One of the most frequent questions I get is about the “maximum word count” in the TOEFL essays.  A lot of students think they must not write more than the suggested word count in both essays.  Even some teachers think it is a problem.

Hopefully this blog post will put that rumor to rest.

Here’s what ETS says about the word count for TOEFL writing task 1 (the integrated essay):

(Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, 6th edition, page 192. Published 2021)

And here’s what ETS says about the word count for TOEFL writing task 2 (the independent essay):

(Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, 6th edition, page 199.  Published 2021).

Meanwhile, when ETS is training teachers at their regular “Propell Workshops” they provide sample essays of each score level.  To represent the 5.0 level (the highest possible score) they provide the following 305-word integrated essay:

sample integrated essay

(Propell Workshop for the iBT Test, Page 42.  Published 2019)

And to represent an independent essay scoring 5.0, they provide this 466-word monster:

(TOEFL Teacher Workshop Manual, Page 49)

So there you go.  Write as much as you want.  Don’t worry about being penalized.

I got an email the other day that asked something like:

Hey, I took the TOEFL yesterday and in one of the reading questions I had to pick TWO correct answers.  Is that normal?

My answer was that this is rare, but normal.  These questions seem to always be “Factual Information” questions where you have to “identify factual information that is explicitly stated in the passage…  they can focus on facts, details, definitions, or other information presented by the author” (ETS).  Basically, you are identifying stuff mentioned in the reading.

Theoretically, these might also be “negative factual questions” which as you to identify stuff NOT mentioned in the reading.

To find examples of what they look like, I scanned the three official TOEFL books. I did not find any such questions in the Official Guide to the TOEFL test.

But I did find the following sample in Volume 1 of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests book (test 3, question 17):

TOEFL Reading Question

I also found the following sample in Volume 2 of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests book (test 1, question 27):

There could be more samples in the books.  I just scanned them quickly.

So there you go.  Just don’t be shocked by questions of this type.  They are basically the same as the “factual information” questions you are already familiar with.  Just remember to select TWO answers.  You must get pick both correct choices to get the point.  You will get no points if you only pick one, or if you only pick one correctly.

The other day, someone asked:

I’ve got twelve months to prepare for the TOEFL, and I need 100 points.  What should I do?

The good news for that student is that they have time to really improve their English fluency instead of just learning TOEFL tricks and strategies.  I know it sounds crazy, but the best way to increase your TOEFL score is to become more fluent in English.


Here’s how I responded:

  1.  Get a good grammar book like “English Grammar in Use” (also called “Grammar in Use – Intermediate” in some countries).  I read about a dozen TOEFL essays every day, and I see that most students suffer from grammar and language use problems.   Reduce your error rate and your writing score will go up.
  2. Find someone to practice speaking with.  To improve your score you need to speak fluidly.  You need to eliminate pauses, “umm breaks”, and repetitions.  You need to pronounce vowels and consonants properly.  You need to reduce the effort required to understand what you are saying.  Regular practice will help with this.  You don’t necessarily have t pay big bucks for a special TOEFL teacher to do this.  You can probably find an affordable tutor on a service like italki for this.
  3. Take accurate practice TOEFL tests.  There are 15 official ETS practice tests available (Official Guide x 4, Official iBT Tests x 10, website x 1) plus some PDF junk on the website.  You should work through all of those.  Fortunately, you have time to buy all of the books!  Switch to unofficial material only when you run out.
  4. If you have a year to prepare you can also improve your reading and listening skills in a general sense.  Spend some time reading good non-fiction books and articles (I like Science News, and National Geographic).  Make use of your local library, if they have an English section.  For listening, try Khan Academy, or podcasts like 60 Second Science.
  5. Towards the end of your preparation period take one of the scored practice tests from ETS to gauge your current level and see how to use the last few months most effectively.


And, yes, along the way you should devote some time to becoming familiar with the test.  Read the Official Guide cover to cover (a few times).  Read some of the guides on this website and watch some Youtube videos.  Review sample writing and speaking responses.  Just don’t get bogged down in “strategies” if the test is still a year away.

For this month’s column, I want to pivot a little bit.  I’m going to discuss audio books and where to get them.  I know this isn’t exactly reading but obviously some good audiobooks can help a lot with your English skills.

Fortunately, there are a few ways for students to access audiobooks for free (or cheap).  Here’s what you should know.

Option One – Libby

Those of you who live in Canada and the United States can get free audiobooks and ebooks from Libby.  This Android and iPhone app is used by public libraries to distribute both audiobooks and ebooks.  Just enter your library card number and you’re good to go.  And if you don’t have a library card… go and get one.  It’s easy.  The only drawback with Libby is that you can expect long wait times for popular titles.  Instructions for using the app can be found right here.  I have seen Libby used outside of North America, so take a moment to check with your library wherever you are.

Option Two – Hoopla

I love Hoopla.  I really love Hoopla.  This is sort of a “Netflix of Random Junk” used by Libraries to provide content to patrons (for free) with no waiting times.  It’s got TV shows, movies, ebooks, audiobooks, comics, music… all sorts of stuff.  A lot of it is random crap that is pretty hard to enjoy, but if you know what you are looking for there are some real gems here.  Again, you just need a library card number to access it.  Here’s the Play Store link.  It is also available for iPhones, of course.  This one is strictly Canada/US.

Option Three – Audible

Well, okay.  Now we get to the paid services.  The most popular is Amazon’s Audible.  This one costs money, but when you sign up you can get two free books right away.  You can cancel the subscription before paying anything and still keep your books.  If you sign up at this link, I’ll get a few dollars.  When you cancel, check the “it costs too much” box and they’ll probably give you more free books.

Option Four – The Rest

Uh, there are a few other audiobook sellers online.  I’ll try to summarize those in another post.  They all provide a few free books before you have to pay anything.

Some Stuff

This month I’ve been listening to short science fiction stories from 2019.  I like to listen to them as I run.   Below is a list of my favorites.  If you don’t want to get them in audio form, they are all available on Kindle and in paperback.

  • Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds. This is a really gripping time travel story. I was hooked right from the in media res opening – someone’s dead, someone else is a bit stabbed, and the plane is running out of gas. It’s a fairly short novella, so I’ll spare any specific details. Basically, though, the premise is that an ecological catastrophe has befallen the earth in the near future, and “World Health” is attempting to use a novel time travel method to recover from it. The best short SF from 2019 that I’ve come across, so far.  Note that the audiobook is narrated by a woman with a Russian accent.
  • Desdemona and the Deep, by CSE Cooney. This is an interesting one. Sort of a comedy of manners in a fantasy setting. Our hero, Desdemona Mannering (get it?) is the sort of person who doesn’t appreciate art, but does collect a lot of artists. She goes to cocktail parties and fundraisers. She drinks a lot.  She’s shallow. Eventually, Desdemona discovers that her father is a really terrible businessman. She’s going to have to descend into the worlds below to undo all of his evils.  Imagine that Ivanka Trump has to save our souls.
  • To be Taught, if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers.  There isn’t much of a plot here, but I recommend it to everyone preparing for the TOEFL.  It’s about a happy bunch of astronauts who visit four planets and observe the life on them.  Along the way, the narrator explains basic scientific concepts.  See?  It’s sort of like a TOEFL put into fiction.  The audiobook narrator even SOUNDS like a TOEFL listening section lecturer.  There is a mildly interesting sliver of story between planets, but it is pretty basic. 
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark. Quite a lot of good stuff here! The depiction of an alternate Cairo (in the 1910s) where Egypt has become a world power is atmospheric as heck. We really get a sense of all the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the place. The goal here seems to be the depiction of what a decolonized Egypt would look like at this critical juncture, but the story used to set up that backdrop is enjoyable. Depicting a pair of bureaucrats trying to deal with a the titular haunting (on a budget!) it moves briskly enough and is funny at the right moments. The climax hits with some more-than-welcome action.  This is a sequel to A Dead Djinn in Cairo, but you can read them in either order.  Note that the audiobook narrator has an middle-eastern accent.
  • In An Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire.  Take Alice in Wonderland, Adam Smith and Proverbs 22:7.  Mix together in a blender.  You’ve got “In An Absent Dream.” 

That’s all for this month.  The February column will have short non-fiction articles about science topics.


It has come to my attention that some copies of the Indian edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL were printed without a digital access code for the audio files and software.  Those are supposed to be contained in an envelope at the back labeled “Digital Access Code.”

Some readers have been able to get an access code by sending an email to McGraw Hill India at

It may not be necessary, but if you email support, I recommend including the ISBN number of the book, as well as a picture of the book to prove that you bought a copy.  Obviously a receipt would help too, but that could be tricky.

You can also call the Indian office at : 1800 103 5875 

On Tuesday, the College Board announced that following the June 2021 administration of the SAT , the optional essay will be eliminated from the test.  They also announced that the SAT Subject Tests will be eliminated immediately in the United States, and following the June administration in the rest of the world.

The College Board says:

there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing” and suggests that the writing and language questions on the test are good enough indicators.  As for the Subject Tests, they suggest that the AP tests will fill that gap: “the expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know.

The New York Times, for one, is suspicious of this change.  They said:

Critics saw the changes not as an attempt to streamline the test-taking process for students, as the College Board portrayed the decision, but as a way of placing greater importance on Advanced Placement tests, which the board also produces, as a way for the organization to remain relevant and financially viable.

Heck, they don’t seem to even like the SAT at all.  They quote Jon Boeckenstedt from Oregon State University, who says:

The SAT and the subject exams are dying products on their last breaths, and I’m sure the costs of administering them are substantial.

Anyways, keep an eye out for the ACT to eliminate their essay in the near future.

According to ETS, both the lectures and conversations in the listening section are “approximately 4-5 minutes long” (source: Official Guide to the TOEFL, 6th edition, page 119).

For what it’s worth, the fifth edition said they were “3-6 minutes long.”

Note that the entire listening is 41-57 minutes long, depending on how many questions you get (source).

A very quick usage note based on an error I see quite a lot.

Economic” is an adjective that means “related to economics or the economy.”

As in:

“I had to sell my house for economic reasons.”


“Universities that invest in sports enjoy certain economic benefits.”

Economical” (note the last two letters) is an adjective meaning that something is affordable or doesn’t cost or use a lot of money.

As in:

“My new compact car is very economical.”


“I replaced my old light bulbs with more economical fluorescent bulbs.”


“Switching to solar energy is a very economical choice in the long run.”

You can also refer to a person who doesn’t spend a lot of money as “economical,” but I think this is a bit less common and I tend to avoid it.

As in:

“Josh is a very economical shopper.”

Just to complicate things, the subject you study at university is “economics.” Note the final letter.

As in:

“I took an economics class last semester.”


“I need to buy an expensive economics textbook.”

Quite a lot of students forget that final “s” when they write personal examples in their essays!