A new edition of Barron’s TOEFL iBT Writing by Lin Lougheed was published last month.  I wrote a review of the previous edition a couple of years ago.  This is basically the same book, so I will keep this review short.  There are just a couple of things I want to emphasize.

The first point is that this book has inaccurate practice questions.  It seems quite clear that the book was originally based on a very close reading of the first edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL (which you can borrow from the Open Library) and has not been revised to reflect more recent developments.  That’s problematic, as the first Official Guide was mostly written before the iBT even launched, and it contains quite a few bad questions.  Both of its integrated questions are totally unlike what is used on the real test.  It also contains a big list of independent questions that were used on the old TOEFL CBT. 

Sadly, the Barron’s book reproduces these flaws.  It contains a bunch of integrated questions based on two paragraph articles (instead of four like on the real test), and some that are descriptive instead of argumentative.  The former flaw is right out of the first Official Guide.  To my eye, only one single integrated writing question in the book (the one about Shakespeare) resembles the real test.  Meanwhile, the parts of the book about the independent writing question mostly reproduce the exact questions included in the Official Guide, including a lot of open-ended questions that will never show up on the real test.  The end result of all of this is that students will be confused on test day, and will waste their time studying in an inefficient way.

It has been sixteen years since the TOEFL iBT launched.  The editors of this book need to read some of the materials published by ETS in the years since the launch to gain a better idea of what the real test is like.  A quick perusal of the sixth edition of the Official Guide, as well as the  two Official iBT Tests books will give them a clear idea of how to write accurate integrated questions.

The second point I want to emphasize is that the book does have some fantastic stuff about creating essays.  I love the sections about how to craft clear thesis statements.  It also has sections on parallel structures and vocabulary variation, which are topics I have to teach my students about every week.  Not only that, but it has an amazing bit about writing simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  That is critically important subject material, and no other TOEFL book touches on it.  It is a shame that this wonderful content is paired up with such shoddy practice questions.

I really want to love this book.  The other two TOEFL books in the Barron’s line have improved quite a lot in recent editions.  My hope is that this one improves just as much when the eighth edition is published.

Note:  Barron’s sometimes has problems with its online audio files.  I haven’t checked them all.   Good luck.

Buried in an article in the “Learning English” section of Voice of America is some news about which schools will accept the new TOEFL Essentials Test:

Some schools like Temple University Law School, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the University of San Francisco have told ETS they will accept results from the new test. And ETS said it will publish a list of universities that intend to accept the Essentials test after the first phase of testing.

That’s nice.  In the near future I will start a blog post that lists schools which will accept the test.

Ha ha.  I am a TOEFL essay machine now.  This took about three minutes to create using my fake essay template, and I think it looks pretty decent.

The prompt is:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better for children to grow up in the countryside than in a large city. Use specific reasons and examples to develop your essay.

The Essay is:

A lot of people today think that we should live in the city.  However, I strongly believe that it is much better for kids to live in the country for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that cities are the best place for young people to live.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, life in the countryside can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that living in the countryside is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought the lack of businesses in the country would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of rural life.  Now I realize that the presence of agriculture can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to growing organic crops.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on farming at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, life in the countryside has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use hiking trails we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of rural sports.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that rural lifestyles will have an even greater impact in the future because of the clean air in the countryside.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from life away from crowded cities is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that it is best for young people to live in the countryside.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

Okay, I’m having fun with the Gangnam style TOEFL template I generated yesterday.  This time I tackled the second prompt in my collection.  Obviously it has a lot of overlap, since both deal with the Internet.  Next time I think I will delete the final sentence from the introduction. It lays the template on a bit too thick.  I’ll replace it with nothing, and just jump to the body after the thesis statement.

The prompt is:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better to use printed materials such as books and articles to do research than it is to use the internet. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

The “fake essay” is:

A lot of people today think that using online materials for research is a bad idea.  However, I strongly believe that using the Internet for research is wise for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that websites are unreliable.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, using the Internet for researching topics can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that the web is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought relying on unreliable online sources would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of cutting edge research that is published online.  Now I realize that learning about the latest academic developments online can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to crypto-currency.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on emerging web-based technologies at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, medical websites have a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use websites that report on health trends we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of the Internet.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that websites will have an even greater impact in the future because of the number of doctors who are online.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from online research is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that researching online is beneficial.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

There is a wonderful article by Sugene Kim (Nagoya University of Commerce & Business) in this month’s issue of “Assessing Writing” that describes TOEFL writing tutoring in Korea.  I’ve written about how Korean students prepare for the TOEFL a few times (see this article from last year), and Kim’s article touches on some of the same themes.

Kim describes how Korean tutors use templates to prepare students for both of the writing tasks.  But these aren’t templates like the ones on this site.  The templates prepared by Korean tutors are almost complete essays.  The template might come out to 300 or 350 words, and the student simply plugs in 20 or 30 words that match the given topic.  The article includes interviews with students who confirm the effectiveness of this method.  The tutors produce totally personalized templates for each student so they are much harder for ETS to detect.  The article describes how the most successful tutors become stars in education sector.  One is referred to by students as “the Writing sniper.”  Of his work, the interviewee notes:

“He gives lessons based on his own templates, which are famous for ‘mesmerizing’ ETS essay raters.  Most of his former pupils are known to have experiences a dramatic score increase after taking his classes.”

The article doesn’t exaggerate.  I am based in Korea, and one of my close friends in the TOEFL-prep industry is  a star tutor.  His business is booming and he gets results.

A sample template (complete with student annotations) is available in the article.  Personally, I don’t teach this way but if I was going to write a “Korean Style Template” it would look something like this:

Introduction

A lot of people today think that [opposite of thesis].  However, I strongly believe that [thesis] for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that [opposite of thesis].  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

Body 1

First, [topic] can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that [topic] is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought [aspect of topic] would actually make it harder for me to get a job, and so I was hostile toward it.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of [aspect of topic].  Now I realize that [specific aspect of topic] can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to [specific aspect of topic].  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on [aspect of topic] at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Body 2

Second, [topic] has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use [topic] we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of [aspect of topic].  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that [topic] will have an even greater impact in the future because of [aspect of topic].  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from [topic] is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think that [thesis].  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

 

Okay, so I might use this to answer a prompt about the Internet ( Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Overall, the widespread use of the internet has a mostly positive effect on life in today’s world) thusly:

A lot of people today think that the internet is harmful.  However, I strongly believe that internet access is beneficial for two reasons.  First, it leads to a lot of great job opportunities.  Second, it vastly improves our health and wellbeing, which a lot of people are struggling with nowadays.  To be fair, a lot of older people have the traditional view that the internet is damaging.  That said, I think this viewpoint is outdated and quite useless in today’s society.

First, the internet can improve our range of job opportunities in the future.  As I implied above, people my parent’s age (and older) think that the internet is actually quite dangerous.  When I was young and they had a lot of influence over my world view, I actually had the same opinion.  At that time, I thought websites would actually eliminate jobs, and so I was hostile toward them.  However, after I entered college and my social network broadened, I realized the unique benefits of online communications.  Now I realize that the Internet can help us find employment in high paying fields.  For example, my young cousin makes a lot of money because he works in a field related to online commerce.  His experience changed my perspective, and now I am focusing on information technology at university in the hope of achieving the same thing.

Second, the Internet has a noticeable effect on our physical health and maybe even our mental health.  I actually read a story about this in the Village Voice Newspaper a few months ago.  It pointed out that if we properly use the Internet we can avoid the poor health that a lot of people are dealing with nowadays.  The article claimed that 75% of Americans think that the best way of staying fit is making use of fitness applications.  Medical experts who reviewed the study results agreed, and suggested that the Internet will have an even greater impact in the future because of new developments.  Consequently, I strongly feel that benefiting from the Internet is a fantastic way to stay healthy.

In conclusion, I think that the Internet is beneficial.  This is because it can lead to gainful employment, and because it has a positive impact on our minds and bodies.

But it isn’t as easy as that. A few things are worth mentioning:

  • At first glance, it seems like this template might be useable with only about 10% of the prompts on my sample page.   The star tutor will give students a bunch of templates to cover the whole range of possible prompts.  They will also get them to mix and match body paragraphs covering a range of benefits (jobs, health, quality of life, family bonds, relationships, etc.).
  • I spent about 10 minutes writing this template.  It isn’t great, but I think it demonstrates the point I am trying to convey.  The star tutors work harder to provide much better templates for their students. 
  • As the article points out, students take the test many times.  The system doesn’t always work.
  • As I mentioned in a blog post last year, ETS seems to be penalizing students for fake surveys and research nowadays.  Professor Kim didn’t mention this, but anecdotal evidence I’ve heard seems to corroborate my claim.

What does this all mean?  I don’t know.

The Open Library now offers a copy of Compass Publishing’s “Mastering Skills for the TOEFL iBT Advanced (Listening).”  You can borrow it for an hour, or for a couple of weeks with a free account.  Here’s a link.  You can quickly access the audio files from the publisher.

This is a great book full of accurate listening content that will be new to 99.9% of people reading this blog.  The book is from a Korean publisher, which means its content is way more accurate than most TOEFL books and websites.

Even if you ignore the skill building content, this is a great opportunity to complete two full listening practice tests.  And, as you probably know, everyone ought to complete all of the practice tests they can get their hands on.

I check Open Library every day for new TOEFL books.  Most of the time I am disappointed with the selections, but I got really excited today when I saw this one!

It’s May!

As always, “Science News” is a good source of articles for academic reading practice. A few stories stood out this month.  In particular:

Meanwhile, a reader sent in this article from the New York Times:

Sapiens Book CoverI finally read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“last month.  This is one of the most popular history books of all time, and it is a perfect source of academic reading practice.  It is about the early history of mankind, which (as I indicated last month) is one of the most frequent topics on the reading section of the TOEFL.  You can buy it on Amazon, or get borrow it from the Open Library.

I listened to the audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “The Bomber Mafia.”  Like Harari, Gladwell is a rock star in the world of non-fiction publishing.  His latest is about bombing missions carried out by the American military during World War II.  It is certainly thought provoking.  You can buy it on Amazon.

Hills of Adonis CoverFinally, I read Colin Thubron’s travel book “In the Hills of Adonis.”  This one is an account of his walking tour of Lebanon in 1967.  I recommended one of his earlier travel books last month.  Actually, I’m working my way through his whole bibliography in anticipation of his newest book, due out this November.  His work can be challenging but if you like travel and you like history check it out.  You can buy it on Amazon, or borrow it from the Open Library

Alright, that’s all for this month.  Next month I’ll have some words about a new TOEFL prep book published by Barrons.  Hopefully my first issue of “History Today” magazine will arrive, and I will be able to switch from science to history in terms of article recommendations.

 

The TOEFL Essentials page for test takers has launched.   It contains a ton of good information, but the most important is obviously the collection of three sample TOEFL Essentials Tests.  Check them out.  Obviously you will also want to check out the list of TOEFL Essentials Content.

For my take on this content, you should watch my video about the question types.

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.

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