I have this dream that one day there will be a student who will spend a year or two working on his reading comprehension skills before taking the TOEFL. Maybe he’s an freshman undergraduate who knows he will do his graduate studies in the USA. Or maybe he’s a high school student. If I ever find this student, Reading for Thinking is the book I would recommend to him.

This is a great book to spend a year with and to use as a sort of “strategy guide” as you engage with a variety of books, articles and magazines.

The book starts by describing methods that can be used to increase one’s comprehension of academic texts that can be applied in a variety of contexts. Interestingly, the book’s “reading paraphrase” strategy (pages 16 to 21, 7th edition) mirror one of the strategies that my friend Josh MacPherson uses to teach the TOEFL reading section at TST Prep.

 

I was able to ask a few more questions at an ETS webinar. Here’s what I learned (the answers are not direct quotes):

Q: Will results come back in six calendar days or six business days now?
A: Six calendar days.

Q: How significant are pauses when students are answering questions in the speaking section?
A: They can be very significant and can affect the score a lot.

Q: Could the same human grader score all four speaking responses?
A: No.

Q: Will a new Official Guide be published in 2019?
A: No. That has not been prioritized.

Q: Could students get only NINE reading questions with a specific reading passage?
A: Yes. This will happen if a fill-in-a-table question is given.

Q: Is it okay to mention the reading first in integrated essay body paragraphs?
A: The order “does not matter.” The scoring rubric is “not that structured.”

Well, I’ve had enough reports from students to confirm that fill in a table questions are again being used in the reading section of the TOEFL.

This is interesting because before the TOEFL changed in August of this year they had mostly disappeared.

It is important to note that when a fill in a table question is used with a reading passage, that passage will only have nine questions in total. This means that ETS’s statement that each reading passage has ten questions is not exactly correct.

There are a few things to note:

  • You will not get both a prose summary question and a fill in a table question with the same passage.
  • The prose summary question is still more common that the fill in a table question.
  • You can earn from zero to three points from the fill in a table question.

Regarding scoring, here’s what the Official Guide to the TOEFL says:

“You can earn up to a total of 3 points, depending on how many correct answers you select and correctly place. For zero, one, or two correct answers you will receive no points. For three correct answers you will receive 1 point; for four correct answers you will receive 2 points; and for all five correct answers you will receive the entire 3 points.”

Overall, I think this is a positive development. The fill in a table question is challenging, but it is a bit more reasonable that the other question types which sometimes seem intentionally obtuse.

Hey, this is cool. You can now get your TOEFL scores just six days after taking the test. ETS just updated its web page with the following information:

“Now you can get your TOEFL iBT scores even faster! Scores are posted online approximately 6 days after the test date, instead of 10 days. The PDF version of the score report is available to download within 8 days after your test. Score reports are also mailed to you (if you requested a paper copy) and sent to your selected institutions or agencies within 11 days after the test date.”

That’s pretty great. Here’s the original source.

I presume they mean six “business days.” That means you will probably have to wait a bit more than six days.

Introduction

I get this question a lot. Broadly speaking, here’s what I think you should do to prepare for the TOEFL reading section:

  • Learn your current level
  • Learn how the reading section is designed
  • Get some accurate practice tests
  • Improve your reading comprehension
  • Get some strategies for solving questions
  • Hire a good tutor

Details about how to do these things are below!

Learn Your Current Level

If you haven’t taken the test already, make sure you know your current level in the TOEFL reading section. The easiest way to do this is to take the free sample test from ETS. You can also take one of the tests in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Once you have done this you will know how much you need to improve.

Learn How the Reading Section is Designed

Okay, this might be obvious, but you need to know how the TOEFL reading section is designed. If you understand how the test is designed, you will have fewer surprises on test day. Start by checking out the practice reading set from ETS. Read that set very carefully. Pay attention to the length of the passages and the number of questions included with each passage.

Pay special attention to the types of reading questions used by ETS. Briefly, the main types are:

  • Factual Information
  • Negative Factual Information
  • Rhetorical Purpose
  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence Simplification
  • Insert a Sentence
  • Inference
  • Reference
  • Summary
  • Fill in a table

The best descriptions of these question types is found in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Note that you don’t need to pay for the 5th edition, as every edition of the guide has pretty much the same descriptions. Read them carefully.

You can get the same descriptions and advice in the TOEFL Insider’s Guide course on edX. This is free, and is mostly video. I like it.

I recently analyzed the most recent practice materials. Read my blog post for an indication of how frequently each question type will appear on test day.

I should mention a few things before we go on:

  • Since August 1, ETS has used fewer vocabulary questions than before. Expect just one or two per article. In the past, you would get three to five per article.
  • “Fill in a table” and “reference” questions seem to be used much less than before. I used to think they were gone forever, but since posting the original version of this guide, I’ve gotten some reports that they have reappeared. Be prepared.
  • You might get an unexpected question like “how does paragraph 1 relate to paragraph 2” or “what function does paragraph 2 serve in the organization of the passage as a whole.” These types are not mentioned in most popular study guides. Sorry.

I get this question a lot. Here’s what I think you should do:

  • Get some templates for each essay type.
  • Watch videos lectures on each question type.
  • Read as many sample essays as possible.
  • Take accurate practice tests.
  • Improve your grammar.
  • Get your practice essays graded.

Details about how to do these things are below!

Read My Guides (and Templates) for Each Writing Task

Everything I know about the writing section 

can be found in my guides to the two tasks. Here they are:

Not only will these guides show you how to write the essays, but they will tell you how the questions are structured and the patterns to look out for.

Check out My Video Series

I have also made a bunch of YouTube videos about this section. Here’s the first:

Here are a few stray details I picked up from my participation in some recent ETS events. They aren’t really important, but you might find them interesting.

  1. The SpeechRater checks everything, including vocabulary and grammar. My earlier impression that it only checks delivery was incorrect.
  2. Confirmed: there is just one human rater alongside the SpeechRater for each task.
  3. The human score and the SpeechRater score have equal weight. They are averaged. If there is a major difference between them, however, a second human rater will check the answer.
  4. SpeechRater generates task-specific scores, rather than scoring everything collectively.
  5. Important: When a score review is requested the SpeechRater is not used.
  6. Interestingly, an ETS person told me that in the past there was only ever a single human rater for each task. This is the total opposite of what ETS told me previously, which is that there was always two human raters for each task. I guess it doesn’t matter now.
  7. They have heard your complaint about the less-detailed Score Reports, and are considering how to provide more detailed information. Yay!
  8. They are working on a new Official Guide, but there is no timeline for publication.

I’ll have to update my video about the Speaking Section changes, I think. Stay tuned.

 

To get a better sense of the distribution of questions on the new version of the TOEFL, I have compared the new versions of the TOEFL Reading Practice Sets released by ETS to their old versions. Note that the three sets in the above link are modified versions of the old TPO 7 and 8 sets. The articles are the same, but certain questions have been removed. Here’s what I found out about the question types on the new version of the test.

 Old Set 1Old Set 2Old Set 3New Set 1New Set 2New Set 3
Factual Information4433 (-1)3 (-1)3
Negative Factual Information2211 (-1)1 (-1)1
Rhetorical Purpose112112
Vocabulary4432 (-2)2 (-2)1 (-2)
Sentence Simplification111111
Insert a Sentence111111
Inference001000 (-1)
Summary111111
       

This confirms my earlier reports that the new test has far fewer vocabulary questions. Factual and Negative Factual questions have also been reduced, it would seem.

This also confirms that Reference and “Fill in a Table” questions will probably not appear on the test much nowadays, as they are totally absent from the practice materials. Note that even though the single Inference question has been removed from the test, it is still being used quite frequently, according to reports.

Next up, I’ve done the same analysis of the Free Practice Test provided by ETS. The results are as follows.

 Old Set 1Old Set 2Old Set 3New Set 1New Set 2New Set 3
Factual Information3142 (-1)13 (-1)
Negative Factual Information221222
Rhetorical Purpose011011
Vocabulary4432 (-2)2 (-2)1 (-2)
Sentence Simplification11110 (-1)0 (-1)
Insert a Sentence111111
Function of Paragraph1000 (-1)00
Inference13112 (-1)1
Summary111111

Again, we can see that there are far fewer vocabulary questions. But we can also see that all of the question types are affected, except for the Insert Sentence and Summary types.

The odd “function of paragraph” entry refers to a non-standard question that isn’t mentioned in the Official Guide or any other ETS resources. On the original set it was phrased as “What function does paragraph 3 serve in the organization of the passage as a whole?”. I guess this is sort of like a rhetorical purpose question, but it really surprises students when it comes up. Note that although it has been removed from the practice test, I have had reports that it has appeared on the real test since August 1.

According to reports, TOEFL score reviews (that is, re-scoring) are now much faster than before. I haven’t gotten confirmation, but according to ETS customer service, score reviews are now finished in 24 to 72 hours. In the past, these took up to ten days, just like a regular score report.

In fact, one student has told me that her writing section score review took just ten hours to complete this week.

This is interesting. Indeed, considering the changes to the speaking section’s length and scoring process, it likely does not take as long as before to grade the test.

I wonder if this is foretelling faster TOEFL score reports in general. Now that it is possible to take the test every single week, many students would appreciate getting their scores in just three days. I have heard nothing about this, however.

Stay tuned. I’ll let you know what I find out.

At the 2019 TOEFL iBT Seminar in Seoul on September 5, ETS announced details of the new “Enhanced Speaking Scoring” for the TOEFL, which has actually been in place since August 1, 2019.

In the past, speaking responses were graded by two human graders. Now, however, speaking responses are graded by one human grader along with the SpeechRater software. This software is a sort of AI that can evaluate human speech, and has been used by ETS for various tasks since about 2008. Most notably, it provided score estimates for the “TOEFL Practice Online” tests they sell to students.

According to ETS:

“From August 1, 2019, all TOEFL iBT Speaking responses are rated by both a human rater and the SpeechRater scoring engine.”

They also note:

“Human raters evaluate content, meaning, and language in a holistic manner. Automated scoring by the SpeechRater service evaluates linguistic features in an analytic manner.”

To elaborate (and this is not a quote), ETS indicated than the human scorer will check for meaning, content and language use, while the SpeechRater will check pronunciation, accent and intonation.

It is presently unknown how the human and computer scores will be combined to create a single overall score, but looking at the speaking rubric could provide a few hints. Note that in the past the human raters would assess three categories of equal weight: delivery, language use, and topic development. If the above information is accurate, the SpeechRater now assesses delivery, while the human now assess language use and topic development. It is possible, then, that the SpeechRater provides 1/3 of the score, and than the human rater provides the other 2/3.

I will provide more information as I get it. In the meantime, check out the following video for more news and speculation.