Both Sides Argument Essay

There are two essays on the TOEFL. On the first, you’ll have to summarize a lecture and text. On that essay, your opinion doesn’t matter. But on the second essay, you’ll have to pick a side. There will be an “A” and a “B,” or maybe just a “yes” or a “no,” and you’ll choose which you agree with. It’s often very tempting to agree a little bit with both. After all, the world is complex, and few decisions are so simple that you don’t at all agree with the opposite side. In real life, we have to consider the benefits and disadvantages of both sides when we make decision.
But the TOEFL isn’t the real world.

The short answer is no, you shouldn’t argue both sides.




Clarity is king on the TOEFL. It is, after all, a test of communication. You want your thoughts to be perfectly clear, so that the grader knows exactly what you think. If you can’t explain your thinking clearly, then it seems you don’t have a good command of the English language. And when you make your thinking more complicated, that makes communication more difficult, too. But because the TOEFL isn’t a test of your thinking skills—like the GRE is, for example—there’s no good reason to make your thoughts more complex. It only endangers the clarity of your essay.

We can see the clarity issue particularly well if we consider the simplest way to make a clear point: your essay’s structure.


The simplest independent TOEFL essay looks like this:

  • Intro, including the main idea
  • First body paragraph, including one reason and details
  • Second body paragaph, including another reason and details
  • Conclusion

In that structure, there is a clear relationship between all of the main points. In comparison, when students talk about both sides, the result often looks like this:

  • Intro, including the main idea
  • First body paragraph, including one reason and details
  • Second body paragaph, including another reason that contradicts the main idea.
  • Conclusion

In this structure, the essay grader will understand your main point through the first two paragraphs, but then the third paragraph will confuse them. Unless you are very careful about your phrasing, the second body paragraph will not connect clearly to your main point.

At that point, the grader may wonder “what is the main idea, again?”

The Risk

You might think you are above this. You might think that you can make this type of mixed-opinion essay work well. And you might be right, because it’s absolutely possible to make this work. But consider this: it won’t help you, but it might hurt you. It’s equally possible to write a great essay that argues only one side, and that runs no risk of confusing the reader if you don’t transition well.

If you do go against this advice and choose to talk about both sides, make sure that the other side is just a few words—one or two sentences. And even then, within that paragraph, you should have a connection back to the side that you mostly agree with, your main point. Don’t talk about the two sides equally, because if you do, you simply don’t answer the question; the TOEFL asks you to choose a side, and that’s what you should do.

Showing you are aware of both sides of the issue - questions

First we will look at paragraph 1: the introduction. In the previous version of this text paragraph 1 was made up of only one sentence. This sentence was the main premise. Now the paragraph is much longer but the main premise is still only one sentence. What is the main premise? Draw a circle around it and write Main Premise in the margin next to it

Check your answer here

Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 all cover different topics related to the issue of childcare. Describe the topic of each paragraph in four words or less and write the description in the margin next to each paragraph (The topic of paragraph 2 is: Effects on early learning)

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Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 don't just contain arguments that support the main premise. They also contain arguments that oppose the main premise. It is important to include opposing arguments to show your reader that

Draw a circle around the opposing arguments in paragraphs 2, 3 and 4. (They are in blocks of 1-3 sentences at the beginning of each paragraph). Then write "opposing arguments" in the margin next to each.

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Its important that the reader knows that when you write opposing arguments you do not agree with them. You have to make it very clear that you are presenting these arguments only to show that you understand the issue from both sides, that you have anticipated the opposing arguments and wish to criticise them.

In order to signal this you need to use special phrases to problematise the opposing statements. (To problematise something means to make it seem like a problem, to make it seem untrue). We can problematise arguments by making them appear to be debatable opinions and not facts (see Debatable and non-debatable statements earlier in this unit) A common way to do this is to explicitly mark the statement as an argument.

(sentence 1, paragraph 2)

Find the other problematising phrases in paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of the text. They will all be in the areas of the paragraphs where the opposing arguments are located (i.e. in the first part of each paragraph). Draw a circle around them.

Check you answer here.

You can find more problematising phrases on the next page

You can also signal the difference between opposing and supporting arguments by clearly marking the point in each paragraph where you shift from one to the other. You can use contrasting connectives to mark this point. The most common of these contrasting connectives is "However".

Find the point in each of paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 where the writer shifts from opposing arguments to supporting arguments. Draw a circle around the contrasting connective used to mark the point in each paragraph.

Check you answer here.

©Bill Daly, 1997

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