For a lot of people, writing is the least rewarding skill to study. Unlike reading and listening, it’s not easy to track your progress, and the way that we practice writing tends to be pretty dry and boring. In this post, I’m going to try to correct this by offering some ways on how to practice writing for the TOEFL, and how to make this practice more rewarding, and hopefully even enjoyable.
Read other people’s essays
You’re probably already reading a lot of non-fiction to prepare for the reading section of the test. Unfortunately, the material you’re probably reading for that may not be the most helpful material from which to study writing. After all, if you can already write like a professional, why are you even reading this post? You can get a better feel for what the TOEFL requires—and also get inside the test scorers’ heads—by reading other student work. The ETS Official Guide is a great resource: it includes not only sample essays, but it grades them and and tells you why each essay received the grade that it did.
Learn to pre-write
You won’t have time to create a full-fledged outline during the test itself, but it’s definitely a good idea to spend a few minutes sketching out the structure of your essay before you start writing. I suggest that you practice outlining in two ways: first of all, find a writing topic (try this list for independent topics) and outline it instead of writing a full essay. This is a skill you can perfect through repetition. Don’t write the essay—just move on and plan the next prompt! You can also take existing essays or articles and use them to create an outline. Then you can look at how the author structured their work, and decide what you like or dislike about it.
Okay, so maybe you won’t actually summarize everything that you hear or read, but you should do this as often as possible. In order to improve your reading and listening skills, you should be reading in English and listening to native speakers (in lectures, podcasts, documentaries, etc.) regularly. If you’re at home or by a computer, take about ten minutes afterward to summarize what you read or heard. If you wrote an outline, too, that’s even better—you’re practicing several different TOEFL skills all in one exercise.
No tutor? No problem!
One of the major barriers to practicing writing is that you can’t really assess your own writing. Some people solve this problem by hiring a private tutor, but there are other solutions if that’s not your style. Do you have friends who are studying your native language? If so, see if they’re interested in a language swap. Not only will this allow you both to get help from a native speaker (and one that you like talking to!), but also you can help each other stay on track by encouraging each other to write a set number of essays each week. If you don’t have that kind of resource, try using a website like lang-8.com, which provides a network for language learners and native speakers to correct each other’s writing.