Here’s a quick summary of changes to “Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1.” I’ll dig into the second volume later this month.

In addition to the below, note that all of the independent writing questions have been replaced with “Writing for an Academic Discussion” questions.

I didn’t spot any changes whatsoever to the speaking questions, or the integrated writing questions.

So. Here’s the list:

Test One:

Reading:  “Petroleum Resources” removed.

Test Two:

Reading:  “The Cambrian Explosion” removed.

Listening:  Lecture about Astronomy removed.  Lecture about Earth Sciences added.

Test Three:

Reading: “William Smith”  (it had a weird “in mentioning x” question) and “Infantile Amnesia” removed. “Pest Control” added.

Test Four:

Reading: “Galileo and his Telescope” and “Europe in the 12th Century (it had a chart question) removed. “Understanding Ancient Mesoamerican Art” added.

Listening:  Conversation at a computer center removed (it was dated).  Conversation at an art museum added.

Test Five:

Reading:  “Cetacean Intelligence” removed (it had a chart question and a weird whole-passage question)

   

Here’s the second part of my musings (originally posted on LinkedIn) on the new Password Plus Test.  Check out part one here.

  1. The reading section is more relaxed than in many other tests. I tried my very best to pick the correct answers, but used only half of the given time (70 minutes).  Compare this to the TOEFL, where time management is the name of the game and tutors generally advise students to skip the articles and jump right to the questions. 
  2. The pre-test check-in took quite some time.  Maybe about 20-30 minutes.  The proctor did not have remote control of my system, like they do for many other tests.  Instead, I shared my screen and was directed to open up the task manager and shut down processes and services myself.  I also had to flip through all of my Chrome profiles to disable extensions.
  3. Speaking of proctors, I had the same proctor all the way through and they were really quick to respond to me at all times. I was very pleased with the proctoring provided by Examity.
  4. Test takers can use paper and a pen to take notes!  That’s wonderful!  But they are limited to just one sheet of paper. That’s probably not enough.
  5. There was one instance when the question displayed on the screen did not exactly match the question that was delivered through audio.
  6. I really like the way that time is allocated in the speaking section.  As I mentioned before, there are five “sections” (each containing multiple questions) and test takers can divvy up the given time (20 minutes) as they wish.  This makes the speaking section somewhat less nerve-wracking than other tests.  ETS folks sometimes ask me why young people shy away from the TOEFL.  I normally tell them that it is because the TOEFL speaking section gives them nightmares.

I took the new Password Skills Plus Test from Password English Language Testing!  This is a new at-home test based upon an existing product that has been offered to institutions for some time.  The owners of the test reached out to me and offered a free voucher, which I couldn’t turn down.  Today I’ll share my initial thoughts, which I previously posted on LinkedIn.  Tomorrow I’ll share a second post, with more specific details (click here to read part two).

By the way, if anyone reading this is preparing for the test and wants a little help, please reach out to me!

Here goes:

I must note that there is A LOT of listening on this test. Test takers are given an hour to complete the section, and will likely use most of it. If you’re looking for a test of one’s ability to comprehend academic lectures, this one’s for you.

The speaking questions lean towards casual conversation, though I did get a challenging “describe this chart” question at the very end.

I really appreciate that the speaking section isn’t as frantic as in the TOEFL.  Test takers are given twenty minutes to complete the section, and may divvy up the time as they wish. They can, for instance, spend just a few seconds preparing for question one, thirty seconds preparing for question two and a full minute preparing for question three. You get what I mean. I think this reduces test taker anxiety without necessarily compromising the validity of the test.

I like the test taker handbook very much. Across its sixteen pages (with plenty of white space) test takers get a clear idea of what to expect on the test and how to avoid violating any rules. That compares favorably to the 46 pages of small print in the bulletin that TOEFL test takers are expected to read.

I’ve already mentioned here that I like the pricing of this test.  It costs 110 GBP (140 USD) in every country in the world. That’s less than most tests.  Rescheduling is free up to 24 hours before the test (and just $5 after that time).

However. There are a few things I didn’t like, and they are worth mentioning.

  1. Logging in was surprisingly challenging. I didn’t get a “click here on test day” link by email. And the Password Plus website doesn’t have a login button. Proctoring is done through Examity, and their website doesn’t have a clear login button either (maybe because they’ve merged with Meazure Learning). I had to google “how to log in to Examity.” I got a little panicky as my test time drew closer. That’s not great TTX.
  2. The Examity software is clunky and blocked either the timer or the question number at all times. Those UI elements should be moved.
  3. I flagged an issue regarding waveforms (more specifically: every other waveform) not moving during the speaking section. I’m pretty sure that was a test software issue and not an issue with my system. My response to one of the questions contains me saying “uh… proctor!!”

Overall, the test seems solid, but the implementation could use some work.

I’m happy to see new tests sprouting up nearly every month. Test takers and score users alike will benefit.

I read a whole bunch of random things this month!

  • Most importantly, I read the newly-released seventh edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  The guide was heavily revised for this edition, which came as a pleasant surprise.  For my complete coverage of what was changed, start reading here.  Next month I’ll dig into the new editions of the two official test collection books.
  • I also read a bunch of the TOEFL e-books published by Jackie Bolan which are available on Amazon, Hoopla and various other services.  Specifically, I read:  Phrasal Verbs for TOEFL, TOEFL Vocabulary Builder, and English Vocabulary Masterclass for TOEFL.  They are decent vocabulary books, but aren’t exactly TOEFL books as they don’t contain any TOEFL-specific content.  I suppose the “Vocabulary Builder” is the best, as it might help you learn some words used in campus situations (that you’ll need to know for parts of the listening and speaking sections).  In the months ahead I’ll dig into more of the TOEFL odds-and-ends that litter libraries and online bookstores.
  • I also read College Board: Its First Fifty Years.  You bet I did!
  • I read a couple more issues of History Today, which I’ve mentioned here is one of my favorite sources of academic reading practice.  In the April, 2024 issue I enjoyed The Value of Wills to Historians, which explores a somewhat mundane topic… exactly like the TOEFL reading section.  I also enjoyed When Nostalgia was Deadly, an examination of the deadly disease known as “nostalgia.”  Apparently this was a pretty big deal in medieval Europe.  In the May 2024 issue, I liked Inventing Cyrillic, which is a quick look at the history of the Cyrillic alphabet.  That sort of thing is exactly what the folks at ETS like to put on the TOEFL test.
  • Lastly, I continued my read-along with the Norton Library Podcast and read Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I can’t recommend this book to people learning English, but you might enjoy the podcast episodes that cover it.

 

 

 

Although

“Although” is a subordinating conjunction.  It is used before a subject to introduce an idea which contrasts with the main clause of a sentence. The main clause usually indicates something unexpected or surprising. 

Like this:

“Although I studied really hard, I didn’t pass the test.”

“Although he is rich, he isn’t happy.”

Or like this:

“I didn’t pass the test, although I studied really hard.”

“He isn’t happy, although he is rich.”

Despite

Despite is a preposition.  It is used before a noun or pronoun to express a contrasting idea.  

Like this:

“Despite his money he isn’t happy.”

“Despite his high grades, he didn’t pass the class.”

“We went out despite the rain.”

“Despite” is often used before a gerund (which is a sort of noun).  

Like this:

“Despite having money he isn’t happy.”

“Despite having high grades, he didn’t pass the test.”

In Spite Of

“In spite of” is used the same as as “despite.”  Just remember that you cannot use “despite of”.

This one is tricky, so I’m going to start by quoting Michael Swan:

The is used with a number of rather general expressions referring to our physical environment – the world around us and its climate.  The suggests that everybody is familiar with what we are talking about.”

Do you get what he means?  This is why we refer to “the mountains” and why we say “I’m going to spend a lot of time at the beach this summer” even if we aren’t talking about specific mountains or a specific beach.

Here are a few general guidelines:

Natural Landforms and Settings:

We use “the” with natural landforms and settings when referring to them in a general sense. For instance:

  • “I love spending time in the mountains.”
  • “We went for a walk along the beach.”
  • “Birds are abundant in the forest.”

Again, I’m not talking about any specific mountains, any specific beach or any specific forest.

 

Geographical and Recreational Contexts

When these natural environments are discussed in terms of their geographical or recreational significance, “the” is used to denote the typical features associated with them:

  • The desert can be really dangerous for hikers.”
  • “Tourists flock to the beach during summer.”
  • The countryside offers a peaceful retreat from city life.”

Same as above – I’m not talking about any specific desert, any specific beach or any specific countryside.

My students are often puzzled about when to call something “electric” (like “electric car”) vs when to call something “electronic” (like “electronic dictionary”).  The difference is subtle, but basically it amounts to this:

Electric: This term is used for devices or systems that use electricity to perform a basic function. For example, an “electric car” uses electricity to power its motor and move the vehicle, and an “electric heater” converts electrical energy into heat. An “electric tea kettle” uses electrical energy to boil water.

Electronic: This term is used for devices or systems that use electricity to control, process, or transmit information. These devices usually involve components like microchips, transistors, or circuits that manage electrical signals. For example, an “electronic dictionary” processes and displays digital information, and an “electronic watch” uses electronic circuits to keep and display the time.  I recently read an article about “electronic livestock tags” that keep track of the location of cows and report that information back to farmers.  There is a popular TOEFL practice question about “electronic medical records” that doctors use to store and transmit information about patients.

Do you get what I mean?

In summary, use “electric” for devices powered by electricity to perform physical tasks and “electronic” for devices that process information using electrical circuits.

And, yes, there are weird exceptions.  Don’t ask me why we refer to “electronic cigarettes.”  That doesn’t make sense to me.

Students often ask questions like: “If I get 17 answers right in the reading section, what is my final score?”

The answer, of course, is something like: “I have no idea. Every test is different!”

The best I can do is share this chart from the new Official Guide to the TOEFL.  Check it out:

As you can see on the chart, if the student answers 17 questions correctly, their final score could be anything from 22 to 28 points!

That’s because the difficulty level of every test is slightly different, and scores are adjusted accordingly. I think the boffins at ETS call this process “equating.”

And in the listening section?  The same thing!  Here’s the listening chart from the same book:

So, as you can see, not every TOEFL test is the same.

And one more note, since it answers a frequent question:  the unofficial reading and listening scores displayed at the end of the TOEFL are scaled scores.  

 

Today I’ll highlight another potential pain point with at-home testing.

Before taking the at-home TOEFL and GRE tests, test-takers must pass a system check which examines their software and hardware. Most parts of the check are very easy to pass.

However, test-takers with one particular set-up seem to encounter a specific problem. Based on several years of reports, it seems that it can be challenging for test-takers using a Macintosh computer with an M-series CPU and 8 GB or less of RAM to pass the required memory usage check, which requires RAM utilization of less than 95%.

This problem seems to arise due to the unique way that modern Macs handle RAM.

Basically, the boffins at Apple have replaced the old desire for completely unused memory with a concept called “memory pressure.”  On modern Macs (unlike on Windows systems)  it is okay for memory to be utilized, as long as it isn’t under “pressure.”  Accordingly, it is normal for utilization to be greater than 95%, especially on systems without a whole lot of RAM in the first place. Not only that, but it can be quite difficult to get utilization below that level, if that is what you desire.  Especially if you are running a couple of required programs.

You can imagine how that might create problems for test-takers who are required to utilize less than 95% of their memory before they can begin a test.  Try googling something like “gre memory usage reddit” to see what I mean.

So what?

Well, according to reports, some proctors simply ignore this part of the system check.

Others do not.

Reports further indicate that some proctors know how to address this problem (SUDO PURGE, in case you are wondering).

Others do not.

Some test-takers have reported test cancellations stemming from this problem.

My point?

This is bad test-taker experience.

Reports of this problem go back years.  Someone probably should have done something about it a long time ago.

When we talk about so-called legacy test-makers being unable to respond to issues in a timely manner this is what we are talking about.  When we talk about test-takers seeking out alternative testing options because they feel a sense of dread regarding the so-called gold standard tests, this is what we’re talking about.

Anyway.  Test-takers are predominantly young people with limited financial resources.  They are owed a good testing experience.

Test makers are predominantly large organizations with unimaginable wealth and assets under their management.  They should fix this stuff.

Fun fact:  LSAT test-takers reported the same problem before the LSAC switched from ProctorU to Prometric.

 

 

Someone should update the TOEFL India site. It still states that the Aadhar card is acceptable ID when taking the TOEFL, even though ETS rescinded that policy about 13 months ago.

I still hear of people getting turned away at tests center because they lack acceptable ID. I suppose this oversight is one reason for that. The site also links to an out-of-date copy of the TOEFL Bulletin which repeats the incorrect advice.

For the record:  the Aadhar card is not acceptable ID for the TOEFL or the GRE.

I spotted a wonderful article by Graham Witcomb in Intelligent Investor a couple of weeks ago about IDP and the language testing industry in general.

In it, Witcomb notes:

“In theory, there’s still choice. In practice, language testing operates as a cartel with tremendous pricing power. For their own convenience, governments typically pick just a few companies to run tests for immigration, so exam takers can’t shop around as they would for other goods and services.”

Sure, there may be a cartel, but stiff competition has eroded the profitability of individual testing firms in recent years:

“IDP would be a fantastic business were it not for one major weakness in its business model — its gatekeeper status isn’t earned, it’s ordained. Governments decide who its language gatekeepers will be, and they can take that privilege away in a heartbeat, or dilute its value by offering other companies the same deal.”

This is what I’ve been saying here for most of the past year.  Competition has finally arrived.  More competition is en route.  The old monopolies are dead or dying.  A lot of individuals whose livelihoods are affected by the ebb and flow of the IELTS monopoly might pile in to object, but it’s true.

Regarding Canada in particular, Witcomb notes:

“The new testing options will erode IDP’s market share. If the company’s SDS share slips from 100% to 70%, it would mean 80,000-110,000 fewer tests; at $300 per test, a 2-4% drop in total revenue would be the result and a slightly higher fall in net profit due to fixed costs. But with four new competitors, market share losses over the long term could be much higher than we’ve assumed here. We wouldn’t be surprised if IDP’s market share eventually settles below 50%.”

Witcomb astutely points out that lowered language requirements for Canada will also reduce the number of repeaters in the years ahead.

Despite all of this, Witcomb seems more bullish on IDP’s prospects than I am.  He suggests that cartel-like pricing will keep profits high despite market share losses.  He may be correct. But as I have noted here before, DET is coming, and they aren’t going to charge $300 per test.

It is only a matter of time.

Witcomb doesn’t touch on it, but as I have noted here before IDP’s long-term viability is somewhat dependent on its ability to create a “next-gen” IELTS which can compete with DET. The three-headed nature of the IELTS program may complicate that.

And, finally, here are changes to the practice tests in the new Official Guide to the TOEFL.   Note that all of the academic discussion questions are new.  They have not appeared elsewhere.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Test One

Reading section: “Geology and Landscape” and “The Expression of Emotions” have been removed.  A new reading, “Birdsongs and Calls” has been added.

Listening section: No changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section: The integrated question about altruism has been removed and replaced with a new question about biofuels has been added.   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Two

Reading section: “Feeding Habits of East African Herbivores” has been removed.

Listening section: No changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Three

Reading section: “The Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer” has been removed.

Listening section: One lecture and one conversation have been replaced with new ones.  Don’t ask me why.

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Four

Reading section: “Lightning” has been removed.

Listening section: No Changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:  An academic discussion question has been added.

Next up, a list of changes in Chapter 5 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  This chapter is wonderful.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Again, note that I am focusing on changes other than the big test revisions that were implemented in July of last year.

Page 192-193: The example question about teamwork (which was quite inaccurate) has been replaced with a new question about “vitrified forts.”

Page 194:  The guide used to say “typically, an effective response will be 150 to 225 words.”  It now says “typically, an effective response will contain a minimum of 150 words.”

Page 194:  The guide now notes that “the lecture usually contradicts or disagrees with the information in the reading passage.”

Page 194:  The question prompts for the integrated task have been revised to emphasize that the lecture challenges the reading.  A new prompt called “solutions and their weaknesses” has also been added

Page 194:  The “as you write your response” section is updated to include new “the best way to organize the response…” tips about how to organize the essay properly.

Page 196:  The word count change is repeated.

Page 197-198:  This section on how responses are scored is all-new.  And it is beautiful.  Among other things, it notes:

“It is important to include all the most important details from the lecture, not only the main ideas”

“Within each body paragraph, consider devoting the first sentence or two to summarizing the idea the reading is expressing, and then explain in detail how the lecture responds to that idea”

“You should devote most of each paragraph to conveying information from the lecture”

“A concluding paragraph for your essay is typically not necessary”

Page 201-205:  There are sample responses for the new integrated writing task (see above)

Page 205+: The new WAD task is described.