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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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Know Your Body: How To Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs


How To Write Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs Every Time

A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating Structured TOEFL Body Paragraphs

When hearing the word body, most people immediately imagine exercise, sculpted abs, or getting in bathing-suit ready shape.  As an educator who has taught writing at both the high school and college levels, my mind jumps to something very different: body paragraphs.  While the paragraphs that follow the introduction segment of an essay might not at first seem to have much in common with fitness, both types of bodies are at their peak when planned out and when following a particular regiment.  In other words, planning and structure are critical for building solid, powerful body paragraphs.  So what shape should body paragraphs take? Here are the 6 parts every body paragraph needs to have.


Start with a topic sentence

Besides the thesis statement, topic sentences are the most important sentences that you will write.  You know that those who grade essays on standardized tests do not have very long to spend with each essay, and as a result, it is even more important to make sure that the reader is clearly guided through the essay. The topic sentences states the main idea of that body paragraph, and as a result, it should reflect some part of the thesis.


Sentence Two: Explain or clarify your position

Your second sentence gives you the opportunity to restate the idea from the topic sentence, showcasing your paraphrasing ability, and allows you to get a little deeper, clearing up any terms that need to be defined (especially big abstract nouns like freedom or success that may be very subjective) or getting more specific. This should set the reader up for sentence 3.


Sentence Three: Support with a reason or example

Now you are ready to dig into your main reason or support. This idea can make up the bulk of your body paragraph, but it should be spread over multiple sentences as to avoid creating a run-on sentence. You can reference an article you read recently on the topic that has lead you to take this position or you can talk about a personal situation that has informed your opinion. You may find as you practice that you are frequently reusing the same material in a number of essays and that's okay as ETS doesn't know that;  as long as your versatile example seems appropriate for the question presented on test day., feel free to use the same ideas you've used in prior practice essays or modify those ideas so they seem to fit perfectly (even if that means slightly exaggerating).  If after adding your main reason or example, your paragraph is now at least five sentences long, you can move on to your wrap up sentence and then move on to your next body paragraph.  If not, continue to add to that paragraph with the next step.


If necessary, smoothly transition to introduce another, secondary, reason or example.   Gain trust with your reader and add to your word count by adding another similar piece of support for the main idea featured in your topic sentence.  If you used a more academic reference use a personal one. This will round out your answer, making it seem more thought out.  It is necessary to include the proper transition so the reader understands how this is connected to the first example given.

Provide the second reason or example, if needed. Just as you did with the first supporting reason or example, explain fully how this supports your main claim in the topic sentence.

 Always end each body paragraph with a concluding thought

Remind the reader how this reason/example ties back to the position stated at the top of the body paragraph.  Especially if you've got more than one reason or example, it is imperative that you reiterate how these points illustrate your main idea.  Don't use the same exact language because you do not want to sound redundant.


Key Takeaways

Body paragraphs are where the bulk of development happens inside an essay. As a result, using transitions, clear reasoning, and supporting details are crucial.  By following this pattern, your essay will stay well sculpted time and time again.

Get tons of body paragraph practice when you download the free One Month Writing Challenge printable. Perfect your strategy by writing 90 body paragraphs for the over two dozen practice independent essay questions in this download.

Study Smarter: How to Use Trello for TOEFL Prep

For most students, studying for the TOEFL is a marathon, not a sprint.  In other words, it takes a long time in order to prepare for the exam.  Because test prep happens over weeks, months, or for some, years, it can be easy to get disorganized, causing you to forget things easily and making you waste time looking up the same things over and over again.  If you've been relying on copying and pasting things into a bunch of different word documents, writing notes to yourself on post-it notes that get scattered all over, or bookmarking websites that you can't find later, you need to spend more time working on what will move you closer to your goal score and expend less energy on finding the same practice or advice again and again.

So, what can keep you organized, no matter how long your TOEFL journey is?  The answer is Trello.

What is Trello?

Trello is an online organizational tool that is making its mark in the online business space, but there are a bunch of different ways to use Trello, from meal planning to lesson planning.  Now it is time to hack Trello to make it work for all your TOEFL needs.

Why Trello?

Trello is great for visual learners. Are you addicted to Pinterest or Instagram? Do you learn best from seeing rather than listening alone. Trello is an excellent resource for you! Trello uses boards and cards to store information. You can move things (which is great for our kinesthetic learners out there, too), create checklists, and add images for an even deeper level of customization and organization. Even if you aren't inherently a visual learner, language learning is often closely tied to visual aids, so this format makes perfect sense for TOEFL test-takers.

Trello keeps your practice materials online-- which is exactly where you want it. Many students I've worked with in the past have become puzzled when they were unable to replicate the results they received from practice tests in books with scores from tests taken on a computer screen. Reading on a monitor and being able to type well are not insignificant differences from working with pen and paper. Practice books are great, but when possible try to keep your practice computer oriented.  And an additional benefit is that you can learn wherever you are.  Trello has a free app so you can take your TOEFL practice anywhere.  Need to study even though you are going to be traveling for school or work (or fun)? Trello comes with you so you don't need to pack your practice books.

It's free, and you can't misplace it.  Trello has both free and paid plans. But you can get all the features you truly need with the free version. Instead of writing down everything in a notebook that you might lose (or in several notebooks that you can never find when you need to), Trello keeps all that in one spot that you can access from your computer or even your smartphone.  It integrates easily with Google Drive and Dropbox, too!

How To Use Trello for the TOEFL

Now that you know you need Trello, how do you use it? This is completely up to you, and you may find you want to add or delete items based on your personal study plan, your goal score, and your language learning needs.  However, this first thing to do is to set up your boards.

What boards do you need?

  • Vocab. A perfect place to store all those words you come across, links to Quizlet decks your teachers have created for you, or downloadable PDFs that list transition words or synonyms for frequently used words. 

  • Practice Test. It can be difficult to find quality practice tests, so when you do, make sure they are easy to locate again when the time comes. Remember, you want to take practice tests regularly.

  • Goals. Keep your eye on exactly what you are working towards. Writing it down and seeing it frequently will keep it top of mind.

  • To Dos. Goals are great, but you want to make sure that you meet them by staying on track with your daily work. Get satisfaction by marking them off on a checklist, using a label, or by moving them into a new board labeled Doing and then Done!

  • One board for each section (Speaking, Writing, Listening, Reading) of the exam. Within each board, create a new card for each type of practice question you will encounter test day. Keep practice problems as well as advice from experts.

What should you put on each of the boards?

  • Practice questions.  Keep the practice problems organized by type of problem so you can put your focus where you need the most improvement

  • Tutorials, like How to Brainstorm or other step by step guides or blog posts

  • Links to academic English sites, like or Deep English

  • Sample answers for writing and speaking prompts

  • Your own progress.  Keep a log of all the speaking and writing prompts that you do.  Upload them to Dropbox (or Google Drive) and then you can link them so you can locate them easily for your reference.  See how your responses have changed and grown over time, or share them easily with your teacher or tutor.

Grab Your Trello Boards

If this system sounds perfect but you don't want to spend the time building these boards and cards on your own (after all, that time would be far better spent learning new vocab or writing an independent essay), get the fully loaded Trello for TOEFL-takers free for a limited time. As a bonus, some of my favorite resources are already loaded into each section, saving you even more time. Now this is test prep for the modern student.


Strategies To Reach Your Pacing Goals For TOEFL Reading Success

Do You Read Me?  Why Pacing Matters and What Rate You Need To Achieve

By now you are already aware of how crucial pacing is on standardized tests like the TOEFL; solid pacing is a make or break skill as time management is one of the greatest hurdles students must overcome when preparing for the exam.  Allotting your time wisely on the independent essay can make all the difference for your writing score, but knowing how long to spend on certain tasks is no less critical on more structured areas of the exam, especially the Reading section.  While the Speaking and Listening sections tend to move you along (regardless of whether you are ready or not), the Reading section is largely self-paced.  So how should you spend those 60 (or 80, depending upon whether or not your test has the extra, experimental passage) minutes to maximize your score? 

The notion that you could read roughly 800 words in 7 minutes and then read and answer all the questions in 13 minutes to keep up with the one minute per question guideline might seem like an overly optimistic time frame for many, but by adopting one of the reading strategies below, you can get closer to this benchmark. However, there is no clear consensus among test experts on which reading tactic always leads to the highest score.  There are a few different approaches for how to read passages as quickly as possible.  The reason for this is that reading on these types of tests is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.  In other words, the best strategy really depends on the individual student. To determine what will help you keep up with the rapid rate of well under 10 minutes per reading passage and one minute per question, I've put a number of the top suggested strategies in one place, complete with their pros and cons so you can find what works best for you.

Approach #1: Read only the important sentences

How it works: This approach preaches reading only the sentences that are likely to be pivotal for understanding, such as topic sentences, transition sentences like those that begin with “In other words” or “However,” or other similar trigger phrases.

Advantages: You will skip over less important sentences, saving you time the day of the exam.  Additionally, skipping some of those sentences will actually save you from some of the distracting and incorrect answer choices because you completed glossed over those sentences in the first place.

Disadvantages: You will need to be very, very good at locating clue words in order to take advantage of this strategy.  It is also easier to miss the occasional major point because it is hidden in a sentence that did not contain the clue words.

If this technique speaks to you, make sure that you practice it on a regular basis, both in situations that directly relate to preparing for the TOEFL and in those that don't.  Reading text that is made for consumption on the internet should give you a good starting point because this type of content is typically made for skimming, making it easier for you to practice locating those words and phrases.

Approach #2: Read everything, but pay attention selectively

Advantages: You do not have to be good at locating clue words without reading; instead, you can find the clue words as you read and focus your attention on those particular sentences.

Disadvantages: This approach is slower than the first approach.  You will need to be very careful that you do not take too much time inadvertently on your initial read-through of the passage. Also, you are more likely to encounter those distracter sentences using this method.

Approach #3: Trimming

How it works: Students find only the subject, verb, and object in each sentence to find only the most vital information.  Although test-takers are "reading" every sentence, they are not actually interested in all words in the sentence, saving some time.  Trimming is a method students who are preparing for exams like the SAT might be familiar with as this is an excellent way o check for grammar issues, especially subject-verb agreement problems.  Need a more in-depth tutorial?  You can find one here

Advantages: This approach is quite fast and helps students avoid difficult vocabulary words

Disadvantages: This approach is perhaps overly simplistic for certain types of questions on these particular exams as often the tone/degree is found hiding in those adjectives, adverbs, or even dependent clauses for a detail or inference question

 Approach #4: Answer as you go, skipping the reading

Advantages: You are dedicating the full amount of time to reading and answering the questions; you are not intending to read the passage twice

Disadvantages: You are going into the questions blind, making it extremely difficult to put together main ideas and locate information. It might seem like you are saving time, but all of the time you eliminate from the beginning will actually just be added to the time per question, so you may not actually save time and it may make getting into a rhythm more difficult.

Approach #5: Speed Reading

How it works: By reading in chunks and not reading each individual word, you will read everything you encounter faster

Advantages: This approach is very, very fast and could potentially benefit you outside of these exams.

Disadvantages: This takes a lot of practice and it is uncomfortable for most students, including native speakers.  Most students intuitively “hear” in their minds the words that they are reading, and that is a cardinal sin when it comes to speed reading.  However, this is an extremely difficult habit for most of us to break, and it requires retraining your eyes as well as your brain.  If speed reading is something you want to try out, see how well you naturally do with the Wall Street Journal's speed reading test and mini lessons on the topic.  Get additional practice at a level and on a topic of your choosing here.

Read To Succeed, No Matter What

Regardless of what strategy you select for reading the passage, I would strongly recommend to “peek” at the questions before reading.  I am using the word peek instead of read to indicate a real difference between your level of involvement with the question.  Identify just the main word or phrase so you know what you need to look for.  The passage will be easier to comprehend if you go in with a clear focus. 

One thing that is universally true about all of these approaches is that you do not want to read, remember, or even understand everything.  All you want to do is get the gist—the main idea.  For the few detail questions you will have to answer, you are going to have to go back to the passage anyway as the wrong answers often look more attractive than the right answers for this particular type of question. When answering detail questions, you should try to predict the answer so you know what to look for in the paragraph.  Although detail questions are important, vocabulary in context and referents questions, for example, do not require an understanding of the entire passage, and they make up a significant chunk of questions asked.

Read frequently in English, practice whichever strategy you will use well before test day, and be sure to track the types of questions you are getting right (or wrong) on the Reading section with the free printable.

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Improve Your Grammar Instantly: Using Grammarly To Prepare for Test Day and Beyond

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Grammarly affiliate, which means that I may receive a commission if you decide to purchase anything from Grammarly using my link. I recommend Grammarly because I use their services myself, and I regard their product highly.

Posting on Facebook.  Updating Twitter.  Emailing your professor or boss.  We write so much every day that we often don't even realize it...until we start thinking about if every day should be one word or two words.  Did you send that email using the wrong form of there/their/they're or misspell tries as trys in the presentation that you just made in front of the class?  When we make grammar mistakes, we can look unprofessional, but for so many people, grammar is just tough.  There are many rules to learn, and English grammar rules have tons of exceptions.  You can't master English grammar overnight, but you can prevent many of those red ink marks before submitting your paper to your professor.  


Use Grammarly.

Grammarly is a plug-in that can be added directly to your web browser (like Google Chrome or Safari).  That means when you are typing in your web browser (like when you are composing an email), Grammarly can read and check for over 200 different grammar errors.   It can integrate with Microsoft word if that is your preferred word document composing tool.  In other words, Grammarly can check many different types of written language for many common mistakes.

You might be thinking about the built-in tools in programs like Word that you've used in the past.  Even after fixing those errors, you may still have had your professor return your paper will many corrections.  Grammarly is far more powerful and understands the context of the words better than other similar spelling/error detection.  Grammarly doesn't just check that a word is spelled correctly;  it makes sure that you have selected the right word, too.  


But it isn't just because Grammarly is more thorough that I prefer it.  Grammarly is also a good teacher.  Any time that Grammarly believes it has detected an error, it not only alerts you to the error and its suggestion but it also tells you what the error is and explains the rule.  Each time the software makes a suggestion, it gives you the option to expand the card to read why.  I love this aspect of the software.  In this way, Grammarly is preventing you from making mistakes now and in the future. If you start to notice a pattern, such as a constant issue with commas, you can review the rules for commas and sentence structure.  Just like a teacher or a tutor would, Grammarly is essentially telling you what area of English grammar to focus on.  Because grammar is such a big topic, this side benefit is hugely advantageous.  That is why I wasn't surprised at all to learn that 85% of their users feel they are now stronger writers and nearly 99% reported improved writing grades.  

Grammarly actually grades your writing in real-time using a scale out of 100 that can be found in the bottom right-hand corner next to the number of critical and advanced issues detected in the document.  If you click on the score, you can access a detailed breakdown of your writing.  This feature can serve students and teachers alike.  The number itself is great motivation to spend additional time making revisions to increase your score while the easy-to-implement recommendations can be incorporated with a quick click of a button to make the change. This editing tool can suggest vocabulary words that will enhance your essay or make stylistic recommendations. 

Whether you are an English language learner or consider yourself an English expert, Grammarly has something special to offer.  For those who want an extra set of eyes to look over work before hitting publish or submit, sign up for a forever-free Grammarly account.  If you think you need additional support or want to access the more advanced features, take advantage of Grammarly Premium's extremely affordable monthly subscription plan.  At less than $12 per month for unlimited proofreading, editing, and plagiarism detection, Grammarly is far cheaper than a tutor and frequently far more thorough.  Take your writing to the next level with Grammarly.

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