Sunday, October 9, 2011

on tackling some aspects of the TOEFL

Excerpted from an email to a friend who will soon be taking the TOEFL:

The TOEFL rating scale for Integrated and Independent Writing is roughly:

5 = nearly perfect English (very good, natural flow, almost no errors, almost native-quality, excellent organization/coherence)
4 = very good English, with several grammar/spelling/mechanics mistakes and some weakness in essay structure; good coherence
3 = moderate English; many frequent mistakes, unnatural-sounding English, but ideas and content are fairly clear; some coherence
2 = below-average English; the frequency of mistakes impedes comprehension; little coherence
1 = nearly-incomprehensible English; no coherence at all
0 = wrote in a foreign language, or merely re-copied the prompt, or wrote nothing

The key to getting through the Integrated Writing section is to remember that the reading section covers three main points, and the listening section covers those same three points, but the person speaking is REBUTTING the points made in the reading. To write the essay correctly, you have to understand both the three points in the reading and the three points in the audio lecture. Otherwise, it's impossible to get a 5.

Hypothetical Integrated Writing Example:

Let's assume the reading passage covers these three points:

We know global warming is problematic because (a) the rise in global temperatures is directly correlated to the rise in industrial waste heat; (b) according to many scientists, the accumulation of carbon dioxide is trapping the sun's heat in our atmosphere; and (c) cold regions that used to enjoy low average temperatures are now experiencing dangerous melts.

The speaker might respond this way:

It is not obvious that global warming is problematic because (a) first, correlation is not causation, so it is illogical to assume that industrial waste heat is the direct cause of any warming trend; (b) second, there is good scientific evidence that solar activity is the cause of the periodic release of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and that this effect is far more powerful than anything humankind has produced; and (c) finally, it is not obvious that a warming-up of colder regions is necessarily a bad thing for humanity or for other forms of life.

Your job will be to write a quick essay that summarizes all six points from the reading and the audio lecture.

The two best essay formats for this are

[Format 1]
1st Paragraph: Point A (reading passage), Rebuttal A (lecture)
2nd Paragraph: Point B (reading passage), Rebuttal B (lecture)
3rd Paragraph: Point C (reading passage), Rebuttal C (lecture)


[Format 2]
1st Paragraph: Points A, B, and C (reading)
2nd Paragraph: Rebuttals A, B, and C (lecture)

Example of a good 5-level essay:

In the reading passage, the author notes that global warming is problematic. He gives three reasons for this. First, he claims that the rising of worldwide temperatures corresponds to a rise in industrial waste heat, which is produced by people. Second, he argues that there is scientific evidence that carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere is retaining the sun's heat, thereby increasing global temperatures. Third, he contends that cold regions of the planet are becoming warmer, resulting in dangerous melting.

The lecturer, however, disagrees with the author of the reading passage. She first counters that "correlation is not causation," which means that it is not logical to assume that two rising trends, global temperature and industrial waste heat, are necessarily associated with each other. Second, she refutes the scientific arguments of the author by saying that other scientists believe the sun itself is responsible for the release of more carbon dioxide than human activity can produce. Third, the lecturer does not feel that the warming-up of previously cold regions is necessarily a bad thing for people, plants, or animals.

Kevin's comment: The above essay covers all six points-- the three points in the reading and the three rebuttals-- clearly and effectively, with no errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics. The summary is logically structured using Format 2; the English is flowing and natural.

Example of a 2- or 3-level essay:

In passage author is argue that global warming is cause the problem. First problem is rising world temperture and undustry heat temperture (people). But lectuer says this is not true because two events together is not causing, is not logical to think so. Second problem is CO2 is rising and causing suns heat to stay in atmosfere. But speaker deny this, and say the sun is first cause of CO2 release. Writter says third problem is danger because cold parts of earth are getting hot, but speak er says why is this problem?

Kevin's comment: The errors in the above essay are so frequent and so severe that a 3 would be a generous score. But a 3 is possible, because the essay writer was able to catch most of the crucial points from the lecture using a Format 1 structure. The quality of the English is what drags this down to a 2 or 3; lack of clarity is what might make this more of a 2.

The point of the Integrated Writing task is to prove that you have fully understood both the reading and audio portions, as well as how those portions relate to each other. The audio lecture will always be a rebuttal of the reading, and will always include three clear points.

For the Independent Writing task, you will have to write briefly on a given topic. Be logical and clear; use a good variety of words, a good variety of sentence structures and locutions (don't be repetitive-- this is death on the TOEFL!), and arguments that don't rely too much on statistics and surveys. Use logic instead. Too many Asian writers on the TOEFL will write things like "A recent survey found that 75% of adult males prefer... (etc., etc.)" TOEFL essay raters don't like this. Keeps stats to a bare minimum; use wide-ranging examples: personal examples, examples from history or literature or film, etc.

To practice your listening skills, I highly recommend you visit the TED Talks website. The TED project is a public forum that invites inspiring people (technological innovators, successful entrepreneurs, etc.) to give short lectures (under 20 minutes) about a topic relevant to human progress and/or enrichment. Subject matter is extremely varied, but most of the speakers are fascinating people. Try this method:

1. Go to the TED website ( ).

2. Select and watch a video lecture.

3. Wait a couple hours, then listen to the video lecture again, without watching the screen. Take notes while you listen. Force yourself to recognize important points. Learn to take notes quickly; this will be an important skill in US grad school.

Looking to master the TOEFL? Why not hire me as a tutor? See the test prep page here for more information, then visit the rate charts and the rates/registration page (scroll to the bottom for registration procedure).


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