The Princeton Review has updated their TOEFL book to match the 2019 version of the TOEFL and have given it a new name (it used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL”).  Sadly, though, it isn’t a very good book.  It is inaccurate, and it badly needs a good editor.  And some basic research.  I’ll go into detail about what is bad about the book in a moment, but I guess we should start with the good, right? 

The Good Stuff

The book begins with about 170 pages of skill building exercises connected to the “core concepts” of the TOEFL (reading, listening, speaking, writing).  This stuff is pretty good. I really like that the book begins with a whole lot of academic reading practice and questions that students can work through to hone their reading skills.  None of these questions are actually TOEFL questions (which could be confusing) but they are about content contained in TOEFL-style articles.  A lot of students need to really improve their reading skills before they even start looking at real TOEFL questions.

The core concepts stuff about listening is much sparser (9 pages vs 72 pages) but those nine pages are fine.  I can’t help shake the feeling that Princeton Review made this section short just because creating listening content is much more expensive than creating reading content.  Maybe I’m just crazy.

The speaking concepts chapter is a bit weird in that it blends TOEFL speaking questions with questions that are totally not TOEFL speaking questions.  It also includes some of the speaking question styles that were removed from the test last year.  I know this is just skill building stuff, but those should be totally excised from the book and replaced with something a bit more useful.

The writing concepts chapter is, again, a mix of TOEFL and non-TOEFL questions.  It has some fine exercises.  It includes a chart of useful vocabulary (which is nice) and a laughably basic page on grammar terms (which is not nice).

There are better books containing this sort of skill building content (just ask me) but I honestly would recommend these chapters to a student who can find the book for free at a library or something.  They have some value, especially for beginners.

The Bad Stuff

Cracking the Reading Section

The chapter about the reading section is really hard to follow, even for a teacher like myself.  There are ten pages of junk before we can find a list reading question types.  And sadly, the question types listed in the book are just wrong.  So much clarity could have been achieved by using the question type names established by ETS in the “Official Guide to the TOEFL.”  I mean… ETS makes the test so we should follow their lead on this!

For some reason, Princeton Review left out the “Factual Information” question type and the “Rhetorical Purpose” type, combining them into something they call a “Lead Words” question… which is different from a “Vocabulary in Context” question.  To make matters worse, this type is inexplicably renamed “lead word/detail” near the end of the chapter.  They’ve also left the “Fill in a Table” type out of their list, even though such a question appears later in one of their drills! Finally, they’ve added two types, the “Definition” (which, again, is not the same as a vocabulary question) type and the “Before/after” type, which aren’t used on the real test.

There are a few other little inaccuracies in their samples and drills.  For instance, many of the questions lack clear references to paragraph numbers, meaning students have to hunt through the whole reading to find the answer to their question (which is not the case on the real test).  They’ve also failed to end each of the reading sets with a fill-in-a-table question or a summary question.  Each reading set on the real test always ends with one of those.  Just a bit of basic research could have helped the authors avoid these problems.

Cracking the Listening Section

This section is actually okay.  The listening passages and questions are fine.  They are not perfect, but are good enough to be of value.  There are no table questions, though.  And the authors failed to move the questions where a chunk of audio is played to the end of each set.  The latter issue is not a big deal, but it is something that could have been fixed, again, with just a tiny bit of research.

Cracking the Speaking Section

Curiously, this section begins with a ton of additional skill building content.  And a lot of it is very unlike the actual TOEFL.  The book repeatedly refers to a speaking question about how a lecture casts doubt on a reading.  I just don’t know where they got that from.

There are some templates.  They are mediocre.

All of the sample type 2 speaking questions are inaccurate. They tend to lack reasons for the changes being announced in the reading part.  This means that the students in the listening part are mentioning details and responding to details that are not in the reading.  On the real test there is a very strict and close connection between the reading and the listening.  Two reasons are always given in the reading, and the student specifically responds to those two reasons when supporting their opinion.  Again… just reading all ten of the samples from the official iBT books would have informed the authors at Princeton Review of this pattern.

The sample type 3 speaking questions are also inaccurate.  On the real test, the prompt given to the test-taker will be something like:  “Explain CONCEPT using EXAMPLES FROM LECTURE.”  Or some variation.  Basically, the test-taker needs to state what the concept from the reading is, and then needs to just repeat the example (or examples) from the lecture.  Nothing more than that.   In this book, though, the prompts are weirdly specific.  Like:

“The professor discussed the characteristics of two kinds of heart valves. Explain how their characteristics are related to their suitability for younger and older transplant patients.”

Like… huh?  Where did they get that?

Cracking the Writing Section

The template provided for the integrated essay made me want to tear my hair out.  It recommends just two body paragraphs.  It says that the first body paragraph should deal with the first reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  The second body paragraph should deal with the second reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  And the third point from the reading?   Well, that isn’t mentioned.  The authors seem to be aware that there is always a third reading point and a contrasting lecture point… but they’ve just ignored that in the template.  All of the sample essays include that content… but the template does not.  As I said, an editor is needed.

More evidence than an editor is needed is the fact that instead of providing a step by step guide for constructing each of the essay tasks, this books provides a step by step guide for both, and just jumps back and forth.  WHY?

The book has some good independent essay prompts, but like the authors at Kaplan, they seem to think that only agree/disagree prompts are used.  Again… research is needed.

The Practice Test

There is a single practice test.  It contains the same inaccuracies as the “cracking” chapters, described above.

Overall

This isn’t a great book.  I don’t really recommend it.

As I’ve written here in the past, I dream of students who begin to prepare for the TOEFL far in advance of actually taking the test.  A huge problem students have with the TOEFL is that they lack the ability to comprehend academic texts in English.  And by the time they realize this problem, it is far too late to really do anything about it.  All they can do is familiarize themselves with the question styles, learn a few “strategies” and hope for the best.

In my dream world, though, students start preparing for the TOEFL a couple of years in advance.  Or they spend all of their undergraduate years working on their English skills.  If someone reads a non-fiction book a month for four years, they’ll ace the reading section of the TOEFL.  Really.  That person will develop the required comprehension skills and the required vocabulary to do well without using a single “strategy.”  Not only that, but they’ll be totally comfortable reading academic texts (something that even native speakers struggle with).

Anyways, I’ve been working on a list of books I’d recommend to such a student.  A little while ago I wrote about Reading for Thinking. Today I want to write about a fun book called The Science Class You Wish You Had.  This book fits all of my criteria for recommendation:

  • It covers a lot of the same topics used in the TOEFL reading section
  • It is written using language at a similar level to the TOEFL reading section
  • It is divided into chunks somewhat similar in length to the TOEFL reading section

In particular, this book covers scientific topics, and takes a “history of science” approach, which is something that often shows up on the test.  It attempts to introduce readers to the “seven greatest scientific discoveries in history” which are:

  • Gravity and the basic laws of physics
  • The structure of the atom
  • Relativity
  • The Big Bang
  • Evolution
  • The cell and genetics
  • DNA

Each of these gets a chapter, and the chapters are each broken into short essays of about 5 to 10 paragraphs in length.  Obviously that is longer than what you’ll see on the TOEFL, but it is close enough.  This is the sort of book that you might give to a recent high school graduate preparing for their freshman year.  That’s absolutely perfect in terms of difficulty level, as the TOEFL reading passages are generally designed to look like they came from freshman textbooks.

To use your time most efficiently, you may wish to skip the chapter on relativity as that is way more abstract than what you will find on the test… but I’ve always found the most difficult TOEFL reading passages are those that deal with abstract concepts, so maybe just struggle through it.

There ya go.  Read this book.  By the time you finish with it, I’ll have a recommendation that covers history or the social sciences.

TOEFL scores are now available six days after you take the test.  When an American holiday takes place after you take the test, they could be delayed. Note that the detailed PDF score report is available only after 8 days.

To access your score, log in to your account on the ETS website.  Note that there isn’t a particular time of day that the scores are available.  

To confirm the specific date when YOUR score will be reported, consult this chart from ETS.  It lists every test date until the end of 2020, and the date that the scores will be available.

Updated Story:  It has been confirmed by ETS   that students now get their TOEFL listening and reading scores at the test center, at the end of the test.  They say:

You can now view unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on screen immediately upon completing the test. These scores can give you an early indication of your performance and help you make a well-informed decision about reporting your scores before leaving the test center.

Note that these are “unofficial” scores, which mean the final scores could be different.  I will try to gather data to see how often this happens.  As we have reported, these scores are sometimes adjusted based on the difficulty of the test that week.

Original Story:

If you go to the ETS page on getting scores (https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/scores/get/) and look at the page source, the following was added sometime in January, but was “commented out” so it doesn’t actually appear:

“At the end of your test, you will see your unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on the screen. This gives you an idea of how you did on the test and helps you determine whether to report or cancel your scores.”

I assume this  means that in the future ETS will provide scaled reading and listening scores at the end of the test, but that they will not be adjusted for the difficulty level of the test that week.  This means the scores given will usually be accurate… but that the final (official) score could be plus or minus one point.  If this is confusing to you, just note that ETS adjusts everyone’s score some days if the questions are deemed too easy or too hard after everyone has taken the test.

While this remains hidden (we aren’t supposed to see it) my guess is that this is a change that will be announced in the coming weeks. I just hope they don’t frame it as helping students determine if they should cancel their scores, as that should only  be done if they are planning to make a test center complaint (in my opinion).

Well, I was able to get a few more questions answered.  Nothing really earth-shattering here, but I thought I would pass the answers along.  Please don’t consider the answers direct quotes by ETS.  They have been edited by myself for clarity and organization.

Q: In the reading section is it possible for test-takers to receive 9 questions instead of 10 questions? There are students claiming that they have received only 9 questions.

A: There have been tests where students received 9 questions instead of 10. There will be further clarification from ETS about this.

Q: In the speaking section, Advantages and disadvantages,” and multiple choice(choose from 3 options) independent questions have been absent since August. Are they gone for good?

A: While we cannot say those formats will never appear again, they featured most prominently in our old Item 1 question (the Free Choice question), which we eliminated when we shortened the test.

Q: Does ETS have plans to release a new conversion chart for TOEFL raw scores and scaled scores?

A: Not at this time.

Q: Does ETS have plans to restore level descriptions of each speaking or writing task in the score report? (The ones that showed limited’ ‘weak or fair results for each task)

A: Not at this time.

Q: Does ETS have plans to release a new version of official guidebooks and other test prep materials?

A: An updated Official Guide to the TOEFL Test and Official TOEFL iBT Tests (volumes 1 and 2) will be released; the current projected release date is June 2020, but that date may change.

Reuters is reporting that sittings of the TOEFL for the remainder of January and all of February have been cancelled across China due to the spread of coronavirus.  The GRE and IELTS tests have also been affected.

Update:  China Daily has a more detailed report.  It confirms that “All TOEFL, GRE and IELTS tests in the Chinese mainland in February will be canceled “

All test fees will be refunded.  The situation will be reassessed in February.

There are a few good TOEFL books.  There are a lot of bad TOEFL books.  I hope that this article helps you pick the best ones.  Note that it is now February, 2020.  I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find my current list of non-recommended books and websites.

Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

Kaplan’s TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021. This was the first TOEFL textbook updated to match the new version of the test.  However, I don’t really recommend it.  The sample questions in the book are not very accurate, especially the reading and writing questions.  The questions in the sample tests (provided online) are also very inaccurate.  They just don’t match the structure and organization of questions used on the real test.  Moreover, there are only three practice tests provided online (instead of the four promised on the book’s cover).  While the book has a ton of strategies, they are organized in such a way that many students will just be left confused after reading them.  You can also read my complete review.

 

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep was the second book this year to match the new test.   This one is much better than Kaplan’s book, but it also has a lot of accuracy problems.  The most obvious are in the chapters about the reading and speaking sections.  You can read about all of them in my full review of the book.    I suppose the best part of this book is the collection of skill building exercises in the beginning of the book.  There is only one complete sample test (which can only be done on paper… there is no software included), but there are additional practice questions throughout the book.  Note that this book used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL.”  That was a stupid name.

 

Barron’s TOEFL IBT (16th Edition)This one is sort of updated to match the new test.  The textbook itself is not updated.  However, the eight practice tests have been updated to match the new format.  Also new in this edition is the fact that the practice tests are now provided online, rather than on CD.  Note that I have not purchased this book because I’m waiting for the 17th edition which will be published in April of 2020.  I will wait until then before I comment on the quality of the book.  Note that this is also sold as part of a Superpack, with three other books (writing, vocabulary and “strategies”).

 


Upcoming Books that Will Match the New TOEFL

Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th Edition) will be published on April 7, 2020.  This time the entire book and the practice tests will match the new version of the test.  Content will be provided online (not on CD).  Honestly, I haven’t been happy with some previous books by Barron’s, but the last one of their TOEFL books I looked at really closely was probably the 14th edition, so I am optimistic that this one will be better.  I’ll publish a complete review when it is available.  I think that a Superpack featuring this book will be provided in October.

 

Smart Edition’s TOEFL Full Study Guide is also scheduled to be published on April 7, 2020 (though the publisher told me a few months ago that it will be published in June).  This is Smart Editions’ very first TOEFL book.  I don’t know anything about them, but I am really excited to see a new publisher jump into the TOEFL business.  The cover promises three practice tests, which will be provided online.  It also promises “online flash cards.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, to tell you the truth.

 

 

Kaplan’s 4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL will be updated on September 1, 2020.  It will also be sold as a bundle with the Kaplan book mentioned above.  It will probably suck like most of Kaplan’s TOEFL books.

Barron’s Practice Exercises for the TOEFL (Ninth Edition) will be published on October 6, 2020.  This is the first edition of the book published since 2015.  Honestly, I’ve never used this book, so I can’t comment on the quality.  Apparently it has some material related to the TOEFL ITP (used by institutions), which is neat.  I’ll try to get a copy in October.


Best Overview of the Test

The Official Guide to the TOEFL (5th Edition) is probably the best overview of the test.  I’ve been teaching for a decade and I still open it up now and then to check some specific detail.  Needless to say, it will teach you about all four sections of the test and the different types of questions.  It is also illustrated with plenty of examples.  Note, though, that it has not been updated to match the changes mentioned above.  It also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particular in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test).  ETS has hinted that a new version will be issued in June of 2020, but that has not been stated officially.

 

 

The TOEFL Emergency Course from TST Prep is the best overview of the test that is actually updated for the new version.  Just note that it is an online course, not an actual book.  It includes a 12 page overview of the test provided via PDF, some sample questions and strategies.  If you just want the overview, choose the “basic” version since it is cheapest.  And if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you can get a 10% discount.


Best Books for Practice Tests

I suppose that the two Official TOEFL iBT Test books are still the best source of practice tests.  Each contains five complete practice tests.  They are the closest you will get to the real test, since they are made by ETS.  Note, though, that they are not updated to match the changes I mentioned above so you will have to “modify” the tests by chopping out speaking questions 1 and 5 (and by remembering the the listening and reading sections are shorter.  Note, also, that the independent writing questions are a bit old and that the real test has a greater variety of question styles.  Remember that there are two books you can get – Volume 1 (3rd edition) and Volume 2 (2nd Edition).  ETS has hinted that new versions will be released in June of 2020, but that has not been stated officially.

 

If you want some practice tests that are updated to match the new format, I recommend the ten test pack from TST Prep.  These are the most accurate practice tests you will get from an unofficial source.  They also include all of the modern independent writing prompt styles, so in some ways they are even better than the official materials.  The price is pretty good, and if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you will probably get a 10% discount.  Note that these are provided online, and not in an actual book.


Best Books for TOEFL Reading

There are a couple of independently published books I recommend for the reading section, both written by TOEFL tutors who I know and communicate with regularly.  First is Kathy Spratt’s “Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL,” which is in its second edition.  It is available only as an Amazon ebook, but remember that you can also read Amazon ebooks in your browser.   Second is the “TOEFL Thrive Guide” by Kirstyn Lazur.  That one is available as an Amazon e-book and a (hefty) paperback edition.  Note that neither book has been updated to match the new version of the test.


Best Book for TOEFL Speaking

I still really love “TOEFL Listening and Speaking Skills” from Collins Cobuild.  It is sort of old (it was published in 2012) but it still has the most accurate speaking sample questions of any printed textbook not from ETS.  It also comes with some decent templates and very concise strategies to use on the test.  And heck, you get some listening stuff too.  Audio files are provided online (though the company also sells a version with a CD).  Note that the book has not been updated to match the most recent changes to the test, so you will just have to ignore the sections on speaking questions 1 and 5.  That said, Collins has hinted (on Twitter) that this book will be updated in 2020 so just keep an eye out for a newer version.


Best Book for TOEFL Writing

Collins again!  I really like their  “TOEFL Reading and Writing Skills.”  This book has really accurate question samples.  Even the integrated questions, which almost EVERYONE ELSE messes up.  It also includes some decent templates and concise strategies.  It isn’t bogged down with “information overload” like the Kaplan book, for example.  The independent writing prompts are a bit weaker, though, as they don’t include all of the modern styles.

 


Best Books for Vocabulary

I don’t usually recommend TOEFL vocabulary books.  I’m not entirely sure that studying vocabulary lists is totally helpful, as the odds that the words you study will actually show up on the test are somewhat low.  Not only that, but the new TOEFL introduced in 2019 seems to de-emphasize vocabulary questions in the reading section.  That said, you have a few options.  First up, “Essential Words for the TOEFL” from Barron’s is pretty good.  I like the difficulty level of the words, and I like that it includes some realistic reading questions as well.  Meanwhile, if you just want a whole bunch of words for a really low price (2 bucks) I recommend Darakwon’s “1800 TOEFL Essential Vocabulary.”

 


Best Books for Grammar

I don’t recommend any “TOEFL Grammar” books.  For now, I just suggest my students get the 5th edition of “English Grammar in Use.” From Cambridge University press. This book has been around forever, and it is still the best source of grammar explanations and practice questions.  After getting a copy, you can check out my list of  recommended units to study.  if you want even more content,  Cambridge sells asupplementary book with more practice questions!  For lower level students (writing scores below 20), I recommend getting something a bit easier like “Basic Grammar in Use.”

 


Stuff I Don’t Like

  • “Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barrons – Inexcusably inaccurate sample questions
  • “Essential TOEFL Vocabulary” from McGraw-Hill – It isn’t a TOEFL book (despite the name)
  • “4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL” by Kaplan – Terrible sample tests
  • “Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL” by Nova – Needless complication
  • Edusynch – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books
  • Best My Test – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books

ETS has finally published a list of schools and organizations that accept TOEFL MyBest scores!  You can find the list as a PDF right here. This makes me happy, as I won’t have to maintain my own list anymore.  The ETS list even looks pretty comprehensive.  It appears that they use the same method as me to generate the list (checking university websites), but they’ve found more schools than me and last updated their work on January 3.  I will keep an eye on it for additional updates throughout the year.

Schools Accepting TOEFL MyBest Scores

Important Update from 2020: ETS is now maintaining its own list of schools and organization that accept TOEFL MyBest Scores.  I probably won’t update my own list anymore.  You can find the official list as a PDF file right here.

The following institutions have stated publicly that they will accept TOEFL MyBest Scores. Note that this list could be out of date. It is best to contact the school you are interested in directly.

Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Source: “If you wish to send us “MyBest Scores”, we will accept them. All TOEFL scores we receive will be made available to the program reviewing your application. “

Miami University. Source: “We accept MyBest scores for the TOEFL. This means that the highest scores for each section from different TOEFL exams will determine a combined highest sum score.”

Carnegie Mellon School of Design. Source: “the School of Design also accepts MyBest scores for TOEFL iBT. “

Shoreline Community College. Source: “MyBest scores are accepted.

University of British Columbia College of Graduate Studies. Source: “The College of Graduate Studies accepts MyBest Scores.”

Northwestern (Graduate School). Source: “GS accepts the “MyBest scores”. A new reporting structure released by ETS in August 2019. These scores may be entered in the TOEFL section on the “Test Scores” page of the application form.”

University of Arizona (Graduate College). Source: “Individual MyBest scores must also be dated within 2 years of the enrollment term to be considered valid.”

University of Buffalo. Source.

CalArts. Source: “CalArts accepts “MyBest” scores delivered directly from ETS.”

San Francisco Conservatory of MusicSource: “SFCM will consider accepting the MyBest scores. We must have all score reports the MyBest scores are from submitted with the application, and the scores must be from within the past two years.”

The TOEFL Bulletin was updated sometime this month.  Normally I would list the line-by-line changes here, but those appear too numerous to list.  The policy changes, meanwhile, are just what has already been discussed here already.  Let me know, though, if there is something you want me to dig into.  This edition of the bulletin is valid until June 2020.  Here’s a link.

One thing that did catch my eye is that score review still takes up to three weeks. While students have reported getting those results really quickly (in three days) I guess ETS doesn’t want to make any official promises.