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 TOEFL books.  Note that it is now January, 2020.  I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released.  Hopefully the list will become shorter as I check out the new books (and delete the bad ones).  For now, it starts with books that match the new version of the TOEFL that began in August 2019.  It continues with some new books that will be published later in the year, and concludes with lists of the best older books that focus on specific skills (writing, speaking, reading, listening, grammar, etc).  At the end you can find my current list of non-recommended books and sites.

Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

Kaplan’s TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021.  So far,  this is the only TOEFL book 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.

 

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

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep will be published on February 4, 2020.  Older editions had the name “Cracking the TOEFL.”  I’m glad they got rid of that name, because it was pretty stupid.  Previous editions of this book have been fairly good.  They have included fairly good questions and plenty of skill-building exercises.  The book only includes one complete test, but I don’t think that is a problem.  There are plenty of other places to get practice tests.  Note that electronic content will be provided both on CD and online.  I will write a detailed review when this one is published.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.  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 issues in 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).

 

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

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.

Another year and another bad edition of TOEFL Prep Plus by Kaplan.  

There are four problems with this book every year.  They are:

  • It isn’t updated very much.
  • It needlessly complicates the test.
  • The practice questions and sample are terribly inaccurate.
  • The online resources are not as promised

I’ll deal with these one at a time.

First of all, though this is the “2020-20201” edition of the book, it is pretty much the same as the 2008-2009 edition from 11 years ago

The online content seems even older, and looks to be the same stuff that was on the CD-ROM of the 2007-2008 edition. The publisher has deleted the stuff that was dropped from the test this year, but everything else (the strategies and the samples) is almost entirely the same.  The contents badly need to be replaced with new material, especially the samples which don’t reflect what students get on the actual test.  The samples were bad even when the book was first published, but now that a decade has passed, the errors are much less forgivable.

Secondly, the book is way too complicated.  The book includes 69 strategies for mastering the reading section. I counted  another 69 numbered strategies for the writing section (not to mention the fact that number 16 is broken down into 16A through 16E). That’s just too much crap. This aspect of the book needs be culled.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the questions in the book are inaccurate.  As always, that’s the aspect I want to focus on most of all in this review.  Let’s get started.

Reading

The book starts out okay with a few decent samples of articles used in the reading section (pages 19, 25), but then pairs these with inaccurate sample questions.  Instead of matching a question with a specific paragraph, students are required to read through the whole article looking for the paragraph that matches the given question.  This becomes a major problem on page 32 when a NOT/EXCEPT style question refers to details that are actually spread out over three paragraphs.  That means the student is actually required to use all three paragraphs to answer the question, rather than using just a single paragraph as on the real test.  This is replicated on page 54 where students have to look through four long paragraphs to properly answer an inference question that would be specific to only a single paragraph on the real test.

It should also be mentioned that beyond the problems with question designs, most of the sample articles are somewhat weak overall.  On pages 35, 51, 66 and 94 students are given articles that are generally longer than the real test, and with fewer paragraphs.  This means that the paragraphs are really long, some stretching out to about 300 words.  This bothers me as students really need to become familiar with hunting for answers in short but dense paragraphs.

Listening

This is probably the strongest section of the book.  The conversations and lectures are about the same length as what is used on the real test.  The delivery of the voice actors is somewhat monotone and lacks the natural quality of the actors on the real test, but that’s a minor complaint.  The questions themselves are not as accurate as the ones in the Official iBT Tests Collection, but they are pretty close.  I might actually recommend this chapter to someone who needs a bit of extra practice and has already worked through everything in better books.

Speaking

Mostly bad here.  The sample independent speaking questions on page 168 are all terrible.  Instead of using proper agree/disagree or preference choices it just lists 15 yes/no questions.  Kaplan should know by now that “Do government workers need privacy?” is not how a TOEFL speaking question is phrased.

The book does have a decent type 2 speaking question on page 174 about parking on campus (a very common topic!) but quickly jumps into a terrible question on page 180 where the reading is a job posting rather than an announcement of some change on campus.

It then includes a completely wrong type 3 question which illustrates a concept using three examples, rather than 1 or 2 like on the real test (page 182/183).

The chapter finishes with a massive type 4 question, which includes a lecture probably twice as long as what would be used on the real test.

Writing

The integrated writing here is all bad as well.  The authors of the book just don’t understand how the reading and lecture are structured on the real test.  On test day, students get a four paragraph reading that has an introduction followed by three body paragraphs, each of which includes a unique and specific point.  That is followed by a lecture which begins with an introduction and challenges each of those three points in turn (and in the same order).  I call this a “mirror” structure.  If you look at the samples on pages 233 and 255 they are nothing like this.  The sample on page 253 almost figures this out, but the listening fails to rebut the reading’s points in the right order.

The section on independent writing is equally weak.  It includes a bunch of opened-ended questions (268, 287, 288) that aren’t used on the real test.  It fails to include any multiple choice questions, which are used very often these days.

The Online Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above problems are also present in the online tests.  In the reading section students again have to hunt around the whole article to answer many of the questions, instead of being told to focus on a single paragraph as on the real TOEFL.  The articles again include freakishly long paragraphs that don’t match the real test. Not only is this inaccurate, but it really messes up any chance students have of learning proper time management in this section.

The listening content is okay, while the speaking and writing content is marred by the same sort of problems I identified above.  The questions all have a superficial resemblance to the real test, but never quite achieve an acceptable level of accuracy.  Notably, speaking Q3 in the first test asked me to “explain the  major differences” between what was in the reading and the lecture.  There’s just no excuse for that.

Just as frustrating is the clunkiness of the online test software.  Users are unable to quickly skip ahead to desired sections.  If you wish to study only writing?  Too bad, you are going to have to sit through the reading, listening and speaking sections.  This represents a step back from when Kaplan offered the same tests on CD. 

Speaking of taking a step back, it must be mentioned that the practice tests don’t record student answers, so they cannot listen to what they said for review purposes.  This functionality was provided 11 years ago when the same tests were provided on CD.

I noticed also that Kaplan failed to record new instructions for the shortened speaking section, so the questions are now misnumbered.  The same is true in the lectures provided online.  That’s just laziness.  In addition, the timers in the practice test are all wrong, and don’t reset between questions in the speaking and writing sections.  So, for example, if you only use 10 minutes to answer the first writing question you’ll have 40 minutes to answer the second writing question.  This needs to be fixed.

Finally, the cover of the book promises “4 Practice Tests” (and an insert clarifies that they are all provided online) but there are only three tests provided.  Last year’s edition had the same problem.  I find that kind of sleazy.

 

Overall

Don’t get this book.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  Kaplan needs to get serious about updating their material.  They haven’t done a proper update since 2008.  There are so many good resources they can use to study the design of the TOEFL that were not available when this material was first created.  They need to take advantage of them.

 

Students can now register for the TOEFL just two days before taking the test.  The deadline used to be four days before taking the test.  Just note that any registrations that occur within seven days of the test will include a 40 dollar late fee.  I’ve pasted in the graphic used by ETS to promote this change.

I guess it is good that ETS is providing a lot more flexibility (only one week wait time between test attempts, faster score reports, much faster score reviews, etc).

As always, complete your registration over here at ETS.

 

This week I was lucky enough to again have an opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by ETS for TOEFL teachers.  Here is a quick summary of some of the questions that were asked by attendees of the workshop.  Note that the answers are not direct quotes, unless indicated.

 

Q:  Are scores adjusted statistically for difficulty each time the test is given?

A: Yes.  This means that there is no direct conversion from raw to scaled scores in the reading and listening section.  The conversion depends on the performance of all students that week.

 

Q: Do all the individual reading and listening questions have equal weight?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  When will new editions of the Official Guide and Official iBT Test books be published?

A:  There is no timeline.

 

Q:  Are accents from outside of North America now used when the question directions are given on the test?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How are the scores from the human raters and the SpeechRater combined?

A:  “Human scores and machines scores are optimally weighted to produce raw scores.”  This means ETS isn’t really going to answer this question.

 

Q: Can the human rater override the SpeechRater if he disagrees with its score?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How many different human raters will judge a single student’s speaking section?

A:  Each question will be judged by a different human.

 

Q:  Will students get a penalty for using the same templates as many other students?

A:   Templates “are not a problem at all.”

 

Q: Why were the question-specific levels removed from the score reports?

A: That information was deemed unnecessary.

 

Q:  Is there a “maximum” word count  in the writing section?

A:  No.

 

Q:  Is it always okay to pick more than one choice in multiple choice writing prompts?

A:  Yes.

 

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.