Well, I’ve started uploading videos about the “new” speaking section on the TOEFL, which will start being offered in August. Basically, questions 1 and 5 are removed, so the rest will be renumbered.

Here’s the video about question one:

I will upload videos about the other four questions later this week. Stay tuned!

Despite the name, this big book from McGraw-Hill Education isn’t really a TOEFL book at all. It sort of seems like they just slapped “TOEFL” on to a vocabulary book that needed a few more sales. It has some nice tips about building and using vocabulary in a general sense, but nothing that relates specifically to the TOEFL.

The same publisher also offers a “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL” book that is likely similar to traditional TOEFL vocabulary books, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.

I got confirmation from ETS that the “MyBest Scores” section will be added to all score reports, regardless of when the test was taken. That means if you took the test anytime after August 1 2017, the “MyBest Scores” section WILL be added… as long as you order a new report (which you will pay for, of course). Just keep in mind that the section will only include scores from AFTER August 1, 2017. Also keep in mind that you should order the new report After August 1.

Here’s what they told me:

“Regardless of the test administration date, all TOEFL iBT score reports sent after August 1, 2019, will automatically include the test taker’s MyBest scores, in addition to the traditional scores from the selected test date. ETS will release detailed information to test takers before the new feature is officially launched.”

A lot of students have asked me something along the lines of:

“If I took the TOEFL before August 1, can I still get a score report that includes MyBest Scores?”

It looks like you will be able to.

Here’s a message that has been sent to test-takers recently by ETS:

“Because MyBest scores will not yet be available when you complete your test between May 22 and July 31, we are providing you with 2 free additional score reports (a US$40 value).

How to obtain your free score reports: On or before August 1, your TOEFL iBT test account will be automatically credited with 2 codes to pay for your 2 free additional score reports. To take advantage of MyBest scores, the score reports should be ordered August 1 or later.

  • After you have received your codes, simply log in to your account, click your name in the top right corner, then “My Discounts and Vouchers.” There will be 2 codes listed on that screen. Make note of the codes as you will need to enter them during checkout.
  • When you are ready to send the score reports to your selected institutions, add them to your cart, enter the 2 codes at checkout and there will be no charge for your 2 additional score reports. (You can purchase more score reports at the regular price of US$20 each.)
  • Each code is for 1-time use only. Once you have redeemed it, you cannot reuse it. If you are taking multiple tests between May 22 and July 31, you will not receive additional codes.
  • Your redemption codes will expire on December 31, 2019, and are non-transferrable.

You are on the way to success by choosing to give yourself the TOEFL® Test Advantage! We wish you the best on your test, your applications and wherever your journey takes you.

Now, this free report offer is only for students taking the test between May and July, but it suggests to me that if you order a score report from between August 1, 2017 and July 31 2019 to be sent to a school (and pay for that report if necessary), it will include the MyBest Scores section. Note, though, that your school won’t get the new report unless you actually pay to have a new one sent.

My grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test (Reading and Writing): A-

Note: I am only reviewing the writing section of this book, since that is my area of expertise. Someone else will need to look more closely at the reading section.

I like this book just as much as I like the matching speaking and listening book from Collins. Like that book, this title is incredibly accurate in its depictions of TOEFL questions. Indeed, I have never seen a printed book with such accurate TOEFL integrated writing questions. There are only five of them, but they are all perfectly designed to match the real test. In each of them the author makes three points, and the lecturer casts doubt on the three points in the right order. Reading these five questions is a heavenly experience. You will remember from my earlier blog posts that textbooks from Kaplan, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are all ruined by the inclusion of inaccurate questions. Heck, this book is even better than the Official Guide to the TOEFL, which famously contains a couple of incorrectly designed integrated questions.

So if your students need accurate practice writing questions, this is a good source. The book also benefits from a concise explanation of how the questions are put together, though I suppose it could be even more explicit.

The independent questions here are merely adequate, however. The problem is that the book includes only agree/disagree style questions, and totally ignores both paired-choice and multiple choice questions. This is probably because the authors relied too much on materials from ETS, which also emphasize this question type. I’m not too bothered by that, since good practice independent questions are easy to find elsewhere, and they aren’t fundamentally misleading students as some other publishers to when they print shitty integrated questions.

The book also includes concise tips for each task and decent templates. You will have to go elsewhere to learn the fundamentals of writing, but that will always be outside the scope of a good TOEFL book. I’ll review some grammar books at a later date, perhaps.

Note: The reading section of this book will be slightly out of date starting August 1 when the test will change.

My grade for Essential Words for the TOEFL: B+. Note, however, that I have the 4th edition, from 2007. This book has now reached its 7th edition. I have no idea what has changed. Barron’s doesn’t usually change much from edition to edition, so I suspect the new edition is pretty similar.

I’m going to keep this review quite short, since you can read my feelings about vocabulary books over in my review of TOEFL Power Vocab from Princeton Review. Basically, though, I don’t want students to focus too much on vocabulary in the speaking and writing sections, but I recognize that studying vocabulary can help them in the listening and reading sections. Especially the latter section.

Barron’s vocabulary book is similar to Princeton Review’s book. It is mostly just lists of words and definitions. In this case they are divided into 30 “lessons” of about 15 words each. The words selected for each lesson don’t seem to be based on similar themes or structures.

While Princeton Review’s book includes a short quiz every few pages, Barron’s includes ten actual TOEFL reading question (vocabulary type, of course) at the end of each lesson. I can’t really say if the questions are accurate, but I don’t think that is the point. They mainly serve to help students understand the meaning and usage of each word. And, yeah, I guess they help students understand what a vocabulary question looks like and how it is put together.

The words here seem a bit more difficult that in Princeton Review’s book thankfully. Some of them are still too easy, though.

Here’s page 69: forbid, petition, relinquish, resilient, tempt.
Here’s page 229: maintain, mediocre, negligible, parallel, peculiar, potent
Here’s page 277: forfeit, precarious, severe, sporadic, superior, wanton

I guess teachers should glance at the book to see if the overall level is suitable for their students. I would probably recommend it for students scoring 90 and below.

My overall grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test – Listening and Speaking: A

I like this book! If you’ve been reading all my TOEFL book reviews you might think I hate everything, but I really appreciate what Collins has managed to do with it’s “Skills…” series in general, and the entry focusing on listening and speaking in particular.

Just note that I’m only reviewing the speaking section of the book. The chapters focusing on listening look okay, but that isn’t really my area of expertise.

The biggest strength of this book is its concise organization. It doesn’t waste time on a lot of “skills building” activities. I guess the authors looked at a lot of other books and came to the conclusion that such content is confusing and a waste of time. Instead, they focus on breaking down the structure of each question type so that students are as comfortable as possible going into the test.

In the book is a short chapter on each question type. They flow as follows:

  • Quick Guide (describes the question and answer requirements)
  • Walk through (a sample question, sample student notes, and a sample answer)
  • Get it Right (one page of concise tips)
  • Progressive Practice (three sample questions and a template)

At the end of the book there is a sample test with one question of each type.

And that’s it. But it really works. In about ten pages per question students get an accurate depiction of how each question is structured, and a fairly good template they can use to answer the question on test day. The sample answers are complete, and sufficiently long (unlike, say, the answers in Cracking the TOEFL).

I really want to draw attention to how rare it is to find such accurate questions. Most major books I have looked at (Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton, etc) all contain inaccurate questions which make student study time EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT. The authors of those books don’t even seem to have taken the test, and so their work makes students confused and frustrated.

When students study accurate questions they can avoid wasting time. That is the strength of this book.

It is clear that four questions of each type might not be enough for students to master the test, but once they have a decent understanding of how the questions are put together they will be able to supplement this book with content from the Official Test Collection books (10 questions of each type, in total).

Just note that starting August 1 of 2019 this book will be somewhat out of date because the TOEFL will change.

 

My Grade for Writing for the TOEFL iBT: F

I love the idea of a full-length TOEFL writing textbook, so I must acknowledge the effort that Barron’s and author Lin Lougheed put into this book. Sadly, “Writing for the TOEFL” is a terrible book.

Like the team from Kaplan, the folks at Barron’s seem incapable of writing proper integrated writing questions. This book contains page after page after page of terrible integrated writing practice questions. The questions in the model tests at the back of the book are bad as well.

It shouldn’t be hard for authors to realize that the integrated writing question always includes an article with four paragraphs, paired with a lecture that when transcribed contains four matching paragraphs, each of which casts doubt on a specific point from the reading. Likewise, it shouldn’t be too hard to notice that the specific counterpoints from the lecture are presented in the same order as the reading points. Just sitting for the TOEFL a few dozen times will teach them that.

I just don’t know how major publishers mess this up, since they can afford to let their authors take the test as many times as they want. Barron’s has been publishing this book for 17 years, and they still haven’t figured it out. The integrated writing questions all have articles that consist of four paragraphs and three points. Frustratingly, though, the matching lectures often don’t include specific counterpoints, and they aren’t broken down into a four paragraph structure.

The lectures here are merely descriptive. Most of the time they describe the topic at hand, without challenging the specific points made in the reading. This is similar to the flawed practice test contained in the Official Guide, which the author of this text might have leaned too heavily on.

For instance, Model Test 4 (page 169) presents three details related to the bubonic plague of the 1300s. They are: (i) it was transmitted starting in China, (ii) Italian ships spread it to Europe, and (iii) social order broke down because of it. The lecturer (page 309), though, spends about 2/3 of his time talking about how ancient Egyptians also suffered from plague, before talking about how people in the modern world also suffer from plague. The matching point/counterpoint style of the real TOEFL is completely missing.

The other error that experienced teachers will notice is that the article in this case lacks an overall argument. It merely describes the plague. A proper question would make some argument about the plague. For instance, the introduction would establish that the main argument is that the plague started in China. Each body paragraph, then, would present one piece of evidence in favor of this. The matching lecture would suggest that the plague did not start in China, and would challenge each of the authors points in turn.

Model test 2 (page 169) is pretty much the same. It lacks an argument, and presents three details about animal intelligence. The lecturer babbles on about mirrors for the full three minutes.

Model test 1 (page 167) also lacks an overall argument. Dealing with the effects of technology on learning, body paragraphs 1 and 3 suggest that it is beneficial, while body paragraph 2 suggests that it is not helping. The lecture, meanwhile, presents one story of success and one story of failure.

It must be said that model test 3 (page 171) is almost a perfect TOEFL integrated writing question. It does everything right – it presents a clear argument that Shakespeare did not write his famous plays, while the lecturer challenges each of these in turn. Evidently Barron’s is capable of coming up with proper questions, but are unaware of the fact that this structure is used every time the test is offered.

As far as the independent writing question goes, Barron’s has again leaned too heavily on the Official Guide. Indeed, they’ve pretty much reproduced the entire list of sample independent questions from that guide. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, though, that list has problems. This does lead to the book’s single strong point – a whopping 144 sample essays at the back of the book which answer these questions. These essays may be responding to slightly faulty questions and they don’t really utilize the structure I prefer, but they are a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration for students who might be struggling to come up with content on test day. With a proper warning from a teacher to ignore the rest of the book this could be a helpful resource for students.

That said, this highlight isn’t enough to save this faulty book. I can’t really recommend it.

 

My Grade for TOEFL Power Vocab: C+

TOEFL Vocabulary is a funny topic. I mostly teach TOEFL writing. When I am working with students on their essays, I usually stress that they should not try to utilize advanced vocabulary in their essays. Instead, I usually encourage them to improve their writing score by using a wide range of easy words in their essays. Basically, the TOEFL e-rater, I believe, is more concerned with how many different words students use, rather than how difficult the words are. Obviously, of course, the vocabulary level matters to some extent, but I mostly encourage students to use words they already know. This means that they don’t really need a TOEFL vocabulary book.

Reading is a slightly different story. I think that studying vocabulary books is a great long-term strategy for students. Expanding their vocabulary is a great way to increase their comprehension of the reading passages. Probably the listening passages too, now that I think about it.

By long-term I mean three months or more. If students have less than three months to prep for the test, they probably don’t need a vocabulary book either. It just won’t make a huge difference in such a short period of time.

So… is Princeton Review’s TOEFL Power Vocab a good vocabulary book?

Sort of.

At first glance I really wanted to like this book. It is really just 800 words (sorted alphabetically) with concise definitions and some short quizzes every few pages. It is free of any useless clutter. I would rather have 8000 words, but 800 seems to be as much as any book has nowadays (Kaplan includes about the same amount in their vocabulary book).

The words are relevant, too. But the problem is that too many of them are way too easy. Most students who are already scoring 80 points and above will probably already know them. For instance, here are the words from a random page (172): suggest, suitable, summarize, summon, support, supposed, surpass, surprised, surrounded.

I wouldn’t exactly call those examples of “power” vocabulary.

Another random page (121): imply, important, impressive, inactive, incandescent, inconspicuous, increase, increasingly.

A less random page (69): circumspect, circumstances, circumvent, clamor, classified, clearly, climactic, coincidence.

I think you get the point. Some of these words will really benefit students, but quite a few of them are just a waste of their time.

I am on the hunt for a good vocabulary book and will try to review a few more in the months ahead, so please let me know if you have any favorites. I’m all ears.

Note: I only review the speaking and writing parts of TOEFL books, since that is what I am most familiar with.

My Overall Grade for 4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL: F-

This is the worst TOEFL textbook I have ever seen. It is bad. It is very bad. It is surprisingly bad, since it just a collection of tests. There are no lessons here to mess up… just tests. And Kaplan sure did mess up those tests.

All of the sample integrated writing questions are terrible. The real test uses a mirror format, which you can read about in my guide to that task. Basically, the reading presents three points and the lecture casts doubt on those three points. It directly casts doubt on those three specific points, and does so in the same order as they are presented in in the reading. Kaplan, basically, doesn’t follow this pattern, making the practice questions totally useless. I just don’t understand how Kaplan could mess this up so badly. The TOEFL hasn’t changed in 14 years. Didn’t they notice the pattern? The questions in this book have a superficial similarity, but superficial isn’t good enough. Who the heck wrote this book?

The integrated speaking questions are just as bad. A few of them are actually close to the real test, but they seem to have achieved accuracy just by chance. Most of them are garbage.

Here is the prompt at the end of question five in test two (page 57):

“The woman tried to persuade the man to do something. Say what she tries to persuade him to do and explain the reasons she gives.”

What the heck? There has never been anything like that on the test!

Here’s the prompt that goes with question four in test 3 (page 86):

“The professor talks about the results of wolves being brought back to Yellowstone National Park. Explain what those results are and how those results are contrary to what people living near the park expected.”

Huh?

Meanwhile, that strange “persuade” prompt pops up again on test four, but this time as part of a task 3 question (page 113).

I could go on and on and on. This book is garbage. I haven’t even mentioned the printing errors, and the problems I had trying to use Kaplan’s online registration to access the audio files (the book doesn’t come with a CD). Avoid this like the plague.

If one of the authors of this book (Sumi Aktar, Kim Bowers, Matthew Callan, Louise Cook, Scarlet Edmonds, Joanna Graham, Brian Holmes, Nimesh Shah) happens to read this review please send me an email. I would love to hear about the messed up editorial process that produced this monstrosity. I know it isn’t your fault… just tell me what happened!

Note: I only review the speaking and writing sections of TOEFL books, since that is my area of expertise.

My Overall Grade for Kaplan TOEFL Prep Plus: F

Skills Building: What a strange book. The book is all about “strategy.” And it sure provides a lot of strategies. Strategy after strategy after strategy. The book just goes on and on and on. And it is written in a difficult style that I suspect a lot of ESL students will struggle with. This is a beefy book with fairly small print… and barely any sample questions.

I hate to say it, but I think it has too many strategies. Regarding speaking question four, for example, it provides 13 unique strategies, each about a paragraph long. This is the sort of thing that will overwhelm students, and makes the TOEFL needlessly complicated and perplexing. The book might be useful for teachers planning a long curriculum at a TOEFL tutoring center, but I don’t think students need this much information. To make matters worse, often these strategies are illustrated using inaccurate sample questions, which will just compound the problem. Grade: D-

Accuracy (speaking): The descriptions of speaking questions 1 and 2 are fine. The book doesn’t mention some of the more recent question styles (such as “giving advice” and “advantages and disadvantages”) but I can forgive that since it was published back in 2017.

The sample of speaking question 3 (page 201) is terrible. The reading is a “help wanted” posting for a school newspaper, and does not describe a change on campus. Obviously, then, it has no reasons for a change that can be referred to in the listening part.

The sample of speaking question 4 (page 213) is pretty bad as well. It includes a decent reading part, but the listening part includes four examples of the concept referred to in the reading. The real test includes one or two examples.

The samples of questions 5 and 6 are acceptable. Grade: C+

Accuracy (writing): This part of the book is pretty bad. This chapter starts with a terrible integrated writing question (page 269) that includes just two giant paragraphs in the reading section. The real test will always have four.

It includes a second terrible integrated writing question on page 291. The reading part has no introductory paragraph, and includes a gigantic body paragraph of ten sentences. The real test average about 4 or 5 sentences per paragraph. It pairs that with a lecture that is way too long.

The book does have one good integrated writing question – on page 290.

It includes a few good independent writing questions, but does not include any multiple choice prompts, which is a major shortcoming. Grade: F

Sample Tests: Note that the sample tests are only on Kaplan’s website. Follow the instructions in the book to gain access to them. Also note that while the book promises FOUR online tests, I can only find THREE. Maybe I’m dumb, or maybe Kaplan isn’t giving us what was promised. Let me know if you can find the last test.

Note also that there is no option to read transcripts of the tests, or to skip to certain sections. If you want to get to the speaking and writing sections, be prepare for a lot of clicking, and to sit through all of the listening stuff. I suffered a browser freeze up once after having wasted 15 minutes of my life clicking through just to get to the speaking section.

Anyways, I don’t recommend actually using the tests since they are also affected by the inaccuracies described above. Get the Official iBT Tests instead. Grade: D-

Note that this book (and all books) will be out of date starting August 1 of 2019 when the TOEFL will change.

Note: I only review the speaking and writing sections of TOEFL books, since those are my main areas of expertise.

My overall grade for Cracking the TOEFL iBT: B-

Skills Building Content: This book has some fine content when it comes to building the skills students need to take the test. It starts with a few “drills” that help students work through the basic skills needed on the test without actually giving them real TOEFL questions, which is a nice approach. I find that it needlessly mixes skills related to the integrated and independent writing tasks instead of separating them from each other, but that isn’t too much of a problem. Some students might find the organization of this section a bit cluttered, but at least they have tons to work with.

The book later moves on to chapters that show them how to “crack” each of the sections and utilize actual TOEFL questions to do so. This is where the book starts to get bad. The problem is accuracy. I’ll cover that in the next section. Grade: B