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NEW: The TOEFL Academic Discussion Task plus what the graders are looking for!

Hi TOEFL test takers! Welcome to my blog. 
This change took place in July. I have written about it in previous blogs, but let’s talk about what the raters are looking for today! 

First, let’s look at how the question is structured.
You will be presented with an online academic discussion. A professor presents a question, and two students will respond. Your answer should be well over one hundred words. I recommend over 150.
It’s asking for your opinion. You need to be clear, and you need to contribute to the discussion. You should use details and examples.
Your response should be COHESIVE. That means it makes sense and flows well. Of course, as usual, you need to have good grammar and appropriate vocabulary.
First, read the professor’s prompt carefully. Think of a few ideas: What would you like to contribute? What is your opinion on the topic presented? 
Here is an example of a professor’s topic. This is a sociology class.
Dr. Ramirez
Over the next few weeks, we are going to discuss the impact of television programs on people’s lives. We will be reading a lot of material about this topic. Before we get into the topic, I would like to find out your opinions about how television influences people.
What do you think is the most significant effect of television on people?
I think that television’s biggest impact is how much it has contributed to obesity and weight issues. People who watch a lot of television do not exercise very much and tend to eat a lot of snacks while they are watching shows. This has made more people in society overweight, especially children, who become addicted to cartoons and movies.
I think that television has made us a more educated population. Nowadays, we can watch documentaries that are filmed all over the world. It helps us to have a broader understanding of different cultures. Before the television was invented, most people only knew about their own countries, but now we can experience the entire world through the screen. I recently watched a documentary about Malaysia and learned a lot about the culture there.
Note that you can take inspiration from one of these students, if you paraphrase their answer and add something of your own, like an example or added information. The other option is to come up with something completely original.
When you start your post, make sure you introduce the idea you are going to develop immediately.
Here is one that is original. I did not use the information from the other students.

I believe that the biggest influence of television is that it has made people more violent. Television normalizes the use of guns and knives to resolve conflicts, and this affects children the most. Although there are shows for children, such as Sesame Street, most programming has scenes of strong violence. For instance, last month I started watching The Powerpuff Girls with my niece, because it looked like a family-friendly show. Although the name of the program made it seem appropriate for a child, I was shocked by the battles the characters on the show fought with their rivals. These battles included the girls punching, kicking, and slapping each other. The next week, my niece got into trouble at school for having a physical altercation in which she slapped one of her classmates. When the principal asked her why she had behaved violently, she said she had learned this from the Powerpuff Girls.  
This is a good answer because it is well developed and contributes to the discussion. I used specific examples and a variety of verb tenses. I also used subjunctive clauses.
Let’s look at an example in which I refer to the other students’ posts. You may do this, and I find it easier. Make sure that you use your OWN words and phrases. Do NOT copy the students.

Here is one that would receive a 5/5:
Personally, I completely agree with Jennifer’s position that television has made us weigh more than ever before. It’s so easy now to sit in front of a television with a bag of chips and cookies after work. One example of this is my nephew, who is twelve years old. He watches television after school every night with various sugary, fattening snacks. Although he sometimes plays with his friends, he is clearly addicted to the television. When he watches television, he also doesn’t think about how much food he is eating. As a result, he has gained thirty pounds in the last year.

While Ahmed raises the relevant point that we can learn a lot about the world from television, he misses the fact that most people do not watch educational programming. When people get home from work, they are both mentally and physically exhausted, so they tend to watch entertaining shows such as comedies or dramas. As a result, they do not learn anything about other cultures.
Each writing task is scored out of five. Raters are looking for the following:

  1. Relevant ideas that are clearly developed
  2. Language variety
  3. The correct use of language

Relevant ideas are ideas that contribute to the discussion. They should also be supported by reasons and/or examples. Remember, you must STAY ON TOPIC. You must develop your ideas clearly.

Here is an example of writing that might hurt your score:
I personally believe that television is terrible for society. My nephew watches television, and he’s lazy as a result. Of course, he also plays video games with his brothers. This has caused him a lot of problems at school.
How does playing video games contribute to a discussion about school? What problems has this caused at school, and how are those problems related to television? These are writing problems I see frequently as a TOEFL tutor. You must stay on topic.
The second thing the raters are looking for is variety, both in vocabulary and grammar. Make sure you are using variety naturally. Use various verb tenses. Do not “force” variety. Here is an example of a problem I see a lot:
I think television is mostly harmful for children, because they get addicted. These young people cannot determine when to turn the television off. As a result, the youth of today have problems focusing. These youths cannot even listen to a teacher for more than a few minutes.
Here’s the problem: the variety is forced and sounds fake. CHILDREN is not the same word as YOUTH or YOUNG PEOPLE. Generally, it’s easier to have variety with verbs and adjectives than nouns. Do not use different nouns if they do not mean the same thing. I’ve seen this problem hundreds of times.

YES, YOU HAVE TO LEARN GRAMMAR. Verb tenses carry A LOT of meaning. If you do not use the correct verb tenses to express what you are trying to say, you will get a low score. If you have a well-developed answer, you should automatically be using different verb tenses. My students get a grammar book they can study from: English Grammar In Use. It’s a great resource. You can also go to Englishpage.com  for free verb tutorials.

The third criterion the graders look for is correct use of language. As mentioned above, you must have correct verb tenses. You must also use vocabulary correctly. You must also use correct spelling and punctuation. You MUST capitalize proper nouns.

You do not have to be perfect. The raters read this as a “first draft” and understand there may be some mistakes. However, those mistakes must be those a natural English speaker might make on a first draft. They are looking for grammar mistakes that show difficulty with the language, not typing errors. Leave time to read your work at the end and correct errors.
Do NOT MEMORIZE answers. Do not use templates. Use “useful phrases.”

Most of all, PRACTICE. Here is an ETS website that will give you a grade. NOTE THAT THIS GRADE IS GIVEN BY ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. It is not necessarily reflective of the score you would get in the real TOEFL test. Also, you are not told why you got a particular score. Please feel free to hire a tutor to help give you feedback.
Here is the website that has 28 practice tests:
 When you register for lessons with Kathy, you will write 5 of these and have them scored with feedback! 

Good luck on your test!
You can contact me at

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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