Another year and another bad edition of TOEFL Prep Plus by Kaplan.
There are four problems with this book every year. They are:
- It isn’t updated very much.
- It needlessly complicates the test.
- The practice questions and sample are terribly inaccurate.
- The online resources are not as promised
I’ll deal with these one at a time.
First of all, though this is the “2020-20201” edition of the book, it is pretty much the same as the 2008-2009 edition from 11 years ago.
The online content seems even older, and looks to be the same stuff that was on the CD-ROM of the 2007-2008 edition. The publisher has deleted the stuff that was dropped from the test this year, but everything else (the strategies and the samples) is almost entirely the same. The contents badly need to be replaced with new material, especially the samples which don’t reflect what students get on the actual test. The samples were bad even when the book was first published, but now that a decade has passed, the errors are much less forgivable.
Secondly, the book is way too complicated. The book includes 69 strategies for mastering the reading section. I counted another 69 numbered strategies for the writing section (not to mention the fact that number 16 is broken down into 16A through 16E). That’s just too much crap. This aspect of the book needs be culled.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the questions in the book are inaccurate. As always, that’s the aspect I want to focus on most of all in this review. Let’s get started.
The book starts out okay with a few decent samples of articles used in the reading section (pages 19, 25), but then pairs these with inaccurate sample questions. Instead of matching a question with a specific paragraph, students are required to read through the whole article looking for the paragraph that matches the given question. This becomes a major problem on page 32 when a NOT/EXCEPT style question refers to details that are actually spread out over three paragraphs. That means the student is actually required to use all three paragraphs to answer the question, rather than using just a single paragraph as on the real test. This is replicated on page 54 where students have to look through four long paragraphs to properly answer an inference question that would be specific to only a single paragraph on the real test.
It should also be mentioned that beyond the problems with question designs, most of the sample articles are somewhat weak overall. On pages 35, 51, 66 and 94 students are given articles that are generally longer than the real test, and with fewer paragraphs. This means that the paragraphs are really long, some stretching out to about 300 words. This bothers me as students really need to become familiar with hunting for answers in short but dense paragraphs.
This is probably the strongest section of the book. The conversations and lectures are about the same length as what is used on the real test. The delivery of the voice actors is somewhat monotone and lacks the natural quality of the actors on the real test, but that’s a minor complaint. The questions themselves are not as accurate as the ones in the Official iBT Tests Collection, but they are pretty close. I might actually recommend this chapter to someone who needs a bit of extra practice and has already worked through everything in better books.
Mostly bad here. The sample independent speaking questions on page 168 are all terrible. Instead of using proper agree/disagree or preference choices it just lists 15 yes/no questions. Kaplan should know by now that “Do government workers need privacy?” is not how a TOEFL speaking question is phrased.
The book does have a decent type 2 speaking question on page 174 about parking on campus (a very common topic!) but quickly jumps into a terrible question on page 180 where the reading is a job posting rather than an announcement of some change on campus.
It then includes a completely wrong type 3 question which illustrates a concept using three examples, rather than 1 or 2 like on the real test (page 182/183).
The chapter finishes with a massive type 4 question, which includes a lecture probably twice as long as what would be used on the real test.
The integrated writing here is all bad as well. The authors of the book just don’t understand how the reading and lecture are structured on the real test. On test day, students get a four paragraph reading that has an introduction followed by three body paragraphs, each of which includes a unique and specific point. That is followed by a lecture which begins with an introduction and challenges each of those three points in turn (and in the same order). I call this a “mirror” structure. If you look at the samples on pages 233 and 255 they are nothing like this. The sample on page 253 almost figures this out, but the listening fails to rebut the reading’s points in the right order.
The section on independent writing is equally weak. It includes a bunch of opened-ended questions (268, 287, 288) that aren’t used on the real test. It fails to include any multiple choice questions, which are used very often these days.
The Online Resources
The above problems are also present in the online tests. In the reading section students again have to hunt around the whole article to answer many of the questions, instead of being told to focus on a single paragraph as on the real TOEFL. The articles again include freakishly long paragraphs that don’t match the real test. Not only is this inaccurate, but it really messes up any chance students have of learning proper time management in this section.
The listening content is okay, while the speaking and writing content is marred by the same sort of problems I identified above. The questions all have a superficial resemblance to the real test, but never quite achieve an acceptable level of accuracy. Notably, speaking Q3 in the first test asked me to “explain the major differences” between what was in the reading and the lecture. There’s just no excuse for that.
Just as frustrating is the clunkiness of the online test software. Users are unable to quickly skip ahead to desired sections. If you wish to study only writing? Too bad, you are going to have to sit through the reading, listening and speaking sections. This represents a step back from when Kaplan offered the same tests on CD.
Speaking of taking a step back, it must be mentioned that the practice tests don’t record student answers, so they cannot listen to what they said for review purposes. This functionality was provided 11 years ago when the same tests were provided on CD.
I noticed also that Kaplan failed to record new instructions for the shortened speaking section, so the questions are now misnumbered. The same is true in the lectures provided online. That’s just laziness. In addition, the timers in the practice test are all wrong, and don’t reset between questions in the speaking and writing sections. So, for example, if you only use 10 minutes to answer the first writing question you’ll have 40 minutes to answer the second writing question. This needs to be fixed.
Finally, the cover of the book promises “4 Practice Tests” (and an insert clarifies that they are all provided online) but there are only three tests provided. Last year’s edition had the same problem. I find that kind of sleazy.
Don’t get this book. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Kaplan needs to get serious about updating their material. They haven’t done a proper update since 2008. There are so many good resources they can use to study the design of the TOEFL that were not available when this material was first created. They need to take advantage of them.