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Understanding the TOEFL Writing Section

 This article covers:
  • What is the format and structure of the TOEFL writing section?
  • What questions are in the TOEFL writing section?
  • How can I help my students practice for the TOEFL writing section?
  • What’s the best way to prepare for the TOEFL writing section?
  • How to improve TOEFL writing section score?

The TOEFL iBT is accepted at institutions around the world as an evaluation of academic English skills. The TOEFL exam is very popular with students because it can help them stand out to prospective schools.

To get a good score on the TOEFL exam, students need to prepare for each section and know what to expect on test day. For the writing section, students should know how to read and write about academic topics. Students will need these skills during their studies, so the TOEFL exam helps prepare them for their future classes.

Help your students prepare and save more with official TOEFL prep vouchers for the Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT Test, Official TOEFL iBT Practice Tests, and Graded Online Practice Tests.

Writing in a book

TOEFL Writing Section

Students will need to complete this section for both the TOEFL iBT in-person and TOEFL iBT Home Edition. The writing section comes at the very end of the TOEFL exam. Your student will have about fifty minutes to write two essays. That’s a lot of writing, but you can make it easier for your students by teaching them the structure and content of this section before they take the test.

Learn about each TOEFL section in greater detail or find out which TOEFL test is the right choice for your students.

The Integrated Essay

The first task in the TOEFL writing section is the integrated essay. This is called an “integrated” task because it involves reading, listening, and writing.

Stack of books

First, your student will be given three minutes to read a short article about an academic topic. This article will be about 250 words. The articles in this section of the test can cover a range of academic topics. History and science are the most common topics, but other topics are possible.

Beyond the article topic, there are a few common styles of articles you can help your student prepare for:

  • Articles that support a clear theory: “Mars is the best planet for humans to live on aside from Earth.”
  • Articles that explain the purpose of something: “Three possible reasons the Pyramids were built.”
  • Articles about a problem: “Three problems when farmers use crop rotation.”

Regardless of the style, the article will start with an introductory paragraph that establishes its main topic. This will be followed by three body paragraphs, each containing a unique supporting argument. After three minutes, the article will disappear from your student’s screen.

Help your students manage their time effectively when reading articles on their TOEFL exam with these top tips.

Computer screen

Next, your student will listen to a short lecture on the same topic. The lecture will be two to three minutes long. In the lecture, the lecturer will challenge the academic article. If the article mentions three reasons why Mars is the best planet to inhabit, this means the lecturer will explain why Mars is not the best planet to inhabit. If the article mentions three problems with crop rotation on farms, the lecturer will present solutions to each of those problems.

Remind your student that they can only hear the lecture once. They also will not be given a transcript. Encourage your students to take detailed notes as they listen.

Student writing

Finally, your student will see the first writing question. This question will be similar to this example: “Summarize the points made in the lecture, being sure to explain how they oppose specific points made in the reading passage.”
Your student will have 20 minutes to write their essay. As they write, the article they read initially will reappear on the side of their screen. The test instructions state that a typical essay is between 150 and 225 words.

However, your student can write as much as they want. There is no penalty for exceeding that length. In fact, if your student is aiming for a high target score, you should encourage them to write more than 225 words.

Click here to access a detailed guide on the TOEFL integrated essay.

The Independent Essay

Once your student has finished the integrated task, they will write the TOEFL independent essay. They will have 30 minutes to respond to a question by giving their personal opinion. The question in this part of the exam often relates to education, working, or life in general.

Question Types

Agree or Disagree: The question will typically ask your student if they agree or disagree with a given sentence. For example, “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Students do not respect their teachers as much as they did in the past. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

Multiple Choice: However, your student may instead be asked a multiple choice question. For example:

“Nowadays, people live much longer lives than ever before. Which of the following do you think is the main cause of this?
  • Technological improvements
  • Changes to education systems
  • Improvements to our diets
Use specific details and examples in your answer.”

Pick A Side: Your student could also be asked to pick between two opposing or mutually exclusive options. For example:

“Some people think that the government should use extra money to fund programs to improve the environment. Others think that it’s better for the government to spend money to support artistic programs. Which option do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

Regardless of the question type, the timer starts as soon as the question appears on your student’s screen. Encourage them not to spend too much time reading the question.

The instructions for this task state that a typical essay is about 300 words. As with the integrated task, your student can write as much as they like. There is no penalty for writing more than 300 words. Advanced-level students often try to write about 400 words.

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TOEFL writing score


Your student’s essays will be graded in two ways. Grades for both essays have an equal impact on your student’s final TOEFL score.

First, a human rater will give your student’s essays holistic scores based on the ETS Writing Rubric. “Holistic” means that the score comes from an examination of each essay as a whole. The raters want to see essays that have overall coherence and strong organization. They also care about whether your student’s essays are on topic.

Next, your student’s essays will be scored by the ETS e-rater. This is a computer program that closely examines the more technical aspects of language use. It will look for specific grammar and usage errors. It will also judge the complexity of your student’s vocabulary and grammar.

Finally, the human and e-rater TOEFL scores are combined. This will give your student a final combined score between 0 and 30 points for the whole section. 

Each TOEFL section has proficiency levels that help describe how capable your student is at each skill. 

Your student’s score will show up in their ETS account six to ten days after they take the test.

Want to learn more about the other TOEFL sections? Check out the links below: