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Counter-Arguments in TOEFL Writing

Recently, I’ve had a few students ask me about using counter-arguments in their TOEFL Independent writing. A counter-argument is an argument a writer offers that is against his or her actual opinion. Several simple but good examples can be found here.

If you haven’t used a counter-argument before, the idea may seem kind of strange. After all, if you’re giving an opinion and trying to support it, why would you include ideas that don’t support your opinion? Well, believe it or not, there are some benefits to disagreeing with yourself in an opinion essay— so long as you do it carefully.

Admitting that there are reasons some people might disagree with you shows that you are really thinking about your opinion critically. Including a counter-argument shows that you understand both sides of the issue, and have an informed opinion. On the TOEFL, a counter-argument can show that you are fully thinking about the essay topic, and fully developing your response to the TOEFL Independent Writing question. This is a very good thing— remember, “well developed” is a feature of a 5 point essay on the official TOEFL Independent Writing Rubric.

Adding a counter-argument to your TOEFL essay can give it more depth and get you a better score. So you very well may want to add one. However, there can also be some disadvantages to including a counter-argument. In other words, there are some counter-arguments to the value of using a counter-argument in your TOEFL writing.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that a counter-argument is not absolutely necessary for a top score. In fact, counter-arguments are not even mentioned as a desirable feature in the official TOEFL Writing Rubric linked above. So using one could cause you to waste time that might be better spent on developing other aspects of your argument that meet the requirements of the rubric.

The rubric doesn’t mention counter arguments because TOEFL essays don’t have to be all that complex. So if you do have a counter argument, it should probably be short— no longer than a single short paragraph. Usually, a counter-argument paragraph works best right after the introduction or right before the conclusion, so that it doesn’t seem like one of the main ideas in the body of the essay. The counter-argument could even be just one or two sentences within a paragraph, usually in the introduction or conclusion. And again, it is possible to leave the counter-argument out completely and still get a good score.

You’ll certainly want to stick with just one argument for most of the essay, even  if you do address a counter-argument. Per the Official Rubric, it’s very important to show the “unity, progression, and coherence” of an argument. In a simple essay that you have limited time to complete, a counter-argument could be a distraction. It could easily get in the way of the unity and steady progression of your argument. It can be easy to send too much time developing your counter-argument, so that it takes over the essay, leaving you less time and space to support your own opinions.

So if you do use a counter-argument, keep it short, and keep it very well connected to your main argument. Make sure that the reader can understand that the counter-argument is not your opinion, but is a different opinion that you will focus on disproving.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll show you a few examples of well-placed, helpful counter-arguments in TOEFL Independent Writing essays.


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