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:

1.  Start Simple:  If we begin with the idea that most of the truly confusing mistakes are errors involving the relationship between subject and verb, then it becomes vital that this relationship be as clear and direct as possible.  One of the first recommendations I give to a student who is having problems controlling mistakes is to simplify.  Use short, direct sentences with a clear relationship between the subjects and verbs.  Later we can add complexity, but the first objective is clear writing which completely fulfills the task.

2.  Edit:  Sounds simple enough.  Carefully re-read what you have written.  Yet we all know the feeling of being so deeply involved in a task that we lose our objective eye that allows us to spot errors.  And, of course, there is the question of time.  Time editing is time not spent planning and most importantly, time not spent explaining, describing or building the argument.  Still, here are two suggestions to edit more efficiently and effectively:

•  Don’t wait until the end of the composition to check your work.  Before starting a new paragraph, re-read what you have just finished.

•  Read what you have written aloud.  There are mistakes that your eyes won’t see but your ears will pick up because it will sound “strange”.  Sure, you’ll be the weird person  talking to him or herself during the exam, but you will also be the weird person with fewer mistakes.

•  Know your mistakes.  All of us have errors which are typical of us.  Making a conscious effort to identify “our” mistakes is the first step to correcting them because then there will be some counter-force that can stop our fingers from hitting the key and producing that error.  If we have someone who is correcting our compositions, review those corrections on a regular basis to identify what those typical mistakes are.

Now, let’s take a look at some of my students’ most typical and troubling mistakes:

1.  Verb Tense Consistency:  Often when reporting historical information or a personal anecdote, students must maintain the past tense over a number of sentences.  Yet under pressure, this doesn’t always occur:

In the 1980s, the company established a new human resource policy which made employees share job responsibilities.  At first, the company consider the new policy a complete success.

2.  Cause and Effect with the Verb “Make”:  Given the importance that accurately describing cause/effect relationships has in the exam, knowing how to handle the verb “make” is key to clearly and correctly expressing how one thing is affecting another:

Rapidly escalating temperatures make the containers to expand, causing leaks and other problems concerning freshness.

3.  Connecting Phrases with a Comma:  As most of my students are Spanish speakers, and this is quite common in Spanish writing, I often see a lot of separate phrases connected with only a comma.  Normally, there are two solutions to this problem.  The first is to use a period and create two separate sentences.  The second is to look to see if there is some logical connection between the phrases that allows you to use a connector. Typically this could be the word “because” or an equivalent, or something as simple as the word “and”.  Here stopping the phrase after “work” and starting a new sentence with “If” fixes everything.

They also expected that the morale would increase because salary would depend on their work, if they produced more, they would earn more.

4.  Missing Subjects and Double Subjects:  The first case often occurs with the verb “to be” and an adjective

Many people reject this position on moral grounds. However, in my view, is difficult to understand their point of view.

The second case often occurs when there is a lot of “distance” between the subject and verb, that is, a lot of other information.

The directors who were highly dedicated and worked on the project for as long as seven years they were quite disappointed with the results.

A list of students’ mistakes could be endless, but I hope that by looking at some of them can help you fix your own mistakes.  In future articles, we will look at things we can do to make our writing more complex and sophisticated.