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ETS’s Official TOEFL Course Online, Week 5: Writing

This is my fifth post about ETS’s official TOEFL course online, a 6-week online class offered free-of-charge by the makers of the test. Today, we’ll look at week 5 of the course. You can read my descriptions of the previous four weeks of the course at the following links:

As you may have already guessed, this course goes through the sections of the TOEFL in the same order that they appear on the exam. Week 5 brings us to the fourth and final section of the TOEFL: TOEFL Writing.

Structure of the Writing Unit

Week 5 has nine modules. The first module gives looks at challenges that students face when they write in English. The second module offers additional introductory material, describing the TOEFL Writing section and its two tasks.

After this two-part introduction, you’ll see two modules about the two TOEFL Writing Tasks: TOEFL Integrated Writing and TOEFL Independent Writing. These modules are followed by a guide to the way TOEFL Writing responses are scored. From there, students get a full, authentic TOEFL Writing practice test. And after modules 3, 4, and 5, there is a seventh module in which the course instructors give detailed feedback on selected essays from course students who took the practice test.

Module 8 consists of links to practice activities and academic writing resources. I especially liked this module, as it references a lot of university online writing labs. As I’ve said before, these kinds of online writing labs are a fantastic resources for TOEFL prep.

Finally, the ninth module reviews the content from the unit, and gives a preview of the sixth and final week of the course.

The Lecture Videos

In the first lecture video for the unit, TOEFL Writing instructor Shawn introduces a number of real TOEFL test-takers, who talk about their own struggles with academic writing in English.

The next four lecture videos appear in the third and fourth modules. The first two of these four videos focus on the TOEFL Integrated Writing Task. These video lectures give a good overview of the Integrated Writing section and some fantastic strategy advice. The second video walks students through a TOEFL Integrated Speaking test. This video gives tips on how to scan for ideas in the passage and what kind of information to focus on in the response. Unfortunately, Module 4’s pair of TOEFL Independent Writing videos are not quite as thorough. But they still give students a basic idea of what the task is like and how to organize a good response.

The video lectures on scoring in Module 5 are short, but packed with valuable information. These lectures simplify the complex content the official TOEFL Writing Rubrics. Each video explains the most important things that TOEFL scorers look at when they grade essays. The lecturer also gives some quick but useful descriptions of what to do and what not to do in a TOEFL essay.

The Practice Questions

There are only three practice questions in this unit. In the video lectures, there is just one complete TOEFL Writing prompt: an Independent Writing Task seen in Module 4. Then there are two full prompts in the practice test itself: one Integrated TOEFL Writing prompt and one Independent prompt.

On the upside, two prompts make for a complete TOEFL Writing section, so you do get a full section in this unit. Additionally, these prompts — which are offered in a free course at no additional charge — are taken from TOEFL Practice Online (TPO). This is pretty cool, as the actual TPO product is pretty expensive at $45 per full exam.

Teacher and Student Interaction

Just like last week’s TOEFL Speaking Unit, the course instructors have again stepped in to give students detailed, thoughtful feedback on their test responses. For each question on the unit’s practice TOEFL Writing Test, course instructors selected two top-scoring model answers from students. These answers were followed by thoughtful scorer commentary.

Beyond those teacher-student interactions, any other exchanges between teachers and students were brief. In the online forums for the course, instructors would occasionally step in to give links to writing advice on other websites, but teacher-student interaction beyond that was minimal.

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