In both the TOEFL writing and speaking tests, it is important to paraphrase. This is because any words that you use from the question more than just a single word or short phrase will not be considered as your own. The whole point of an exam like TOEFL is to test your English skills. We already know that the examiner can speak English – we don’t need to you to quote him.

Paraphrasing is both an important and a difficult skill when it comes to English tests like TOEFL. You must be able to do this at even a basic level or else you could end up losing many points by simply copying from the question. In this article, I will explain what paraphrasing is and why you should be implementing it in your TOEFL practice. I will then offer some advice on how to do it effectively.

What is paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing means to say something again but in a new way. In other words, if someone says a sentence to you, you can repeat the sentence but with different words and grammar. It is a quite difficult skill because it requires a certain mastery of vocabulary and grammar to do it effectively.

Take the following sentence as an example:

  • It is more important for students to study art and literature than it is to study math and science.

If this sentence appeared within a TOEFL writing question, you would not be able to simply copy it into your own answer. This would be lazy and dishonest. Instead, you would need to respond to the question by paraphrasing it – meaning to say it again in a new way. Paraphrasing sometimes requires thinking of new words. You might have to find a synonym for a particular word in the test. However, often this is difficult or even impossible. Finding a synonym of “literature” or “math” might be hard or impractical. Instead, you could then consider using some of the same words but reorganizing the sentence:

  • Some people argue that math and science are less important than art and literature in students’ studies.

In the second sentence, we have added “some people argue” to frame the context of the idea, but most of the key words are actually the same: students, study, art, literature, math, and science. You will notice, however, that the sentence order has drastically changed, and that “more important” is now “less important. The verb “study” has also changed to the noun, “studies.” This is a good example of effective paraphrasing because the sentence is still intelligible. If you try to change too much, it is possible to ruin the sentence entirely.

Why is paraphrasing important for TOEFL?

In the TOEFL test, you cannot simply copy what the examiner said or wrote. Although it may be tempting to copy what is on the screen, paper, or what was said by the examiner, you absolutely should resist the temptation to write or say these words again.

It is easy to do this by accident… Some people even find that by the end of the writing test, they read the question over and over and inadvertently copy the material that is written there, incorporating it verbatim into their own work. However, this would be catastrophic.

Writing what you read again is simply unacceptable and these words would be penalized by any TOEFL examiner. Even if they were incorporated into your own writing in a grammatically correct way, it would not help you. The examiner would be duty-bound to take action.

In the speaking test, you might even hear the examiner say something like,

  • She has just been offered a promotion that would mean more pay but longer hours.

You are supposed to give your opinion and advice to this friend, so maybe you would be tempted to say:

  • If my friend has just been offered a promotion that would mean more pay but longer hours, I would tell her to seriously think about this offer because even though it would mean having more money and being able to save up easier, the longer hours would definitely be a serious drawback.

Although this answer is grammatically fine, it includes a large chunk of the question copied into it. This is not your own language, and so you could not get away with doing that. The examiner would be very unimpressed by it. You could remedy this situation by editing out the copied part:

  • If my friend was in this situation, I would tell her to seriously think about this offer because even though it would mean having more money and being able to save up easier, the longer hours would definitely be a serious drawback.

Here, the idea has been condensed down and referred to indirectly. This is one other way of avoiding copying material from the question.

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How to use paraphrasing for TOEFL

First of all, you need to realize that, in English, there are usually many ways to say the same thing. Although this can be annoying and confusing at first, you later realize that it makes the language wonderfully flexible and is why English became such an important world language.

You need to work for a long time before the exam to incorporate paraphrasing into your daily life. This can take many shapes and forms, but essentially it means getting used to not repeating words or phrases as you encounter them. Sure, in the early days of language learning, this is a good way to learn, but when you get more advanced it is not a good habit to keep.

One of the best ways to avoid repeating something when it comes to writing is to use notes. When we read a question or prompt over and over, it is only natural that we will incorporate that language into our own because it is fresh in our head. It is difficult to look at the question and write something about it without referring to it. Therefore, you should make notes about the question, then look at the notes and answer according to them. This will break the direct connection between you and the question.

You should think about the main idea of the question rather than worrying about the specific details and grammar. By the main idea, I mean subject, object, and verb. What is going in within the question? You should respond directly to this rather than to the actual wording of the question. Thinking this way also helps break your dependence on the individual details.

Remember that when you paraphrase, your object is to say something in a totally new way, but you should not stray far from the original meaning. You must keep those original ideas, but just use new words to refer to them. As I mentioned above, though, sometimes it is impossible or unwise to use entirely new words. This is because sometimes there is no adequate synonym. In that case, you should think about changing the part of speech (for example, verb to noun) or rearranging the order of the question.

Let’s take another example question:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “It is better to be a follower than a leader.”

Here, the key ideas are “follower” and “leader.” We need to find synonyms for them, or else find a way to incorporate them into a new sentence in a different way.

Fortunately, there are many synonyms of both words, although it is important to note that not all share the exact same meaning or can be used in exactly the same way. We have synonyms for “follower” like “copycat,” but equally there are many that refer to followers of others, such as “adherent” and “disciple.” These are synonyms of a different definition of follower. How confusing!

We might respond by saying something like:

  • I agree that it is better to innovate than to follow.

In this example, I have changed “follower” into a verb and essentially I did the same with “leader,” but then changed the verb “lead” into “innovate,” which is a suitable synonym.


As we have seen in the above explanation and examples, it is vital to learn how to paraphrase effectively in order to succeed at TOEFL. You should follow the advice given in the previous section in order to eliminate repetitions from your writing and make sure that there is absolutely nothing of the question included in your speaking or writing tests.

If you have trouble with this, you can seek help by using our TOEFL writing correction service.

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