Hey, so I’ve reduced the price of my TOEFL ebook to 99 cents on Amazon.  The book covers the TOEFL iBT writing section and contains some of the best practice questions and answers I’ve created over the years.  It also collects a bunch of the grammar articles that appeared on this blog before August of last year.  If that seems like the sort of the thing that might interest you, do pick up a copy on Amazon.  The book is no longer part of the Kindle Unlimited program, so even Prime members can buy a copy.  It is also available in paperback, but obviously that’s a bit more expensive.  Buying a copy will help me fulfill my dream of having the best-selling TOEFL book on Amazon, where I’m currently #6.

This has been a busy month.  Too many airplanes.

In case you missed it, check out my review of the new Princeton Review TOEFL book.  I felt let down by it.  Princeton Review should do better.

Meanwhile, when I was in Canada I finally got my hands on a copy of the newest edition of the MLA Handbook.  I often work with students preparing for their freshman year of studies in America and I always encourage them to get a printed copy of the handbook so they don’t f–k up the formatting and sourcing of their essays.  A few of the students even listen to my advice!  If you are planning on studying at a university in the USA go get a copy.  You’ll use it quite often.

I read a few normal books and articles, meanwhile.

Continuing my read-along with the Norton Library Podcast, I read “Diary of a Madman and Other Stories.”  I think this might be my favorite from the podcast series so far.   Gogol is new to me – I didn’t realize his works are so humorous.  If you want to check out the podcast, here’s a youtube link.

I used my airplane time to dig deep into my stack of unread issues of the New Yorker.  A few articles are worth passing along.

First up, I read the March 28, 2022 issue (yeah, I’m really behind).  I read The Pied Piper of Psychedelic Toads, about the consumption of a hallucinogenic substance harvested from South American toads… and the fellow who has popularized the practice.  The whole thing seems really cultish.  If you are into cults (isn’t everyone nowadays) you might find the article amusing.

I also read the September 19, 2022 issue.  I enjoyed The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books. This one is for aging millennials who have fond memories of these odd little books.  Readers not familiar with them might want to skip this reading.  Another piece from the issue worth checking out is Johnson and Johnson and a new War on Consumer Protection.  This one describes how users of that company’s baby powder have suffered severe health problems, as well as the company’s efforts to avoid taking financial responsibility for its action.

Moving ever forward, I read the September 26, 2022 issue.  A fun article in this one is The Case of the Disputed Lucien Freud, which tells the story of a portrait that may or may not have been painted by the famous artist.  If this tale wasn’t so bloody convoluted, I would turn it into an integrated writing question!  TOEFL experts know that the Official Guide to the TOEFL contains an integrated writing question about a famous artwork of disputed providence

And then I read the October 3, 2022 issue.  Most interesting was Seize the Night, a long article about the famous DJ Soluman.  Since I’m really square, I’ve always wondered what it is that makes DJs so special.  I mean, they just play other people’s music, right?  Well, it seems to be more complicated than that.  Passages about music show up on the TOEFL now and then.  You’ll never get something about this sort of music, but the point of this column is to encourage people to do some challenging reading, so I think it is relevant.

Lastly, I read the March 13, 2023 issue!  Yes, I made it to 2023.  I enjoyed The Fight over Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, which describes a long conflict between the city of New York and the owners of the famous arena.  I didn’t realize until now that the famous Penn Station is located immediately underneath the arena.  That makes it quite difficult for the city to carry out a much-needed expansion of the station.

That’s all for now.  More odds and ends next month.


The Princeton Review is the first major publisher with a TOEFL book that matches the new format.  I ordered a copy for myself but, sadly, the new edition isn’t great.  It looks like the editors rushed the book to market and left the job of updating it half finished.

Practice questions for the new “Writing for Academic Discussion” question are present in the new edition.  It’s clear that the editors created them by sort of “upgrading” the old independent writing questions with the required discussion stuff.  That’s fine.  But, strangely, the sample responses have not been updated to match the new task format.  They are all independent essays… some more than 300 words.

Similarly, the “core concept” and “cracking the writing section” chapters still teach readers how to write four-paragraph independent essays.  They’ve even got a big ol’ independent essay template… but none of that is relevant any more.

The upside?  Well, the book still has some good skill building stuff that is relevant to the rest of the test.  There are now two practice tests instead of one, but that necessitated the creation of a new integrated writing task which isn’t very good.  At first listen, I thought that PR had included the wrong audio track, but eventually I figured out that the question was just poorly constructed.

Anyway.  I don’t recommend this one. Princeton Review issues a new edition every year so I’ll check in again in 2025.

If you desire to have a copy of the book, it is available via Amazon.


Wonderful new article (free to read) in “Educational Research and Evaluation” this week by Rachael Ruegg.  It examines the IELTS test and the in-house language test of a certain New Zealand university, and explores how well scores from those tests can predict academic success at the undergraduate level.  The article suggests that the predictive ability of reading, listening and speaking scores from both tests are equal.  But writing scores? Well, the author notes:  “IELTS writing scores demonstrated a non-significant negative effect on academic achievement, while EPT writing scores were strongly significantly predictive of academic achievement.”

Check out the article for a detailed comparison of the writing tasks on the IELTS and those on the in-house test.  The author suggests that the in-house test requires writing that is more challenging and requires more critical thinking.  They note:

“In the EPT writing test, both tasks require longer and more complex writing than the IELTS versions. This may contribute to their performance in university study, which usually involves producing written assignments that are significantly longer than the IELTS minimum length of 250 words (for the essay task) or 150 words (for the data writing task). Rather than specifying a word limit, students who sit the EPT writing tests are encouraged to write as much as they can within a 45-minute time frame for each essay, but with an emphasis on quality over quantity.”

The author suggests that the IELTS could be improved by increasing the length of its writing section:

“Suggested changes to the IELTS academic writing test include extending the time allowed and required length of both writing tasks, requiring greater complexity in written texts and demonstration of critical thinking skills in English, all of which are likely to provide more robust evidence of sufficient language proficiency for university study.”

That’s quite a suggestion in a world where English proficiency tests seem to be going in the opposite direction – embracing shorter and shorter writing tasks.

I’m reminded of how many international students at Columbia University are required to take a two-hour writing test before their studies begin (on top of the university’s TOEFL/IELTS/DET requirement). Someone ought to study the usefulness of that test.

Over at The Guardian, Amelia Gentleman continues her excellent reporting on the TOEIC cheating scandal in an interview with London MP Stephen Timms. Of the evidence of cheating provided by ETS to the Home Office, he says:

“Surely somebody in the Home Office seeing that should have said: ‘Hang on that can’t be right, that over 97% are cheats.’ So you have to conclude there must be people in the department who just think: ‘Well, they’re foreign, therefore they cheat.’ And I think that’s part of what went wrong here.”

He also notes:

“These are young people who entrusted their future to Britain and, in reality, Britain has proved utterly untrustworthy and has wrecked their lives. All of them have had the start of their careers blighted for years. And many of them will never ever fully recover from what happened, some have permanent mental health problems. We treated them appallingly.”

This is English testing gone awry, folks.

IDP Education has released its fiscal results for the half-year ending December 31, 2023. The report indicates that the IELTS was taken 902,000 times in those six months, a drop of 12 percent compared to the same period last year. The report indicates that this drop was due to lower test volumes in India. I’ve written in this space about how IDP faces stiff competition from Pearson in that market. Interestingly, the report indicates that outside of India the number of tests administered actually increased by 17 percent.  Good lord, the drop in India must have been pretty big if the overall volume declined even though sittings in the rest of the world increased by a huge amount.

Investors will be happy to know that revenue from student placement is way, way up. That is due in part to a 56 percent increase in Canadian placements.

IDP’s share price jumped about 15% on the release of the report, but those gains were all wiped out within 48 hours.  Perhaps some of the early buyers weren’t aware of recent changes to the business of international education.

(Note that the above figure does not include IELTS tests taken via the British Council)

The TOEIC scandal is back in the news, as test-takers have presented new evidence which they hope will clear their names.

You know, when people ask why I’m such a cranky old man when it comes to language testing I often point to this case.  It demonstrates that testing firms still have an outsized impact on the lives of young people.  It also demonstrates that when left to their own devices, testing firms may not always do the right thing. And, at other times, may not even be able to do the right thing due to institutional problems.  In any case, attention must be paid.

By way of a refresher, here are the basic facts of the case:

  1. In 2014, a BBC report uncovered widespread cheating at several TOEIC test centers.
  2. In response, home secretary Theresa May asked TOEIC owner ETS to investigate.  ETS concluded that a whopping 97% of all the TOEIC tests taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014 were suspicious.
  3. In response to ETS’s report, UK authorities launched nationwide raids of student housing.  Test-takers were dragged off to detention centers and others were deported.  In total, 35 thousand student visas were canceled.   Lives were ruined.  Affected test takers report high levels of depression, rejection from their families and (in some cases) suicide attempts.
  4. According to the linked article, ETS paid a £1.6m settlement to the British Home Office.

Here’s the funky part.  An All-Party Committee of the British Parliament examined the situation in 2019.  The chair of that committee said of the evidence that 97% of all TOEIC tests were suspicious:

“One thing that struck me throughout our hearings was that evidence from ETS – the basis for denying visas to thousands of overseas students, often with catastrophic effects – quite simply could not be relied upon. The inquiry concluded that the evidence used against the students was confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe.”

An expert who spoke at the committee said of ETS:

“The central body has absolutely no idea what is happening in any of their franchises. They have no rigour to their processes, they have no administrative processes, they have no checking system to make sure that what they promise – to the UK government and to individuals – is happening. They will say, this is the way our test runs, and they do absolutely no checks… They’re just a shambles.”

I’ll link to the parliamentary report in the comments.  Stay tuned for updates. I’ve got years of coverage so if you want to know more just drop me a line.

There is a new ETS Research Report that looks into how university staff know about the TOEFL test. It focuses on three groups of stakeholders – admissions officers, faculty in graduate programs and faculty in Intensive English Programs.

The report is fun because I’ve always assumed that the amount known by everyone involved is “not much.”

While that’s true of graduate faculty, it seems that admissions officers know something of the test. They self-report a decent amount of knowledge. It’s true that 67% of those surveyed reported that their institutions accept the paper-based TOEFL (which was discontinued in 2017) but there have been a variety of other paper-based products since then.

I did chuckle at the following:

“…in fact, some respondents referred to levels of proficiency in terms of the original TOEFL scale (e.g., “we look for a 550 TOEFL score”). “

The ETS page on Naver has information about how young-ish people in Korea can get financial support to cover their TOEFL test fees.  Applicants should be unemployed (or perhaps under-employed).

Support is currently available to residents of five districts in Seoul, and to residents of various cities across the country.  Keep an eye out for more participating cities, as the program was much larger in 2023.

In general, applicants can receive up to 100,000 won… which I think is equal to about 40% of the total test fee. Details at the link above.  I believe the same program can be used to get financial support for other tests, but I don’t have much information about that.

There is a new book from the British Council authored by Parvaneh Tavakoli and Sheryl Cooke called “Comprehensibility in Language Assessment”.  You can download the PDF at no cost.  The book describes some of the current approaches to assessing comprehensibility (sometimes feature driven, other times based on a holistic sense of understanding) and suggests new approaches that might improve language testing in the future. Compelling stuff.

It is worth noting that with the launch of the TOEFL TestReady platform we appear to have lost access to the 28 free “writing for academic discussion” questions that everyone really loved. Also gone are the free “additional practice” questions formerly included in the TOEFL Go app.

We’ve also lost the free full-length practice test (separate from the old “TOEFL Go” app), though that has been replaced with a 40 minute “sampler” test.

The popular PDF practice sets I’ve recommended to students for more than a decade remain, but only if users know to look in the section of the ETS website for test-takers with disabilities. And those versions appear to be missing key audio downloads previously available on the website.

I love, love, love the new prep platform, but it is worth observing that with its advent TOEFL test-takers seem to have lost access to a significant number of free resources. This may be worrisome for those who value equity and fairness in testing.  To put it bluntly: test-takers have access to far less free prep material than they did in the past.  It is now harder for people without money to prepare for the test.  This comes at the same time that it is easier for people with money to prepare, thanks to the launch of the TestReady platform.

When I posted a variation of the above on LinkedIn, ETS reminded me that content from these items are part of the “free activity of the day” item pool. That’s fantastic, but getting piecemeal (and temporary) access to those items over many months of daily visits isn’t nearly as helpful as what test-takers formerly had access to.

Collocations can seem pretty arbitrary.  Here’s one that people mess up all the time in TOEFL essays.

When talking about successfully doing something, you should write:

  • “Peter succeeded in passing his test.”
  • “After many weeks, he succeeded in finding an apartment in New York.”

You should not write:

  • “Peter succeeded to pass his test.”
  • “After many weeks, he succeeded to find an apartment in New York.”


Here’s another. You should write:

  • “Next year Peter will succeed in passing his test”
  • “Hopefully next year he will succeed in finding an apartment in New York.”

And you should not write:

  • “Next year peter will succeed to pass his test”
  • “Hopefully next year he will succeed to find an apartment in New York.”


English is hard. 

Just a very quick article today to address a fairly common error in TOEFL essays.  

When writing about decades you don’t need an apostrophe.   Just write:

  • There were a lot of wild parties in the 1920s.
  • My parents got married in the 1960s.

Don’t stick an apostrophe in there.  Don’t write:

  • There were a lot of wild parties in the 1920’s.
  • My parents got married in the 1960’s.

Easy, right?