TOEFL Writing Course: Lesson One

The Video Lesson

Quick Summary

There are three main styles of questions used in the Independent Writing section of the test:

  • Agree/Disagree (most common)
  • Multiple Choice
  • Preference (least common)

Some obsolete styles not commonly used are:

  • compare/contrast
  • give advice
  • describe a thing
  • open “if”

The questions generally relate to school, work, or society.

Nowadays, the questions are a bit different than how they are depicted in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Some changes have been observed recently. Basically, they are getting longer.

The video (and transcript) contains detailed samples of each question style, and describes how they are structured.

Further Reading

For samples of each question: https://www.toeflresources.com/sample-toefl-essays (stick to the first 24 right now, as they have been “modernized”).

The Official Guide describes these questions on pages 207-209 (5th edition).

To stay on top of changes to these question styles discovered after the creation of the video lesson, visit this page: https://www.toeflresources.com/changes-to-the-toefl-in-2018-and-2019

Homework

  1. Open your Official Guide and go to page 217 to 219. Here you will find a big list of sample questions. Read each one carefully. With a pencil note if the style is “M” (multiple choice), “A” (agree/disagree), P (preference) or “O” (obsolete). In addition, note if the question relates to “S” (school), “W” (work) or “S” (society). Flip through the rest of the book and see if you can find any more question prompts. If a question doesn’t fit the above subjects leave a comment below. Note that the 4th edition of the guide also has a big list, but the page numbers are different.
  2. Now that you have become familiar with the three question styles and the three subject areas, try creating one question of each type. If you leave them as comments below this post I’ll let you know what I think.

Next Lesson

Check out the course hub to figure out where to go next.

Lesson Transcript

(Note that the transcript has been edited for clarity)

The Three Styles

Today we’re going to get started by talking about the three types of questions you might get in the independent writing section of the TOEFL. There is a lot of incorrect information out there about the independent writing section of the test in a lot of textbooks, so do stick around.

Alright, so let’s get started by talking about the most frequently used question style. That’s the agree and disagree style. Take a look at the left hand side of your screen for a classic example of this question Style.

On the screen:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

ÔÇťOverall, the widespread use of the internet has a mostly positive effect on life in today’s world.”

Use specific reasons and details to support your opinion.

This one always starts by asking if you agree or disagree with a statement and then it gives you a short statement of fact about the world.

Next, take a look at the right hand side of your screen. Now this is a more recent style which has been showing up since about 2018.

On the screen:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

“People communicate with each other less than in the past because of the popularity of television.”

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

It starts the same with the same question and also gives a statement of fact about the world. But then it has a couple of new sentences at the end about using memorized examples. Now don’t panic if you see that. It’s nothing really important, and is just telling you not to use a complete personal example that your teacher asked you to memorize in advance of the test.

I’d say you probably have about a 50% chance of seeing this style on test day and a 50% chance of just seeing the totally old style question.

Alright, let’s move on to the second style. This is the multiple choice style. Again, take a look at the classic version on the left.

On the screen:

Which do you think is the most important reason to attend college or university?

  • new experiences
  • career preparation
  • increased knowledge

Use reasons and examples to support your answer.

This style starts with a simple question and then it gives you three or four choices, and then ends by asking you to use reasons and examples to support your answer. But take a look at the right hand side now for a newer version of this style.

On the screen:

In both our personal lives and our work lives, we often face challenges that seem very difficult to deal with. However, it is critically important that we are able to overcome them. When you face problems like this in your own life, what do you feel is the best way to solve them?

  • asking someone with relevant experience for advice
  • finding information about the problem using the Internet
  • taking a long time to think about the problem alone

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

Instead of just having a simple question you have pretty much a whole paragraph here. The question still comes at the end, but you really do need to read these first few sentences before you can actually understand what the question is asking. And the 30 minutes you get for this task is ticking away as you actually read the question. Not only that, but the options given are much longer. Here the options given might be an entire sentence or a pretty long sentence fragment, whereas in the old style you might get one word or two words. And just to make things even longer I’ve added in that warning about memorizing examples,

You might get one of the old short ones, or you might get one of these long ones but I think it’s more likely you’ll get the long version.

Finally, the last question style, referred to as a “preference style, is kind of like a multiple choice question, but with just two options. One example is on the left hand side of the screen:

On the screen:

Some people think that the government should use extra money to fund programs to improve the environment.  Others think that it is better for the government to spend money to support artistic programs.

Which option do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.


But take a look at the right hand side for a slightly structure for this style.

On the screen:

Nowadays, many companies encourage their employees to work from home using the Internet, instead of requiring them to actually come to the company’s office. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not?

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

The phrasing here is a little bit different, but it’s still asking for your preference and you still have just two options to choose from – basically working from home or going to the office. You’re writing pretty much the same essay but just don’t be surprised if the phrasing is a little bit different than expected.

A few days ago I put out a survey on Facebook YouTube and Twitter asking as many students as possible to tell me what kind of question and they got if they had taken the test in the last six months. Here’s what they told me. 45% of them said they got an agree/disagree style question. 30% said they got a multiple choice question. 25% said they got a preference question. That means agree/disagree is the most likely type you’re going to get, but basically you need to study all three styles.

The Obsolete Styles

Now, very quickly I want to talk about a few obsolete question styles. I’m mentioning these very quickly because they do show up in a lot of TOEFL textbooks.

These include the compare-and-contrast style question that goes something like this: “compare and contrast the value of knowledge gained from books and that from real life experiences.”

It also includes the giving advice style question. Like, “your friend is having trouble participating in class discussions. What advice would you give him?”

Likewise, you are probably not going to see so-called “describe questions.” Like “describe the characteristics of a great co-worker.”

Finally, I don’t think you’re going to get “open if” questions, like “if you can visit any country in the world which one would you choose.”

Things could change and I could be wrong, so be prepared for anything, but I’m telling you strongly I don’t think you’re going to get a question that looks like one of these Styles. If the textbook or website you’re using contains these questions it’s probably old or it’s probably just badly written.

Subject Matter

Alright, the last thing I want to mention about these questions are the three main subject areas.

I think the absolute most frequent subject area is “school.” So you might get questions about things like picking classes, you might get questions about teaching styles, styles of learning, or working with classmates. You might get questions about academic skills and the kind of stuff stuff that relates to what you do in class or on campus.

You might also get questions related to work. That is questions about how to work best with colleagues, questions that relate to picking a career, questions that relate to workplace professional skills, and maybe wages and salaries and that sort of thing.

And then the last and this is the most broad category, is questions about society. So you might get questions about family, questions about what’s best for children, the effect of technology, people in your neighborhood, questions about the media and the internet and that sort of thing.

I should mention here that you’re never going to get anything controversial. There will never be a question about drugs, or religion, or gender and there never will be so. You know a lot of teachers kind of like to spice up their lessons with controversial questions. Tell them to stop doing that if you really want to be serious about your prep.

Wrap-up

That brings us to the end of this lesson. I hope you learned something about the questions you’re going to get on the test. I do encourage you to visit the course page at TOEFLresources.com for some homework and further reading.

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