3 Examples of “Fossilized” Mistakes that Block TOEFL iBT Speaking and Writing scores… and How to Fix Them

One of the most common reasons why you may not be seeing your higher, required score on TOEFL iBT Speaking and Writing is a little-known issue called “fossilized” errors or “fossilized” mistakes. 

What is a "fossilized error"?

Basically, a “fossilized” mistake is something that you repeat so many times, you memorize the mistake. Even if you know it is wrong, your habit is to use the mistake. 


You can accidentally make “fossilized” mistakes when you speak or write. There is a good chance that you have fossilized errors both in your daily English at work, as well as inside the TOEFL iBT Speaking and Writing tasks. 


Here are 3 examples of some extremely common fossilized errors that students make in their diagnostic test, before they start my program or learn the process to fix them…

I’m going to give a super common error that is made by students who speak dozens of different native languages… 

Let’s say that you have trouble adding the “s” on a phrase like “the woman thinks” or “the professor says.” 

So, when you talk, you just skip the “s” and you continue with the rest of the sentence.

You want to say:  “the man thinks that it’s a good idea because…”

But TOEFL Human Raters and SpeechRater (the computer software that assists with your score) hears: 

“the man think_ that it’s a good idea because…”

Even though it may seem small, the final “s” on the ends of nouns and verbs is responsible for the grammatical clarity and accuracy of your message.

If you are frustrated with your scores in TOEFL iBT Speaking and Writing, I encourage you to listen to your audio files and carefully proofread your essays to look for missing “s” on present simple verbs and plural nouns. 

For vocabulary, I’ll give you an example that you might have.

“Prepositions” are a special type of word in English. Examples of them are:  in, of, to, for, from, etc.

Prepositions are those small words that connect verbs and nouns into familiar groups of phrases. 

What’s the correct preposition for this phrase?

to sign up ____ classes

We can create lots of potential combinations…  

sign up to classes   

sign up at  classes   

sign up from classes

✅ The only correct answer (and the one that TOEFL Graders would need to hear to give 26 on Speaking or 24 on Writing) is “sign up for classes.” 

You may not be able to identify these for yourself because your native language probably has different “correct” combinations from the combinations that are correct in English, so something might “seem” right or “feel” right in your native language, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s the correct preposition in English. 

There are 13 vowels in American English. Let’s say a student mixes up the vowels that are represented by the symbols /e/ and /ɪ/. In the 2 words below, the only difference in pronunciation is these 2 vowels, so accuracy with the vowel is critical:

many  /me.ni:/

mini  /mɪ.ni:/

Let’s imagine that Arabic speaker wants to say this sentence in TOEFL Speaking Task 2:

“Many students agree it is a waste of money.”

If the student forgets to use /e/ instead of /ɪ/ at TOEFL Speaking Task 2, they use the wrong vowel sound (/ɪ/) so the TOEFL Grader hears this: 

“Mini students agree it is a waste of money.”

Although Human Raters at TOEFL iBT are not asking you to have a perfect American accent, they do require that you have a certain level of accuracy and clarity. 

Mixing up vowel sounds can lead to a lot of confusion for your listeners. 

When my students get my feedback on their Diagnostic Speaking or Writing practice tests, they are surprised at just how many more issues I identified compared to their previous tutors.

Even people whose score seems to be “stuck” at 25/30 on TOEFL Speaking are usually making dozens of mistakes in those 4 tasks with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (in unique combinations, of course). And I’m not even talking about strategies for TOEFL iBT — I’m only talking about English mistakes.

People who are scoring 22-23 on TOEFL iBT Speaking can be making closer to a hundred mistakes in those 4 tasks. 

If you take a moment to think about it, you might realize that you have your own unique combination of fossilized mistakes. Maybe a friend or co-worker told you about your English mistakes… But what about the mistakes that they didn’t have time or energy to tell you about? 

Or what about the mistakes that your friends didn’t have the knowledge to explain to you? 

Fossilized mistakes are a major cause of "stuck" TOEFL scores. Until you identify yours and decrease them consistently, you might not see your TOEFL score move beyond 25 on Speaking or 23 on Writing.

How do you "fix" fossilized mistakes?

Because I had so many students whose careers were being stopped by these fossilized mistakes, I invented Memory Pouches. 

how to fix fossilized errors with grammar vocabulary and pronunciation

Memory Pouches are 3 special containers that hold your unique combination of flashcards that are tricky for you. When students buy them, I share the training videos for how to use them, but the quick answer is…

Memory Pouches give you the time and space that you need to retrain old habits the right way. 

When students commit to using them for for 15-20 minutes daily, they have reduced errors by 83% to 91% when they speak English spontaneously, the first time! 

With the right tools and protocols in your hands, you can reduce your mistakes the first time that you speak or write.

Speaking or writing English more accurately is a major reason why my students break past their old limits and get new, higher scores at TOEFL iBT… because “TOEFL” stands for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. And if you have better English, you’ll be eligible to earn more points.

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