First steps for TOEFL prep

TOEFL Grammar: Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

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Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

You want the highest score you can achieve on the TOEFL, and you know that you want to focus on the writing section because small changes can make a significant difference in terms of your score.  You are improving your vocabulary by taking the words you are memorizing to increase your understanding of reading passages and utilizing them in your own essays, and you are creating organized essays because you are using transitions and brainstorming before you start composing your essay.  While the improvement in vocabulary and organization will absolutely make a huge difference in terms of your overall score, you know that in order to maximize your potential points earned on the writing section, you need to improve one other fundamental aspect of your writing: grammar.

To get the highest score on the TOEFL writing, you know that you need to eliminate or at least minimize grammar mistakes.  But where should you begin?  You've probably been studying formal grammar rules in school for years, so how do you know what particular points to focus on when your TOEFL test date is on the horizon?  If you only have time to brush up on one grammar topic, make sure that you make it sentence fragments.

Why You Should Focus on Sentence Fragments

Is it possible that some grammar errors are more serious problems than others, even on the TOEFL?  Notice how ETS phrases how grammar and vocabulary issues are taken into account.  To achieve a 4 or 5, you may only have "minor lexical or grammatical errors" that do not "interfere with meaning."  Furthermore, the human essay scorers read tons of essays every day, and at many test grading centers, scorers are encouraged to spend about 2-3 minutes per essay in order to keep up with the number of essays submitted.  A very slight issue might not matter enough to warrant decreasing your score or it might be so minor that it gets missed because the grading process necessitates going through the essays so quickly.

Even after test day, some native speakers reading your work may overlook some smaller mistakes, especially if they can still understand the meaning.  In fact, some native speakers might not even realize that a grammar error has occurred as they may not be clear on what the grammar rule actually is for certain topics.  Generally speaking, Americans are not instructed in grammar topics beyond elementary school, and the importance of good grammar frequently gets downplayed in formal school settings. As a result, many may not even be aware of the complexities and minutia of many grammar rules.  

But one grammar issue that cannot be easily overlooked is the sentence fragment.

A sentence fragment is difficult for native speakers to ignore because it interrupts the normal flow of reading. Even those who do not consider themselves grammar experts can spot fragments because as they read, something feels missing; things are incomplete.

In other words, sentence fragments are one of the most noticeable and recognizable grammar mistakes on the TOEFL and in writing situations after test day, so learning about them now will yield short and long term benefits.

One final benefit of making sentence fragments your grammar priority is that they are found on standardized tests beyond just the TOEFL.  If you are studying for the TOEFL, you may also need to take other admissions tests like the SAT.  Sentence fragments are common sentence errors that appear on the new SAT in the Writing and Language section, so by eliminating this issue from your own essay writing, you will be able to do so on the multiple choice section of the SAT and in the optional SAT essay.  One of the top errors to look for, the run-on sentence, is essentially the exact opposite of the sentence fragment, so by getting a better understanding of the fragment, you will also get a better grasp on how to fix run-ons as well.

What Is a Sentence Fragment

In order to know what a sentence fragment is (and how to prevent these types of errors in your own writing), we need to know what makes up a sentence.  A full sentence is an independent clause.

  1. The subject
  2. The verb (the predicate)
  3. A complete idea 

You should check that you can clearly identify the subject and the verb of each sentence that you write.  This will also allow you to check that your subject and verb agree, which is a good habit to get into (especially because this is another frequently tested grammar error). 

If you don't have a subject or a verb, you cannot have a complete sentence.  Also be sure to confirm that the verb in the sentence is actually acting as the predicate in the context of the sentence.  

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking.                           Incorrect

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking are all essential academic skills.      Correct.

In the example above, the be verb are is the verb and begins the complete predicate even though you may at first be drawn to the words writing, proofreading, and note taking as they are actions that you can see.  In this example, however, they act as the subject. 

If you know that you have both a subject and a verb in the form of a predicate, ask yourself if you have a complete idea.  In other words, have you given the reader all the information that they need to know in order to avoid confusion?  This lack of information may occur if you did not provide an object but the verb must take an object (as it is a transitive verb).   

    My boss sent.                                                                       Incorrect

   My boss sent the email yesterday.                                       Correct

   Her mother bought.                                                              Incorrect

   Her mother bought that sweater.                                        Correct

However, length of a sentence itself does not determine whether something is a full sentence or a sentence fragment.  This is a common misconception that even many native speakers have.  Frequently, sentence fragments occur because we have started a sentence with a subordinating conjunction.  These words—which include although, because, after, since, while, when, and if, to name just a few—take information that would be a complete sentence and make it weaker (dependent), so the information can no longer stand alone (work by itself).  For instance:

    I believe that parents are the best teachers.                         Correct

   Since I believe that parents are the best teachers.                Incorrect

When working with a subordinating conjunction, you will need a separate independent clause (full sentence, meaning a subject, verb, and complete idea).  If your subordinating conjunction begins the sentence, you will need a comma before your independent clause.

    Since I believe that parents are the best teachers, I think homeschooling is a great method of education.                                                                                    Correct

Using subordinating conjunctions allows us to add sentence variety and often complex ideas to our writing.  By understanding the rules for subordinating conjunctions and complete sentences, readers will be able to understand and appreciate all of our ideas.

So, by confirming that you have a subject, a predicate, and you've expressed a complete idea, you can be sure that you have a full sentence and not just a fragment-- a portion of a sentence masquerading as a full sentence.

Become An Expert At Locating and Fixing Sentence Fragments

My favorite grammar website, bar none, is  I have used this website with native and non-native speakers alike, and I cannot speak highly enough of this excellent resource.  Because of the way that the site is set up, you are able to select particular topics.  Although subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and comma rules are all also excellent topics to review and NoRedInk makes grammar practice as painless as possible by crafting example sentences based on your own self-selected interests, if you are pressed for time, begin with the unit on sentence fragments.  By locating and fixing sentence fragments in the given sentences, you'll be able to apply the same concepts to your own writing, where it is often more difficult to find sentence errors.

Once you feel comfortable, go through old essays and see if you can locate sentence fragments.  If you locate any, fix them.  Once you think you've taken care of them all, upload your essay to Grammarly (this is an affiliate link.  If you want to read more about why I am a huge fan of Grammarly, check out my post about it here).  Grammarly will catch any sentence fragments you may still have and recommend ways to fix your sentence.  For this reason, it can be an excellent learning tool.

Get into the habit of writing new essays within the time constraint, leaving two minutes at the end to proofread and edit your work.  As I recommended in the pacing guide I wrote for, don't practice writing right up til the last second; give yourself time to catch those grammatical errors, particularly sentence fragments, in order to get the highest score.  Not sure what topics to write new independent essays about?  Grab 30 days of writing prompts in the free One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.

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How To Read Biographical Passages on the TOEFL

Reading passages on the TOEFL are designed to mimic those found in textbooks, and texts across many disciplines feature short biographies of leaders in that field.  For that reason, biographies come up frequently on the TOEFL. This is advantageous to you as the test-taker because biographical passages tend to follow a specific pattern in terms of structure and word choice. By familiarizing yourself with these repeated conventions and vocabulary and by regularly reading biographical articles you come across on the internet, you can maximize your points on this type of passage while minimizing the amount of time you spend with this section, leaving you for more time for passages that may be more challenging.

You can often tell that you will be reading a biography before you've even read the introduction paragraph.  You can easily identify the biographical passages because typically the title is just a name or a name and profession.  Make sure to grab the free printable Biographies At A Glance, which comes with a list of some of those common occupations that are featured in TOEFL biographies, giving you a leg up.  

Even without knowing the particulars of that person's life or occupation, however, recognizing that the passage is biographical allows you to predict the general set up of the passage.  Typically biographies follow two basic forms.  Most likely, the passage will be set up chronologically.  This means that it will go in order of  the person's life, starting from when they were a child (occasionally that happens after a brief explanation of what that person would go on to do), followed by a description of their formal education (if any), their career (often divided into early, mid and late), and finally their death and legacy.  Often it looks something like this

                                  Person's Name: What He/She Did

Brief introduction/family background/birth and early life

Education.  Mention of important teachers and influences

Early career/beginning of work in his/her field.  Mention of his/her mentor(s)

Mid-career accomplishments.  Mention of his/her relationship to colleagues

End of formal career and any work done after official retirement. Potential mention of how he/she died

Legacy (what this person is remembered for to this day).  This is usually positive but if there are any controversies over what he/she did while alive or how historians think of this person now, this may also be covered at this point)


Use the structure of the passage to your advantage.  By knowing where the information usually falls, you will be able to skim the passage more quickly and anticipate what questions will be asked of you.  Although not everyone passage follows this structure perfectly, for example, some might be a long list of achievements or cover in greater detail a person's complicated legacy, looking at the topic sentences will help you quickly ascertain what the focus of each paragraph is and you can skim for just information on that topic. 

In addition to having a pattern in terms of organization, biographies tend to recycle the same type of language.  Biographies always bring up topics like when this person started working on what they would later become famous for and what, if any, obstacles this person faced in order to achieve greatness.  As a result, words like prodigy, expert, and phenom are important nouns to know.  Look for synonyms for ways to say that someone is talented (like he/she is gifted).  Make sure you recognize multiple ways to say that he/she is naturally good at something with phrases like endowed with, having a propensity for, a knack for, or a talent for.  Part of what makes biographies so compelling is that the person typically overcame some large hurdle, so make sure to scan for this in the passage by knowing all the synonyms for the word obstacle.  But perhaps most importantly, those who have their biographies written are usually the first to do something; as a result, it is essential that you know pioneer, trailblazer, and innovator.  Knowing all the synonyms for these important words will make it much easier to find the right answer for detail questions as right answers almost always use synonyms rather than the same word from the passage.  If you want to be sure that you know all these terms so you are TOEFL-ready, make sure to download the Biographies at a Glance printable.

Now that you know what you need to know, put this information into practice by regularly reading short biographies online.  Some of my favorite places to find high-quality biographies are, (they also frequently have videos of various lengths), and (a personal favorite because you can pick the difficulty of the reading passage, so it automatically adjusts the level of vocabulary and sentence structure to fit your needs).  Don't let locating these passages stand in your way of doing your practice; instead, just follow me on Twitter @GetTestObsessed.  I regularly link to biographical passages to honor the anniversary of that particular person's achievement or his/her birthday.  Because you are reading on a computer screen, you will be replicating test conditions, so be sure to take notes actively, just like you would on test day.  Also, be sure to time yourself; biographical passages are easy to skim, so you can pick up some much needed time to devote to other passages on the reading section.

Keep reading, and keep improving your score.  As a bonus, biographies are inspirational.  Let them motivate you to keep making progress towards your goal score!

How To Brainstorm: What, When and To Think of Ideas for the TOEFL

You know that you need to brainstorm, but how do you actually do this effectively? Most instructors and even textbooks skip explaining this step because brainstorming is just generating ideas, and this could seem hard to teach or it might seem intuitive, like you should naturally know how to do it, rendering it unnecessary to teach. However, for students who identify as reluctant writers, brainstorming can be a major obstacle to writing a great essay.  After all, without any ideas about what to write about, how can you be expected to write anything at all? Here are some tips to help you brainstorm like a pro every time.

Now that you know what brainstorming is-- writing down all the ideas that you have--when exactly should you brainstorm? You want to make sure that you are brainstorming before test day as well as on test day. However, you will use a slightly different strategy at these two points. 

Well before the test, you should spend a good amount of time coming up with a long list of ideas that you can write about. Think them through and do not censor yourself at this stage. When an idea comes to mind, write it down. You will go back to edit and move things around later.  In fact, at this stage you might not be ready to look at specific essay prompts or write down notes in an organized list.  In order to get ready for the brainstorm, you might want to add one step first: free writing, a pre-witing process in which you write without stopping for a short period of time.  Don't feel pressured to do this under time constraints. All you want to do is simply gather all your ideas about common topics that appear on the exam.  The TOEFL likes to ask about the same topics over and over again, so you will want to start by writing down your feelings about these topics.  Although each TOEFL writing prompt is a little different, most of them are going to ask about the positive (or negative) aspects of a particular topic, typically education, government, technology, finances, and entertainment.  Take 5 minutes and write complete sentences about these topics.  These sentences don't have to be formal; they don't even need to use good grammar or vocabulary.  The idea is to let your mind take you wherever it wants.  You can use this free write to come up with ideas to put down in your brainstorm-- your list of ideas that will later be used to make a formal essay.  You are thinking this through now so you can put it into the format of an outline in our next step.

Now that you've got your free write complete on each of these main topics, you will want to put those ideas into the form of an outline.  At this stage, you are not trying to outline for speed, but instead, you want to outline key ideas that you could later recall when you must outline during a short period of time.  To give your outline more structure, I highly recommend you name one personal example to support your opinion and one general example from current events or academia to support your position on the topic.  Don't just leave these in your head.  Actually write them down using the graphic organizer below, transferring only the best ideas and examples from your free write into your systematic outline.  This is your Brainstorm Bank. Keep this list in an area when you can easily see it, and the first few times you are writing an independent essay, feel free to refer to it.  Feel free to keep the Bank completely general (just 3 positive and 3 negative aspects of each main topic that occurs on the TOEFL, simply tailoring your examples and ideas when specific questions are posed or write a statement in the area below the topic to have a quick reference for many different specific TOEFL-style prompts). Whether you stick with a more general version of your Brainstorm Bank or decide to make many copies of the template with different statements underneath each topic, you don't have to memorize your list word for word. You do want, however, to be able to remember what is in your Brainstorm Bank quickly.  When you are feeling stuck or you are writing under pressure, think back to your bank of ideas and simply withdraw an idea or two.

Now that you've spent some time and really considered your feelings about a variety of topics, first in your free write and then as you selected only the best ideas and examples for your Brainstorm Bank, it's time to start practicing the types of brainstorming you will do on test day.  Coming up with ideas to feature in your essay is primarily about thinking of examples within the time limit. Instead of considering both sides of an issue on test day, you want to limit yourself to only putting on paper the ideas that you are definitely going to write about.  You can (and should) use the ideas from your Brainstorm Bank as inspiration.  Remember, the ETS graders do not know that you've already prepared this, so you are not cheating in any way by drawing upon those thoughts. This type of brainstorming should simulate test day conditions, so there are a few key differences from the approach you used earlier to create the Brainstorm Bank.  Instead of using common topics in general, use specific essay prompts like the ones you can download here.  Furthermore, don't feel like you need more than 3 points, all on the same side, before writing.  Spend no more than 2 minutes coming up with your ideas and creating an outline by numbering them in the order you that they most logically fit in.  Each time you practice, try to shave off more time.  Can you do it in under 90 seconds?  Try to take off 5 seconds each time. Next to each brainstorm, record the length of time it took to create it so you can keep track of time management as well as ideas.  

To recap, step 1 is to free write in order to discover all ideas you have on these frequently occurring independent essay topics.  Step 2, use the free write to create your Brainstorm Bank, your list of all the potential ideas that you've got for all the most common topics, done when you have plenty of time to sit and think.  Step 3 is to practice the day-of brainstorming techniques, limiting your idea generation time and organizing to under 2 minutes, drawing upon the work you've already done in order to brainstorm in the fastest time possible.   

Now that you know what brainstorming is (a pre-writing technique where you think of and record all your ideas), when to brainstorm, and how to figure out what to write down, you will be ready to brainstorm the day of the exam.  Keep those Brainstorm Banks organized and get inspired regarding what to free write about with the help of the Obsessed with Free Writing & Brainstorming Bank 7 Page Free Printable.

Test-taker Tuesday: Why Study Plans Fail

We have all been there.  We registered for the test, bought a practice book and maybe even enrolled in a course to help us get to our goal score.  With a bunch of post-it notes, highlighters, and the best intentions, we felt confident that we would succeed.  Opening up our planners, we diligently wrote in the number of chapters we would read per day or the number of hours we would spend per week to get to our goal.

And then we never open up our planners again.

Has this happened to you?  I feel like everyone has experienced this at one time or another.  Initially, we have so much motivation, but for many students, our plans get derailed before we even begin.  

Here are some of the most common reasons why people don’t stick to their study plans— and how you can make sure that you don’t fall into these traps. `

1.  Taking on too much

I know that right now, you feel inspired to do your best, and that is great, but if you fool yourself into thinking that you will actually write 4 practice essays and learn 200 vocabulary words every day, you are setting yourself up for failure.  You will quickly be discouraged because you did not give yourself a reasonable amount of work to get through.  Each student is different, but if you are already a full-time student or have a full-time job, it is nearly impossible to think that you will be able to balance that and studying for the TOEFL for nearly 5 hours per day.  Instead, scale back the amount of work you self-assign.  Could you write 4 practice essays in a week’s time, alternating the days when you try an independent and an integrated essay? This means you are planning to write for roughly half an hour, 4 days in the week, leaving you one weekday free.  This is much more reasonable, and with this practical plan, you are much more likely to stay on track.

2. Unrealistic expectations

When I asked for their goal scores, so many students responded with “I want to get a 120.”  It is great to have high goals, but a perfect score on the TOEFL is simply not something that happens frequently, even for a native speaker, as you can see in this post from Strictly English’s experiment.  In a report released by ETS, the average score for students applying to college last year was a 76— which makes perfect sense, as scores of 75-80 are often listed as the minimum score for entrance into undergraduate programs in the U.S.; the average score for graduate school applicants who took the TOEFL in 2014 was just an 84.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the report right here.

In other words, don’t simply decide that you need to get a 120.  Even if you score above average, you might still feel disappointed if you set your sights unrealistically— and unnecessarily— high.  Only the top 2% of all test-takers scored a 116 or above last year.  Remember, this is a test of your English skills and your ability to take a test— it is not an indication of your intelligence.  

So how should you find the right goal number for you? Research the schools that you are most interested and find out what their minimum and what their average TOEFL score is.  This is a much better way to plan for a goal that makes sense for you.  Also, take a practice test at the very beginning.  Even if it takes you a while to reach your score, you can monitor your progress and celebrate when it has gone up, even if it hasn’t reached your target just yet.

3. Not actually learning the material

Just because you are sitting with your book opened does not mean you are studying.  The same goes for flipping through flashcards or even taking notes.  If you aren’t concentrating, that means you aren’t actually taking any new information in.  If you spend hours every night with your study materials, decide if you can condense the amount of time you study by simply studying in a more efficient way.  Are you constantly starting and stopping?  Do you spend a long time stopping to look up words so you never get to the actual practice?  Many people increase the amount of time they spend studying without critically thinking about how they are studying.  Think about where you are, what time of day it is, and what your plan looks like before adding more time.  Studying with a purpose in a place that works for you at a time when you can really concentrate will ultimately yield better results than just adding more time.

4.  Not building in review time

Perhaps you decided that the way to succeed on the TOEFL is to learn 250 new words a day.  That is an ambitious strategy.  You will know over 1500 new words by the end of the week.

But will you?  If you saw a word in a reading passage on Thursday that was on your vocabulary list from Monday, would you be able to tell me the definition?  Probably not.  If you don’t build review time into your schedule, the time that you dedicated to learning the vocabulary words might have been wasted.

This happens frequently with vocabulary, but other skills need time to develop, too.  If you struggle with writing well- developed paragraphs, don’t think that because you read in your book how to do it that you will not be an expert.  You need practice, and the practice must be consistent.  Do it again and again.

5. Not making a timeline

Some students are so afraid of the TOEFL that they decide they will take the test “when they are ready” instead of on a specific date.  While it is good to keep some flexibility in the early stages of prepping for the test, especially if you are starting with little knowledge of the exam or with a lower English proficiency, you cannot let this uncertainty go on forever.  By setting a goal time and registering for the test, you will force yourself to become more serious about studying.

6. Distractions

Do you have the television on when you study?  Or do you listen to your iPod?  Are you studying at Starbucks and you keep hearing people place their orders in the background while you try to focus on your reading about new agricultural strategies to use during droughts?  Or do you keep getting text messages every time you start writing your essay?

We live during a time when multi-tasking is common, but that doesn’t mean that multitasking is good for us. In fact, more and more studies claim that we are dividing our attention, often to our own harm when multitasking.  Set aside a reasonable amount of time to study for the test and then entirely unplug during this time.  Do not check Facebook or any other social media accounts.  Even if you only study for half an hour, dedicate all your effort to studying or taking that practice test. 

The free app 30/30 allows you to use your phone as a timer in 5-minute increments so you can perfectly time how long you want to do something— and your break time will be timed as well.  This is great for students who are taking breaks too often or for too long. Android users might want to look into Stay Focused, another free app that limits your ability to use certain social media and internet functions.  There are a number of these types of apps and plug-ins, so find the one that works best for you if you need a little help with your self-control.

Now that you know what the problems are, create or revise your study plan to give you a much better chance of success. Want help getting that done?  Download the free Plan for Success Study Planner that I created just for you!

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