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How to Write TOEFL Academic Discussion Responses


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To score high on the TOEFL academic discussion section, you need to produce a response that has good content and is easy to understand. A response that is easy to understand exhibits good grammar, style, diction, and correct fixed expressions. When you can express your ideas freely in written English, you won't have a problem in this area. Now, let's talk about content. When it comes to an academic response, content is king. Your response needs to contribute to the discussion by presenting an intelligent argument. The more background knowledge you have on the topic, the more you can discuss, thus producing good content.

Based on decades of teaching students essay writing, I find that the most efficient way for them to write high-scoring essays is to first understand what makes a good essay good and then study excellent sample essays based on that recipe. In other words, a practical approach to excelling in TOEFL academic discussions involves first understanding the components of a well-written essay and then studying exemplary essays that serve as templates. These samples not only provide the necessary ingredients but also offer diverse writing styles and perspectives, helping students grasp the nuances of constructing persuasive arguments. By emulating the writing style and carefully observing how various ideas are connected to make persuasive arguments, they can eventually compose their own authentic, powerful essays. This book aims to help with that. In this book, you will learn various response strategies, methods of generating ideas using your background knowledge, and connecting them logically and coherently. You will also study many excellent sample response essays.

Once you have mastered the fundamentals from the book, you should practice with different question prompts. The reason is that many TOEFL academic discussion questions can be challenging to respond to substantively within the tight 10-minute time frame. For this reason, you should treat the discussion questions like interview questions, preparing in advance for immediate responses. While AI tools such as Bard and ChatGPT are valuable for research, their generated ideas tend to be overly abstract and general, which may not be suitable for a concise one-paragraph essay. Remember that high-scoring responses demand specificity with rich details while avoiding excessive jargon.

To excel in timed writing tests, thorough preparation, especially studying a variety of question types, is essential, as ETS has been designing questions to discourage test takers from using ready-made examples for similar, generic-looking questions. For those seeking to streamline the process and access hundreds of personally crafted sample essays that use specific examples and thoroughly developed ideas, I recommend my self-study TOEFL academic discussion course. In this native-narrated audio-enhanced course, you can listen to the lectures and sample essays as well as read them. Repeated listening is an effective way to remember the content and structure of the arguments. This not only aids in TOEFL writing but also enhances your English pronunciation and prosody, which is beneficial for the TOEFL independent speaking section.

Part 1 Strategies

  1. Introduction

This course teaches you how to write a high scoring (raw score = 4 or 5) TOEFL academic discussion response. Your task in the TOEFL academic discussion response is to produce one paragraph-length essay (about 10 sentences) that answers a given academic topic question. To score high, your essay must exhibit relevant and persuasive content and correct fixed expressions and grammar. While the title of the task is academic discussion, the question is not strictly academic in the sense that the types of questions asked are not the ones asked in college classrooms. Instead, the questions are similar to the ones found in TOEFL independent speaking and in TOEFL independent writing, which was replaced by the TOEFL academic discussion response.


This is a brief description of the format of the academic discussion response question. The professor of a certain major, often business or education, presents some lengthy background or context to finally ask a question, which, as mentioned, is similar to an independent speaking question. The prompt also contains two short response arguments by two students, namely Kelly and Andrew. In this way, the question format of the academic discussion is complex, as you have to read three paragraphs, under the titles of professor, Kelly and Andrew. The students’ names can change. Your task is to compose a response argument that answers the professor’s question. You have 10 minutes to write that includes reading the three paragraphs. If you do not strategize, you might not have enough time to compose your essay. You will learn the strategies in a later section.

To answer the question fully, you need to present an argument, that is, a thesis (main idea) and a support (reason) for the thesis. In this way, the work that you need to do in the academic discussion response is essentially the same as the old independent writing or the independent speaking task. In terms of length, it is similar to the independent speaking task, meaning you only need a dozen sentences. Compared with the previous independent writing, which normally requires a five paragraph style (introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion), the academic discussion response only needs one paragraph.

Due to the limited space for the academic discussion response, you might wonder how to make an argument in one paragraph. You can think of it like one body paragraph of an independent essay. An independent essay normally requires three reasons, where each reason is elaborated in one body paragraph. For instance, an independent essay prompt would be, What are some ways to attract people to live in rural areas? You will need three reasons, for example, financial assistance to farmers, tax incentives for rural business owners, and construction of transportation infrastructure such as roads and freeways in the rural areas. In each body paragraph you will make an argument for each reason. For example, your second paragraph will be about financial assistance to farmers, your third paragraph, about tax incentives for rural business owners, and so on. In an academic discussion, the question will be: What is one method that you think is the most effective way to attract people to live in rural areas? The first two of the three reasons could be already mentioned by the students in the question. So you will need to talk about the remaining one, building transportation infrastructures such as roads and freeways in the rural areas. That is, all you need to do is to provide one reason or suggestion and explain in detail why this suggestion would solve the problem. In this way, your argument is different from the two students’ reasons, yet it is relevant and contributes to the discussion. 

Also, unlike the independent writing essay, the academic discussion response can have many different formats since there are many inputs that you can incorporate in your response. That is, in your own response essay, you can either incorporate the arguments provided by the students in the question or expound your own thesis without incorporating them. You learn various strategies in the later chapter of this course. In either way, the key to a high scoring response is to present a well-reasoned argument. 

The response essay is graded on a scale from 0-5, where 5 is the highest possible score. The ETS rubric states that, to score 5, your response must be “a relevant and very clearly expressed contribution to the online discussion, and it demonstrates consistent facility in the use of language.” Since the task requires you to provide your own opinion persuasively, your response is graded based on the same criteria as the independent essay, which are essentially content and the mechanics of English writing. 

2. Scoring criteria (rubrics)

2.1 Content

Content, also called topic development, is about whether your response is relevant and well elaborated. For this, you should first make sure you understand what the question is asking you to do. Sometimes you might not know some terms in the question due to differences in culture, such as “gap year” and “field trip.” You can find their meanings when the professor gives you background. 

Then, you need to think about your own response. Your argument must be different from the two students’ arguments in the question to be viewed as contributing to the discussion. You need to develop your own ideas. So don’t summarize or evaluate in detail their arguments: this summarizing task is tested in the integrated essay. A good academic discussion response has one main idea that is well elaborated, that is to say, it must have a thesis and a support for the thesis. To develop or elaborate your ideas for the thesis, you can use facts, statistics, counter arguments, and examples.


A good TOEFL academic discussion response supports one main idea thoroughly by providing reasons for the main idea. So, make sure that you have only one main idea, and develop that idea fully. To say it differently, do not enumerate big ideas in a bullet point style. For example, an academic discussion question may ask you to suggest one major environmental problem and to offer a solution to the problem. You think that the e-waste products from electronic devices such as, cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices is one such environmental problem. You have several ideas for the solution. For example, we should educate people on the dangers of e-waste products on the environment; we should manufacture long lasting e-products and recyclable batteries; and we should provide convenient e-waste recycling depositories. 

All these solutions are great, but you don’t have time or space to develop all these three solutions in the academic discussion response. In this situation, do not try to develop all three ideas since none can be developed fully in one paragraph. Instead, you should choose one solution and elaborate on that one. To impress your rater that you have more than one solution, you can say something like: “While there are several ways to solve the environmental damage arising from e-waste products, such as manufacturing long lasting products and providing e-waste recycling depositories, the most important step toward the solution is educating people about the negative impact of the e-waste products on the environment. Then you can elaborate in detail why education is the solution in your response. 

Use transitional words or phrases correctly. To make an argument, you need not only to have good ideas, but also to connect sentences logically. To connect sentences logically, you should use correct transitional words and phrases. Words or phrases that indicate cause and effect, contrast and inference are especially important when making an argument. Use transitional words of addition, such as ‘and’ and ‘also,’ only when you are introducing ideas that are different from the previously mentioned ideas. Using various transitional words or phrases is especially important to score high on the E-rater since these words signal to the E-rater that you are developing a topic, not simply enumerating many independent ideas. We’ll discuss more in detail in the chapter on “How to connect ideas.” 

Do not focus on word counts. It is true that, when you elaborate your ideas, you will end up writing a lengthy essay. However, if you stray from the question and write a lengthy, irrelevant or repetitive response, which adds no value to the discussion, you will not get a high score.

2.2 Mechanics of English

The other criterion for scoring can be called the mechanical aspect of English language. This is what ETS says regarding the mechanics:

  • Effective use of a variety of syntactic structures and precise, idiomatic word choice

  • Almost no lexical or grammatical errors other than those expected from a competent writer writing under timed conditions

So, the mechanics relate to grammar, style, diction and spelling. Grammar means a set of rules that determines whether a catenation of words is formed correctly or makes sense. All languages have different grammar rules. When we learn our first, native language, we do not need to learn grammar rules separately to recognize whether a sentence is grammatical or not. However, to learn a foreign language, you need to have strong grammar knowledge to be able to read, listen, speak and write at a high level. English is said to have 2,000 grammar rules, which takes years to master. Common grammar mistakes by non natives are these: number disagreement between subject and verb with third person singular (not adding -s or -es at the end of the verb in the present tense); tense disagreement (not using a simple past verb tense when talking about a finished past event); and misusing the definite article the. Correct grammar is important since when you make errors in grammar, meaning can be unclear. 

Style means the preference in sentence construction that is viewed as stylish because of its elegance and assistance in clarity in meaning. Style rules include parallelism, consistent use of person or voice, and punctuation marks. The bible for style can be found in “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Common style mistakes include run-on sentences, sentence fragment and comma misuses. 

Diction means using words or phrases that correspond to the ideas or intended meanings. It also can mean that your use of words or phrases follows the usage of English natives. 

Your ability to write grammatically with correct diction and spelling becomes even more critical to score high in the academic discussion since you don’t have much space to develop content, unlike the old independent essay. So in a nutshell, a good response is the one that exhibits a persuasive argument and that follows the writing mechanics of English. Now that we understand what a good academic discussion response looks like, we can move on to learn how to write an academic discussion response