The Structure & Written Expression Section of the Paper-Based TOEFL


Warning: Please note that this page refers to the old paper-based TOEFL (PBT). This version of the test is still offered, but only in a very limited number of locations. The vast majority (over 97%) of test takers take the new internet-based TOEFL (iBT). Please click here to learn about the sections of the TOEFL iBT.

Format of PBT Structure and Written Expression

All administrations of the TOEFL PBT present the exam's four sections in the same order, and structure and written expression is the second portion of the test. The structure and written expression section, which includes 40 multiple-choice questions in 25 minutes, is divided into two parts. The first 15 questions are the "structure" part of this section, on which students must choose a word or phrase that completes the given sentence. Questions 16-40 (the "written expression" part) involve choosing the words or phrases that make the least sense in the context of the given sentence. Test-takers fill in their choices on an answer sheet, which is provided at the test center.

PBT Structure and Written Expression Question Types

For each of the 40 structure and written expression questions, there is a single correct answer choice among four answer options. All of the structure questions are incomplete sentences that require the addition of one of the answer choices. Available answers vary in plausibility, but at least one incorrect option is usually close to the correct answer in meaning. Written expression questions include sentences with four underlined words or phrases, and test-takers must decide which word or phrase to change in order to make the sentence correct. In order to choose the correct answer option to change on written expression questions, students must be able to recognize mistakes such as subject-verb disagreement, inappropriate pronouns, or incorrect noun forms. Structure and written expression questions are intended for prospective university students and can be drawn from several different academic subjects in the arts and sciences, but the questions assume no detailed knowledge of those subjects. Unlike PBT listening comprehension, the structure and written expression section includes no conversational use of language (all questions are formal).

Skills Assessed by PBT Structure and Written Expression

The structure and written expression section of the PBT primarily evaluates knowledge of standard written English conventions. The ways in which these skills are assessed, however, merit special attention, especially with respect to the written expression questions. Knowledge of correct English is certainly mandatory for high scores on this section, but test-takers must also be able to recognize incorrect English in order to be successful. PBT structure and written expression has been criticized for testing skills in isolation and without further context, and this is the main reason that the TOEFL internet-based test has no analogous section.

PBT Structure and Written Expression Policies and Procedures

Taking notes on the test booklet or answer sheet is prohibited while undergoing the structure and written expression section of the PBT. Students should not circle or underline words in the test booklet or place any markings on their answer sheets other than filling in the appropriate circles for their answer choices. All test materials are returned at the end of the exam period, and students found to be in violation of this policy are subject to cancellation of scores.

PBT Structure and Written Expression Scores at Universities

Though the PBT requirements at most universities refer to total scores only, there are some institutions that have minimum standards for the structure and written expression section. The College of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York-Albany, for instance, prefers that its applicants receive structure and written expression scores of at least 57 (interestingly, this division has no other specific standards for PBT subscores). SUNY-Albany applicants for graduate teaching assistantships are required to score at least 60 on structure and written expression, but it should be noted that this school has a stated preference for the TOEFL iBT because of its speaking component. Teaching assistantship applicants who take the PBT may therefore be subject to a phone interview. The Northeastern University School of Law requires scores of at least 60 each on all three of the PBT's multiple-choice sections, including structure and written expression. According to ETS, a scaled structure and written expression score of 52 is in the 50th percentile of all test-takers.

Research on PBT Structure and Written Expression

A paper presented at an academic conference in 2006 argued that TOEFL PBT average total and sectional scores (including structure and written expression) were higher for students whose native languages were closer to English. For example, native Japanese speakers taking the PBT had more difficulty than students whose native language is German. This study also found that economic factors such as per-capita GDP, average years of schooling, and trade share of GDP were strongly correlated to TOEFL PBT scores.