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TOEFL Tuesday: How Important Is Spelling?

I could answer this question in two words: “not very.”

I don’t mean to say that spelling is completely unimportant for TOEFL essays, but it’s only one part, and it’s not one of the most important aspects. Most of the time, spelling does not cause any problems. It’s rare that I see an essay from a student in which the spelling caused more problems than other aspects. The most important areas to pay attention to are usually other areas: structure, grammar, vocabulary, details, etc.

Partly, this is true because everybody makes some spelling mistakes, and they’re sometimes just a sign of being rushed. After all, you have to write your TOEFL essays in very short time periods (20 and 30 minutes). Even the best writers will misspell words when writing quickly.

So you can make spelling errors and get a perfect score. You can make several, in fact.

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But all this depends on two aspects:

1. How frequent are the spelling errors?

If you have five spelling errors in your TOEFL essays, it’s not important. If you have 50, that may cause a real problem.

There is no special number or percentage for how many mistakes you can make. It’s a spectrum—the more mistakes you make, the more possibility there is for communication problems. So although spelling errors aren’t a major problem, you want to minimize them. If the reader has trouble understanding your essay because there are three misspelled words in every sentence, you will lose points. Don’t be completely careless! Keep in mind the reader—the TOEFL is a test of communication.

2. How big are the spelling mistakes?

Did you accidentally switch an “i” and an “e” so the text says “conveneint” instead of “convenient”? That’s not a big deal. But if you wrote “counveinnt” instead, that is a problem. If you write a word completely incorrectly, the reader might not be able to figure out what you meant. And if that happens, you will lose points for not communicating.

Usually, when I see essays in which the spelling does cause a real problem, there are at least three words that are so misspelled I can’t understand them at all.

Realistically, don’t worry about it

If you are worried about your spelling during the exam, you will hesitate and waste time. Never spend more than a few moments trying to decide the spelling of a word. If you are unsure, keep moving. Write what you think it is, and move on. But at the same time, don’t let yourself make mistakes that you know are mistakes. Both be careful enough that you minimize mistakes and don’t spend valuable time deciding when you’re unsure.

Instead, take that time to think about the more important parts of your essay: how specific are the details? Do the sentences and paragraphs transition well? Do you include all the important information from the lecture? Are your sentences complete and well-formed? Those are the areas to best spend your energy on.

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6 Responses to TOEFL Tuesday: How Important Is Spelling?

  1. Rahul July 21, 2018 at 9:38 pm #


    At First, I made a grammatical error on toefl by using “has” instead of “have”. Then, I tried to change the mistake during the last 4 seconds and by mistake I wrote “hasv”.

    Would this mistake cost my writing score to go down?
    I was hoping to get a 30 in this section.

    • David Recine
      David Recine July 22, 2018 at 11:49 am #

      That’s a tricky question. The mistake you made doesn’t necessarily make the meaning of your writing unclear. Chances are that when the scorer reads your essay, they’ll understand that you meant to write “have,” in spite of the spelling error. Spelling mistakes that don’t affect understandability can hurt your score if they are frequent enough. However, if you have just one or two spelling errors like that, it may not affect your score at all.

  2. Bella September 29, 2018 at 8:09 am #

    Hello. What happens if the spelling error itself is from the text ?

    Like, prairie dogs, for instance.

    I misspelled it as priarie dogs, and since prairie dogs are the main topic, I had to write priarie dogs quite a lot of times.

    Would that likely take off a point?

    Or, is it okay? Because it’s quite understandable.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 13, 2018 at 9:14 am #

      Hi Bella,

      I am happy to help! 🙂

      It is understandable to make an error on a word that is tricky, like prairie, but at the end of the day, it is still an error. Depending on how many times it appears in your text, this may cost you a point on the TOEFL, unfortunately.

      • Luna July 5, 2019 at 11:08 pm #

        Does that mean it’s only a point out of the total 30 or of that specific section?

        • David Recine
          David Recine July 7, 2019 at 12:11 pm #

          Actually, it’s not quite so predictable as “one mistake, one point.” TOEFL Writing is graded based on whether or not you make mistakes that cause your writing to be harder to read and understand. And this judgement is not done automatically. Instead, a human scorer looks at a mistake and decides whether it’s serious enough to cost you points, and if so, how many points it will cost you.

          One individual spelling error like the one you mentioned would be unlikely to cost you any points, but again, it’s hard to predict human judgement. For more insight into how ETS scorers rate your writing responses, see the official TOEFL Writing rubrics:

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