Hey, it’s the end of the month, which means it is time for some recommended reading.

I spent some time catching up with my National Geographic subscription. Honestly, it has been a tough year for Nat Geo, as they’ve attempted to pivot into being something of a current events magazine. They haven’t always been successful at that, but there are usually a few good items in every issue. Here’s what I liked from the December thru February issues:

  • So Great, So Fragile  is a long article about threats to the Great Lakes in North America.  It is really long, but still worth your time as physical geography is a common topic on the reading section of the test.
  • Reclaiming History is a long article about the desire to remove symbols of the Confederate States of America from the USA.  This is a great example of how the magazine is succeeding in its coverage of current events.  Of course it touches on  history quite a lot, which is another common topic on the TOEFL.

As usual, I read a few issues of “Science News.”  As always, everything in this magazine is useful.  A few things caught my eye, though.  They are:

  • Rats with Poison Hairdos Show a Cuddly Side is another weird animal story.  These rats chew on poisonous tree bark and droll it all over their bodies to protect themselves from predators.  Zoology is a common topic on the reading section of the test, so I always recommend articles about animals.  Actually, keep an eye on the blog for a “research report” on the most common subject areas.  I’ve got the numbers and will post them soon!
  • Ice Age Hunters’ Leftovers May have Fueled Dog Domestication is a very short article that I found particularly interesting.  Apparently early humans had too much protein in their food supplies.  Like, they had so much meat that was free of fat that they couldn’t eat it all.  They gave it to wolves and, presto, the domesticated dog was born.  A lot of TOEFL reading passages deal with early humans, so check this one out.
  • Early Sea Trip was Probably No Accident also covers early humans.  This one is about how ancient mariners first reached Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

Alright, so those are your articles for the month.  I also read a few books, for what it’s worth.  A few are worth mentioning:

  • I read “Gigged” by Sarah Kessler.  It’s a book about the “gig economy,” which is dominated by companies like Uber.  Economics doesn’t seem to be a particularly common topic on the TOEFL, but all non-fiction has some value when it comes to improving your academic reading skills.  This is a fairly easy read, and it feels something like an extended magazine article.  No free versions are available online, but you can get it via Amazon.
  • I also read Colin Thubron’s “Mirror to  Damascus.”  This is a hard book.  But if you are interested in history and travel take a moment to check out a free version on Open Library.  Thubron is, in my opinion, the best living travel writer. This year I will be revisiting a bunch of his travelogues in preparation for his latest book, which will be published in a few months.  “Mirror to Damascus” is his very first book, written after he took a trip to Syria in his early twenties.  I also visited Syria in my early twenties (but 40 years after Thubron).  His book makes me feel some guilt for just mucking about when I was in the country, but I do remember my time there fondly.  It was one of the happiest months of my life.

That’s all for now, but I’ll have a few more recommendations next month.  Stay tuned.

Hey, here’s something really amazing.

ETS has created a new subsidiary called EdAgree.  EdAgree is described as

…an advocate for international students providing a path to help students identify universities that will push them towards longer term success. We help you put your best foot forward during the admissions process and support you throughout your study abroad and beyond. 

As part of this mission, they provide free English speaking practice using the same SpeechRater technology that is used to grade the TOEFL!  

To access this opportunity, register for a free account on EdAgree.  After that, look for the “English Speaking Practice” button in the student dashboard.  The screenshot is from the desktop version, but it also works on mobile.

This section provides a complete set of four TOEFL speaking questions.  After you answer them, you’ll get a SpeechRater score in several different categories (pause frequency, distribution of pauses, repetitions, rhythm, response length, speaking rate, sustained speech, vocabulary depth, vocabulary diversity, vowels).  These categories are used on the real TOEFL to determine your score!  You can also listen to recordings of your answers.  Note that your responses are scored collectively, rather than individually.  That means, for example, that you get a “pause frequency” score for how you answered all four questions, and not a separate “pause frequency” score for each individual answer.

Update: The list of above categories has been revised a few times, as EdAgree has tweaked the tool.

Note that you will get fresh questions every five days.  I do not know how many unique sets there are in total.  Keep visiting and let me know.  However, you can repeat the same questions as many times as you wish.

I took a set a few days ago, and the questions were pretty good.  They weren’t 100% the same as the real TOEFL, but they were better than what is found in most textbooks. 

It should also be noted that you could probably just use your own questions instead of the ones provided.  Do you get what I mean?  You are being scored based on technical features, which means that the scores will still be relevant no matter what question you answer.

Let me know if you guys enjoy the tool.  Meanwhile, here is my first set of results.  I still have room for improvement, as you can see!

Note:  This screenshot does not include all of the categories mentioned above, as they were not available when the service started.

EdAgree SpeechRater


A visitor requested a single collection of all of my “You Should Read More” blog posts. Below is the master index.  You should probably start with the later entries, since the first few entries are a bit sloppy.

I intend to write one post per month, and will add them to the list as they are created. 

Through this series of blog posts, I hope to encourage students to read more.  Improving our reading skills is the only reliable way to improve our TOEFL reading scores.  Too often students try to learn “tricks” and “strategies” for the reading section, when they ought to be learning how to read better

The blog posts recommend a variety of things to read.  Some of them include links to magazine articles I’ve read.  Others recommend fiction and non-fiction books that I’ve read and enjoyed, and even a few audio books.   Some of these will be easy to find online or at your local library.  Some of them will be harder to find.  Just keep clicking around until you locate something that you enjoy.

And, of course, I’m always happy to read stuff that you recommend!  If you’ve got something to share, please leave a comment.

PS:  Let me know if you find any broken links.



I have to make a public to-do list, or nothing will ever get done.  So here’s what I am working on.  If I don’t do these things in the next six months you can fed-ex me some dog poop.

  • Done: Record the listening parts and sample answers for my new type 2 and 3 speaking questions so that they can be added to the sample speaking answers page.
  • Done: Actually create the type 4 speaking video.  This one I don’t really care about, since I am losing interest in making YouTube videos. No poop if I miss the deadline.
  • Done: Write sample independent essays based on the questions in my “Writing trends” video.
  • Done: Research report: what are the reading passages about.
  • Done: Research report: unpacking the TOEFL speaking rubric.
  • Done: Research report: how are the integrated essay samples put together
  • Done: You Should Read More column (March)
  • Done: A few words about the TOEFL Essentials interview.  This one is easy.

ETS Strategic Capital announced its purchase of Vericant today. That’s the company that handles the unscored video interview at the end of the TOEFL ITP for China. I don’t think they will handle the interview at the end of the TOEFL Essentials Test, as I don’t believe that it will be done live, as on the ITP. 


The Vericant website indicates that in addition to facilitating the submission of unscored interviews, they also provide scoring services for spoken responses and remote proctoring of written responses. It seems to be a fairly small company, though, so I don’t imagine that it will be able to provide these services for ETS (which are currently done in-house and by ProctorU, respectively). 

Meanwhile, ETS also announced the acquisition of a minority stake in MPOWER Financing, a company that provides student loans for international students and DACA recipients.  ETS’s stake in that appears to be worth five million dollars, according to reports.

Last week I took the Duolingo English Test.  I’ve been a big supporter of this test for the past couple of years, but I’ve been shocked at how quickly schools around the USA have embraced it.  The test seems to have certain strengths and weaknesses, but I’m not a linguist or an assessments expert. I don’t know how valid it really is.

My full report on the test is contained in this video.  It describes the six different question types, and provides a few basic strategies, particularly for the extended writing and speaking prompts.


Meanwhile, my final score on the test was 150 points (out of sixty).  My Duolingo score report certificate is as follows.

Duolingo English Test Score Certificate


Mildly interesting news: TOEFL score recipients who use the ETS data manager now have access to one of the essays from the test. Previously, they only had access to a single spoken response.  Of course this only applies to those who use the ETS data manager.  This stuff isn’t included in paper score reports.  Previously, they only had access to a single spoken response.

I don’t know which essay and I don’t know which speaking response are passed along.

Hey, I’ve been uploading a bunch of stuff to the YouTube channel without really mentioning it here.  One of the more popular videos is the 2021 version of my guide to the independent speaking task. Check it out!

Well, ETS released a few more details about the TOEFL Essentials Test to score users (universities, mostly).  They are:

  • Section scores will be from 1 to 12 points.  The overall score will also be reported on a 1 to 12 scale.  It will be the average of the section scores.
  • The vocabulary and sentence construction stuff will be reported separately from the overall score.  Those will be called “foundational skills” and will be reported as a percentile rank.
  • The test will cost $100 to $120, depending on the country (yes, there will be a different price for each country)
  • Available in China?  Unclear.
  • Official Test prep will be available in May 2021.  It will all be online.  No book will be printed.
  • When the test launches in August it will be available one day per week.  But it will ramp up and later be available three days per week.
  • Students will get scores after six days.  Institutions will get scores at the same time.
  • The test will be only be taken online.  It will not be offered at test centers.