Hey, I found a new library!  That’s a big deal. The thing is, I live in a working class part of Seoul with a somewhat poor library system.  That’s because we don’t really have money for libraries.  But I learned this month that my district (only) has reciprocal lending privileges with the city of Gwangmyeong (just across the river), which has very nice libraries.  That means this installment of “You Should Read More” has a few interesting titles.  This list includes one great book that was recommended by a reader.  If you’ve got any books that I ought to track down, please leave a comment below.  I’ll do my best to find a copy.

First up, I read “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz.  You can read this for free via the Open Library (or you can just buy it on Amazon).   This is the one that was recommended to me by a reader.  I’m glad they took the time to make the suggestion, as this is an absolutely perfect book to sharpen your academic reading skills for the TOEFL.  The paradox mentioned in the title is the idea that the overwhelming number of choices we have in the modern world (and are free to pursue) cause us to feel stress and anxiety.  The author supposes that we would be happier with fewer choices to make or if we could learn to focus on choices that really matter. What makes this a great book for future TOEFLers is that the book describes a series of academic terms or concepts (one after another) and then illustrates them using examples from the author’s life, or by describing simple experiments.  It’s basically speaking question four… in book form.  Indeed, students might want to try listening to the audiobook version instead of reading the book!  Seriously, if I were tasked with making a practice test, I might grab this book and use it to create questions about “maximizing,” “second-order decisions,” “opportunity costs,” “omission bias,” “regret aversion,” and a half-dozen other concepts.  Indeed, I’m sure that most of these have appeared on the test at some point in the past 15 years.  For what it’s worth, the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease score for a random selection of text I tested is 53, which makes this book a little bit easier than a typical TOEFL reading passage.

Next, I read “The Martian,” which you can also find on the Open Library (or, again, on Amazon).  Yeah, this one is fiction… but I think it will help.  This is an example of hard science fiction, which means that accurate science is at the forefront of the story.  Indeed, there is a lot of science-y stuff in here.  And I’m pretty sure ETS has written a lot of questions about whether or not we can survive on Mars.  One of the third-party textbooks I use on a regular basis has an integrated writing question about the danger caused by Martian dust, a hazard which actually plays a pretty big role in the plot of this novel.  Meanwhile, for added fun you can watch the film adaptation which stars Matt Damon.  Note that the prose here is pretty easy to follow, which should make it a relaxing read.

Finally, I read the July-August issue of Analog Science Fiction.  I know, I know.  I need to stop mentioning these magazines.  They aren’t exactly easy to find, and might be a bit niche.  However, this one has some great stories.  It’s my favorite issue of the year (so far)! Keep an eye out for “Retention” by Alec Nevala-Lee, which is a funny little story about a fellow who is having a really hard time cancelling his Internet service; “Ennui” by Filip Wiltgren, which is a great story about an AI struggling to run the systems on a colony ship that spends hundreds of years in space (a favorite SF concept of mine); and  the final installment of “House of Styx,” which I mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago.

Okay.  Over and out for now.  I’ll have some more articles next time, and some short fiction you can read online.



Today I want to talk a little bit about increasing your TOEFL speaking score by giving persuasive rather than descriptive responses in TOEFL speaking question one.

Descriptive responses merely describe something, while persuasive responses try to persuade the grader that your argument is a good one.

Note that since you have so little time to speak in this response (just 45 seconds!) the difference between a persuasive answer and a descriptive answer is very tiny.  But I think there is a real difference.

Here’s what I mean.

Imagine you’ve been asked if you prefer taking online classes or in-person classes and you’ve picked online classes.  This supporting reason is descriptive:

“First, we can take online classes at any time.  I am a mom and the best time for me to study is at night, and in-person classes are usually during the day.  Moreover, I can take a class at night while watching my kids.” 

This is descriptive, as I’m merely describing some of the features of online classes.  The grader might be wondering so what?  Why are these good things?  

In comparison, here is a persuasive reason:

“First, we can take online classes at any time.  I am a mom and the best time for me to study is at night, and in-person classes are usually during the day.  Moreover, I can take a class at night while watching my kids.  This flexibility allows busy parents to improve their lives by getting university degrees”  

That is a bit more persuasive.  It describes what an online class is, but also mentions a reason why these things matter.  Hopefully I’ve persuaded the grader that the stuff I’ve mentioned is important. As you can see, it is possible to turn a descriptive reason into a persuasive reason just by adding a universal long-term benefit.  Like I did here.

This is part of what the speaking rubric means when it talks about a “clear progression of ideas,” I believe.

I think there are a few things to mention about this strategy:

  • If you include two reasons, you probably only have room to do it in one of them.  That means one descriptive and one persuasive reason.
  • This whole article can be summed up as “mention a long term benefit of one of the reasons”
  • I do want to emphasize that in such a tiny little argument (three sentences!) the difference between persuasive and descriptive is very slight.  Don’t get too hung up on terminology.
  • Since this technique involves adding more content it does require the student to speak at a natural pace and without a lot of pauses.  



Here’s a mildly interesting article about student responses to speaking question three.  The authors have charted out the structure of two sample questions provided by ETS, and tracked how many of the main ideas students of various levels included in their answers (again, provided by ETS).

There is some good stuff in here for TOEFL teachers.  Particularly in how the authors map out the progression of “idea units” in the source materials.  They identified how test-takers of various levels represented these ideas units in their answers, particularly how many of these idea units they included in their answers.  Fluent speakers (or, I guess, proficient test-takers) represented more of the idea units, but also presented them in about the same order as in the sources.

Something I found quite striking, is that one of the question sets studied was much easier than the other one, something described by the authors of the report.  I am left wondering how ETS deals with this sort of thing.  The rubric doesn’t really have room to adjust for question difficulty changing week by week.

There is also a podcast interview with one of the authors.

Semicolon use is really tricky. To be honest, I f–k it up quite a lot, so I guess my writing is full of errors. I wrote a 90 page thesis in order to graduate from university, and I probably didn’t use a single semicolon in it. There are a few things you should remember, though.

If you have two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.  Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow, and I plan to order a hamburger.”

If you have two independent clauses and there is nothing between them, use a semicolon. Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow; I plan to order a hamburger.”

If there are two independent clauses and you have a conjunctive adverb between them (the sorts of things we usually refer to “transitional phrases” in this group like moreover, therefore, consequently, thus…) use a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb, and a comma after the conjunctive adverb. Like:

“I will go to the restaurant tomorrow; moreover, I plan to order a hamburger.”

“It is raining today; therefore, I will go to the restaurant tomorrow.”

Part of the problem is that a lot of native speakers (myself included) often forget about the semicolon in the last example and just use a comma after the first clause.  As in:

“It is raining today, therefore I will go to the restaurant tomorrow.”

This usage is so common that I’d pretty much call it “correct.”

It seems that starting on December 11, the TOEFL home edition will be scheduled directly on the ETS website, not on the ProctorU website.  It also seems that the regular rescheduling policies will apply to the home edition (you must reschedule four days in advance, and a $60 fee applies).

This information comes from an e-mail that some students have received if they have a pending test.  Here it is:

ETS is updating the registration system for the TOEFL iBT® Home Edition on December 9–10, 2020, and moving the selection of the test date and time from the ProctorU® site to the ETS site. You could be affected by this change because of the status of your test.

Our records indicate that you have purchased a TOEFL iBT Home Edition test and scheduled your test date and time via ProctorU. No action is necessary unless you wish to make changes to your test appointment before test day.

If you wish to reschedule your test, here are your options:

  • On or before December 8, you can reschedule your test free of charge in your ProctorU account.
  • From December 9 at 7 p.m. ET until December 10 at 6:59 p.m. ET (UTC 0:00–23:59 December 10), you will not be able to make any selections or changes in either your ProctorU account or your ETS account.
  • On December 11, you can reschedule your test date in your ETS Account. TOEFL iBT test reschedules policies will apply.

Again, no action is necessary unless you wish to change your appointment.

Thank you for choosing the TOEFL iBT Home Edition test.



Update from April 2021:  The app was removed from the Play Store.  I don’t know what’s up with that.

Earlier this month, ETS quietly released a new language learning app to the Google Play Store and the App Store.  It’s called ELAI.  It seems to use their “SpeechRater” technology to grade sample speaking responses recorded using the app.  This makes it a very valuable tool for TOEFL prep, since student answers on the TOEFL test are partially graded by that particular technology.

Of course the app isn’t specifically designed for TOEFL prep, so it won’t give you actual TOEFL scores, but it will give you feedback based on word repetition, vocabulary level, pauses and filler words.  It will also tell you your words per minute.

There are some sample questions that look like TOEFL questions and some questions and some that don’t look like TOEFL questions.  You decide how long you want to speak in your answer, so you can easily stop after 45 seconds to simulate the test.  I suppose you could actually ignore the given questions  and just record an answer to a question you’ve gotten elsewhere and still get valuable feedback.

Note, though, that this seems to be in a sort of beta test. This means it isn’t available in all countries and it isn’t available for all devices.  Don’t complain if you can’t download it.

Here are the links:

If you are able to try it out, leave a comment down below.

Note:  This website is not endorsed by ETS.

I’m often asked which part of the TOEFL is most difficult for students.  Of course that’s a somewhat silly question because every student is different.  Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.   In addition, section scores aren’t really meant to be used in isolation.

That said, we can learn a few things by looking at the most recent TOEFL Test and Score Data Summary, which provides a wealth of information about test takers, including mean (average) scores in each section.

If we look at the scores for all test takers we can see that the writing section is the “most difficult” as it has lowest mean score, just 20.5.  We could say that the reading section is the easiest, as the mean score is 21.2.

But don’t stop there!  The data shows us a few more things:

  • For students in high school, reading is the hardest section, with a mean score of 18.0
  • For undergraduates reading is also the hardest section, with a mean score of 20.1
  • For graduate students not applying to business schools, speaking is the hardest, with a mean score of 21.1
  • For graduate students applying to business schools writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.0
  • For people applying for professional licenses writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.2

There are other categories, but you’ll have to find them yourself.

We can also read about gender differences:

  • For men, speaking is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.2
  • For women, writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.6 

Women do quite a lot better than men on this test.  The overall differences are striking, once you dig into the data.  But that’s a topic for another blog entry.

The data also classifies results by native language but since fractional scores are not included, the data is not particularly useful.  However, we can learn a few things by looking at a select few languages:

  • Arabic: reading (18)
  • Chinese: listening, speaking and writing (all 20)
  • Hindi: reading, speaking, writing (all 24)
  • Japanese: speaking (17)
  • Portuguese: writing (21)
  • Pushtu: reading (17)
  • Korean: speaking and writing (both 20)

So there ya go.  Writing is, overall, the hardest section of the test.  But maybe not for you.