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Test of English as a Second Language

As with all tips for the TOEFL writing section, it’s important to keep in mind that while minor errors are acceptable, the frequency of minor errors, particularly combined with larger grammatical problems will undoubtedly detract from your overall score.

In particular, ESL students generally have problems with count and noncount nouns, primarily because such nouns vary from one language to the next.  A primary way of getting this grammar down is memorizing most common noncount nouns.  Here is a quick 101 on count and noncount nouns to refresh your memory for test day


Basically count nouns are nouns you can count, meaning they can be singular or plural.  “A” or “an” can often come before count nouns.  Count nouns can be multiplied by simply adding an “s.”


Noncount nouns are things you can’t count separately, meaning we usually do not use “a” or “an” before them.  These nouns also have no plural form and the words “some” or “the” often precede them.  Here are some common noncount nouns:

·       advice, air, accounting, behavior, coffee, heat, salt, copper, civics, calcium, clothing, film, equipment, bread, helium, singing, peace, pollution, violence, gasoline, water, responsibility, time

Sometimes, to make a noncount non-countable we use a phrase that gives them a countable form.  Here are some examples of such phrases:

·       a piece of meat

·       a game of tennis

·       a cup of water

·       a clap of thunder

Keep in mind: When we use “some” before a noncount noun, it often is referring to nouns that don’t have specific boundaries.  (Example: I drank some orange juice.)  Also, the word “people” often confuses ESL learners.  Typically, “people” is plural and does not have s singular form.  (Example: North American people value education.)  However, sometimes the word “people” can mean a specific group of human beings, meaning it can have both a plural and singular form.


The Chinese are a people of Asia.

Various peoples have settled in Vancouver.

Remember: Knowing the proper usage of noncount nouns is not only valuable on the writing section, but also the speaking section, too.  Keep a list handy of the most common noncount nouns by category so you won’t forget them.

Transitional words are crucial for a high score on the TOEFL writing section because raters are looking for smooth transitions from idea to idea and from paragraph to paragraph.  Not only do transitional words help papers read more smoothly, they also provide organization and understandability, not to mention improve the connections and transitions between thoughts on the speaking section!

Think of transitional words as divided into categories.  Here are several categories that will help you with both the integrated writing and independent writing.

Addition: also, again, as well as, besides, furthermore, in addition, moreover

Consequence: accordingly, as a result, consequently, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, so then, this, thereupon

Generalizing: as a rule, as usual, for the most part, generally, ordinarily, usually

Exemplifying: chiefly, especially, for instance, in particular, markedly, namely, specifically, such as

Illustration: for example, for instance, for one thing, as an illustration, in this case

Emphasis: above all, particularly, singularly

Similarity: comparatively, coupled with, identically, likewise, together with

Exception: aside from, barring, besides, excluding, outside of, save

Restatement: in essence, namely, that is to say, in short, to put it differently

Contrast: conversely, instead, on the other hand, on the contrary, rather, yet

Sequence: at first, to begin with, in the first place, for the time being, the next step, later on, in turn, with this in mind

Summarizing: after all, all in all, all things considered, by and large, in any case, in brief, in conclusion

In regards to grammar with transition words, if the transition begins the sentence then a comma must follow it.  If the transition word comes in the middle of a sentence, it’s proceeded by a comma or a semi colon and followed by a comma. When written at the end of a sentence, a transition word is preceded by just a comma.


Therefore, I decided not to join the hockey team.

The tryouts took longer than anticipated; therefore, I decided not to join the hockey team.

I couldn’t come near to respecting him, however.

Transition words can also come in handy for the speaking section and can add coherence to your ideas.  Memorize several that stick out at you by their category and keep them in mind when it comes down to test day.

Remember: Transition words become ineffective when used repetitively: Use a variety of them when speaking and writing in order to effectively transition one idea to the next.


The Listening section of the TOEFL can be one of the most difficult sections on the test. Of course, the best way to improve one’s listening is to practice over time. Most people find that watching television shows or movies in English or listening to songs in English are great ways to improve. If you are fortunate enough to have friends who are native speakers of English, or if you live in a country in which the predominant language is English, then you also have a great advantage.

The Listening section requires you to sort through lectures and conversations that are purposefully filled with distracting pauses and brief digressions such as “um” and “uh”. Although this section may be frustrating, you can conquer it by learning to find certain patterns.

There are two different kinds of speech to listen to in this section:

1.) Lectures

2.) Conversations

Lecture Analysis

This section will simulate an academic setting where a professor lectures to a group of students. In a similar fashion as the reading section, you are asked to answer questions based on the information provided. Although you cannot see the paragraphs in front of you, the speaker will provide an introduction, supporting reasons and examples, and some sort of conclusion.

Listen for the following:

1.) Topic – This should appear early in the lecture, after the greeting.

-Identify what the topic is.

-Figure out why the topic is being addressed

2.) Purpose – Soon after the topic is introduced, the purpose of the lecture will be stated.

3.) Examples – The majority of the lecture will be examples and details. Don’t try to write down or memorize every single one.

4.) Conclusion – Note any final points or summaries

Conversation Analysis

In this section, you will usually listen to conversations between two students. When listening to a conversation, pay attention to the following:

1.) Purpose – What do the people in the conversation hope to achieve? Why are they having this conversation?

2.) Details – What specific information is offered? How do these examples and details relate back to the purpose?

3.) Conclusion – Is there any resolution? Do the people achieve their purpose?

Use these tips when practicing with sample drills in TOEFL listening books or by listening to American news reports.

Posted on January 14, 2008 by Manhattan Review

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