Improving your TOEFL Speaking and Writing: Four Sentence Types You Need to Know

Many students take the TOEFL exam and get less than desired scores on the speaking and writing sections?  For example, they may score 21-23 points on the speaking and writing sections, and one reason why may be due to limitations with their language use–particularly their sentence structure limitations.

Therefore, to score higher, these students need to understand how to use four kinds of sentences more accurately and in the right situations.  Let’s take a look at four common sentence styles and the reasons for their uses: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.

Four Sentence Types


Simple:  The information in the lecture contradicts the points in the reading passage.

Simple sentences consists of one subject “the information” and one verb “contradicts,” and are used to highlight important ideas.  Several simple sentences in a row, a form of parallel sentence structure, can be used to emphasize an idea and have the tendency to slow things down a bit for the reader.

Compound:  The reading passage discusses three strategies for business success, and the lecture casts doubt on the each of the claims.

Compound sentences are used primarily to combine two main ideas that are not important enough to stand alone.  These sentences types are used when the subject from the first independent clause “the reading passage” is different from the subject in the second independent clause “the lecture.

Complex:   Although the author in the reading passage suggests that businesses should encourage employees to read all documents in their entirety, the speaker in the lecture believes that employees should only read the most important points and major details in documents.

Complex sentences are used to combine a dependent clause (a support idea) with an independent clause (a main idea) and are particularly troublesome because there are noun, adjective, and adverb clause subordinators that students must learn.  To learn more about these types of subordinating conjunctions, Google the following search terms: “How to use noun, adjective, and adverb clause connectors in English grammar.”

Compound/Complex:  The author in the reading passages claims that, in order for businesses to be successful, employees should skip the steps in the writing process, and, in the lecture, the speaker believes that following the steps will actually help the employees produce faster, more highly polished documents.

In this case, a compound sentence is combined with a complex sentence.  This is the most complicated of the four sentence types and generally is used when the writer or speaker is combining main ideas with support ideas.

Sentence Types and TOEFL Speaking

To further understand how to use these sentence types, it is important to see how they work in a speaking response. Generally, your TOEFL speaking responses should use a combination of the four sentence types.  Consequently, you will see how the simple, compound, complex, compound/complex sentences can be used to help a TOEFL test taker express his/her ideas.

Speaking Prompt:  What would you like to change about the school system in your country?  Use specific reasons and examples to explain your ideas.

Like other countries, my country is not perfect, but, if I had to change one thing about my country, I would change the education system for children.

First of all, my country needs to offer free education to all citizens everywhere. For instance, in many areas, parents have to pay expensive tuition if they want their children to get a good education.  Alternatively, the government should subsidize this tuition through a corruption-free tax system that pays for the operation of these schools.

Second of all, the government needs to make education more accessible to those families who live in the rural areas. For example, in some rural areas, my country has not established schools for residents there, and government authorities should invest in building schools and hiring teachers so that these citizens will have the same opportunity to get as educated as those who live in the urban areas.

These changes, therefore, would improve the education of children in my country.

Generally speaking, longer sentences when played against shorter sentences create a nice rhythm to your ideas.  As you can see, the speaking responses uses two simple, two complex,  zero compound, and two compound-complex sentences.

Sentence Types and TOEFL Writing

In the following model essay for an independent writing task, you will see how the simple, compound, complex, compound/complex sentences can be used to help a TOEFL test taker express his/her ideas.

Writing Prompt: Some people believe that the Earth is being harmed (damaged) by human activity. Others feel that human activity makes the Earth a better place to live. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

Earth has been inhabited by humans for a few thousand years, and humans have improved their living conditions by improving technology.  From the invention of fire, language, and the bow and arrow, to the invention of automobiles, airplanes, computers, microchips, and the smart phone, humans are definitely leaving their footprints on Earth since these inventions require using natural resources and emit harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Although many argue that producing new products and improving existing technology can harm the ozone layer through the toxins emitted, humans have made Earth a better place to live by using science to eliminate fatal diseases, by making the planet a much smaller place through improved communications, and by helping farmers to grow more crops on each acre of land that they have.

First of all, humans have positively affected Earth because the innovations in science have eliminated many diseases that were once fatal to people in many parts of the world. For instance, the Bubonic Plague, a disease that skilled millions of people in Europe by the spread of rats, has now been all but eliminated since doctors have developed vaccinations to prevent the spread of this deadly disease in modern Earth. Moreover, how many people are currently becoming infected with Measles, Mumps, Scarlet Fever, and Polio? There are not many because doctors have also developed vaccines for all the illnesses that were once ubiquitous 100-200 years ago. All these human activities have minimized the possibilities of people becoming infected with these illnesses.

Second of all, humans have also made Earth a better place to live through improved communication with people that would not have been able to have contact 100 years ago. For example, I am a student attending California State University, San Bernardino from China who now lives in the United States, and sometimes I want to communicate with my parents. A long time ago before the invention of the phone, I could communicate with them by writing a letter which would take 2-3 weeks before they would get it. After that, technology allowed me to call them by phone, but that option would be very costly. Now, with today’s technology, I can use a face-to-face video program such as Skype to contact them. With this new technology, my life is improved because I can talk to my parents daily face to face by video, and the service is free. My life, consequently, is improved.

Finally, human activity has also made Earth better since farmers can increase their crop yields. In fact, scientists have developed new fertilizers that can allow farmers to get more vegetables and fruit on each acre of land, and in some places of the United States farmers are even able to get more than one crop annually on their farmlands. For example, in an area near Sacramento, California, due to innovations from current agricultural scientists, farmers can grow three crops on the same piece of land in the same year. Having this type of high-yielding crop production can feed more people all over the world, and it can even help to bring down the prices of vegetables and fruits, thereby making the food more affordable to the poor.

To sum up, Earth is much better due to human activity in that we have fewer deadly diseases, we can communicate more easily with people over all the world, and we have better, higher-yielding farming practices to benefit the poor.


Final Tips for your TOEFL Speaking and Writing

Longer sentences played against shorter sentences every now and then demonstrates good control of your syntactic variety.

Avoid using only short, simple sentences in your speaking and writing.

Practice writing out your TOEFL independent and integrated speaking practice responses by using a combination of simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex sentences.

Similarly, practicing writing out your TOEFL independent and integrated writing responses by using the four types of sentence structures described in this lesson.

Practice, practice, and practice: As you practice speaking and writing, you will develop a style over time that demonstrates improved syntactic variety and a unique personal writing style that you can call you own.

Michael Buckhoff,




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