Here are a few random details about TOEFL Essentials that have trickled out via the regular webinars hosted by ETS.  Yes, I watch every single one of them:

  • The reading, listening and writing sections of the test will be adaptive.  The speaking section will not.
  • At launch, the e-rater and SpeechRater automated scoring technology will NOT be used.  Only human graders will be used.  Automated scoring will be introduced later.
  • Scoring rubrics will be published in June.
  • The default voice (that gives instructions) will have a mild British English accent.
  • Right now the “foundational skills” will consist of vocabulary knowledge and sentence construction.  Additional skills will be added later.
  • The score recipients will have access to two writing and two speaking samples.  Plus the unscored video interview from the end of the test.
  • At launch, the test will be available one day per week.  It will be expanded up to three days per week, depending on demand.
  • The TOEFL ITP will continued to be administered. 
  • Some of the documentation that was to be delivered in May has been delayed to June.

If you were hoping to get some details about the new test this week, you can keep waiting.

The site used to say: “after the score requirements guidance and score concordance tools are released in early May.” Now it says: “after the score requirements guidance and score concordance tools are released in early June.”

Likewise, score requirements were “expected to be available in May 2021.” But now they are “expected to be available in June 2021.”

The “assessment framework document” is still promised for May, though.

See also: https://www.ets.org/s/toefl-essentials/score-users/scores-admissions/

Before I begin this  month’s column, I must draw your attention to a new article I published a few weeks ago.  I took a deep dive into all of the official TOEFL reading passages (47 in total) to see which topics  pop up most often.  I discovered that history is, by far, the most frequent topic.  Zoology is a distant second.  I’ll adjust my reading habits in the months ahead so that I can recommend a few more reading passages.

A few stories in Science News stood out this month.  In particular:

  • Naked Mole-Rats Squeak in Dialects describes how members of mole-rat colonies chirp in such a way that they can identify each other.  Interesting stuff.  I also learned that mole-rat groups resemble ant colonies in that they have a single breeding queen.
  • Upwellings May Push Continents Apart doesn’t have the same weird-factor, but as my survey indicated, physical geography is a common topic in the reading section.  Check it out.
  • Meatier Meals and More Playtime Might Reduce Cats’ Toll on Wildlife is about methods to prevents domestic cats from wiping out local bird and small-mammal populations.  Yeah, the TOEFL probably won’t have anything about cats on it, but this article would be perfect for someone trying to put together a problem/solution integrated writing passage.  It describes a problem (cats keep killing things) and several solutions to that problem (giving them more meat, playing with them, and putting a colorful collar on them).  I like it!
  • Stonehenge May Have Welsh Roots talks about the mysterious origin of Stonehenge.  As I said above, history is important!

I didn’t spend too much time with my stack of National Geographic Magazines this month, but a couple of things did catch my eye:

  • Our Obsession with Mars is the cover story from the March, 2021 issue.  Space stuff doesn’t appear in the reading section too often, but it does show up in the integrated writing section quite often.  Check it out.
  • I can’t find a link to an online version, but the same issue has a great infographic about species that thrive after a forest fire.  I can see that being the sort of thing that might appear in an integrated speaking question.

I read a great Science Fiction story by Charles Q. Choi in the January/February issue of Analog.  The good news for you is that you can buy it for two bucks from his own website.  Go check it out.  I’ll give you the two bucks.

That’s all for now, but next month I’ll have more recommendations.  I started in on a hefty history book which I should be finished with by then.

Science News Covers

Hey, I finished everything on my old to-do list!   Here’s what I want to get done next:

  • This time, I swear I will do a video about the fourth speaking question.  This will be time-consuming, since I will need to create a whole new question.  I will be working on it, but don’t hold your breath.
  • I will publish the April edition of my “You Should Read More” column,  The deadline for that is tomorrow.  Hmmm.
  • I want to finally write my “Ten Things I Would Change About the TOEFL” article.  I’m not a linguist, though, so I will only write about the administration and management of the test.
  • I guess I will keep an eye out for the stuff ETS has promised regarding the TOEFL Essentials test.  That is supposed to be published in May, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is delayed.
  • I might make a Patreon.
  • I want to either do an Amazon book or a paid course about the writing section.  That will be a long process, since I will need to create a couple of new integrated writing questions for it.  That stuff takes time.
  • I should update the infographics to match the 2021 templates.  That’s not really a priority, though.
  • I am doing some online training to prepare students for the CELPIP and CAEL tests.  Gimme a shout if you plan to immigrate to Canada.

Update:  The equipment check is back!

ProctorU has removed the “test your equipment” page from the publicly accessible part of their site.  Now students must create a ProctorU account to access the equipment test.  This is a problem since people who are taking the TOEFL do not need to create a ProctorU account.  Actually, they cannot create an account even if they want to.  “ETS – TOEFL” is available as an option when creating an account, but it returns an error message.

ETS still links to the page that was removed.  They should change that link.

Students often ask what they should mention first in each integrated essay body paragraph  – the reading or the lecture?

I generally recommend mentioning the reading first.  However, I decided to do some research to figure out what ETS raters think is best.  I examined a variety of official sources, all of which include sample essays described as “high scoring.” 

I learned that the reading is generally mentioned first, but sometimes the lecture comes first.  This means you can probably do what feels best to you.

Official Guide to the TOEFL

  • Test Two: The reading is not mentioned.  Really.
  • Test Three: The reading is mentioned first.
  • Test Four:  The reading is mentioned first.

I did not include test one in my research as the sample question is terrible, and the sample essay is worse (one giant paragraph).

Official iBT Tests Volume 2

  • Test One: The reading is mentioned first.
  • Test Two: The lecture is mentioned first.
  • Test Three: The reading is mentioned first.
  • Test Four: The reading is mentioned first.
  • Test Five: The reading is mentioned first.

Note that in a few of the essays the body paragraphs begin with something like:  “First, the lecturer says [DETAILS FROM THE READING] are not true.”  I so mark these as the reading being mentioned first.  Note, also, that the Official iBT Tests Volume 1 has no sample essays.  Sucks.

Official Practice Sets

  • Writing Set (voting systems): The lecture is mentioned first

Official Practice Test

  • The reading is mentioned first

Propell Workshop Supplement Dated 2017

  • The reading is mentioned first (a weird essay with two paragraphs in total)

 

Hey, if you are interested in learning a bit more about the simulated conversation that will be on the new TOEFL Essentials Test, check out this page. There is a video.  The video was added within the last week or two.

It hasn’t been confirmed, but I suspect that’s the tech being used on the test.  A few more notes following the screenshots.

There is an article describing the tech over here.  It includes a schematic illustration of the possible flow of a conversation simulating a job interview. Another article discusses how ETS has been developing avatars to make the conversations a bit more vivid.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the TOEFL Essentials Test page now says:

“Registration is expected to open in June 2021, with the first tests to be administered by August 2021.”

It used to say:

“Registration is expected to open in May 2021, with the first tests to be administered by August 2021.”

As has already been indicated, the test will be available one day per week initially, and will ramp up to three days per week shortly thereafter. 

I took a deep dive into the publicly available TOEFL reading sets to measure which academic subjects appear most frequently.  My study included the tests in:

  • The Official Guide to the TOEFL 
  • The Official iBT Tests Vol. 1
  • The Official iBT Tests Vol. 2
  • The free practice test on ETS.org
  • The TOEFL PDF sets on ETS.org
  • The Propell Workshop Teacher’s Book

These contain 47 passages in total.

I think this is everything that is easily accessible.  I didn’t include the TPO sets in my study because we aren’t really supposed to have access to those.  If there are any other sources I should consult please let me know, and I will add them to the list.

I examined each reading passage and classified it by subject.  I focused on the broadest possible subject headings.  So, for example, I used “history” as a category but not “political history.”  This wasn’t always an easy task as some of the passages cover overlapping subject areas.

Following this chart, I’ll include a few notes about more specific subject areas.

Anyways, here’s what I found:

Subject

Number of Passages

History

16

Zoology

7

Physical Geography

5

Biology

4

Geology

3

Psychology

3

Ecology

2

Architecture

1

Astronomy

1

Sociology

1

Education

1

Anthropology

1

Art

1

Paleontology

1

As you can see, history is by far the most common subject area in the reading section.  Zoology is also pretty common.  

There are a few other things that are worth mentioning here.  They are:

  • The passages about history often focus on the history of early humans and early civilizations.  
  • Political history is also somewhat common.
  • One of the passages marked as “geology” was actually about the history of geology.
  • Likewise, the passage about astronomy was about the history of astronomy.  Read some history!

Perhaps this information will serve as a guide you as look for materials to develop your academic reading skills before the test.

Oh, hey, ETS finally uploaded a new “Score Reporting Dates” chart.

We didn’t have one of these for the first few months of 2021. This chart tells you how long you will have to wait for your scores to be reported Sadly, it is only for tests taken at a test center. It does not indicate how long you will have to wait for scores from the Home Edition.

The most important part of the chart is that it lets you know when an American holiday will slow down the report of your score.

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.