TOEFL Writing and Speaking: Variety in Vocabulary

One of the difficult tasks students face in both the writing and speaking sections of the TOEFL exam is to display a rich variety of vocabulary.  In fact, the scoring rubrics from both the writing and speaking sections specifically mention terms like «effective use of vocabulary» and «appropriate word choice» as criteria in evaluating a student’s work.  However, far too often, when under pressure, the only adjectives that a student can find are “good” and “bad”.  So what I’d like to offer in this blog entry are some possible alternatives for some of the most typical adjectives, as well as alternative possibilities for the useful verbs “increase” and “decrease”.  Please note that many of these are not perfect synonyms and there are important differences both in use and intensity between the typical word and the alternatives.  Still, by taking risks with these words while practicing and receiving appropriate feedback, you can develop a nice repertoire of vocabulary that can impress on the day of the TOEFL exam.  Many thanks to the people from American English at State which is where I took much of this material from before adapting it.  Check out their very helpful Facebook page here:

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The Days Before the Exam

Of course you’re nervous.  If you weren’t, you’d have a problem.  The question is:  what are you going to do with your nervous energy?  Will you be able to use it to increase your focus? Or will it overwhelm you and disperse your concentration?  As the day of the exam approaches, you need to be able to take that nervous energy and focus it on large, fundamental ideas, not the thousands of mini-details that are running around your head. So what I’d like to do in this blog entry is review the key ideas that you need to focus on in each section of the test so you will be able to use your energy productively. Let’s start with the Reading section.

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TOEFL Writing: Limiting Errors

Although the TOEFL scoring rubrics for both writing tasks allow for the presence of «minor lexical or grammatical errors» at the highest level, common sense suggests that, as the errors accumulate, the chances that these errors «result in inaccurate or imprecise presentation of content or connections» also rise.  With that in mind, I’d like to make some general comments on avoiding errors before offering a list of my students’ most common and costly errors.  Let’s start with some general suggestions:

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TOEFL Reading: Prose Summary Questions

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Prose Summary and Fill-in-a-Table questions found at the end of the TOEFL Reading passages.  Answer them correctly and you have made significant progress in scoring high in the reading section.  Struggle with these questions and the road to your high score becomes much more difficult, requiring you to be close to perfect in all the other questions.  Given this importance, let’s start by looking at the Prose Summary Questions and to do our analysis, we’ll start at the very beginning:  with the instructions.

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Independent Writing Task: 300 Words and Beyond

In the previous blog entry, I offered an introduction to the Indenpendent Writing Task.  Two of the most important points of that post was that this composition has a minimum number of words, 300, that must be reached, and secondly, that to fully develop a composition and increase your possibilities of scoring high, you will need to finish closer to 400 words than 300.  Thus, I’d like to extend the discussion of the last entry by looking at how we can make sure that our compositions comfortably surpass the 300-word minimum.  There are three areas to focus on: the introduction, examples and a transition sentence between supporting paragraphs.

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Introduction: Independent Writing Task

A new year and a new section of the exam to look at:  Writing.  Today, I’d like to begin a discussion on the final task of the exam, the 30-minute indpendent writing composition.  Before getting into the details of the organizational structure, I’d like to highlight the fact that in this composition, you are presenting, building and defending an argument in response to the question.  This is NOT a balanced, «on one hand…on the other hand…» piece of writing.

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TOEFL Reading: Insert Text Questions

First of all, before returning to the reading section, I’d like to announce the information about my next TOEFL preparation course for all of you in Seville:

January 21st-March 13th for the March 14th exam.  Tuesdays and Thursdays 19-21:30.

For more information visit my website at

OK, now with business out of the way, let’s look at the insert text question in the TOEFL reading, a question which appears in almost every set of questions for a TOEFL Reading text

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TOEFL Listening: Taking Notes

The best way I can communicate the importance of note-taking for the exam is to make a  distinction between listening skills and memory ability.  You must understand that it is quite possible for a student to completely understand information at the moment it was spoken and not be able to recall this information when asked about it a mere 3 minutes later.  Is this a case of poor listening skills or poor memory?  I would argue that the problem is a faulty memory and that the ability to take effective notes is the only way to ensure that your listening abilities translate to more correct answers and more complete information on the exam. Thus, if we can establish that success on every part of the exam that has a listening component depends on taking effective notes, let’s look at the different kinds of strategies needed to perform this task, starting with some general comments and recommendations, and then moving on to more specific advice for the academic lectures and conversations in the listening section.

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