I-B-C: The essential formula for success with TOEFL (Part 1 – the iBT writing tasks)
published by Lachezar Kolev
Over the many years I have been preparing students (and other teachers) for the TOEFL, there is a single simple framework that I have constantly returned to – and one that has generated the most success when it comes to taking the test and getting a good score as a minimum and potentially a perfect score if things go a test-taker’s way on the day.
I have to point out here that I have prepared students for the TOEFL at various levels of proficiency and “readiness”, and as a busy teacher and writer I’ve needed a grounding framework that can work at multiple levels. My formula has worked with a student who achieved a perfect 300 on the CBT, and it has worked with teenagers who on the writing portion of the CBT went from consistent 2s and 3s out of 6 for the essay to a minimum of 4 out of 6. The formula, albeit slightly adapted in some specific cases, has transferred excellently to the iBT version, complete with another writing task and 6 new speaking tasks. In fact, when I first began to seriously analyze the questions added for the iBT I honestly thought this formula was a very high instinctive priority in the test makers and raters as well as they went about designing and launching the speaking and writing portions of the new test. If true, it is no coincidence. That’s because this basic formula could be considered fundamental to a wide variety of academic/ formal/ professional presentations, whether they are written or spoken in nature.
Well, after all that build up, I am happy to say this formula is neither complicated nor foreign-feeling. It’s simple, and it’s something most students and test-takers already now something about.
It is: I-B-C.
Or in full form: Introduction-Body-Conclusion
Perhaps you’ve just let out a sigh of disappointment, wondering how I could possibly quote such a simple, well-known formula and make it out to be so profound.
The truth of the matter is that many test-takers (and even many of the teachers who prepare them, for that matter) take the test and come up with an ordinary score because in many (or even most) cases, people feel they know the ingredients in this formula and how to apply them well – when in fact they don’t.
What the TOEFL demands and watches very carefully for is an ability to understand and stay on topic (first and foremost), to be able to back that up in thoughtful detail, the ability to do so in clearly organized and cohesive fashion, and a capacity to take all of this somewhere (hopefully) to create a final position or state. The I-B-C model is a great way to ensure that happens, but until you can get it right you are pretty much praying to the ETS gods for good fortune and a lucky break.
Basically, if you can introduce content (or a response to content) in a framing and original way that makes a clear topic or case, then present a body of clearly organized information supporting and extending that original topic, then wrap up the overall production in a clear and original way, tying together the various well-organized on-topic threads and leaving the reader or listener with a concluding thought, then you have the essential formula for handling almost all of the productive tasks on the TOEFL, AND the potential to score highly on them.
Let me take you through the various TOEFL writing and speaking tasks so you can see what I mean. I’ll start with the writing tasks – (1) because I believe this is the format we’re all most familiar with when it comes to the I-B-C principles, and (2) because I honestly believe most of the academic speaking tasks for the test were designed based on what was familiar and consistently applied in the pre-existing writing section.
Independent Essay (iBT TOEFL Writing Task 2)
Introduce a topic and show some awareness about it. State a clear thesis or guiding idea for your essay. Refer broadly to the sub-topic ideas you will be addressing in the body of the essay, as an initial rationale for the thesis/guiding idea you have asserted. The introduction is absolutely crucial for immediately demonstrating to a test rater that you understand the topic and task, and that you are on track (“on topic”) from the very outset.
This is the “meat” of the essay, where all the nitty-gritties are presented, explained, rationalized and/or exemplified. Given the scope of detail to be expressed here, staying true to the main topic, clearly organizing sub-ideas, and expressing details with good advanced appropriate language – all of these factors are so important. The body is often the place where writers slip and demonstrate either a vague or deficient understanding of the topic. You’ll need 2-3 paragraphs here, corresponding to the broad sub-topic ideas you mentioned in the introduction with a nice clear topic sentence for each. In fact, the I-B-C model becomes relevant to each body paragraph. You introduce the sub-topic or idea in a topic sentence, followed up with a mini-body of details, reasons and examples, and tie the paragraph up in a well-rounded conclusive way. Make sure all your supporting details correspond clearly with the sub-topic in the topic sentence, and if that in turn corresponds with the thesis/guiding idea in your introduction, then your challenge is with good written expression and the chances or wandering away from your main idea are somewhat reduced.
The conclusion wraps up the essay, rather like the curtain-call of a concert or play. It needs to re-state the thesis and main ideas from the body, but in a new and/or refreshing way. The best quote I’ve heard about conclusions is to “make sure they contain the essential information and impressions you want your readers to walk away from the essay with.” To that I would add that it is important to do this without sounding like you’re simply repeating yourself. Whereas the skill with the main topic in the introduction was to get it our clearly and succinctly, and in the body it was to deal with the topic in a very comprehensive and well structured way, here in the conclusion I believe the skill is about talking about the topic and thesis in a united and authoritative way, and leaving the reader with a lasting impression of it.
The independent essay is the single longest piece of production you will put together on the entire TOEFL test, so it is necessarily the part where understanding and applying the I-B-C formula is most complicated and yet crucial. But if you can get it right here, applying the formula to other writing and speaking tasks actually becomes easier. Given the production in these other parts is much shorter and less complex, we can strip the I-B-C formula back to some essential basics and reapply it.
Integrated Essay (iBT TOEFL Writing Task 1)
Compared to the independent essay, this is a bit of a different beast. In terms of style and content, it does need to be approached differently. This is a reporting and (to some extent) critical awareness task, probing not only your writing ability but essentially making it dependent on your reading and listening skills and demanding the capacity to show you can integrate the content of the two sources in a unified way. However, if I can assume for now that you have managed to handle most of the input from the sources, the key skill of presenting this in good writing still very much benefits from our basic I-B-C formula.
As I mentioned earlier, we can scale back our I-B-C model compared to the way we applied it in the independent task, because (1) we have less time to write (20 minutes only), and (2) less volume of detail and very little in the way of personal opinion is expected by the test raters. The ETS guides say this can be a mini-essay or just one extended paragraph. I think from the outset I would recommend a three-paragraph approach with a very short introduction and conclusion, with the bulk of the writing in the body. Raters in a rush who quickly scan your writing will then in that single eye-blink get an impression of a well-organized writer who makes a clear assessment at the start of the writing and backs it up with lots of detail in the middle, before rounding it off in a nicely conclusive fashion.
If you have some talent and can produce a lot of writing fast, you may even still want a 4-5 paragraph approach, with each body paragraph exploring a key issue or idea. That is in fact a good way to write this kind of essay, because towards the end it will show you how many ideas you’ve managed to cover and in what degree of detail. You can always pull the sections back together again to create one large body paragraph, or even for that matter pull everything together for one single paragraph overall. In either case (pulling the pieces together into one longer paragraph), I recommend doing so if you haven’t managed to cover a whole lot in each discrete idea-section, and it is a good idea to use appropriate transitions and cohesive devices to create a feeling of flow from one main point to the next.
In any case, an I-B-C approach to the integrated task (especially as a general writing process) will get a feeling of how much content you’ve managed to address and how well you’ve organized and expressed it.
Introduce the topic represented by both of the input sources, and state in a nutshell how the two sources relate to each other (it will almost always be a case of one source contradicting or challenging the other, or agreeing with, exemplifying or extending it). You would want two, but no more than three sentences in this part.
Again, this is the “meat” of the essay, where all the nitty-gritties are presented, explained, rationalized and/or exemplified. If your introduction was on track, you’ve stated the broad topic and explained generally how the two sources work with each other. Therefore, this is the place to show that relationship in some detail. Another way of putting it is that you’ve already stated we have a hamburger with an overall mix of ingredients in the middle/core that either complement or clash with each other. Well, here is where you describe that mix of ingredients. Explain each key idea from one source, with the relevant detail you managed to pick up, then compare/contrast it with what the other source has to say. I would go so far as to say there will be at least three key ideas for you to demonstrate and explain here, involving both of the inputs for each one. However, the main thing to remember is sticking to and reporting the details, and expressing the relationship between the sources using appropriate devices and expression. Your opinion should not be expressed here at all – it’s all about reporting and unifying what you’ve read and heard.
You can add a concluding sentence for this task. Even though the official TOEFL guides usually say it’s not necessary, if you can do so in a simplified and non-opinionated way I think it is a great way to sum up what has been reported and to show again that you have understood what was essentially going on in the mix of the two input sources. As long as you don’t simply repeat your introduction and can state something overall in a concise way, it can’t hurt you to include a concluding statement and may even benefit you.
So there you have it – my views on how a simple I-B-C formula relates to handling the writing tasks on the iBT TOEFL. Very soon I’ll be back with Part 2 of this posting, and there we will move on to see how I-B-C benefits answering each of the iBT speaking tasks!
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