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How is TOEFL grammar tested?

Using Grammar in Life

A friend of mine has an interesting trick that he uses in spoken language tests: before it starts, he memorizes one sentence that uses a lot of impressive language and complex grammar. During the test/interview, he finds an opportunity to work this sentence in (I assume—and hope—that he changes it as needed to suit the topic). His theory is that by doing this, he demonstrates his ability with advanced grammar so he doesn’t have to go try so hard to impress the test graders in the rest of the test.

Using Grammar on the TOEFL

I don’t recommend following my friend’s example. First of all, ETS graders are trained to recognize memorized answers and deduct points for them. Moreover, your responses will be scored holistically, so one sentence, no matter how beautiful (or appalling) it may be, probably won’t have much impact on your score.

If you’re not a grammar lover, you’re probably relieved that there is no grammar section on the iBT (the PBT still tests grammar in a section called “Structure”). Although grammar doesn’t have its own section on the iBT, this doesn’t mean that grammar isn’t tested. For one, if you’re not familiar with difficult grammar structures, the reading passages will be quite hard to understand.

Besides that, graders will consider your use of grammar and vocabulary when scoring your written and spoken responses. Because there aren’t any questions specifically about grammar, it’s your responsibility to demonstrate how much you know.

TOEFL Grammar Scoring

Let’s just look at the scoring rubric for the speaking section. Understand that the importance of grammar in the writing section is similar.

A speaking response that scores a 4 will demonstrate “effective use of grammar and vocabulary. It exhibits a fairly high degree of automaticity [fluency, ease of speaking] with good control of basic and complex structures (as appropriate). Some minor (or systematic) errors are noticeable but do not obscure meaning.”

If you score a 3, here’s what ETS has to say: “The response demonstrates fairly automatic and effective use of grammar and vocabulary….Response may exhibit some imprecise or inaccurate use of vocabulary or grammatical structures or be somewhat limited in the range of structures used. This may affect overall fluency, but it does not seriously interfere with the communication of the message.”

A score of 2 is characterized by “limited range and control of grammar and vocabulary. These limitations often prevent full expression of ideas. For the most part, only basic sentence structures are used successfully and spoken with fluidity. Structures and vocabulary may express mainly simple (short) and/or general propositions, with simple or unclear connections made among them (serial listing, conjunction, juxtaposition).”

The lowest score for an on-topic response has this description: “Range and control of grammar and vocabulary severely limit (or prevent) expression of ideas and connections among ideas. Some low-level responses may rely heavily on practiced or formulaic expressions.”

First of all, note that according to the rubric, a practiced response gets you a score of 1. Even if you have no confidence in your ability to speak spontaneously, almost anything you say (on the given topic) will get you a better score than a memorized response.

Second of all, notice that this rubric isn’t all about correctness. If you only use basic structures that you know you can use correctly, you may receive a score of 2, even if you never made any mistakes at all. Even though they’re not asking directly about complex grammatical structures, the ETS graders still want you to prove that you know how to use them.

Take risks!

When you’re preparing for the test, spend some time training yourself to use varied structures. It’s OK if you make a mistake, although it’s better if a friend or tutor is there to help you correct it. If you have a speaking buddy, try this activity: choose a topic to discuss, and write up some cards with different structures (tenses, transition words, phrasal verbs, etc.). Say one sentence to introduce the topic, then draw a card. Your next sentence should use the structure on the card AND follow logically from the sentence before. Even if you make some mistakes, this can help you learn to vary your language enough to qualify for a top score in free responses.


PS. Find out why you need to study grammar in our TOEFL grammar infographic!

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