Lawrence J. Zwier / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Last month, we looked at the Writing Section of the iBT (Internet-based TOEFL) and discussed three pieces of advice for writers:

1. Do what the prompt tells you to do.

2. State your main point within the first two sentences.

3. Move forward!

These are basic strategies for content and organization. The raters for the iBT writing section have lists of characteristics to look for in writing. Those basic strategies perfectly match descriptions of a top-scoring piece of writing, according to ETS (the Educational Testing Service). In their independent writing rubric, ETS says:

“An essay at this level largely accomplishes all of the following:

— Effectively addresses the topic and task.

— Is well organized and well developed, using clearly appropriate explanations, exemplifications, and/or details.

— Displays unity, progression, and coherence.”

The rubric is a list of writing characteristics. It shows that not only the top three are important; the fourth (and last) description of a top-scoring essay is, “Displays consistent facility in the use of language, demonstrating syntactic variety, appropriate word choice, and idiomaticity, though it may have minor lexical or grammatical errors.”

In this month’s article, I’d like to take a closer look at that description. I’ll examine what it really means and give some examples of what good essays do.

First, let’s talk about the last part of that description so we can get it out of the way. The rubric says, “though it may have minor lexical or grammatical errors.” This simply tells the raters that an essay scoring 5–the highest possible score–does not have to be perfect. It can have a few lexical errors–using the wrong word, linking a word incorrectly to other words, using a slightly wrong form of a word, etc. It can also have a few grammatical errors–a missing “-s” on a verb, mistakes with articles, etc. These mistakes are considered minor because they don’t hide your essay’s meaning. The essay is clear and informative even with those small mistakes.

More importantly, the rest of this descriptor talks about language features (not content or organization) that a good essay should have. This descriptor is about grammar and vocabulary. Let’s take the features one by one.

Consistent facility

This is a very broad phrase. It means “the ability to do well most of the time.” The word consistent is important. Even poor writers can do some things well sometimes. They do well, then not so well, then well again, then not so well again, and so on. This is not consistent facility. It is only occasional facility. An essay falls into the top scoring category only if its language use is correct most of the time.

Syntactic variety

Syntax means almost the same thing as grammar. Syntactic variety is the mixing of different sentence types so your writing flows well. You have some simple sentences, some compound sentences, and some complex ones. Your sentences are not all built the same way. Some start with sentence adverbs, some (but not most) have contrast signals like but or however, others note cause and effect, other sentences describe things, and so on.

Syntactic variety is important because a skilled writer uses rhythm and variety to attract readers. A writer who uses only simple sentences (and a few short compound or complex sentences) sounds like a tired machine. For example, consider this paragraph: “People are worried. There are many reasons. First, the economy is bad. It is not good. Next, people can’t buy food. The price of food is high. Thirdly, people don’t have jobs. This is bad.”

Of course, this paragraph is very dull and uninteresting because it shows no syntactic variety. Every sentence is a simple sentence. The ideas don’t come smoothly, but in a series of disconnected statements.

Appropriate word choice

This feature is easy to understand. When you want to express an idea, do you know the vocabulary you need? If you do–and if you can put it into meaningful, well-built sentences–your essay will be a pleasure to read.

Raters consider several aspects of vocabulary usage. The most important is precision. To understand the value of this, let’s look at a list of similar words: hidden, unclear, obscure, garbled, indistinct. Every one of those words means, “not easy to see, hear, or understand.” The question is, “Which of these words is EXACTLY right in a certain context?” Imagine that you want to describe the way someone speaks. You want to say that he says words so poorly that you can’t really understand what he is saying. Which of the words from the list would work best?

The best possibilities are unclear, garbled, and indistinct:

— His speech was unclear, and I could barely understand him.

— His speech was garbled…

— His speech was indistinct…

Even within this list of possibilities, there are differences. Garbled is a great word, but it only fits if the speech is loud enough yet hard to understand because of unclear words. If the speech is hard to comprehend because it’s too quiet, use unclear or indistinct. There is even a further difference. Use indistinct only if the speech is hard to hear because it gets buried in other sounds around it.

Clearly, it’s hard to use English vocabulary in exactly the right way. No one is perfect. However, the more exact your choices, the higher your score.


Our last consideration is idiomaticity. This does NOT mean, “full of idioms.” Instead, it means “natural and smooth because it sounds like what a native speaker would write.”

For example, here is a sentence that is understandable but not idiomatic. “After I came back to my living place I made the television to come on.” I’m sure this sentence sounds strange to you, because it IS strange. No one says “living place.” People say “turned the TV on.” We all understood the sentence, but it wasn’t pretty.

We still have more to say about iBT writing. We’ll do that next month.

Zwier teaches in the English Language Center at Michigan State University. He has written numerous books about the Internet-based TOEFL test.