I got another question from a student.  They asked:

“I have a question about the independent writing task I hope you can answer. What is the most common type of question that most test takers get in this task?  Is it multiple choice?  Advantages and Disadvantages?  Something else?”

Here’s the answer I gave:

The most common type of independent writing question is the “Agree/Disagree” style, which seems to come up about 50% of the time.  This type presents a single-sentence statement and you must state if you agree or disagree with it.

The “paired choice” question comes up about 25% of the time.  In this one, you must choose between two opposing or related options.  Like whether it is best to study in a group or to study alone.  Sometimes this takes the form of a hypothetical situation, like whether it is better for a company to donate to a museum or to donate to a children’s sports team.

The “multiple choice” question comes up about 25% of the time.  This is a lot like the paired choice, but with three options (sometimes four or five).  It is a bit tricky because with all those options the prompt can take a long time to read.

Finally, in rare cases (or maybe never) you might get a “good idea” prompt, where you are presented with a hypothetical situation, and should state whether you think it is a good idea.  For instance, you might be told that a company will forbid employees from answering emails on the weekend.

I must mention that “advantages and disadvantages” questions are not used on the test.

Alright, so here is a quick summary of all the changes in the new editions of “Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1 (fourth edition)” and “Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2 (third edition).

General Changes

  1. Of course, the tests have been revised to match the new format.  The reading, speaking and listening sections have been shortened.
  2. I believe that all of the pronoun reference questions have been removed from the reading tests in both books.  This matches recent observations that the pronoun reference questions are quite rare nowadays (but this is not a guarantee that you won’t get one).
  3. The reading tests have mostly been shortened by eliminating vocabulary questions, but of course a few questions of other types have also been removed.  Again, this matches recent observations that vocabulary questions are way less frequent than before.
  4. Thankfully, all of the non-standard reading questions have been removed.  This includes the weird ones with the following phrasing:  “which of the following best describes the author’s presentation of information in the passage,” “the passage is developed primarily by…” and “which of the terms is defined in the passage.”  I’m really happy about this change.
  5. All of the table questions have been shortened (items have been removed) and they are now worth only two points (instead of 3 or 4 points).

Changes in Volume 1

  1.  The first reading passage in test four is now “Galileo and his Telescope” (which is not a TPO).  It used to be “Population and Climate.”  I think this is because the old passage was dominated by a massive non-standard question that referred to four different paragraphs.

Changes in Volume 2

  1.  The third reading passages from test two and test three have been switch.  I don’t know why.

 

Official TOEFL iBT Tests

Changes in the Practice Tests

And, finally, this series comes to an end with some words about the practice tests in the 6th edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  Note that I could have missed a few changes since I didn’t cross-reference every single word in the tests.

Basically, though, tests 2, 3 and 4 are exactly the same as before but with a few questions removed to match the new format introduced in 2019.  Test 1 has a totally new speaking section, and the rest of the content is the same as before (but, again, shortened).

General Changes

  1. There is a longer explanation at the beginning of the reading section in each test.  The description now describes how students can use the “back” button during the test to move between questions.  It also mentions the possibility of a dummy set.  Those are both welcome.  I hope the test center version includes this longer description as well.
  2. Important: the raw to scale conversion charts for the reading and listening sections have changed.  This had to happen, of course, since the number of questions is different.  But it is worth noting that every test now has the same chart, and it include a range of scaled scores for each single raw score.  Some of the ranges are pretty huge. For example, a raw reading score of 17 can result in a scaled score of 13 to 19 points.  This confirms my earlier speculation that there no universal conversion chart is possible, and that the conversion differs from test to test.  I added photos of these charts to my article about the conversion process.
  3. Important:  you will see below that there are far fewer vocabulary questions on all of the tests.

Changes To Test One

  1. The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, vocabulary, negative factual (set one); vocabulary, reference, sentence simplification (set two); vocabulary, vocabulary, reference (set 3).  Note that only three questions were deleted, because in the previous edition these sets didn’t have enough questions.  It is great to see that error finally corrected!
  2. One lecture has been deleted in the listening section.
  3. All four speaking questions are new!  This is welcome, as the old “academic lecture” question (number 6) seemed a bit non-standard to me.
  4. The integrated writing question is still flawed.  That sucks.
  5. There are longer and more detailed descriptions of good speaking answers.  This mimics the design of “Official iBT Tests Volume 1.”  This is a very welcome change, but the same content was not added to tests 2 to 4.

Changes to Test Two

  1. The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, factual information, vocabulary, factual information (set one); vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information (set two); sentence simplification, vocabulary, vocabulary, negative factual (set three).
  2. One lecture was removed.  Thankfully, the one selected for removal was too short.  This makes the test a bit more accurate!

Changes to Test Three

  1. The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information, vocabulary (set 1), negative factual, factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary (set 2); factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary (set 3)
  2. One lecture was removed.

Changes to Test Four

  1. The removed reading questions are the following types: factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information (set 1), vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information, rhetorical purpose (set 2), vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, inference (set 3)
  2. One lecture was removed.

Digital Downloads

  1.  You must now download the audio and practice tests using an “access code” that can only be entered TWICE.  That means you had better save the file somewhere.  Make sure you have a reliable Internet connection, as the download is about 600 MB, and slow.
  2. The practice test uses the same terrible software it has always used.  It looks like it is from 2003.  ETS should do better.  I’m surprised it doesn’t say “Made with Macromedia” somewhere.

Coming Up

I’ll write a general review of the book for Goodreads. Finally, I will move on to the two new Official Test Collection books.  I won’t examine them so closely and will probably just upload a short article that summarizes the changes in each.

 

I heard from a student today who was confused about why their TOEFL writing score was so low.  They got 30 points in the reading section, 29 points in the listening section, 30 points in the speaking section… but just 19 points in the writing section.  I could tell just by reading their e-mail that their grammar was far above the “19 point level,” so clearly that wasn’t the cause of the low score.

So what caused their weird (and disappointing) writing score?  Here’s how I responded:

It is impossible for me to say what caused your low score, since I cannot read the essays you wrote on test day.

However, I have a few ideas:

  1. One or both of your body paragraphs in the independent essay could have been flagged as off-topic. This will result in a major penalty, even if your grammar is perfect.  This is the sort of thing that a score review might help you with.
  2. You might have written really short essays. If you follow the recommended word counts stated on the screen during the test it is hard (but not impossible) to score in the high 20s.
  3. You may have misunderstood some key lecture details in the integrated essay. Again, even with perfect grammar you can get a low score if your details are wrong.
  4. Nowadays ETS seems to be penalizing students who use made-up research or news stories to support their reasons in the independent essay.

 

These are just some of the reasons why a student with an advanced command of the English language might get a low score in the writing section. 

It is important to note that number four is a recent development.  Some students have suggested that they’ve been penalized for this, but obviously this is just speculation on their part.  That said, a recent update to the Official Guide to the TOEFL (August 2020) supports this theory.  Below is that update.

 

Changes in Chapter 5 – The Writing Section

Although the writing section of the TOEFL has not changed since the last edition of the Official Guide, there are a few changes in the book worth mentioning.

Page 187: There is a new warning for students: “be sure to use your own words rather than memorized sentences and examples in your essays.  Essays that include memorized text will receive a lower score.”

Page 200:  The book repeats the old warning about memorized examples, but adds “and your response will receive a lower score.”

Page 201:  This warning is expanded upon.  I won’t repeat the whole thing here, but it adds to the above: “extended stretches of memorized text do not represent the writer’s true academic writing skills.  Responses that include memorized examples, arguments, or formulaic references to sources will receive considerably lower scores than essays containing the writer’s own words.

It also adds an example of what it is referring.  The example is a long body paragraph that summarizes a fictional poll conducted by the New York Times, which it describes as “not genuine development.”

This matches the advice I have long given students to not use fake research to support their arguments.

Those are all of the changes I could spot, but it is worth mentioning that the book still contains the following misleading parts:

  • An inaccurate integrated sample question on page 188 (the reading only has two paragraphs in total)
  • A reference to supporting lectures on page 190
  • A poor list of sample questions on page 210 (some of them are styles of prompts no longer used on the real test)

I’ll wrap this series of articles up tomorrow with a few words about the sample tests.

According to a report in EdWeek, ETS has launched “investment arm devoted to supporting growth-stage companies in education” called ETS Strategic Capital.  The article reports that through this arm ETS plans to make equity investments ranging from $1 million to $20 million dollars, and M&A deals ranging from $20 million to $200 million.

I guess this answers the question of what ETS did with the money they got from selling Prometric to a Hong Kong based private equity fund in 2018.  That sale, the timing of which turned out to be quite fortuitous, added one billion dollars to ETS’s bottom line. 

The article mentions a few startups ETS has already invested in.  Some of them look promising.  Being flush with cash at a time like this puts ETS in a strong position, and I am sure their investments will pay off in the long run.  I fear, though, that the organization may be moving further from its core mandate of conducting valuable research and developing accurate assessment methods.

Interestingly, ETS recently started looking for a new Chief Operating Officer.  I don’t know if that is connected to this development.

 

Changes in Chapter 4 – The Speaking Section

Moving along, here are changes to the fourth chapter of the new Official Guide to the TOEFL. Of course the old question types (1 and 5) have been removed, but that’s not what this series is about!

Page 165 – 176: The four speaking questions are all given actual names now.  They are: Paired Choice, Fit and Explain, General/Specific, Summary.  That’s nice, and I will likely modify my guides to refer to the official names of each question. That said, I don’t really know why they call the second one “Fit and Explain.”

Page 165: The description of the first speaking question has been modified slightly.  It now specifically mentions that you might be asked if you agree or disagree with a prompt, and a sample of that is given.  This is a great change.

Page 166: The “tip” has been expanded.  The new part is: “But don’t try to write out a full response because you won’t have time, and the raters scoring your response want to hear you speaking, not reading aloud.

Page 167 (important): There is a new tip.  This one will be controversial.  It says: “Do not memorize responses before the test, especially ones that you get from the Internet, or from test preparation instructors who say this is a good idea.  It is not a good idea, and it will lower your score.  Raters will recognize a memorized response because the rhythm, intonation, and even the content of the response will be very different from a spontaneous response.  Memorized responses are easy to identify.”

Page 185 (important): The SpeechRater is mentioned: “SpeechRater primarily measures features described in the Speaking rubrics under Language Use and Delivery.”  Pay attention to the “primarily” weasel word.  This means that the SpeechRater does, to some extent, grade your topic development as well!

 

 

Update:  The files seem to be available now.

Just a word of warning about the new Official Guide.

You must use an access code from the book to download the audio files and software. The code can only be used two times.

If you enter the code right now, you will get a message that the downloads are not ready. That will count as one use of the code. If you enter the code again tomorrow and the files are still not ready, that will count as a second use of the code.

After that you will have no more uses left. You will not be able to get the files.

I will try, somehow, to get confirmation of when it is safe to use the download code.

Changes in Chapter 3 – The Listening Section

Okay, this will be a quick entry in this series, since chapter three is largely unchanged.  But a few things are worth mentioning.

Page 119 (important): The 5th edition says that “each lecture or conversation is 3-6 minutes long.”  The 6th edition says that “each lecture or conversation is approximately 4-5 minutes long.”  I guess the conversations are trending longer, while the lectures are trending shorter nowadays.

Page 119:  The old edition says “you should take notes.”  The new edition says “you may take notes.”  I like that change.

Everything else, including the practice sets, seems to be exactly the same.