Exam!” “Give me a power-packed TOEFL lesson!”
To succeed on the TOEFL iBT integrated writing section, you will need to identify, by way of note-taking, the thesis and major supporting points of a reading passage. A problem surfaced in my TOEFL iBT class today: several students had different interpretations of what the main idea was!
The first student said that the main idea was home schooling.
Another student suggested that the main idea was a comparison between home schooling and traditional schooling.
A third student asserted that the main idea was why traditional schooling was the best method of teaching.
In reality, the first paragraph of the TOEFL iBT reading task defined home schooling, and the second paragraph explained three disadvantages of home schooling by arguing that learning was not as effective as traditional schools, that the limited social interaction in home schools compared to its traditional school counter parts would ill-equip these students for future relationships, and that home schools had a much more limited curriculum than traditional schools. According to the reading passage, it was because of these three reasons that home schooling was not as effective as traditional schools.
Therefore, the main focus of the reading was the disadvantages of home schooling. The topic sentence in paragraph two changed the tone from informative to argumentative, and more coverage was devoted to why home schooling was an ineffective way to educate students.
Why did these students have trouble identifying the topic? First, they were misled by the introduction which did NOT include an argument against home schooling, thus mistakenly inferring that the rest of the passage would focus on that. However, the second paragraph quickly changed the tone of writing from informative to argumentative, and clearly the writer did not favor home schooling.
Second, they did not pay attention to these rhetorical cues: “for some,” “for others,” and “finally.” Unfortunately, these rhetorical words were used to introduce the three main reasons why home schooling was an inferior form of education. And it is exactly these three reasons that you would want to refer to during the 20 minute integrated writing task.
Finally, for these students it was a cumulative effect of not identifying the thesis and its major supporting points that led them to an inaccurate understanding of the passage.
What can you learn from their experiences? You should skim the rest of the passage to make sure that you have identified the main idea. Do all the major support points in the reading passage connect back to the writer’s main topic? Beware of a TOEFL iBT reading trap when the writer starts out with one idea but makes a transition to a new topic.
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