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Planning a Written or Spoken TOEFL Response for Independent Questions

The TOEFL requires you to provide well-thought-out answers to questions without really giving you time to come up with well-thought-out answers. When you’re studying, it’s OK sometimes to set aside extra time for planning, so that you get practice writing a good, thorough essay. But be careful not to do this all the time, as you want to be prepared for the constraints of the exam when you get to that point. Today I’m going to go through some different ways of planning your response. Try them all on for size at least once; you’ll probably wind up finding one or two that work best for you, but sometimes you’ll get a prompt that really lends itself to still another planning method.



We use the word “brainstorm” generically to talk about the generation of lots of ideas. When we use it specifically, we’re referring to the process of making a list that includes every single possible solution or reaction to a given problem, with no thought as to how feasible or effective any single solution would be. You might choose to brainstorm to come up with examples to support your argument on a given question; since brainstorming is done in list form, it’s probably not the best tactic for choosing your argument.  Once you have your topic, a writing utensil, and a sheet of blank paper, set a time limit of one minute and start writing every idea for your problem that you can think of. When time’s up, read through your choices and decide which ideas are best suited for your topic—and for each other. Then start writing!



I’ve heard people call free-writing “writing the mind alive,” an apt, if lengthy, name. Free-writing is like a less structured brainstorm, and it’s most useful in coming up with an initial argument. You’ll be writing on paper, but at the end most of what’s on the paper will just be a mess. Once you have your question established, set a timer for 2-5 minutes and begin writing. What should you write? Anything that you’re thinking.  There are only two rules in free-writing: 1) write continuously for the duration of the exercise, and 2) make sure that your mind is guiding your hand, and not the other way around. You will write any and every thought that enters your head, and as soon as your mind moves on to a new topic, your hand should, too. Your paper will have a lot of unfinished statements. If you don’t know what to write, don’t stop. Instead, write “I don’t know what to write” until your mind moves on.

Free-writing is more time-consuming than brainstorming, and while I highly recommend it in practice, it’s not the best way to use your planning time on the exam. Where it will help you there is if you get writer’s block mid-response. Even a few seconds of free-writing will help you to stop fixating on whatever thought’s keeping you from continuing so you can move on to writing a beautiful conclusion.

Brainstorming and free-writing are best for independent responses because they focus on what ideas you, the writer, can generate on your own. I don’t mean to imply that they’re not useful in other areas, but they’re the methods that are most likely to fit your purposes in independent responses. To learn about other planning methods, check out my post about planning integrated responses.


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