Writing Good TOEFL Paragraphs Quickly

I’ve been doing a test writing class lately and as usual, I’ve learned a lot of new stuff. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Michigan TOEFL book (I think we’re using this one and there are some really great ideas in there on how to put together parts of the essay quickly. Usually I sort of teach kids to go through the writing process, just much faster. But the book has a few nice ideas for leading kids to put their ideas on the paper faster. Since my students think fast but write slow, these methods are great.

I particularly liked one we did together in class yesterday on writing a good body paragraph. I wasn’t completely sold on this method so we literally worked it out together and spent a lot of time talking about whether we liked the results or not. Overall most students agreed this process helped them write quickly, clearly and with good organization.

The method is basically to constantly ask and answer questions about what you are writing. From your topic sentence, write 1-2 sentences that answer this series of questions?

What do I mean by that? (or what exactly do I want to say?)

What’s an example of that? (What context am I thinking of? How can I clarify what I mean?)

So what? (What is the significance of my point of view?)

OK, so why is THAT important? (Can I explain why the above idea is important?)

What will be the result then? (What will come of my idea OR what bad things will happen if people don’t listen to me?)

How does this connect to the thesis or some other larger issue? (Can I put this in some perspective?)

That’s it. By answering these questions you produce a paragraph that explains your topic sentence, then provides an example. Further, you defend what you are writing by explaining why it is important. Finally, you connect it back to the essay as a whole. We did find that the questions need modification depending on your topic but for the most part, it made a nice guide. Here’s an example we did in class.

Our topic sentence was:

Raising children in the country is good because they can be in nature.

What do I mean by that?

In the villages there are a lot of animals and beautiful scenery and no distractions.

What’s an example of that?

For example, children don’t have access to movie theaters or computer games, so they go hiking and swimming instead.

So what?

This makes them more healthy.

OK, so why is THAT important?

Healthy children will not be as sick and they will live longer.

What will be the result then?

As a result, they will be happier and more successful.

How does this connect to the thesis or some other larger issue?

So children raised in the country are healthier and happier than children raised in the city.

Bam! Instant paragraph. Not the world’s greatest paragraph. But it has a solid explanation of the author’s ideas, a good example and it connects back to the thesis. For a 20 minute TOEFL essay, it’s pretty good.

Now we discovered this method doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need to give more examples or explanations. And sometimes the importance is self-evident, or the connection to the thesis is self-evident. But it’s a nice starting point and it helped students see the value of a logical order and clarity.

The Lesson Plan

Example Paragraph/Presentation

As for how I did it with my kids, I threw that example paragraph up on the board and explained the methodology as I went through it. I asked the students if they liked the paragraph and why or why not. I got some good feedback which made them excited to learn this method.

Class Paragraph

Then we did one paragraph as a class. I picked a topic sentence that we had done in an earlier class. This helped them to clarify exactly how the method worked.

Reading Scramble

Then the book had a nice paragraph written by this method, but out of order. The students had to put it back in order using these questions and pronoun clues. That actually didn’t go as well, but I think it kept their brains at least a little warmed up.

On their own

Finally, I gave them a worksheet like this one with the questions on it and blanks and let them fill it out on their own. I went around and checked and made sure they understood what to do. I also discussed with them how the method was working and how to adapt it to their own needs or their own particular paragraph. Then for homework, I asked them to write a new paragraph, using either this method or another method or even a hybrid.


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