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. 

Sentence Types

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.

Noun 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.

Adverb Clauses

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.”

Adjective Clauses

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.  

Other Things

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:

  • Inversion
  • Noun clauses in subject position
  • adverb/adjective/noun clauses
  • Appositives
  • Parallelism 

 

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…

Idiomaticity

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.”

That’s a lot more subtle. “Ceased their business” is pretty good, but it is a little bit awkward. A native speaker would probably say something like “went out of business.”

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:

  1. Inexperience with the language.
  2. 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.

So:

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.

Next:

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.”

Or:

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.

That’s it!

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:

  • thirtythree
  • one hundred and thirtythree
  • five thousand and seventynine

You should not write:

  • seven-hundred
  • 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” 

“Even if” refers to a possible situation.  The meaning is close to “whether or not.”

Like:

“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.

Or:

“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”

“Even though” refers to a situation that is true.  The meaning is close to “despite the fact.”

Like:

“Even though we worked hard, we failed.”

This means that we worked hard and we failed.

Or:

“Even though we work hard, we fail.”

This means that we always work hard and we always fail.

Or:

“Even though the government shut down the factory, global warming continued.”

This means that the government shut down the factory, and global warming continued.

Or:

“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.

I have updated my TOEFL writing templates for 2021. In the attached video, you’ll find templates for both the independent and integrated essays.  I’ve adjusted them only slightly for this year… but I think they are a bit better than the 2020 versions.  I’ll probably make a video containing all of the 2021 speaking templates as well, so keep an eye on the channel.

Over the next few days I will adjust all of the static webpage articles so that they include the new templates.

In 2018, ETS published a report on the use of their e-rater technology in assessing the GRE essays.  I am a stupid man and it is hard for me to read academic articles.  But I still return to this article now and again to see what I can find. 

My “TOEFL Gangnam Style” series of blog posts this month inspired me to take yet another look at the article to see if it had anything to say about the topic of memorized essays.  I was pleased to find that it did explain this phenomenon somewhat.  Regarding how ETS’s human raters treat this kind of “shell text,” when grading GRE essays it reports (emphasis mine):

The raters also found the use of shell text along with the text that is part of the writing prompt/question prevalent across the essay responses of test takers from China, particularly for argument, resulting in three-paragraph-long responses but suffering from lack of ideas and poor language. The raters identified instances of the use of generic (non-content-specific) statements, syntactic repetition at the beginning of each paragraph, repetition of ideas around generic statements or prompt text, and lack of cohesion in the essay after the first few memorized sentences as cues to shell text. The raters understood that test takers from China frequently use shell text, but they do not view shell text as problematic or as a negative style of writing. They emphasized that they are trained to be neutral to the use of shell text and that they look for original ideas and content beyond the shell text in the response to determine the appropriate score. In some cases, they expressed the idea that  the examinees are able to use shell text cleverly to enhance the structure and framework of their responses without compromising originality, cohesion, and content .

How about that?  That’s the first I’ve heard about how ETS raters handle templates.  I repeat:  “they are trained to be neutral to the use of shell text.”

But more interesting:

Presently, human raters are trained in scoring to identify and treat any shell text neutrally while scoring the essay response. The e-rater lacks any such training presently and may be overscoring essays with the heavy presence of shell text.

Yeah, it probably is.

For TOEFL teachers, the thing to take away from the article is that the shell text (template) is not tricking the human raters into giving higher scores.  They are treating that text neutrally.  It is the e-rater that may be getting tricked, as it reports that Chinese students are getting much higher scores from the e-rater than from the human raters.  That’s the point!

The article suggests that e-rater could be adjusted to include some kind of shell-text detection to lower this discrepancy.  I do not know if that has been implemented since the research was done.  Keep an eye on Chinese and Korean writing scores when the TOEFL score data for 2020 is reported this summer.

Anyways, this study was done with GRE essays, so take it with a grain of salt.  To me, it seems to explain some of what was observed in the original “Gangnam Style” article in Assessing Writing that inspired this whole blog series.  But I could be wrong.  

NoteA much older article confirms that Chinese students get higher e-rater scores than human scores on the TOEFL, but it doesn’t talk about shell text.  It also points out that Korean students get higher e-rater scores as well (but the difference is slighter).

(you can also read parts one, two, and three  of this series!)

Ha ha.  I am a TOEFL essay machine now.  This took about three minutes to create using my fake essay template, and I think it looks pretty decent.

The prompt is:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better for children to grow up in the countryside than in a large city. Use specific reasons and examples to develop your essay.

The Essay is:

A lot of people today think that we should live in the city.  However, I strongly believe that it is much better for kids to live in the country for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that cities are the best place for young people to live.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, life in the countryside can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that living in the countryside is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought the lack of businesses in the country would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of rural life.  Now I realize that the presence of agriculture can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to growing organic crops.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on farming at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, life in the countryside has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use hiking trails we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of rural sports.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that rural lifestyles will have an even greater impact in the future because of the clean air in the countryside.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from life away from crowded cities is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that it is best for young people to live in the countryside.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

(you can also read parts one, two,  and four of this series!)

Okay, I’m having fun with the Gangnam style TOEFL template I generated yesterday.  This time I tackled the second prompt in my collection.  Obviously it has a lot of overlap, since both deal with the Internet.  Next time I think I will delete the final sentence from the introduction. It lays the template on a bit too thick.  I’ll replace it with nothing, and just jump to the body after the thesis statement.

The prompt is:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better to use printed materials such as books and articles to do research than it is to use the internet. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

The “fake essay” is:

A lot of people today think that using online materials for research is a bad idea.  However, I strongly believe that using the Internet for research is wise for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that websites are unreliable.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, using the Internet for researching topics can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that the web is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought relying on unreliable online sources would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of cutting edge research that is published online.  Now I realize that learning about the latest academic developments online can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to crypto-currency.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on emerging web-based technologies at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, medical websites have a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use websites that report on health trends we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of the Internet.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that websites will have an even greater impact in the future because of the number of doctors who are online.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from online research is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that researching online is beneficial.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

(you can also read parts one,  three and four of this series!)

There is a wonderful article by Sugene Kim (Nagoya University of Commerce & Business) in this month’s issue of “Assessing Writing” that describes TOEFL writing tutoring in Korea.  I’ve written about how Korean students prepare for the TOEFL a few times (see this article from last year), and Kim’s article touches on some of the same themes.

Kim describes how Korean tutors use templates to prepare students for both of the writing tasks.  But these aren’t templates like the ones on this site.  The templates prepared by Korean tutors are almost complete essays.  The template might come out to 300 or 350 words, and the student simply plugs in 20 or 30 words that match the given topic.  The article includes interviews with students who confirm the effectiveness of this method.  The tutors produce totally personalized templates for each student so they are much harder for ETS to detect.  The article describes how the most successful tutors become stars in education sector.  One is referred to by students as “the Writing sniper.”  Of his work, the interviewee notes:

“He gives lessons based on his own templates, which are famous for ‘mesmerizing’ ETS essay raters.  Most of his former pupils are known to have experiences a dramatic score increase after taking his classes.”

The article doesn’t exaggerate.  I am based in Korea, and one of my close friends in the TOEFL-prep industry is  a star tutor.  His business is booming and he gets results.

A sample template (complete with student annotations) is available in the article.  Personally, I don’t teach this way but if I was going to write a “Korean Style Template” it would look something like this:

Introduction

A lot of people today think that [opposite of thesis].  However, I strongly believe that [thesis] for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that [opposite of thesis].  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

Body 1

First, [topic] can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that [topic] is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought [aspect of topic] would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of [aspect of topic].  Now I realize that [specific aspect of topic] can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to [specific aspect of topic].  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on [aspect of topic] at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Body 2

Second, [topic] has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use [topic] we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of [aspect of topic].  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that [topic] will have an even greater impact in the future because of [aspect of topic].  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from [topic] is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think that [thesis].  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

 

Okay, so I might use this to answer a prompt about the Internet ( Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Overall, the widespread use of the internet has a mostly positive effect on life in today’s world) thusly:

A lot of people today think that the internet is harmful.  However, I strongly believe that internet access is beneficial for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that the internet is damaging.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, the internet can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that the internet is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought websites would actually eliminate jobs, and so I was hostile toward them.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of online communications.  Now I realize that the Internet can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to online commerce.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on information technology at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, the Internet has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use the Internet we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of fitness applications.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that the Internet will have an even greater impact in the future because of new developments.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from the Internet is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that the Internet is beneficial.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

But it isn’t as easy as that. A few things are worth mentioning:

  • At first glance, it seems like this template might be useable with only about 10% of the prompts on my sample page.   The star tutor will give students a bunch of templates to cover the whole range of possible prompts.  They will also get them to mix and match body paragraphs covering a range of benefits (jobs, health, quality of life, family bonds, relationships, etc.).
  • I spent about 10 minutes writing this template.  It isn’t great, but I think it demonstrates the point I am trying to convey.  The star tutors work harder to provide much better templates for their students. 
  • As the article points out, students take the test many times.  The system doesn’t always work.
  • As I mentioned in a blog post last year, ETS seems to be penalizing students for fake surveys and research nowadays.  Professor Kim didn’t mention this, but anecdotal evidence I’ve heard seems to corroborate my claim.

What does this all mean?  I don’t know.

(you can also read parts two, three and four of this series!)