Adjective Clauses and the TOEFL iBT Exam

Adjective clauses, which are also known as relative clauses, are dependent clauses which can help you perform higher on the reading, speaking, and writing portions of the exam. These advanced grammar structures which modify nouns are formed when you combine two sentences together by making one of the sentences a subordinating idea.  Did you notice I’ve already used three adjective clauses in this paragraph?

Example: John Thompson works for the San Bernardino Police Department. He studied criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino (support idea).

John Thompson, who studied criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino, works for the San Bernardino Police Department.

In the combined sentence above,  “John Thompson works for the San Bernardino Police Department.” functions as a main idea and the adjective clause “who studied criminal justice at California State University,” functions as a support idea. Therefore, adjective clauses are dependent clauses describing nouns in their sentences.

Why are adjective clauses important to the reading section of the TOEFL iBT?

As you complete the reading section of the TOEFL iBT, you will be reading conceptually dense reading passages, so the vocabulary and the content will resemble academic reading passages typically found in a university setting.   As you read, you will no doubt see words that you have never seen before.  Moreover, you will be asked to answer vocabulary questions about the reading passages.  One effective strategy to understand unfamiliar vocabulary is to use contextual clues to help you guess the meaning of these unfamiliar words.  Finally, one common contextual clue is to use the grammar in the existing sentence to help you understand the meaning of unfamiliar words.  Since adjective clauses modify nouns and since they sometimes occur in TOEFL reading passages, you will need to understand the meaning of unfamiliar nouns.

Therefore, if you saw the following sentence “Photosynthesis, which is a biological process through which plants convert sunlight into food, ensures the survival of plants in a terrestrial environment.” and if you pay attention to the adjective clause “which is….”, you can figure out the meaning of “photosynthesis.”

To sum up, paying attention to adjective clauses is one way that you can guess the context of unfamiliar words in TOEFL reading passages.  Of course, this vocabulary-in-context strategy will not work every time you see new words.

Why are adjective clauses important to the speaking and writing sections of the exam?

According to the TOEFL independent and integrated speaking and independent and integrated writing tasks,  you will need to use a 1)combination of basic and advanced grammar and 2) syntactic variety. Since adjective clauses create complex sentences, these dependent clauses can add some complexity and variety to your sentences, which can help you get more favorable evaluations from the TOEFL iBT human raters scoring your speaking and writing tasks.

Notice the adjective clause used in the topic statement in response to the following independent speaking task.

Speaking prompt:  What do you think is a more valuable natural resource to protect: water or air?

What we breath either can make us healthier or can worsen our health conditions, which is why air is a more valuable resource than water.

In the following sentence, in response to an independent writing task on whether studying along or studying in a group is better, pay attention to how an adjective clause is used to express the writer’s opinion:

Students who study with others tend to be more distracted since they will talk about many things that are unrelated to the preparation materials for the exam.

To sum up, using adjective clauses will help you to combine sentences during your speaking and writing tasks, thereby helping you to showcase advanced grammar and syntactic variety.  As a result, take some time to learn the different types of adjective clauses and how they are used to combine independent and dependent clauses. Using Google, here are some key words that you can use to find some grammar sites focusing in this area:  adjective clauses in English grammar, adjective clauses and their accompanying connectors, restrictive and nonrestrictive adjective clauses, and adjective clauses and academic writing.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,

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