Hey, it’s my second favorite day of the year!  The updated TOEFL Bulletin (for 2020-21) has been published.  This edition is a few months late, as it was supposed to be made available in July.

If you are interested in what’s new this year, I’ve got you covered.  Listen up:

 

Page 6 – Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-related Needs

This has been added:

“If seeking accommodations, submit your request as early as possible. Documentation review takes approximately four to six weeks once your request and complete paperwork have been received at ETS.”

 

Page 10 – Your ETS Account 

These are now on the list of “Services available through your account.”

cancel or reschedule your test
request a score review

 

Page 12 – Test Dates

This line has been revised:

“The TOEFL iBT test is offered more than 60 times each year.” (previously 50)

 

Page 15 – Test Re-take Policy

The section in bold has been added:

“There is no limit to the number of times you can take the test, but you cannot take it more than once in a 3-day period. This applies even if you canceled your scores from a previous test. If you already have a test appointment, you cannot register for another date that is within 3 days of your existing appointment.”

 

Page 24 – Personal Items

The sections in bold have been added:

“Personal items other than ID documents are not allowed in the testing room and are not permitted during breaks, except for food, beverages, and medication.”

“You cannot access your phone or other device during the test session or during breaks to check messages, make a call, or check the time or for any other reason.”

 

Page 26 – On Test Day

The following rule has been removed:

“Referring to, looking through or working on any test or test section when not authorized to do so, or working after time has been called.”

 

Page 27 -Unofficial Scores

The following has been added:

At the end of the test, you’ll be able to view your scores for the Listening and Reading sections. These scores are not your official scores until your score reports are posted in your ETS account, approximately 6 days after you take the test – however, these unofficial scores will give you an idea about how you did on the test.

 

Page 28  – Test Question Inquiries

All of this has been removed.  Weird.

“Language specialists prepare TOEFL test questions following very careful, standardized procedures developed to ensure that all test material is of consistently high quality. Each question is reviewed by several members of the ETS staff. The TOEFL Committee of Examiners (COE), an independent group of professionals in the fields of linguistics, language testing and language teaching that reports to the TOEFL Board of Trustees, establishes overall guidelines for test content and test specifications.

After new test questions have been reviewed and revised as needed, they are selectively used in trial situ ations and then assembled into tests. The tests are then reviewed using established ETS and TOEFL procedures to ensure that all possible versions of the test are free of cultural bias, and statistical analyses of each question ensure that all items provide the appropriate measurement information.”

 

Page 34 – ETS Score Cancellation Policies

ETS hq ain’t no sanctuary city.  The following has been added:

“ETS reserves the right to share any and all information in its possession about a test taker and the terms and conditions of test taking with any third party, including but not limited to (a) any entity which ETS recognizes as an authorized user of test scores, including without limitation any entity to which ETS reports test scores at the test taker’s request, and (b) any government agency with responsibility for administration or enforcement of U.S. criminal and/or immigration laws.”

Page 35 – Holding/Cancelling Scores

The following has been added:

“The retake test policy will be enforced even if a violation is not immediately identified (e.g., inconsistent registration information). If the violation is identified after registration but before the test administration, the testing appointment will be canceled and test fees will be forfeited. If the violation is identified after test scores have been reported, the invalid scores will be canceled, score recipients will be notified of the cancellation and test fees will be forfeited.”

 

Interestingly

The new version includes contractions.  Indeed, they are used whenever possible. Strange.

There are also a few minor changes to wording that I haven’t mentioned here.

You know, a lot of students ask for “strategies” to increase their score in the reading section of the TOEFL.  Sadly, the strategies are always the same – read the questions first, avoid answer choices with superlatives,  skip the hard questions and come back to them… blah, blah, blah.

Those sorts of strategies help, but only a little bit.  A better approach is comprehension before strategies.  That means you should try to improve your overall reading ability before taking the test.  If you truly understand what you read, you won’t need to use any “strategies” on the test… or will only need to use them for a few questions.

How can you improve your reading skills?  By reading more!

Today I’m happy to help by beginning my one hundred part series that will highlight a few fun things you can read to improve your reading skills.  I will focus mostly on non-fiction, but I will throw in a few pieces of fiction now and then.  Some of the recommendations will be available online, but others will need to be purchased.  Most should be available at your local library if you are in an English-speaking country already.  I will only recommend stuff that I have read within the preceding month, but I am open to recommendations!

Let’s see how it goes.

First up, I finally read Freakonomics.  This is a classic, and all of your English teachers have probably recommended it already.  It is also available in the English section of most libraries around the world that I have visited.  This is a really fun work of non-fiction that uses economic analysis to study topics not usually looked at by economists.  Like sumo wrestling.  And drug dealing.  There is also a section on what makes real estate agents so frustrating which made me think a lot about TOEFL teachers.  If you read this book, let me know if you spot that connection as well.  Truly, this is a perfect example of mainstream, fun and accessible non-fiction.  This book is available via the Open Library.

 

Speaking of fun and easy non-fiction, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.”  This book is about miscommunication, and our inability to interact well with people we are not familiar with.  I don’t think I grasped the nuance of the central thesis here, but I still enjoyed the book.  This is a “ripped from the headlines” sort of thing, and you’ll recognize a lot of the main subjects, even if you aren’t American – Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Chandler & Monica, Bernie Madoff, etc.  Like “Freakonomics” it isn’t the deepest of non-fiction, but it is a really fun way to boost your reading skills.  Note also that the audiobook version is also wonderful (better, probably), as it combines music, audio from actual interviews and news clips with the author’s narration of the text.

Science News August 15Finally, I read the mid-August issue of Science News.  If you are going to subscribe to one science magazine to boost your reading skills, this is the one.  Yeah, it is mostly about COVID nowadays.  But there this issue includes an article about the discovery of stone artifacts which is just like a TOEFL integrated writing question!  Some scientists think the stone artifacts are proof that humans reached America earlier than thought… while other scientists think they are not proof!  There are even three reasons given by each side!  I think you can read that article at this link.  If that link doesn’t work, you can find the same story in National Geographic.  Meanwhile, this very short article about dinosaurs with feathers caught my eye, since that’s been a common topic on the TOEFL for a long time.

Okay, that’s all for now, but I will be back in a few weeks with additional recommendations.  I’ll try to toss some fiction into the list at that time.

Official TOEFL iBT TestsThe two Official TOEFL iBT Tests  books contain the most accurate practice tests available.  Each book has five tests, and I recommend that students get both of them.  Just working through each test is guaranteed to increase your score at least somewhat, and it will certainly give you a deeper understanding of how the TOEFL is constructed.   The accuracy of these practice tests is what makes them so valuable – most third party books and websites have terrible sample questions.  Some major publishers publish tests that are mind-bogglingly terrible.

I should mention at this point the current editions of these two books (Volume one has hit the 4th edition and Volume two has hit the third edition) are very similar to the previous editions.  One reading passage has been changed in volume 1, but otherwise the tests have the same questions.  They are, of course, modified to match the changes to the test introduced in 2019 so there are fewer reading, listening and speaking questions.  The good news is that the omitted questions include all of the non-standard reading question types that plagued earlier editions.

The only real difference between the two books is how the speaking and writing answers are presented.  In Volume 1, the book talks about what an answer should contain, while in Volume 2 actual sample answers are provided.  Both methods are helpful.  The explanations function sort of like a template, laying out exactly what information should be included and not included.  The samples, of course, are more tangible.  I do wish that each book included both.  Oh well.

The digital content is no longer provided on a DVD.  Instead, students must use a code to access the files on McGraw-Hill’s website.  I like that the content can be accessed online, but sadly the code can only be used two times.  Make sure to back up those files!

My bottom line is that these are the best TOEFL books available.  They are the only ones that I wholeheartedly recommend.

The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT Test is a book that everyone preparing for the TOEFL should read.  I recommend every edition, and the new sixth edition is no exception.

First, though, a few words about changes to the edition.  This edition has, more or less, the same content as the fifth edition.  However, it has been modified to match the changes to the test introduced in August of 2019.  This means that the reading, listening and speaking practice tests are all a bit shorter.  The chapters that describe these sections have been updated accordingly.  The only new questions are the speaking questions in practice test one.  Everything else is the same as before.  A few of the small inaccuracies scattered throughout the the previous edition have been revised, but some of the big errors (particularly in the writing section, as will be described in a moment) remain.  Digital content must now be downloaded via an access code provided in the book.  I’m glad that a DVD is no longer used, but it is shameful that McGraw-Hill only allows the access code to be used twice, even if the 600 MB download fails mid-download.  If your download fails twice you are screwed.  Good luck finding a customer support number for the publisher.  It ain’t easy.

Anyways, the content here is mostly strong.  The book doesn’t really focus on strategies but instead aims to accurately describe how the test is constructed, and what the questions look like.   Descriptions of all of the question types are given, along with multiple sample questions of each.   This comes in especially handy when students are studying for the reading and listening sections.  Overall, this makes the book a really valuable resource, since most third party books provide misleading sample questions and inaccurate descriptions of test items.  I find that if students actually understand the patterns of the test and how it is created they are able to improve their performance and study properly.  If you want to know exactly what the test looks like, this is the book for you

In this regard, the reading, listening and speaking chapters are great.  The writing chapter falls short, though.  Inexplicably, the authors provide a grossly inaccurate sample integrated writing question, with a reading consisting of only two paragraphs in total.  The matching lecture is similarly inaccurate.  What’s worse is that the integrated writing question in the first sample test is similarly flawed.  These two flaws have been part of the book since the first edition was published 15 years ago, and it pains me to see them reprinted in edition after edition after edition.  Likewise, the big list of sample independent questions included on pages 210 to 213 contains a bunch of prompt styles no longer used on the test.  I’m pretty sure they are all leftovers from the CBT version of the test, as they have also been in the book since the first edition was published.

I will also point out that while the software used for the sample tests is functional, it is quite dated and clunky, which makes it a poor simulation of the real test.  It is about time for Mcgraw-Hill to replace that with something more elegant, similar to what Barron’s is now using for their line of TOEFL prep books.

At least once a week, a student asks me if they should get a TOEFL score review (for speaking or writing).   The short answer is: “probably not.”  The long answer is:  “if the cost is no problem, you should do it.”

However, if you want more information, here’s what you should note:

  1. In my experience, a score review results in an increase about 10% of the time.  The rest of the time, the score stays the same.  In rare cases, the score goes down.  This rate is the same for both speaking and writing.
  2. However, I have heard from some students who have gotten large increases, up to four points.  I can’t really explain this.
  3. During a score review, the e-rater (for writing) and SpeechRater (for speaking) are not used.  This isn’t published information, but ETS has confirmed it when asked.  This means that score reviews are done entirely by humans.  If you think that you were punished by the automated scoring systems, you might want to request a review.
  4. The person doing the score review will not see your original score.  They will not be biased by your old score, but they will probably be aware that they are doing a score review.

In terms of money and timing:

  1. The score review is really expensive.  Eighty dollars for one section.  However, if your score changes this money will be returned to you.  This is not a published policy, though, so it could change at any time.
  2. The score review usually takes about one week, but it could take longer.

Note that most students are not able to request a score review since it is not possible if your scores have been sent to institutions.  If you selected some free score recipients when you signed up for the test they will get the scores right away, and thus you will not be able to request the score review.

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.