“When there are concerns regarding plagiarism in the Writing section, the scores from the test administration are automatically canceled.”
“I met Julie when I was in university. We have kept in touch since then.”
“Until now, I have gotten good grades.”
Our friends at EdAgree have just launched another wonderful tool. If you create an account at EdAgree, you can now have your practice essays reviewed by the same e-rater technology used to grade the TOEFL test! This service is provided free of charge.
To access this opportunity, first create an account on EdAgree. This will involve answering a few questions and providing some personal information.
Once you have logged in, look for the “English Writing Practice” button the right side of the user dashboard:
Click that, and then click “start.” You can select a question prompt from the drop down menu or select “check my essay” from the bottom of the menu to just paste in your own writing. Click the clock icon and you’ll have thirty minutes to write your essay. You don’t need to use all of the time. Click “submit” when you finished.
To experiment, I pasted in one of my essays, based on a classic TOEFL prompt about using books or the Internet to do research.
My essay was immediately given a score of 98%:
That’s not a perfect score, so I clicked “detailed results” to get more specific feedback. I got a screen that looked like this:
I can click on each of those green buttons (grammar, usage, mechanics, style, organization & development) to get specific corrections and comments. In my case, the e-rater detected no grammar, usage or mechanics errors so nothing is displayed However, it did detect a “style” problem: I repeated the word “online” three times. Perhaps that is too many times! Check it out:
Next I clicked the “organization & development” button and confirmed that the e-rater could detect all of the traditional elements of an essay: background information, a thesis, main arguments, supporting details and a conclusion:
Users can also use that menu to highlight all of their transition words (I used 20) but I will let you explore that on your own.
So there you go. Some free e-rater practice, thanks to our amazing friends at EdAgree. A few things are worth mentioning here in closing:
- This is a writing tool, and it is not explicitly designed to be a TOEFL tool. Don’t use it to predict your TOEFL score. Converting the score out of 100 to a score out of 30 and calling that a TOEFL score is probably a bad idea.
- Some of the provided prompts are TOEFL prompts. Some are not. Again… this isn’t designed by EdAgree to be solely a TOEFL tool.
- The tool seems to be somewhat weak at distinguishing between background materials and a thesis statement. Sometimes it fails to detect an obvious thesis statement.
- The tool wants three sentences in the conclusion, but that doesn’t seem to affect the score.
- This is very similar to the “Criterion One” product sold by ETS.
Earlier this year I helped a student prepare for the ALP Essay Exam. I couldn’t find much information about the test online, so I thought I would write a few notes here. I might revise this post in the future, so stop by in the future for updates. If you need tutoring for the ALP Essay exam, you can contact me.
What is the ALP Essay Exam?
The ALP Essay Exam is used by Columbia University to assess the writing skills of students. It is often used to determine if students have the language skills necessary to take classes at the university. It can also be used to determine if students should take supplementary writing classes (in addition to their regular schedule of classes). Test-takers have 105 minutes to write a standard (four or five paragraph) argumentative essay about a specific topic. The essay must be based on the contents of two short academic articles.
You can read about it over here.
What Does the ALP Essay Exam Look Like?
You’ll get a question about a serious topic. Don’t expect something basic and simple like the IELTS. Instead, expect something that might actually be studied in a first-year university class. You might get something about gentrification, affirmative action, the use of standardized testing… that sort of thing. The question might look like this:
“Please read the two passages below. The authors have differing opinions about the topic of gentrification in the United States. Which author do you agree with, and to what extent? In your essay you should support your opinion, and challenge the opinions of the author you disagree with. You have 105 minutes to complete your essay.”
The passages should be fairly short. Maybe just a paragraph or two, excerpted from a longer article. They will have opposing opinions on the same topic. The author of each one will be credited
If the topic is gentrification, they might look like this:
“One of the most significant benefits of gentrification is the improvement of housing. Ordinarily, housing presents enormous challenges in the management of urban centers. Therefore, gentrification seems to solve this challenge because it favors the improvement of housing within the gentrified community. In addition, it is believed to stabilize declining areas. In most cities, suburban areas are known to experience degradation leading to the emergence of slums. This phenomenon is caused by the increased strain on urban infrastructure and services. Therefore, gentrification addresses an array of urban management challenges by reducing suburban sprawl and strain on the existing infrastructure.
Another positive effect of gentrification is the increase in property values. As a result, property owners reap high income from real estate investment, and this serves as a means of attraction for potential businesses. It is also suggested that gentrification leads to a significant increase of local fiscal revenues. Moreover, gentrification has led to the rehabilitation of property with little state sponsorship. Therefore, an increase in property values and local fiscal revenues promote economic development of gentrified areas. Economic development is also enhanced by an increase in purchasing power in the centralized economy, although it is uneven.
It is also believed that gentrification leads to increased social mix and reduction in crime rates. This phenomenon has been evidenced in gentrified cities such as London, Atlanta and Washington, DC.
Gentrification usually leads to negative impacts such as forced displacement, a fostering of discriminatory behavior by people in power, and a focus on spaces that exclude low-income individuals and people of color.
During gentrification, poorer communities are commonly converted to high-end neighborhoods with expensive housing options such as high-rises and condominiums. As property prices increase, the original residents of the neighborhood are forced out in a variety of ways. First, with an increase in the prices of buildings, the gap between the price of the building and the income that the landlord gets from renting the building grows bigger; landlords thus increase rent prices, which forces out the low-income residents. As building prices continue to increase, the problem exacerbates because it becomes even more profitable to convert these apartment buildings into non-residential areas. Additionally, since investors can earn more money from selling buildings, real-estate dealers have less incentive to improve the buildings. The real estate dealers instead sell the buildings at higher prices. This cycle of rising building prices continues until only large and well-financed investors are able to continue.
Displacement… is disproportionately borne by low-income individuals of color, many of whom are elderly individuals. Physical frailty makes it more challenging for elderly individuals to resist the actions that landlords take to remove tenants. Researchers have also found that elderly people are more intensively affected by social changes around them; for example, many older adults cited loss of friendships or community networks as a reason to move.
How to Structure the Essay
The structure is fairly easy. Write an introduction that provides some background on the topic and a clear thesis statement that states your opinion on the topic. Then write two or three body paragraphs. Each one should focus on a specific argument in support of your argument or the rebuttal of a specific point in the article you don’t agree with. Finally, write a conclusion that sums of what you’ve just created. Aim for 400 to 600 words in total. Easy, right?
How to Get a Good Score
Getting a good score isn’t so easy. To award you a high score, the rater needs to see an argument, but they also need to see the use of fairly sophisticated writing techniques. The list below is drawn from the official ALP website, and a few other sources used in ALP classes at Columbia.
- Parallel Structures
- Given-new information flow
- Inversion and Fronting
- Noun classes in subject position
Remember that your essay must also quote from the sources when appropriate.
Remember, also, that in addition to this advanced stuff, your essay needs to show mastery of basic stuff. That means basic transitions (therefore, however, in addition) and a mix of all three sentence types (simple, compound, complex). You also need nearly perfect grammar to get a high score.
I can’t teach you the basic stuff here, but I can show you examples of the advanced concepts mentioned above.
Here’s a sample paragraph from an essay I wrote about mental health. I’ve underlined parts that use the above techniques. In order, they are: parallel structure, quoting the article, appositive, noun clauses in subject position, inversion.
Young people are able to discuss their mental health challenges with others, and are willing to reach out for help when necessary. As the article by Smith indicates, 62% of millennials are comfortable with this. Proof is easy to find. Many organizations have taken up the suggestion of the Center for Workplace Mental Health and created departments which help workers cope with issues as they arise. In addition, employee benefits now include financial support for outside counseling and psychological care. Even more indicative of this trend is the recent emergence of businesses which profit from the desire that young people have to discuss their mental health. Several new smartphone apps, jokingly referred to as “Uber for Counseling,” have made a lot of money connecting people with therapists. With just a few clicks, we can be connected with a therapist and receive their assistance via voice or text. The benefits are clear; when people are willing to talk about issues that challenge them, and there are people willing to listen to them, they can be given strategies that mitigate the negative effects or perhaps eliminate the issues altogether. Rarely do people today find themselves in an environment where they have absolutely no one to turn to. This is quite a shift from even just a few decades ago, when sufferers of mental illness often felt lost at sea.
Next is part of a paragraph about reparations. I’ve underlined an example of fronting, and an example of an appositive. Note the extensive quotes from the article, which are integrated into my own sentences.
While long-term solutions to today’s problems must certainly involve political and economic changes, the political and economic systems are slow to change. With great enthusiasm, conservative journalist Frank Williamson says that “the political interests of African Americans… are best served by equality under the law.” Williamson, as an experienced political writer, knows that politicians have been working towards “equality under the law” for decades, and are still far from achieving it.
Here is an introductory paragraph from an essay about inclusive language. Note how I’ve underlined a parallel structure, an appositive, fronting, and another parallel structure. Note that I ended with a clear thesis statement.
They say that people change over time, and that language changes along with them. Nowadays, thanks to the spread of the Internet, language seems to be changing at a more rapid pace than ever before. Rarely do we go a week without reading an article or seeing a social media post that uses a term or phrase that is totally new to us. Many of us want to be supportive of marginalized groups, and we want to express our opinions clearly without being lost in a sea of jargon. Personally, I feel that our choice of words is very important, but we must be careful to avoid being overly judgmental of people who can’t keep up with the newest words.
Okay, so that’s a broad look at what the ALP test looks like and what you need to do. For more help, or tutoring, feel free to contact me. To keep up with the latest changes to this test, contact Columbia University.
As I mentioned earlier, the TOEFL writing rubrics are notoriously difficult to understand. Perhaps the most difficult part is the requirement that score-five and score-four independent essays demonstrate “syntactic variety” and that score-three essays include a “limited range of syntactic structures.”
What the heck is syntactic variety? What is a syntactic structure?
Here’s what you should know:
Often I see essays that are quite long and have perfect grammar. But I still can’t give them a perfect score. This is because the sentences and clauses are all very similar. Sometimes the student just uses simple sentences. Sometimes they use too many compound sentences. Sometimes every sentence starts with a transitional adverb. Sometimes every sentence starts with a pronoun. That kind of writing is boring and lacks variety.
Syntax is the arrangement of words into sentences, clauses and phrases. We don’t just put words anywhere. They have to be arranged properly to convey meaning, and for our sentences to be considered correct. Of course you know that.
“Syntactic variety” refers to the use of various types of sentences, clauses and phrases.
The best way to ensure that your TOEFL essay has syntactic variety is to use the three main sentence types in English: simple, compound, and complex sentences. You may already be familiar with these. If not, start studying.
Simple sentences look like this:
Simon took the math test. He was totally unprepared for it.
Compound sentences look like this:
Simon took the math test, but he was totally unprepared for it.
Complex sentences look like this:
Even though Simon took the math test, he was totally unprepared for it.
Note that complex sentences seem to be most important for the purposes of establishing syntactic variety and complexity.
Beyond Sentence Types – Noun Clauses, Adverb Clauses and Adjective Clauses
You can further increase your syntactic variety through the use of noun, adverb and adjective clauses.
A noun clause is a group of words that functions like a noun. They often start with “how” or a “wh-” word. Like:
Why she didn’t call me is a mystery.
What I did that day surprised my family.
She listened to whatever I suggested.
These demonstrate more variety and complexity than writing:
That is a mystery.
This surprised my family.
She listened to my ideas.
Placing a noun clause in the subject position of a sentence may be considered a sign of more mature and complex writing.
An adverb clause is a group of words that functions as an adverb. Like adverbs, they usually describe how we do things. Like:
With great enthusiasm, I finished the project.
Before doing anything else, Matthew turned on his computer.
These are a bit more impressive than:
“Quickly, I finished the project.”
“Eagerly, Matthew turned on his computer.”
An adjective clause (also called a relative clause) is a group of words that functions like an adjective. It describes a noun in a sentence. Like:
“The test, which I have taken five times, is extremely difficult.”
“My friend Simone, who is three years older than me, is currently a university freshman.”
Don’t go Crazy
Remember that your essay might only be 20 sentences in total. You don’t have to do all of these things. Just include a few compound sentences and a few complex sentences. Try to work in a few of the above clauses along the way.
There are other ways to achieve syntactic variety. Standardized tests that have a more human touch explicitly mention some of them in their grading rubrics. Consider the ALP Essay Test from Colombia University, which specifically mentions such techniques as:
- Noun clauses in subject position
- adverb/adjective/noun clauses
The TOEFL writing rubrics are famously difficult to understand. Even experienced teachers have a hard time turning them into something that students can actually make use of. Today’s blog post will kick off a series that attempts to explain what the rubrics actually refer to. Starting with…
References in the rubric to “idiomaticity” and “idiomatic language” are particularly difficult to grasp. The rubric says that a score-five independent essay should “display appropriate word choice and idiomaticity.” Meanwhile, it notes that a score-four essay should have only “minor errors” in its “use of idiomatic language.”
But what does this actually mean?
Many students (and teachers) think that ETS wants test-takers to use idioms like “it was raining cats and dogs last week” or “I won’t beat around the bush.” That is not correct. That’s a different matter.
“Idiomaticity” is tough to define, but the dictionary definition is best. It says that idiomaticity is “the extent to which a learner’s language resembles that of a native speaker.”
This is what your teachers are hinting at when they change one of your sentences not because of a specific grammar error, but because they think some of your word choices don’t seem natural.
Here’s a sentence I recently read:
“Business owners want employees to make quick decisions, which renders stress for those who take their time.”
There aren’t any grammar errors in that sentence. But “renders” sounds weird to me. Changing that to “causes” or “creates” will increase the idiomaticity of the sentence.
Here’s another one:
“When the shopping mall opened, many local shops ceased their business.”
“I strongly think that children should attend all of their classes”
You might think I’m being needlessly picky, but to get a perfect score (5 on the rubric, 30 scaled) you need to use the best possible words at all times.
In TOEFL essays, problems related to idiomaticity seem to come from two sources:
- Inexperience with the language.
- A desire to shove a lot of fancy words into the essays to get a higher score.
The first source is normal. No one is perfect. You can overcome this by studying. Read sample essays. Get feedback on your own writing. Try studying with a collocations book like “Collocations in Use.” Consider using a learner’s dictionary.
The second source is not normal. Ignore advice from inexperienced teachers who think that using obscure words will help you. They won’t. Some of the essays I’ve read come pretty close to Noam Chomsky’s famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. That’s a beautiful sentence, but no meaning can be derived from it.
I took the TOEFL Home Edition the other day and got thirty points in the writing section. I wrote about 800 words in the independent task, and about 600 words in the integrated task. I got no penalty for exceeding the recommended word count. Is that clear? You can write as much as you want. There is no penalty!
For what it’s worth, I did not write a conclusion in the integrated task, and I mentioned reading details first in each body paragraph (before the lecture details). Those approaches are fine too.
When I check TOEFL essays, I often see grammar mistakes involving “stopped to VERB” and “stopped VERBing.” This is a dangerous mistake since these forms are used to express totally different ideas. The mistake often results in a sentence with the complete opposite of the writer’s intended meaning!
Here’s what you need to know.
“I stopped VERBing” means that I stopped doing that action.
“I stopped dancing in 1997” means that I stopped dancing in 1997.
“I stopped doing homework” means that I stopped doing my homework.
Easy, right? This is what most people want to express. This is probably what you should use in your essays.
“I stopped to VERB” means that I actually did the action!
“I was walking to school and I stopped to buy a sandwich” means that I bought a sandwich while you were walking to school.
“Yesterday, I stopped to talk to Simon” means that yesterday I talked to Simon.
The tricky thing is that after some English verbs you can use either an -ing form or an infinitive. But after other verbs you cannot.
What’s worse is that after some verbs this results in a different meaning, but after other verbs it does not.
For reference and verb lists, I recommend sections 100, 105 and 110 of “Practical English Usage.”
The most common sentence fragment error I see in essays is a misuse of “while” to contrast things.
Here’s an example of the error in an essay I checked this morning:
“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products. While today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”
The second sentence is a sentence fragment since it lacks an independent clause.
Better is to combine those sentences so you have both a clear independent clause and a clear subordinate clause. Like this:
“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products, while today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”
“While today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website, in the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products.”
If you really want to use two sentences, change “while” to something like “in contrast.” Like:
“In the past we needed to visit many stores to compare prices of products. In contrast, today we can compare hundreds of products on a single website.”
This is a tricky error since you will hear the “incorrect” version in spoken English all the time. It sounds pretty normal if we emphasize “today” while speaking. Some people might argue that it is fine in writing as well.
I think you should avoid it in your TOEFL essays, since “sentence fragments” is an entire category in the e-rater.
I often see students use “until now” and “so far” incorrectly. Here’s a quick lesson!
Rule one: Use “so far” to describe a condition that is ongoing. As in:
“I moved to New York five weeks ago and I haven’t met anyone so far.” (this means that I still don’t have any friends)
Rule two: Use “until now” to talk about a condition that has just stopped occurring. As in:
“I didn’t call you because I didn’t have your phone number until now.” (this means I just now got your phone number)
Rule three: Don’t use “until now” to talk about a condition that is ongoing.
To further illustrate, here’s an error I commonly see:
“We met in high school and have been friends until now.”
In this case, the student wants to say that they are still friends, but the sentence actually means that they just stopped being friends… the opposite of his intended meaning!
Here’s an error that inspired this post:
“I took the TOEFL five weeks ago, and haven’t gotten my scores until now.”
In this case, the student wants to say that he is still waiting for his scores, so the proper sentence is:
“I took the TOEFL five weeks ago, and haven’t gotten my scores so far.”
Writing numbers properly can be tricky. There are a few things to keep in mind.
Remember that you should use a hyphen only in compound numbers between 21 and 99. Don’t use a hyphen when numbers are greater than 99. So you should write:
- one hundred and thirty–three
- five thousand and seventy–nine
You should not write:
- one-hundred and thirty-three
- five-thousand and seventy-nine
Those hyphens are incorrect because they appear in numbers greater than 99.
The use of “and” is also tricky. In British English we always use “and” between hundred/thousand/million/etc and numbers below 100. As in:
- seven hundred and five
- two million and ten
- six thousand, five hundred and nine
In American English it is acceptable to omit “and.” As in:
- seven hundred five
- two million ten
I wonder, though, if the British “and” is becoming more common among American speakers and writers.
This is a new kind of error. I see it in essays almost every day. For some reason, it seems a lot more common nowadays. Weird.
“Even if” refers to a possible situation. The meaning is close to “whether or not.”
“Even if we work hard, we will fail.”
This means that we might work hard or we might not work hard. In either case, we will fail.
“Even if the government shuts down the factory, global warming will continue.”
This means that the government might shut down the factory. Or it might not shut down the factory. In either case, global warming will continue.
“Even though” refers to a situation that is true. The meaning is close to “despite the fact.”
“Even though we worked hard, we failed.”
This means that we worked hard and we failed.
“Even though we work hard, we fail.”
This means that we always work hard and we always fail.
“Even though the government shut down the factory, global warming continued.”
This means that the government shut down the factory, and global warming continued.
“Even though the government will shut down the factory, global warming will continue.”
This means that the government will shut down the factory, and global warming will continue.