My TOEFL students improved their writing by learning one important strategy.

This quarter I am teaching TOEFL preparation to seven students at California State University, San Bernarino from three countries: China, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan.  To help them with their writing proficiency, they have been using STEALTH, “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT.” After administering a diagnostic writing practice test for the independent writing task, I discovered that they were not very specific in their body paragraphs. For example, the following paragraph demonstrates the lack of depth and specificity that was common in their writing at the beginning of the quarter:

Paragraph with little of no specific detail:

First of all, traveling while on vacation allows me to meet new people.  If I go to new places, I always am excited to see the new people in the new place. Maybe I can make some long-lasting friends in those locations, which are memories that I will have for many years after the trips that I take.  If I stay at home while I am on vacation, most likely I will not meet any new people. I will just see the friends I already have. Therefore, it will not be as memorable as when I am meeting new people when I travel on my trips.

Of course, aside from helping these students improve their language use and organization, my goal was to help them improve their depth, specificity, and complexity of thought.  For example, by the end of the quarter, my students were much more able to focus their paragraphs such as the following:

Paragraph with specific detail:

First of all, traveling while I am on vacation allows me to meet new people. For example, last year during Fall break from my studies at the University of California, Riverside, I traveled to San Diego, California and stayed there for two weeks. The second night there I went to a dance club downtown and met a guy named Jake Richardson. We became friends right away, and the next day, Jake and I went to the beach to swim. Jake, a avid surfer, was more than willing to teach me how to surf, and, after a couple of hours, he was able to teach me the basics. For the remainder of my trip, I hung out with Jake almost every day, and I was able to get a personal tour of his hometown. If I had stayed at home while I was on vacation, I would not have been able to meet Jake, which made my vacation so much more memorable.

To help my students improve the amount of personal detail in their body paragraphs, I had them watch the below video:

We spent a couple of days watching and discussing the concepts in the video. Then, I had my students practice writing a number of paragraphs, and they began to improve.  In fact, they got the point that I was trying to teach them: paragraph unity.  The idea they understood was a paragraph needs to have a clearly marked topic sentence and relevant supporting details, and my students learned that they could spend most of the paragraph introducing and elaborating on one specific example.

I was very happy that they were able to make the improvements that they did.

Michael Buckhoff,