My Grade for Writing for the TOEFL iBT: F

I love the idea of a full-length TOEFL writing textbook, so I must acknowledge the effort that Barron’s and author Lin Lougheed put into this book. Sadly, “Writing for the TOEFL” is a terrible book.

Like the team from Kaplan, the folks at Barron’s seem incapable of writing proper integrated writing questions. This book contains page after page after page of terrible integrated writing practice questions. The questions in the model tests at the back of the book are bad as well.

It shouldn’t be hard for authors to realize that the integrated writing question always includes an article with four paragraphs, paired with a lecture that when transcribed contains four matching paragraphs, each of which casts doubt on a specific point from the reading. Likewise, it shouldn’t be too hard to notice that the specific counterpoints from the lecture are presented in the same order as the reading points. Just sitting for the TOEFL a few dozen times will teach them that.

I just don’t know how major publishers mess this up, since they can afford to let their authors take the test as many times as they want. Barron’s has been publishing this book for 17 years, and they still haven’t figured it out. The integrated writing questions all have articles that consist of four paragraphs and three points. Frustratingly, though, the matching lectures often don’t include specific counterpoints, and they aren’t broken down into a four paragraph structure.

The lectures here are merely descriptive. Most of the time they describe the topic at hand, without challenging the specific points made in the reading. This is similar to the flawed practice test contained in the Official Guide, which the author of this text might have leaned too heavily on.

For instance, Model Test 4 (page 169) presents three details related to the bubonic plague of the 1300s. They are: (i) it was transmitted starting in China, (ii) Italian ships spread it to Europe, and (iii) social order broke down because of it. The lecturer (page 309), though, spends about 2/3 of his time talking about how ancient Egyptians also suffered from plague, before talking about how people in the modern world also suffer from plague. The matching point/counterpoint style of the real TOEFL is completely missing.

The other error that experienced teachers will notice is that the article in this case lacks an overall argument. It merely describes the plague. A proper question would make some argument about the plague. For instance, the introduction would establish that the main argument is that the plague started in China. Each body paragraph, then, would present one piece of evidence in favor of this. The matching lecture would suggest that the plague did not start in China, and would challenge each of the authors points in turn.

Model test 2 (page 169) is pretty much the same. It lacks an argument, and presents three details about animal intelligence. The lecturer babbles on about mirrors for the full three minutes.

Model test 1 (page 167) also lacks an overall argument. Dealing with the effects of technology on learning, body paragraphs 1 and 3 suggest that it is beneficial, while body paragraph 2 suggests that it is not helping. The lecture, meanwhile, presents one story of success and one story of failure.

It must be said that model test 3 (page 171) is almost a perfect TOEFL integrated writing question. It does everything right – it presents a clear argument that Shakespeare did not write his famous plays, while the lecturer challenges each of these in turn. Evidently Barron’s is capable of coming up with proper questions, but are unaware of the fact that this structure is used every time the test is offered.

As far as the independent writing question goes, Barron’s has again leaned too heavily on the Official Guide. Indeed, they’ve pretty much reproduced the entire list of sample independent questions from that guide. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, though, that list has problems. This does lead to the book’s single strong point – a whopping 144 sample essays at the back of the book which answer these questions. These essays may be responding to slightly faulty questions and they don’t really utilize the structure I prefer, but they are a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration for students who might be struggling to come up with content on test day. With a proper warning from a teacher to ignore the rest of the book this could be a helpful resource for students.

That said, this highlight isn’t enough to save this faulty book. I can’t really recommend it.


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