The Princeton Review has updated their TOEFL book to match the 2019 version of the TOEFL and have given it a new name (it used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL”).  Sadly, though, it isn’t a very good book.  It is inaccurate, and it badly needs a good editor.  And some basic research.  I’ll go into detail about what is bad about the book in a moment, but I guess we should start with the good, right? 

The Good Stuff

The book begins with about 170 pages of skill building exercises connected to the “core concepts” of the TOEFL (reading, listening, speaking, writing).  This stuff is pretty good. I really like that the book begins with a whole lot of academic reading practice and questions that students can work through to hone their reading skills.  None of these questions are actually TOEFL questions (which could be confusing) but they are about content contained in TOEFL-style articles.  A lot of students need to really improve their reading skills before they even start looking at real TOEFL questions.

The core concepts stuff about listening is much sparser (9 pages vs 72 pages) but those nine pages are fine.  I can’t help shake the feeling that Princeton Review made this section short just because creating listening content is much more expensive than creating reading content.  Maybe I’m just crazy.

The speaking concepts chapter is a bit weird in that it blends TOEFL speaking questions with questions that are totally not TOEFL speaking questions.  It also includes some of the speaking question styles that were removed from the test last year.  I know this is just skill building stuff, but those should be totally excised from the book and replaced with something a bit more useful.

The writing concepts chapter is, again, a mix of TOEFL and non-TOEFL questions.  It has some fine exercises.  It includes a chart of useful vocabulary (which is nice) and a laughably basic page on grammar terms (which is not nice).

There are better books containing this sort of skill building content (just ask me) but I honestly would recommend these chapters to a student who can find the book for free at a library or something.  They have some value, especially for beginners.

The Bad Stuff

Cracking the Reading Section

The chapter about the reading section is really hard to follow, even for a teacher like myself.  There are ten pages of junk before we can find a list reading question types.  And sadly, the question types listed in the book are just wrong.  So much clarity could have been achieved by using the question type names established by ETS in the “Official Guide to the TOEFL.”  I mean… ETS makes the test so we should follow their lead on this!

For some reason, Princeton Review left out the “Factual Information” question type and the “Rhetorical Purpose” type, combining them into something they call a “Lead Words” question… which is different from a “Vocabulary in Context” question.  To make matters worse, this type is inexplicably renamed “lead word/detail” near the end of the chapter.  They’ve also left the “Fill in a Table” type out of their list, even though such a question appears later in one of their drills! Finally, they’ve added two types, the “Definition” (which, again, is not the same as a vocabulary question) type and the “Before/after” type, which aren’t used on the real test.

There are a few other little inaccuracies in their samples and drills.  For instance, many of the questions lack clear references to paragraph numbers, meaning students have to hunt through the whole reading to find the answer to their question (which is not the case on the real test).  They’ve also failed to end each of the reading sets with a fill-in-a-table question or a summary question.  Each reading set on the real test always ends with one of those.  Just a bit of basic research could have helped the authors avoid these problems.

Cracking the Listening Section

This section is actually okay.  The listening passages and questions are fine.  They are not perfect, but are good enough to be of value.  There are no table questions, though.  And the authors failed to move the questions where a chunk of audio is played to the end of each set.  The latter issue is not a big deal, but it is something that could have been fixed, again, with just a tiny bit of research.

Cracking the Speaking Section

Curiously, this section begins with a ton of additional skill building content.  And a lot of it is very unlike the actual TOEFL.  The book repeatedly refers to a speaking question about how a lecture casts doubt on a reading.  I just don’t know where they got that from.

There are some templates.  They are mediocre.

All of the sample type 2 speaking questions are inaccurate. They tend to lack reasons for the changes being announced in the reading part.  This means that the students in the listening part are mentioning details and responding to details that are not in the reading.  On the real test there is a very strict and close connection between the reading and the listening.  Two reasons are always given in the reading, and the student specifically responds to those two reasons when supporting their opinion.  Again… just reading all ten of the samples from the official iBT books would have informed the authors at Princeton Review of this pattern.

The sample type 3 speaking questions are also inaccurate.  On the real test, the prompt given to the test-taker will be something like:  “Explain CONCEPT using EXAMPLES FROM LECTURE.”  Or some variation.  Basically, the test-taker needs to state what the concept from the reading is, and then needs to just repeat the example (or examples) from the lecture.  Nothing more than that.   In this book, though, the prompts are weirdly specific.  Like:

“The professor discussed the characteristics of two kinds of heart valves. Explain how their characteristics are related to their suitability for younger and older transplant patients.”

Like… huh?  Where did they get that?

Cracking the Writing Section

The template provided for the integrated essay made me want to tear my hair out.  It recommends just two body paragraphs.  It says that the first body paragraph should deal with the first reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  The second body paragraph should deal with the second reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  And the third point from the reading?   Well, that isn’t mentioned.  The authors seem to be aware that there is always a third reading point and a contrasting lecture point… but they’ve just ignored that in the template.  All of the sample essays include that content… but the template does not.  As I said, an editor is needed.

More evidence than an editor is needed is the fact that instead of providing a step by step guide for constructing each of the essay tasks, this books provides a step by step guide for both, and just jumps back and forth.  WHY?

The book has some good independent essay prompts, but like the authors at Kaplan, they seem to think that only agree/disagree prompts are used.  Again… research is needed.

The Practice Test

There is a single practice test.  It contains the same inaccuracies as the “cracking” chapters, described above.

Overall

This isn’t a great book.  I don’t really recommend it.

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[…] in the chapters about the reading and speaking sections.  You can read about all of them in my full review of the book.  There is only one complete sample test (which can only be done on paper… there is no […]