Barron’s TOEFL iBT is the best TOEFL book in 2020. However, there are a few issues worth mentioning, so students will need a teacher (or this review, I guess) to tell them which parts of the book to focus on, and which to supplement with other sources.
Let’s start by talking about the positive aspects of the book. The foremost of these is that the book is regularly updated. Author Pamela Sharpe has been working on this book since 1977 (!) and regularly revises its content. This means that it now matches the changes to the TOEFL introduced in 2019. A few editions ago (I think the 14th) almost all of the integrated writing questions in the book were replaced with more accurate questions. The 16th edition, meanwhile, introduced a brand new chapter containing eight one-hour practice tests. All of this compares favorably to competing books from Kaplan and Princeton Review. Those ones have been revised to reflect the new TOEFL from last year, but otherwise they are reprinted with the same junk content year after year. It is worth noting that since last year Barron’s has been a division of Kaplan. I hope that doesn’t affect future revisions.
Another positive aspect of the book is its wealth of practice material. There is a ton of stuff to practice with. The books has eight full model tests, eight mini practice tests and a bunch of illustrative questions. Compare that to the ONE practice test provided in the Princeton Review TOEFL book. As I will describe below, there are some errors and inaccuracies in these test, but even if you cut out the bad parts, you’ve still got way more practice material than any other book. Overall, I’d estimate that about 80% of the practice questions here are accurate. That compares very favorably to Kaplan, where only about 10% of the questions are accurate.
Finally, I must note that the new system being used for the online tests is beautiful. It is way better than anything being used elsewhere, including the Official Guide to the TOEFL. It is a breeze to jump between both sections and whole tests. You don’t have to spend 15 minutes clicking and waiting to skip through everything else if you just want to do the writing section. Not only that, but transcripts and separate MP3 downloads are available for all test questions. I wish all publishers could use something so elegant. Also, the man who reads the test instructions sounds a little bit like Sam Elliot.
Okay, let’s talk specifically about the content here. Beginning with…
I like the reading practice in the book quite a lot. The articles are generally close to the proper length. I think they skew a bit too long, but only barely. Meanwhile, I checked the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score for four random articles, and they came out at 28.4, 51.1, 43.2, 47.3 and 48. That is a bit easier than the real test, which I think averages closer to 30, but again I don’t think it is a big deal. I’m willing to accept some superficial differences when it comes to unofficial test prep. This kind of prep should be used for skill building, rather than for predicting scores.
The only problem I have with the reading practice here is that occasionally it contains inference or factual information questions where the student must use the whole passage to find the answer. That is, no specific paragraph is mentioned in the question (see page 389). That’s a problem, since the real test doesn’t use questions like that. If my student were using this book, I would tell them to just skip those and give themselves a “free point” for them.
The listening is also pretty good. I know it has some superficial differences from the real test, but it is close enough to provide valuable practice for students. Passage lengths and difficulty levels seem appropriate, and the questions also match the real test.
Here’s where the book starts to suffer a bit.
I can recommend most of the independent speaking questions (type 1). They are good, although I did spot at least one obsolete “giving advice” style prompt (page 432).
Some of the type 2 questions are poor. Frequently, the reading part (announcement) fails to give reasons for the stated change. The announcements just describe the change with ample details. As a result, the conversations about the announcements don’t have reasons that directly match up with details from the reading. I guess these questions can still be used for skill-building practice, but it is just as easy to design proper questions, so I find this flaw frustrating. Also, there are some type 2 speaking questions where instead of a conversation between two students, the opinion is expressed by a solo speaker (page 496), in monologue form. This has never been used on the test, so it shouldn’t appear here.
The type 3 questions here tend to be needlessly complicated. I’ll share a few examples to show you what I mean. Here are some prompts from type 3 questions direct from ETS:
- Explain how the example in the lecture illustrates the concept of scope creep.
- Explain how the example from the professor’s lecture illustrates the irrational commitment.
- Explain how the example in the lecture illustrates agonistic behavior.
- Using the example of the macaw from the lecture, explain the concept of flagship species.
- Using the examples of mice and rabbits from the lecture, describe the two different types of factors that can cause population changes.
Do you see the pattern? The real test asks you to use the given example(s) to illustrate a concept. That’s it. In contrast, Barron’s asks things like:
- Using the points and examples from the reading, explain the differences between myths and legends. Then refer to the lecture to explain why Paul Bunyan would be considered a legend (page 574).
This is too complicated and specific. Often, the lectures here are descriptive in nature instead of focusing on examples of something.
On the real test, Type 4 prompts look something like this:
- Using the example of the mole, explain the two different types of underground adaptation.
- Using points and examples from the talk, describe two changes that occurred after machines began to be used for manufacturing goods.
Again, they are very specific. They just ask the student to use examples to illustrate a concept But in Barron’s, you might see something like:
- Using the main points and examples from the lecture, describe the three parts of a fax machine and then explain how the fax process works (page 692).
- Using the main points and examples from the lecture, define a planet and explain why Pluto is no longer considered a planet (page 731).
You can see how the real test asks students to summarize specific examples of some concept, while Barron’s is asking students for a whole lot more. It is also using two-part question prompts, which the real test does not do.
I guess what I’m saying here is don’t use this book for speaking practice. You are better off just getting the two Official IBT Tests books from ETS. Together, those will give you ten full tests. Toss in the Official Guide to the TOEFL and you’ll have 14 full tests. That’s more than enough.
Proper TOEFL integrated writing questions have a fixed format. The reading has an introduction, and three body paragraphs. The introduction presents an overall argument, and each body paragraph represents a specific supporting point or reason. The lecture matches this format. It begins by introducing the main argument, and continues by challenging each of the body paragraphs (and in the same order). If your practice questions don’t have this format, they should be replaced with some that do.
While the revisions to the 14th edition massively improved this part of the book, there are still a few integrated writing questions that don’t match the proper structure. Surprisingly, most of these are contained in the new chapter of one-hour practice tests. Very briefly, here’s a list that will guide you.
Use these integrated writing questions:
- Model Test 1
- Model Test 2
- Model Test 3 (but note the missing intro. paragraph)
- Model Test 4 (but note the missing intro. paragraph)
- Model Test 5
- Model Test 6
- Model Test 7
- Model Test 8 (but note the missing intro. paragraph)
Do not use these ones:
- Practice Test 1
- Practice Test 4
- Practice Test 8
What I mean about tests 3, 4 and 8 is that the reading part is missing a proper introductory paragraph. They just have three body paragraphs. That’s a strange omission, but I guess they are still usable. If I were teaching with this book I would just write an introduction for each and paste them into my student’s book.
The independent writing questions are mostly fine. I did spot a few obsolete “describe a thing” questions like in model tests 5 and 7. There might be a few more.
While practice questions make up the bulk of the book, there are a few other things, and some of them are quite valuable. I like the ten pages focused on “campus vocabulary.” I don’t know exactly how helpful that stuff really is, but a student with a medium or long-term study plan should certainly spend a few hours review key terminology. There is also a beefy chapter on grammar and style issues that highlights the most common errors made by students. It is something I wish I could create for my own website.
The Final Word
So that’s the review. I guess my advice is to use this book for skill-building practice, but to just forget about the speaking questions. You should also be aware of the minor problems present in the reading and writing sections. I also encourage students to go beyond this book, and to supplement with some official publications so you get a clearer picture of what the actual test looks like.