.

The very first listening test I took, I did terribly. I got around a 47%. In my defense I wasn’t completely aware of what the directions were so I don’t think I completed the answers as well as I should have. I decided to go over the directions for each portion again and again. Once I understood what was being expected of me I started doing the listening tests. I’ve continuously scored anywhere from 58% to 89% on like 10 listening tests. I’ve come to realize that no matter how much I study, a good portion of my listening grade will be based on which listening tracks I receive. If the topics are on something I know well, I doubt I will do poorly. While I have developed some sense of what is expected of me, the clicking is less consistent than it was with the other portions.

I still have 5-6 tests left to finish and hopefully at some point my brain jumps into gear and I go into “own this shit” mode like I did with reading. It seems that this post won’t be as long as the 4 previous before it. This is not because I can’t force myself to write more about, it’s because I don’t want to have to force myself to write more about it. The other three portions of the test are my stronger points. I have figured out that listening is and always was my weakest. Heck, listening to the English 듣기 tracks play at the hagwon irk my brain to some degree. Unlike all the other parts, listening can’t really be studied. If I don’t understand grammar, I can look it up. If reading is throwing me off, I can ask for help or read over it again. If writing is slowing me down, I can just look up more of the grammar and words and practice writing faster. The only way to do listening is to listen.

I read somewhere that in order to become a fluent listener in a language you must listen to at least 1000 hours (probably more) at native speed and then your listening ability will be really good. 1000 hours? Just the thought of that makes my brain hurt. I guess I need to get more into Korean dramas as I spent a fair amount of time per week wasting time watching American shows.


Preparing Topik intermediate writing

From reading around the web, writing seems to be one of the hardest parts of the Topik for many people. The reason for this probably stems from the fact that many people who study alone can’t exactly gauge their writing essay scores well because they don’t have access to a tutor or if they do, that tutor can’t give as accurate of a score as a Topik grader. I think that due to this reason many people neglect the writing portion.

As you know, the essay portion is currently worth 30 points of 100 on the writing portion and failure to do well can be the difference between a level 3 or level 4 or even flat out failure to get either. As a Topik preparer writing has also been a section that I have neglected (though not as much as listening). Despite having worked with a tutor for reading, and some writing exercises I haven’t spent a terrible amount of time preparing for it. Like I said, initially reading was the section that was killing me, so about 50% of my preparation thus far has gone into that. I’ve looked up and written several of the essays for the previous intermediate exams and had them checked by my tutor. Whenever I got back my corrected essays I found that the majority of it was correct. Why? Because I have a great grasp of grammar and sentence order as well as spacing so I write fairly well.

I used the Topik masters book to look at examples of intermediate level essays as well as some of the examples listed on the Topik and answer sheet and I noticed something: A good essay doesn’t require overly complex grammar. There is a lot of really good grammar in the intermediate level that can be used to say useful things, however a lot of it seems unnecessary in most of the essays, I’ve noticed. When I would practice the essays, I would first write them in English and then translate them to Korean. I noticed that I wasn’t using many intermediate grammar points. This began to worry me. Then I noticed that I wasn’t using very much intermediate grammar in my English essay either. Why? Because a lot of the topics don’t require it.

While I can’t speak from personal experiences in having an essay graded by the people of Topik, I do have a plan for getting a decent grade on my essay:

1. Write in complex sentences 

Writing in complex sentences is one of the easiest things you can do to show that you can use the language well. Korean has a wealth of conjunctions many of which mean basically the same thing, so putting many of them to use can only help you. Also use the relative clause like it’s going out of style. I see them everywhere in Korean readings. They seem to really love using them. I once wrote a practice essay that said, “I, the person who had been living alone at that time in my small city…”, by accident. It sort of slipped out. I couldn’t believe it. Sentences like that used to confuse me terribly.

2. Use bold vocabulary 

In order to do well on the Topik intermediate you will need a ton of vocabulary words. I read somewhere that you need about 2,000-3,000 to be considered beginner level and double that to be on the intermediate level. Since you have to learn them anyway you might as well put them to use. The best way to learn what words are appropriate for the Topik is to use the reading portion as an example. I kind of wish the reading and writing portion were taken together.

3. Use adverbs

Adverbs are the biggest pain in the ass for me. Yes, we use them quite often in English, but I often find that in Korean an adverb will pop up in places you’d never find in English. If I see 반드시 or 오히려 one more time I’m going to scream. I currently have a list of 259 adverbs I haven’t completely learned to plan to before the test. Koreans seem to love adverbs, so I will love them too.

4. Pay close attention to spacing in words

I remember the very first time I ever typed anything in Korean. It had taken me forever because the keyboard I was using didn’t have the Hangul characters on it and despite being given a paper keyboard lay out typing still took me about 45 minutes. I remember finishing up and telling the teacher I was done. She came over and said, “You put no spaces in between the words.” I thought that was how Korean was written.

I’ve gotten better since then. I read enough that I’ve learned the spacing, I guess subconsciously because a few weeks ago I got some 원고지 and practice spacing and did great. I was very aware of the spacing and only made a couple mistakes I couldn’t remedy because I’d written too much already.

5. Look up possible essay topic words

The first thing I plan on doing when I open up that exam booklet is looking at the essay topic. I’m kind of worried that there will be one word I don’t know and I won’t be able to write it. I looked at the 33rd Topik essay topic and had no idea what 존경 (respect) meant. If that had been my essay I wouldn’t have failed.

I know that I can write an essay about any topic well enough as long as I understand the essay question so I need to make sure that I do. So I’ve decided to look up certain words like honor, admire, hope, desire, wish, expect etc and write down all of their synonyms so that if/when they come up I won’t be caught off guard. I’m hoping the next essay test will be simple (ex: who is your favorite person in the world?) but the pessimist in me is preparing for the worst. Maybe the test writers are going to go out with a bang since it’s the last one in this format?

6. Give myself enough time to write

I can write pretty fast in Korean but I don’t want to feel rushed. I know that I will need to keep going back to quickly skim over to make sure that I don’t mess up the spacing from rushing. I know that you can’t lose too many points if your essay is gold but there are a few mistakes, however, I want to be able to do my best and have a peace of mind when I hand the test over. I can do well in the grammar/vocabulary part as well as on the writing multiple choice, so I plan on doing my best as quickly as possible and marking questions I’m unsure about for after I finished the writing.

7. Apply a story I know well to whatever topic I get

Regardless of what I topic is on the exam, I’m using the story of how I got my do to answer it. See, I rescued my dog from a kill shelter in Korea. I plan on using that story for every topic as follows:

What’s the best dream you have every had?

Well, there was this one dream about rescuing a dog from a shelter in Korea….

What was the best day of your life so far?

If I had to choose I would say it was the day I rescued my dog from a shelter in Korea…

If you could do anything over again in your life, what would it be?

I would have to say I would not only rescue one dog, but probably two dogs from a shelter in Korea…

Why do this? Because it stops me from wasting time thinking about an answer. I don’t have to tell the truth. If they ask you about a person you respect you can completely make that person up as long as you can write about it well. There is no need to get hung up on things you can’t say because you don’t know the proper word order, grammar or vocabulary words required. How can they check you out anyway?

8. Study grammar MORE!

I know Korean grammar quite well, but I can’t really afford to get hung up on something like the correct conjugation. I have to make to review, review, review. If I write 는 instead of  은 I would be so annoyed because it will change the tense of a sentence and make sounds awkward thus worthy of a mark off. I know most of the conjugation forms but things like indirect quotations will get me every time. I can do direct quotations (that’s so easy) but an indirect one can cause a stumble.

I also want to make sure to use a variety of grammar in the essay. I don’t plan on using probably 80% of the intermediate grammar I do know, but I do want to use whatever grammar I feel is necessary for the essay well. The 150 Essential Grammar books really gave me some useful grammar points like “there’s no way that..” and “despite x” that I plan on using. I could do without all the “even though” though. How many do you need?


Topik Intermediate Preparation Books

Getting yourself in shape for the Topik intermediate exam is no joke. If you are new to the Korean language, the initial things learned in beginner’s grammar will definitely make you think “Oh, this is so easy”. However, once you move from the beginner’s level to the intermediate level the gap in difficulty level jumps. No, leaps–dramactically. Before I started to prepare for the Topik, I’d read around the internet a bit. People kept saying that the difficulty of the test levels were huge but I didn’t believe them. “How big can it be?”, I thought. It’s about the size of the Grand Canyon. To seriously prepare for the Topik intermeidate level test, you’ll need a lot of supplies. Not only will you need to have a solid knowledge of all of the beginner’s level material but you need to have a very strong grasp of everything on the intermediate level. And boy is it a ton of information. Below are all the books I’ve used over the past year in order to get ready for the Topik intermediate:

1. Darakwon (다락원) Elementary and Intermediate grammar

These two books are the bee’s knees. They have about combined total of about 150+ grammar points with full explanations as well as examples, practice and comparisons. I already studied beginner’s grammar in the two years I studied Korean in college, so I simple did a quick review of the book to make sure I knew everything. It took me about a month or so to finish the 90 grammar points in the book. The intermediate level book gets a bit more intense. You have the same explanations, and examples/practice as before, but since the grammar gets more complex you have a lot of comparisons and information on the differences and nuances of similar grammar.

I don’t think that this is hard or made it harder to do, but it did cause my speed of study to slow down a lot. It took me about 3-4 months to get through this book. I also may or may not have (I did) taken a month or so break to be all around lazy and not study a thing.  With these two books I was able to learn about 95% of the grammar necessary for reading, writing, listening and grammar portions of this exam. They are absolutely invaluable. I can’t wait until this test is finished so I can get the advanced one!

2. Topik Essential Grammar 150 intermediate by Hangul Park

Topik Intermediate 150 essential grammar

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Darakwon series does not include all of the grammar you might see on the intermediate Topik. For some reason there are about 30 less commonly used(?) grammar points that may or may not be included in the exam. While they probably don’t show up in more than 1 or 2 questions, I think it is very important that you know them. I had no idea what 을 리가 없다 meant until I opened this book. I understood every other answer choice and continued to choose the incorrect one several times until I saw this in the book. By the way it means “there’s no way that….”.

3. Yonsei Korean Reading series (연세 한국어 읽기) by Yonsei University

smaller yonseii reading

I hadn’t started to really practice Korean reading until late November 2013. The reason for this was because I hadn’t yet finished all of my intermediate grammar and I hate reading when there is a lot of grammar I don’t know. I’d heard about this book series since there isn’t exactly a wealth of material to choose from when it comes to practicing reading in Korean. Book 1 was very easy. At first I couldn’t read book 2, but after I finished one I was golden. However, it started to get hairy around book 3. I did finish 3 but it took help from a tutor to finish a couple of chapters I didn’t understand. Then by book 4 I think my brain was fried. It was February and I only had a few more months left to study so I completely quit book 4 a few chapters in. I think I will definitely finish book 4 after the test but I don’t have time before. I think it would be very beneficial to finish them all prior to going out for the intermediate test but I simply don’t have the time. I do believe that reading them sequentially helped me to improve my reading speed and ability. Without them I don’t think I would have been able to tackle the reading portion and sentence structure of the intermediate exam.

4. Korean Vocabulary Practice for Foreigners by Yonsei University

smaller vocab book

I have the elementary as well as intermediate level for this book series. I bought them both because, despite knowing a lot of elementary words there were still a few hundred important ones I didn’t know. I’m glad I learned the. I also think the intermediate level books is invaluable. Many people don’t like to memorize words, but I think it’s something, that if done right, can be very beneficial. Each book as about 800+ words in it. The topics range from food to relationships to society. After studying these two books my reading ability definitely increased dramatically. The intermediate level book definitely introduces you to the level of words you can expect to see on the Topik intermediate.

4a. 500 Basic Korean Verbs/ Adjectives by Kyubyong Park

500 Basic Korean Verbs Adjectives

The title of test books explain themselves. Buying and learning the 1000 words in these two books will help you immensely on the grammar, vocabulary and writing portion of the exam. It also gives you a boost in the reading and listening parts. I think verbs one of the most important parts of a language. The verb book gives you the most commonly used verbs in Korean language many of which will be on the first few pages of the grammar and vocabulary portion of the exam. The adjectives also help you in reading. Although adjectives in Korean don’t seem to be as important as verbs or adverbs, they can make or break a question. Nothing upsets me more is not being able to fully understand a sentence or reading passage because there are simple verbs and adjectives that I don’t know. I would recommend both of these books.

4b. Korean photo dictionary


I am mildly obsessed with learning words in Korean. I feel like when studying for an exam it is easy to forget all of the simple words and names of things it would be nice to know in Korean. Using this book I got to know all kinds of things that one wouldn’t think to study but is definitely important. For example, in the transportation portion of this book I learned the verb “to drive”. Previously I always though it was “운전하다” and it is but I found out that “to steer” 몰다 is also used. Then a few days later I read it in a book. There are also topics such as household, foods, hospital equipment, household supplies etc. that are fairly common to the point that they are rarely taught as new words, but knowing them is priceless. I learned the word living room cabinet from this book and saw it in a reading passage hours later. I also know the names of types of buildings, body parts (hello tracea 기도) and even traditional Korean tools and objects because of this book. Books like this can also prevent miscommunication in word usage by showing you the picture and you deciding what it means rather than it being misprinted in a book. Also, every language has words that mean different things but are the same part of speech so it can be hard to reconcile their meanings but when you are given a picture it helps you to better understand.

5. Topik Korean Reading by Sotong

smaller reading book

I bought this little book a few weeks ago when I was still struggling with reading. I believe that they make it for all the portions but I only felt I needed this one. This book breaks down the reading portion into parts. There is a portion for only ads, then only graphs, then only main idea and so on. It gives you tips, and tricks and points out some of the main words in passages to help you solve them more quickly and accurately. There are also a few practice exams in the back. This book is perfect for those of you struggling with the reading portion of the exam.

6. Previous Topik Exams 


If you do nothing else in preparation for this exam, I absolutely recommend that you print off all of the past Topik exams and solve all the problems in order to get an idea of what is expected of you. I do not think it is beneficial to do this before learning all the necessary grammar, but after that, I think that you have to jump straight into this at least 2-3 months before the scheduled exam. Even though I bought several test preparation books with mock exams, none of them replace the actual exam. It helped me to gauge my level, preparedness and helped me learn what I needed to know if I wanted to pass this exam. After finishing each portion one by one, I think that I have a fighting chance of passing the level 4 before they merge the intermediate and advanced levels together.

Book I wish I didn’t buy:

Topik Master by Darakwon

smaller test prep book

I’ve sung the praises of Darakwon a few times before (even in this post) but this book is definitely off the mark. Darakwon should stick to writing grammar books.  Before I printed out the past Topik exams, I tried my hand at this book. It took me probably 8 hours to get through 30 reading questions, since I marked down all the words I didn’t know and their definitions. I also failed every single reading test. I had heard good things about this book, but I think that the negatives of it outweigh the positives. I completed 5 of the reading portions of the mock test and stopped. Why? Because I felt like it was wasting my time. The questions in this book are not written by the people who write the Topik. They do not use whatever method is used for those questions and its obvious. It’s the first thing you feel when taking it. Most of the questions are far off mark of what was written on the actual exam. I felt like it was unnecessarily harder than the actual test, so I stopped with it. A few things I did like about it was the explanations of the types of questions and what kind of answers they were looking for. I also liked the writing rules and examples provided. However, the tests seemed like trash to me. I didn’t feel like it was helping me. I felt like it was wasting my time. Anyone interested in this book should look through it for a while and decide if it’s right for you. It wasn’t for me.

So there you have it. All the books I’ve used to study for the last Topik intermediate before the structure is changed. I hope that my study tools help people also studying for the upcoming Topik as well as those who will be preparing for it in the coming months or years.


Preparing Topik intermediate reading.

For many test-takers, reading seems to be one of the most difficult portions of the exam. The first time I looked at the reading for the intermediate exam I nearly passed out. You see, I’d read the Yonsei reading series up to book 3. I’d studied thousands of vocabulary words and even messed around with answering the past test questions for the Topik elementary level. While none of this hurt it me, it certainly wasn’t helping.

The test was filled with (what seemed like) thousands of words I didn’t know. Great. I thought there was no way that I could do well on the reading portion since a few months wasn’t enough time to memorize thousands of new words and study. So, I took the tests and underlined all the words I didn’t know and wrote them on the side.

At first I failed all the tests mostly due to not understanding what they were looking for. The central idea questions and the arrange the order questions, especially threw me for a loop. It seemed like I just could not get it right. Though I suck at central idea questions in English as well. A rebellious part of me wants to make the case for why both A and C could work.

I started with test 17 as it was written in the format of the 35th Topik. I failed reading on test 17-21 or so. Then, something clicked. I started to get into the groove. Words that I’d previously not known started to repeat. I started to seen the pattern in how questions were written and which answers were expected. By test 27 or so I could answer most of the questions correctly without even looking up the words I didn’t know.

I don’t know how other people study for the Topik but I definitely recommend studying on portion at a time. Only reading then only listening and so forth. Why? I find by doing this the brain (mine at least) begins to fill in the ambiguous parts of the language as well as develop an idea of how the test works. Its really hard to explain the click, but anyone who has ever done consistently terrible at something and continued to keep trying knows what I mean.

After doing 6 or so reading exams I began to really figure out the format of the test question. The first 5 are always ads of some sort. Then a graph followed by short readings etc. I learned that on the intermediate Topik they use the same 200 or so words in every reading test. Just learning those can help you to determine meaning of passages you otherwise wouldn’t be able to understand.

The last major part of reading (and the other portions as well) is remembering the Topik was written for Koreans by Koreans so a lot of the conclusions reached in the reading aren’t what I would reach. For example, there was a reading passage about larger corporations killing the businesses of small business owners. There were a few key words I didn’t know and I understood the meaning about 80%. I read the answer choices and saw 2 answers that stood out. One said shop owners have to ensure their own livelihood and the other said that large corporations should consider/mind smaller businesses and not operate to shut them down. Now, to me the latter was ridiculous. However I remembered that my local E-mart shuts down once every 2 weeks to allow smaller businesses to profit. The second answer choice was right.

It’s very important to understand how Koreans think and feel about things. It’s important to know how they think about many topics because it’s the single most beneficial thing in reading. Just because you don’t think that it is so or should be so doesn’t mean that Koreans (as a whole) don’t feel differently.

I finished my last practice test a couple weeks ago.  My scores went from high 50’s to the 80’s and I even had a few in the 90’s. I’m happy with the increase in score but I’m not patting myself on the back just yet. I still need to review. After reviewing for a while I should be able to do well. I still haven’t timed myself but I’m not worried. I think I can solve fast enough to answer 30 questions in 45 minutes. Now, I’m slaving over the listening exercises. Bleh.


Preparing Topik intermediate grammar and vocabulary.

Having taught English in Korea for nearly 2 years, the first thing I hear from other teachers (as well as Korean learners) is that heavy grammar based lessons are ineffective. I disagree. If you want to write, read, speak or understand the nuance of listening exercises you need grammar. Grammar is the foundation of a language. You can’t ask for a piece of paper without grammar. You can’t even write a simple sentence without it. To me, its the single most important thing.

You see, if I don’t know a word I can look it up. However if the word is conjugated into another form, lack of grammar knowledge means I’m going to have tough time looking it up. In the writing portion of the exam you’ll have to know which parts can be swapped out and which ones cannot. I’ve answered grammar question or writing question in seconds just by looking at the underline part and knowing instantly which grammar matched.

This focus on grammar also helps me write more quickly and read more quickly. Let’s face it, the Topik is a reading exam. You need to be able to read efficiently. I can infer the hell out of words just based on its surroundimg grammar. So how do I study grammar? Its simple:

1. I buy the appropriate grammar books. In this case the Darakwon grammar books elementary and intermediate.

2. I move through each grammar point one by one. I write down each on in my notebook. I also write down its explanation in my own words a couple of examples and its possible conjugations.

3. Write down all the practice questions and answers for future review. I write everything down because it helps me to remember but solving them in the book is probably fine too.

4. After finishing a book I will go back and review again and again until it’s easy to remember.

5. For grammar points that use nouns, adjectives and verbs in different tenses make sample sentences so that I can come back and review them. This also helps to prevent mistakes in writing.

6. I also bought the 150 Essential Topik Intermediate Grammar book. Darakwon is great but there are maybe 30 or so grammar points it doesn’t cover. I want to say most are obscure and/or mean the same thing as ones covered in the Darakwon series but they make a huge difference.

My grammar score and ability to quickly solve the questions improved dramatically after doing this.

As for vocabulary, many people also shun memeorizing lists. Well, it works for me. The Topik doesn’t have too many questions about adverbs but enough to impact a score. I can’t for the life of me learn them through reading so I memeorize them. I also memorize verbs, some nouns and difficult words Im likely to come upon but haven’t just yet.

Most of the words for the reading portion will repeat with such great frequency that it’s hard not to remember them. However, in the grammar and vocabulary portion you can be tripped on just by not knowing simple verbs. I’m not talking write, read or talk, I mean verbs like to float, to disappear, to be dark. You will also stumble over the “choose the correct verb to complete 3 sentences” without knowledge of simple verbs. To help curb this, I bought 500 Simple Korean Verbs (and adjectives) to help myself remember them.

Adverbs are another part of the grammar and vocabulary portion that gets me every time. For some reason my brain completely shuts down when I have to study adverbs. I can remember maybe 50 or so. But the ones that are forever present on the nearly every Topik test trip me up. I write them down, and try to study them and they still trip me up. I’ve decided that simple lists won’t do for this. It’s time to break out the flash cards. For those people who think adverbs aren’t that important, I missed 2 questions on a listening practice test because I didn’t know the exact meaning of 이따가 despite understanding the entire conversation clearly.

Whether or not this works will be put to the test in 30 days (just saw the calender date) and only then will I know if my strategy worked.


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