There are six things you can do right away to improve your TOEFL speaking score:

  • Learn how the questions are designed
  • Learn how to structure your answers
  • Learn how your answers will be scored
  • Get some Accurate Practice Questions
  • Improve your accent and delivery
  • Hire a good teacher

You are probably reading this blog post because you sent me a message asking “how can I increase my TOEFL score?” That is a hard question to answer if I haven’t ever heard you speak, but I will talk about each of the above strategies one at a time.

Learn How the TOEFL Speaking Questions are Designed

It is important to know that ETS designs the four speaking questions the same way every week. There are really just a few minor variations that you might face. Learning about these designs is the first thing you need to do as you prepare for the TOEFL, as it will make your job on test day a lot easier.

Do this by checking out my playlist on the 2019 version of the TOEFL speaking section. Studying these videos might improve your performance in the “topic delivery” section of the scoring rubric (see below).

Learn How You Should Structure Your Answers (Using Templates)

Templates can be a controversial topic in the TOEFL world, but if you are struggling to put together your answers they can really help you. You can find some templates for each of the questions on my site. Note that if you have a good teacher you might not need any templates.

Learn How Your Answers Will Be Scored

You should understand that each of your answers will be given a score in three categories of equal value. Read about them by consulting the TOEFL Speaking Rubric.

For a more detailed look at how your will be graded, watch the following video.

Update: Since August 1 of 2019 the SpeechRater software has been used to judge the delivery of student answers. you can read about this right here.


Get Some Accurate Practice Questions

You absolutely need to practice with some accurate speaking questions. Answer as many as you can, and record your answers so you can review them. Here’s what I recommend:

I don’t recommend using:

  • Anything from Kaplan
  • Anything from Barrons
  • The Cambridge Guide to the TOEFL
  • BestMyTest
  • Edusynch

Improve your Accent and Pronunciation

Delivery counts for one third of your score so you should try to improve your accent, pronunciation and intonation as much as possible.

Sadly, this is hard to do on your own. A teacher can help (see below), but you might also benefit from activities like repetition, shadowing and chorusing. A fun resource for this is PlayPhrase.me. That site should be easy enough to figure out – just click on the play button and repeat the same phrase until you run out of clips. I believe that repeating the same phrase a few dozen times is a good way to reduce the presence of your native accent and to improve your overall pronunciation. This might improve your performance in the “delivery” section of the rubric.

If you want to get some free feedback on your delivery, I recommend joining the 30 Day Speaking Challenge from Huggins International.

Get a Good TOEFL Teacher

If you really want to improve your score, you should hire a tutor to work with you one on one. They will be able to help you improve your score in all three sections of the rubric. I recommend the following experts:

Mention that you were referred by Michael at “TOEFL Resources” for preferential treatment (maybe).

Readers of this blog will know that my preferred grammar book is English Grammar in Use (5th Edition). You can buy it on Amazon. I usually recommend it to students who want to increase their writing scores. Since the book is quite long, I’ve created a list of specific units that students can focus on (along with a few notes about the reasons for my choices).

Before you read the list, though, a few things should be recognized:

  • You really should communicate with a teacher to see what units are best for you. This list is just a starting point.
  • I think that the fourth edition of the book (from 2012) has the same unit names, so the list can be used with it.
  • The list can probably be used with the 3rd and 4th editions of “English in Use – Intermediate“. That is the American version of “English Grammar in Use.”

Present and Past

Unit 2 – Present Simple (for talking about things in general, the state of the world and writing a thesis statement)

Unit 3 – Present continuous and present simple (you must understand the difference)

Unit 5 – Past simple (for personal examples)

Unit 6 – Past continuous

Present Perfect and Past

Unit 7 – Present Perfect 1 (for examples, advanced grammar)

Unit 8 – Present Perfect 2

Unit 9 – Present Perfect Continuous

Unit 10 – Present Perfect Continuous and Simple (know the difference!)

Unit 12 – For and Since

Unit 13 – Present Perfect and Past (know the difference!)

Unit 14 -Present Perfect and Past 2

Unit 15 – Past Perfect (useful for examples)

Unit 16 – Past Perfect Continuous (useful for examples)

Unit 18 – Used to (frequent errors)

Modals

Unit 33 – Should (useful for topic sentences and thesis statements)

If and Wish

Unit 40 – If I had known… (useful for “summing up” sentences)

Passive

Unit 42 – Passive 1 (it is useful to know what this is because the e-rater prefers active voice)

Reported Speech

Unit 47 – Reported Speech 1 (know how to use it as quotes look bad in the essays)

-Ing and to

Unit 53 – Verb + -ing (everything in this heading is fundamental)

Unit 54 – Verb + to…

Unit 55 – Verb (+ object)

Unit 56 – Verb +ing or to 1

Unit 57 – Verb +ing or to 2

Unit 58 – Verb +ing or to 3

Unit 59 – prefer and would rather (useful when writing a thesis statement or topic sentence)

Unit 60 – Preposition + -ing

Unit 62 – Preposition + -ing (very common error)

Articles and Nouns

Unit 69 – Countable and Uncountable 1 (very common errors)

Unit 72 – A/An and The (very common errors)

Unit 73 – The 1

Unit 74 – The 2

Pronouns and Determiners

Unit 88 – All/all of, most/most of, no/none of

Relative Clauses

Unit 92 -Relative Clauses 1

Unit 95 – Relative Clauses 4

Adjectives and Adverbs

Unit 98 – Adjective ending in -ing and -ed

Unit 101 – Adjectives and Adverbs 2

Unit 107 – Comparatives 3

Conjunctions and Prepositions

Unit 117 – Like and As

Unit 119 – During, for, while (common errors)

Prepositions

Unit 125 – In/at/on

Unit 126 – to, at, in and into

Unit 127 – in/on/at

Unit 130 – adjective + preposition 1

Unit 132 – verb + preposition 1

Unit 133 – verb + preposition 2

Unit 134 – verb + preposition 3

Unit 135 – verb + preposition 4

Phrasal Verbs

Study everything, but note that studying phrasal verbs in a grammar book has limitations.

Additional Exercises

Try numbers 1, 5, 9, 29 and 32.

The TOEFL Course offered by English Live is not very good. Don’t use it.

The questions in the course are not very accurate, and English Live (also doing business as Education First) should know better. To illustrate, let’s look at a few of their sample questions, chosen at random.

Integrated Writing, Question Two (Animism)

  • The reading section in the question has three paragraphs, while the real test always has three.
  • The reading lacks an overall argument and (obviously) three supporting reasons. The real test always has this. In the sample question the reading just describes an academic term.
  • The lecture also lacks the “three counterpoints” structure of the real test.
  • The question prompt asks students to “distinguish between the two views presented on the topic” which the real test never does.
  • Basically, on the real test ETS uses a very specific structure which is not presented here. This limits the usefulness of the practice question.

Integrated Writing, Question Eight (The Titanic)

  • Again, we’ve got just paragraphs in the reading. The real test always has four.
  • There is no argument in the reading. It just describes the building of the titanic. On the real test, students will see an argument with three supporting reasons or a problem with three possible solutions (or vice versa). There is nothing even close to that here… the reading is just a description of the launch and sinking of the Titanic… and the box office revenue of the movie based on the sinking!
  • Obviously there is nothing for the lecture to challenge, which is the sole purpose of the lecture on the real test. In this sample question the lecture just talks about the discovery of the Titanic and exploration of the wreck. There is absolutely no way to turn this into a TOEFL question. This is a completely useless practice exercise.
  • The question prompt says: “Summarize the points made in the reading and explain why the Titanic has continued to fascinate people all over the world.
  • This question is complete and utter garbage and Education First should be ashamed of charging money for it.

It seems to me that all of the integrated writing questions are terrible. But how about the independent writing questions? They are just as bad. Only two out of the ten practice questions match the patterns used on the test. Wow.

Let’s just to a few random speaking questions

Speaking Question Two, Sample 1

  • On the real test, the reading is an announcement of a change, or a letter proposing a change. On this sample question, the reading is just a list of rules for a chemistry lab. No change is announced. This is not an accurate question.

Speaking Question Two, Sample 6

  • The reading is totally fine. It describes a change on campus, and gives two reasons for it.
  • The conversation is pretty bad. On the real test the student first mentions one specific reason in support of her opinion, and then gives a second specific reason in support of her opinion. These reasons directly refer to the two reasons given in the announcement for the change. That doesn’t happen in this sample

Speaking Question Three, Sample 1 (Benedict Arnold)

  • The reading in the sample question is a biography. This isn’t done on the real test. The real test introduces an academic term, process or concept.
  • On the real test, the lecture provides an example (or examples) of the term, concept or idea from the reading. Obviously that isn’t possible here. The lecture just continues the biography. This is terrible.
  • The question prompt says: “The text and lecture cover two distinct periods of Benedict Arnold’s life. Summarize the major points made. ” This isn’t even close to the real test, which will ask students something like ” “Explain the concept of _____ using the examples of ____ and ____ given in the lecture.”

Speaking Question Three, Sample 8 (Eugenics)

  • The reading is fine. It introduces an academic topic with details. It is too long, but only slightly.
  • The real test sure as hell isn’t going to talk about a controversial topic like eugenics, though.
  • The lecture fails to produce an example (or two examples) of the concept. It merely describes the concept in more detail. This makes the question useless for preparation. It is nothing like the real test.
  • The prompt asks students to “Describe the concept of eugenics as it has been applied to humans, and relay racist and classist ideas inherent in the concept.” This is just so different from the real test that I have to believe the author of the question hasn’t even read the Official Guide to the TOEFL, or looked at ANY official materials from ETS.

Speaking Question Four, Sample 3 (Tornadoes)

  • Terrible. The structure is all wrong. I’m tired now. Stop doing this to me, English Live.

But how about the independent speaking questions? Surprisingly, they are pretty accurate. I like that they are really long, which is a recent trend that has been observed. However, are all paired choice types, and there are no agree/disagree, multiple choice or agree/disagree style questions. This is a major problem.

Conclusion

I think I will leave it at that. Overall, the content I looked at was all pretty terrible. I think the source of the problem is that Education First appears to have outsourced the creation of its practice materials to TestDEN. Blindly trusting a third party for your content is not a smart idea, as it involves placing your reputation in the hands of people who might lack the requisite expertise to do a good job. It is worth mentioning here that this is the problem that EduSynch has run into. They have an amazing platform and a lot of enthusiasm… but they are using garbage questions from Best My Test that compromise their whole operation.

Anyways. If you want practice TOEFL questions don’t get ’em from English Live/Education First.

There must have been a boom in grammar books aimed at general audiences between Eats, Shoots & Leaves in 2001 and the last Grammar Girl book in 2012.

I certainly haven’t read all of the books published during this period, but so far Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences might be my favorite. In seven clear chapters Bell covers the most common mistakes that writers of English make.

What makes this book so appealing to me is that it contains both instruction that is easily understood, and plenty of grammar terminology. The latter is something that other books of this type shy away from in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Bell’s willingness to use terminology, though, means that her book is one I would certainly recommend to rookie ESL teachers.

Now, some people might scoff at the idea of giving a tiny little book to serious English teachers. Seriously, though, there is a huge mass of teachers going overseas every day without proper resources and training. If someone had asked me when I started teaching how to use the present perfect tense properly, I wouldn’t have known how to respond. Nor would I be able to explain the subjunctive mood, or the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction… or any of the most basic grammatical terms and concepts. Like most teachers I just wasn’t taught that kind of stuff. Obviously a teacher who takes their job seriously will reach for something more comprehensive (like, say, Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage”) but Bell’s book is a perfect way to grasp the basics in under an hour. Heck, an eager teacher could read it on the flight over.

Anyways, the chapters here are:

  • Case
  • Agreement
  • Verb Tense and Usage
  • Verb Mood
  • Modifiers
  • Connectives
  • Punctuation

Each chapter ends with a little quiz.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to ESL students (Swan’s book is a better reference) but I think it is perfect for general audiences and teachers.

Oh, if you are curious about the book’s odd title, it is a riff on the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

English Grammar in Use (Supplementary Exercises) isn’t the sort of book that one reviews, so I will keep this brief.

Freshly updated for 2019, this book complements the new fifth edition of “English Grammar in Use” by providing additional practice exercises for students to work through. And exercises are all you get here – there aren’t any explanations provided.

The exercises are fine. They seem to be more contextualized than in the main book, which means they are more likely to take the form of emails, dialogs and articles. That’s a great choice for a supplementary book that digs deeper than a primary classroom textbook.

The exercises in the book are match the units in the main book, but since this is a shorter book it combines units. Note that these aren’t always sequential (it starts with five pages of exercises about units 1-4 and 19 and 25), but the groupings are logical and obvious.

Overall, I do recommend this book to intermediate level students and teachers… just as long as you already have the main book.

I should also mention that unlike the main book, this one is in black and white and is printed on non-glossy paper. That means it is much cheaper.

Finally, I haven’t seen the fourth edition of the book, so I don’t know exactly how much it has been updated. Anyways, that edition seems to be selling for even more than this one, so I guess you don’t need to bother with it.

We now know about an additional TOEFL change. Students can no longer access detailed PDF score reports. This means that students will be given an overall score for each of the sections on the test (reading, listening, speaking, writing) but will no longer get assessments for specific writing and speaking tasks.

To understand what I mean, here’s an image from an old score report PDF (taken from the Official Guide to the TOEFL, 5th edition):

You can see that in addition to their overall speaking and writing scores, the student was given a “level” assessment for five different sub-sections. These levels were: weak, limited, fair, or good. Each of the essays was a sub-section. Pairs of speaking questions made up the other sub-sections.

The bottom of the score report contained a chart to convert these levels to a numerical rubric score. In this way, students would know which of the tasks they excelled at, and which with they struggled with. This meant that the students could really focus when preparing to take the test for a second (or third… or twentieth) time.

Now, however, this information is no longer available. The new PDF score reports provide only overall scores in the speaking and writing sections. They are no longer given assessments for the sub-sections. They look like this:

In the past, if a student got 20 points in the writing section, he could see that he got a “good” in the independent task, and a “weak” in the integrated task. He would then know to focus on the integrated task in the future. Now, though, he will have no idea which task lowered his score, and which one he should focus on in the future.

Likewise, students who fail to get their target score have no way of knowing which speaking tasks they should focus on when they prepare to take the test again.

This is a problem, I think. On one hand, ETS gave students a gift with the shorter version of the test by making it possible to focus on a smaller number of tasks while studying. But the elimination of the score reports takes that gift right back.

If ETS brings back the score reports I will let you know right here.

There are quite a few good grammar books available nowadays, but English Grammar in Use is still my favorite. A new fifth edition was published this year, and I will continue recommend it to students. Though it is advertised as a book for intermediate learners, I usually recommend it even to upper-intermediate and advanced students.

The 145 units in the book (and related appendices and extra exercises) make it a fairly comprehensive look at English grammar. With 34 years worth of revisions over the course of the book’s five editions some obvious thought has been put into how the information in the book is presented. It is remarkably easy to follow.

A moderate level of revision has occurred since the fourth edition was published in 2012. This seems to mostly have affected the organization of the exercises in the book, but the explanatory parts have been revised to some extent as well. On a shallower note, I’m happy to report that the illustrations in the book finally reflect a modern aesthetic – those in the fourth edition were not particularly attractive.

Overall, though, the book maintains the organization used since at least the second edition (the earliest I have in my collection). Each unit is two facing pages long. The left-hand page explains a specific grammar point, and the right-hand page includes exercises that students can work through. Answers are included at the end, though Cambridge does sell a version with those omitted. The seven appendices list verb forms, contractions, tricky spelling rules and notes about American English usage. There is also a study guide which might help students discover specific grammar points they should focus on.

Note that the units are grouped into logical chapters (present and past, modals, adjectives and adverbs, etc) rather than from “easy to difficult.” This isn’t a book that students work through from the beginning to end, but rather one where they focus on units covering their specific needs. The study guide might help, but they really need a teacher to show them the way. While the cover bills this as a “self-study guide,” it is better used as a supplement to classroom instruction or personal tutoring.

These activities pair well with Cambridge’s companion text English Grammar in Use: Supplementary Exercises. That book was updated in 2019 to match the new edition of the main text. Obviously, it provides additional practice which matches the units in the main book. Keep in mind, though, that it book lumps units together, and not always in chronological order.

Continue reading “Book Review: English Grammar in Use (Fifth Edition)”

Students can now take the TOEFL every single week. In the past, they could take it only once every two weeks, but ETS has changed this policy. There were rumors of this change last month, and now it is official. You can find the details in the most recent version of the TOEFL Bulletin.

It says: “There is no limit to the number of times you can take the test, but you cannot take it more than once in a 3-day period. If you already have a test appointment, you cannot register for another test date that is within 3 days of your existing appointment. “

Note the the old version of the bulletin referred to a “12-day” period.

I think this is a positive change, however it will still take about two weeks for scores to be reported. This means, of course, that you might register for a sitting that is not actually required.

 

And, last but not least, here is my video about speaking question number four. As you know, this is the LAST speaking question on the new version of the test. Come back next week for a video about how the speaking section is scored.

The TOEFL changed on August 1, 2019. Basically, it got shorter. Two speaking questions were removed, and the reading section has fewer questions, and the listening section has fewer lectures.

As a result of these changes, a lot of students have asked me if the test has become easier… or harder. My response is that the difficulty of the test is about the same.

I base this response on the ETS’s “Frequently Asked Questions” document for the new test. In that document they state:

“A comparison of the reliability estimates for the TOEFL iBT test in its previous longer version and in its shorter version revealed that there is no meaningful effect on test reliability as a result of shortening the test. “

This implies that student scores are pretty much the same (overall) on the new version of the test as they were on the short version.

A more telling statement is:

“There is no need for universities to change their TOEFL iBT score requirements. “

If ETS is telling universities that they don’t need to change their requirements we can assume, again, that scores are pretty much the same as before. If scores were expected to go up or down, schools would be required to change their score requirements accordingly.

What About…

Okay, well, everyone is different. The test could be easier or harder for some students based on their specific strengths. Question five in the speaking has been removed, so all of those students who really kicked butt at question five might get lower scores. That said, the two questions that were removed from the speaking section were (in my experience) the hardest (question 1) and the easiest (question 5), so perhaps they balance each other out.

Likewise, students do get a few more seconds per reading question now, which could make the test easier, but my guess is that the added time isn’t enough to make a significant change to overall scores. Meanwhile, the amount of time per question in the speaking section is exactly the same as before, so that section’s difficulty can’t have changed much.

Finally, it must be said that a shorter test center experience could be beneficial to those students who experience fatigue towards the end of the long test. Again, though, I don’t think that 30 minutes will make a big difference.

Conclusion

That’s my take on the changes to the TOEFL. I think the difficulty level of the test is mostly unchanged, but I accept that it could be easier or harder for some students.

Since the TOEFL changed quite a lot on August 1 of this year, there is a need for new practice materials. A bunch of new books are due out in late 2019 and early 2020. I’ll try to contact the publishers to confirm that they will match the new format. In the meantime, here’s what I know (links are to Amazon, when possible):

  • Barron’s will issue the 16th edition of its TOEFL book on September 3, 2019.
  • Barron’s will also issue a new version of its Superpack on September 3, 2019. I don’t know if the other books in the superpack (writing, vocabulary, tests) will be updated.
  • This book will NOT be updated to reflect the new version of the TOEFL, but the practice tests will be put online, and they WILL match the new version.
  • Kaplan will issue a new version of its TOEFL Prep Plus Book on September 3, 2019. It will be updated to match the new version of the test.
  • Princeton Review will release a book currently called “Princeton Review TOEFL iBT Prep” on February 4, 2020. I assume this will actually just be the 2020 edition of “Cracking the TOEFL.”
  • It looks like Smart Edition will publish their first ever TOEFL book on June 1, 2020.
  • They have no listings anywhere, but Collins Language Tweeted at me a few days ago that they plan to issue new books this year.
  • ETS has indicated to me that they do not know when they will issue a new version of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, but that new printings will come with an insert that explains the changes to the test.

Next up is a look at the third speaking question on the new version of the TOEFL. I’ll start getting the text versions of these up on the website later next week. When available, you will be able to access them right here.

 

 

Update from December 2019:  These instructions are no longer needed.  Ignore this post. 🙂

If you want to purchase a TPO based on the new version of the TOEFL there are some complicated instructions you need to follow. Here’s what to know

1. On the main ETS site the new TPO 31 is listed as part of the “TOEFL Value Pack Prep,” but it is NOT in the new style. Do not buy it.

2. However, you can get an alternate version of TPO 31 which is in the new style.

3. To do that, first you need to create an ETS account and select a date and time for a test sitting. Select any date. You will remove it from the cart later. But for now, add that to your “cart.”

4. After that is done, you will get an option to buy test prep materials. Select TPO 31 from that screen. It will explain that this version of TPO 31 matches the new style.

5. After that, REMOVE the test sitting from your cart so you don’t have to pay for it.

6. Then proceed to checkout and pay for the TPO, which should be the only thing in your cart. MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT PAYING FOR A TEST SITTING AS WELL. DO NOT COMPLAIN TO ME IF YOU ACCIDENTALLY PAY FOR A TEST SITTING.

7. I do not know why this is the only way to buy the new version.

8. Enjoy. Let me know if the integrated writing question is about “trees in deserts.” That is the one I bought a couple months ago from the Korean reseller.