There are a few good TOEFL books.  There are a lot of bad ones.  I hope this article helps you make the right choices.   I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find a list of stuff I don’t like, and a list of stuff that will be published in the future.  You can also skip to my master index of TOEFL book reviews.

Last Updated: June 25. 2021

For an Overview of the Test…

The Official Guide to the TOEFL (6th Edition)  is  the best overview of the test.  Everyone who is studying for the TOEFL (or teaching for the TOEFL) should have a copy. It describes all four sections of the test and the question types in each section.  It also includes plenty of examples and four complete practice tests.  Note that is also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particularly in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test).  For a closer look at the test, check out my complete review.

 

For an additional overview of the test, I recommend a couple of online courses from our friends at TST Prep.  First up, check out their Score Builder Program, which is a twenty hour course covering the entire test.  The program also includes ten practice test and a bunch of extras.  A cheaper alternative is their TOEFL Emergency Course, which is a bit shorter.  In both cases, try the coupon code “goodine10off” to get a 10% discount on your purchase.

 

Finally, I recommend Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th edition).  This book has improved quite a lot in the past couple of editions, and I think it can be a valuable study tool.  The accuracy of its practice tests and questions isn’t as good as the above two sources, but there is quite a lot of content in the book.  It contains eight complete practice tests along with additional practice questions.  It contains decent chapters on vocabulary and grammar.

For Practice TOEFL Tests…

First up, I recommend Volume One and Volume Two of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests Collection.  Each book contains five good practice tests.  The most recent editions (look for their green covers) were heavily revised by ETS, and finally represent perfect practice tests! Everyone preparing for the TOEFL must complete these practice tests. All of them!

Next I recommend the ten practice tests sold online by TST Prep.  These are the best practice tests you will get from a third-party publisher.  Again, try the coupon code “goodine10off” for a 10% discount.  Note that they are the same tests you will find in the Score Builder Program mentioned above. 

As a special bonus, they’ve also got one test available as an e-book on Amazon.  I’m credited as an editor on that test!

For TOEFL Reading…

I really like Kathy Spratt’s “Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT“.  Now in its third edition, it is viewed by most students and teachers as the definitive TOEFL reading book.  Indeed, it’s the only one I recommend.  It covers all of the TOEFL reading question types and provides strategies that might help you solve them.  It is updated for the new TOEFL.

 

For TOEFL Listening, Speaking and Writing…

Well, there isn’t much available for these sections of the test.  There are a few old scraps you might check out, though.  They are:

For TOEFL Vocabulary…

I don’t usually recommend TOEFL vocabulary books.  I don’t think that studying vocabulary lists is helpful, and the new TOEFL introduced in 2019 has fewer vocabulary questions. That said, students always ask me to recommend books.  I generally suggests that they get “Essential Words for the TOEFL” from Barron’s.  I like the difficulty level of the words, and it contains a bunch of realistic practice questions.  As an alternative, you might check out McGraw-Hill’s “400 Words for the TOEFL.”  It contains practice questions as well.

For TOEFL Grammar…

Don’t buy a “TOEFL Grammar” book.  Just get the 5th edition of English Grammar in Usefrom Cambridge University Press. This book has been around forever, and it is still fantastic.  After getting a copy, you can check out my list of  recommended units to study.  if you want even more content,  Cambridge sells a supplementary book with more practice questions.  Note that this book is also published as “Grammar in Use – Intermediate.”

For lower level students (writing scores below 20), I recommend something a bit easier like “Basic Grammar in Use.”

Upcoming TOEFL Books

There isn’t much on the horizon, but a few things are worth mentioning:

Stuff I don’t Recommend 

  • Princeton Review’s “TOEFL iBT” – Decent, but the alternatives are much better.
  • Barron’s “TOEFL iBT Writing” – Bad practice questions
  • Anything at all from Kaplan – Bad, Bad, Bad
  • Best My Test – Not Great
  • EduSynch – Weirdly similar to Best My Test
  • Nova’s “Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL”  – Curse of Knowledge?

 

A new edition of Barron’s TOEFL iBT Writing by Lin Lougheed was published last month.  I wrote a review of the previous edition a couple of years ago.  This is basically the same book, so I will keep this review short.  There are just a couple of things I want to emphasize.

The first point is that this book has inaccurate practice questions.  It seems quite clear that the book was originally based on a very close reading of the first edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL (which you can borrow from the Open Library) and has not been revised to reflect more recent developments.  That’s problematic, as the first Official Guide was mostly written before the iBT even launched, and it contains quite a few bad questions.  Both of its integrated questions are totally unlike what is used on the real test.  It also contains a big list of independent questions that were used on the old TOEFL CBT. 

Sadly, the Barron’s book reproduces these flaws.  It contains a bunch of integrated questions based on two paragraph articles (instead of four like on the real test), and some that are descriptive instead of argumentative.  The former flaw is right out of the first Official Guide.  To my eye, only one single integrated writing question in the book (the one about Shakespeare) resembles the real test.  Meanwhile, the parts of the book about the independent writing question mostly reproduce the exact questions included in the Official Guide, including a lot of open-ended questions that will never show up on the real test.  The end result of all of this is that students will be confused on test day, and will waste their time studying in an inefficient way.

It has been sixteen years since the TOEFL iBT launched.  The editors of this book need to read some of the materials published by ETS in the years since the launch to gain a better idea of what the real test is like.  A quick perusal of the sixth edition of the Official Guide, as well as the  two Official iBT Tests books will give them a clear idea of how to write accurate integrated questions.

The second point I want to emphasize is that the book does have some fantastic stuff about creating essays.  I love the sections about how to craft clear thesis statements.  It also has sections on parallel structures and vocabulary variation, which are topics I have to teach my students about every week.  Not only that, but it has an amazing bit about writing simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  That is critically important subject material, and no other TOEFL book touches on it.  It is a shame that this wonderful content is paired up with such shoddy practice questions.

I really want to love this book.  The other two TOEFL books in the Barron’s line have improved quite a lot in recent editions.  My hope is that this one improves just as much when the eighth edition is published.

Note:  Barron’s sometimes has problems with its online audio files.  I haven’t checked them all.   Good luck.

The Open Library now offers a copy of Compass Publishing’s “Mastering Skills for the TOEFL iBT Advanced (Listening).”  You can borrow it for an hour, or for a couple of weeks with a free account.  Here’s a link.  You can quickly access the audio files from the publisher.

This is a great book full of accurate listening content that will be new to 99.9% of people reading this blog.  The book is from a Korean publisher, which means its content is way more accurate than most TOEFL books and websites.

Even if you ignore the skill building content, this is a great opportunity to complete two full listening practice tests.  And, as you probably know, everyone ought to complete all of the practice tests they can get their hands on.

I check Open Library every day for new TOEFL books.  Most of the time I am disappointed with the selections, but I got really excited today when I saw this one!

A visitor requested a single collection of all of my “You Should Read More” blog posts.  Here is the master index:

I intend to write one post per month, and will add them to the list as they are created. 

Through this series of blog posts, I hope to encourage students to read more.  Improving our reading skills is the only reliable way to improve our TOEFL reading scores.  Too often students try to learn “tricks” and “strategies” for the reading section, when they ought to be learning how to read better

The blog posts recommend a variety of things to read.  Some of them include links to magazine articles I’ve read.  Others recommend fiction and non-fiction books that I’ve read and enjoyed, and even a few audio books.   Some of these will be easy to find online or at your local library.  Some of them will be harder to find.  Just keep clicking around until you get something that you enjoy.

And, of course, I’m always happy to read stuff that you recommend!  If you’ve got something to share, please leave a comment.

PS:  Let me know if you find any broken links.

 

Developing Writing Skills for IELTS: A Researched-Based Approach” is a surprisingly weak IELTS text, considering the reputation of Rutledge, the publisher of the book.

The title calls it a “research based approach” but there isn’t much of what I would call “research” in the book.

What you get here is a description of the IELTS scoring rubrics, and a collection of sample paragraphs taken from student essays. Each sample is followed by a question like “what is the topic sentence?” or “Is the topic sentence focused and clear?” The same questions are repeated again and again, following a series of samples.  Each chapter contains different questions.

And that’s the bulk of the book. It is pretty basic stuff. There isn’t much in here about HOW to write a topic sentence, or HOW to make a topic sentence focused and clear. Indeed, there is very little instruction in the book at all. Students merely read sample paragraphs (and sometimes complete essays) and answer questions about them. Students are hungry for information about how to actually put together their essays – the more specific the better. But that specificity isn’t really found here.

On the plus side, there are a few sample essays with scores attached to them, which is something that all students like to have. There is also a decent “question bank.” I like that, but since the IELTS people are really generous with sample questions I don’t think there is a great need for more samples.

It must be noted that while the book is 276 pages, a lot of that is duplicated content. The aforementioned samples and questions are on page 21 to 110, while pages 181 to 272 seem to have the exact same content, but with answers inserted into the text.

For this month’s column, I want to pivot a little bit.  I’m going to discuss audio books and where to get them.  I know this isn’t exactly reading but obviously some good audiobooks can help a lot with your English skills.

Fortunately, there are a few ways for students to access audiobooks for free (or cheap).  Here’s what you should know.

Option One – Libby

Those of you who live in Canada and the United States can get free audiobooks and ebooks from Libby.  This Android and iPhone app is used by public libraries to distribute both audiobooks and ebooks.  Just enter your library card number and you’re good to go.  And if you don’t have a library card… go and get one.  It’s easy.  The only drawback with Libby is that you can expect long wait times for popular titles.  Instructions for using the app can be found right here.  I have seen Libby used outside of North America, so take a moment to check with your library wherever you are.

Option Two – Hoopla

I love Hoopla.  I really love Hoopla.  This is sort of a “Netflix of Random Junk” used by Libraries to provide content to patrons (for free) with no waiting times.  It’s got TV shows, movies, ebooks, audiobooks, comics, music… all sorts of stuff.  A lot of it is random crap that is pretty hard to enjoy, but if you know what you are looking for there are some real gems here.  Again, you just need a library card number to access it.  Here’s the Play Store link.  It is also available for iPhones, of course.  This one is strictly Canada/US.

Option Three – Audible

Well, okay.  Now we get to the paid services.  The most popular is Amazon’s Audible.  This one costs money, but when you sign up you can get two free books right away.  You can cancel the subscription before paying anything and still keep your books.  If you sign up at this link, I’ll get a few dollars.  When you cancel, check the “it costs too much” box and they’ll probably give you more free books.

Option Four – The Rest

Uh, there are a few other audiobook sellers online.  I’ll try to summarize those in another post.  They all provide a few free books before you have to pay anything.

Some Stuff

This month I’ve been listening to short science fiction stories from 2019.  I like to listen to them as I run.   Below is a list of my favorites.  If you don’t want to get them in audio form, they are all available on Kindle and in paperback.

  • Permafrost, by Alastair Reynolds. This is a really gripping time travel story. I was hooked right from the in media res opening – someone’s dead, someone else is a bit stabbed, and the plane is running out of gas. It’s a fairly short novella, so I’ll spare any specific details. Basically, though, the premise is that an ecological catastrophe has befallen the earth in the near future, and “World Health” is attempting to use a novel time travel method to recover from it. The best short SF from 2019 that I’ve come across, so far.  Note that the audiobook is narrated by a woman with a Russian accent.
  • Desdemona and the Deep, by CSE Cooney. This is an interesting one. Sort of a comedy of manners in a fantasy setting. Our hero, Desdemona Mannering (get it?) is the sort of person who doesn’t appreciate art, but does collect a lot of artists. She goes to cocktail parties and fundraisers. She drinks a lot.  She’s shallow. Eventually, Desdemona discovers that her father is a really terrible businessman. She’s going to have to descend into the worlds below to undo all of his evils.  Imagine that Ivanka Trump has to save our souls.
  • To be Taught, if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers.  There isn’t much of a plot here, but I recommend it to everyone preparing for the TOEFL.  It’s about a happy bunch of astronauts who visit four planets and observe the life on them.  Along the way, the narrator explains basic scientific concepts.  See?  It’s sort of like a TOEFL put into fiction.  The audiobook narrator even SOUNDS like a TOEFL listening section lecturer.  There is a mildly interesting sliver of story between planets, but it is pretty basic. 
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark. Quite a lot of good stuff here! The depiction of an alternate Cairo (in the 1910s) where Egypt has become a world power is atmospheric as heck. We really get a sense of all the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the place. The goal here seems to be the depiction of what a decolonized Egypt would look like at this critical juncture, but the story used to set up that backdrop is enjoyable. Depicting a pair of bureaucrats trying to deal with a the titular haunting (on a budget!) it moves briskly enough and is funny at the right moments. The climax hits with some more-than-welcome action.  This is a sequel to A Dead Djinn in Cairo, but you can read them in either order.  Note that the audiobook narrator has an middle-eastern accent.
  • In An Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire.  Take Alice in Wonderland, Adam Smith and Proverbs 22:7.  Mix together in a blender.  You’ve got “In An Absent Dream.” 

That’s all for this month.  The February column will have short non-fiction articles about science topics.

 

It has come to my attention that some copies of the Indian edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL were printed without a digital access code for the audio files and software.  Those are supposed to be contained in an envelope at the back labeled “Digital Access Code.”

Some readers have been able to get an access code by sending an email to McGraw Hill India at support.india@mheducation.com

It may not be necessary, but if you email support, I recommend including the ISBN number of the book, as well as a picture of the book to prove that you bought a copy.  Obviously a receipt would help too, but that could be tricky.

You can also call the Indian office at : 1800 103 5875 

Hey, I found a new library!  That’s a big deal. The thing is, I live in a working class part of Seoul with a somewhat poor library system.  That’s because we don’t really have money for libraries.  But I learned this month that my district (only) has reciprocal lending privileges with the city of Gwangmyeong (just across the river), which has very nice libraries.  That means this installment of “You Should Read More” has a few interesting titles.  This list includes one great book that was recommended by a reader.  If you’ve got any books that I ought to track down, please leave a comment below.  I’ll do my best to find a copy.

First up, I read “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz.  You can read this for free via the Open Library (or you can just buy it on Amazon).   This is the one that was recommended to me by a reader.  I’m glad they took the time to make the suggestion, as this is an absolutely perfect book to sharpen your academic reading skills for the TOEFL.  The paradox mentioned in the title is the idea that the overwhelming number of choices we have in the modern world (and are free to pursue) cause us to feel stress and anxiety.  The author supposes that we would be happier with fewer choices to make or if we could learn to focus on choices that really matter. What makes this a great book for future TOEFLers is that the book describes a series of academic terms or concepts (one after another) and then illustrates them using examples from the author’s life, or by describing simple experiments.  It’s basically speaking question four… in book form.  Indeed, students might want to try listening to the audiobook version instead of reading the book!  Seriously, if I were tasked with making a practice test, I might grab this book and use it to create questions about “maximizing,” “second-order decisions,” “opportunity costs,” “omission bias,” “regret aversion,” and a half-dozen other concepts.  Indeed, I’m sure that most of these have appeared on the test at some point in the past 15 years.  For what it’s worth, the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease score for a random selection of text I tested is 53, which makes this book a little bit easier than a typical TOEFL reading passage.

Next, I read “The Martian,” which you can also find on the Open Library (or, again, on Amazon).  Yeah, this one is fiction… but I think it will help.  This is an example of hard science fiction, which means that accurate science is at the forefront of the story.  Indeed, there is a lot of science-y stuff in here.  And I’m pretty sure ETS has written a lot of questions about whether or not we can survive on Mars.  One of the third-party textbooks I use on a regular basis has an integrated writing question about the danger caused by Martian dust, a hazard which actually plays a pretty big role in the plot of this novel.  Meanwhile, for added fun you can watch the film adaptation which stars Matt Damon.  Note that the prose here is pretty easy to follow, which should make it a relaxing read.

Finally, I read the July-August issue of Analog Science Fiction.  I know, I know.  I need to stop mentioning these magazines.  They aren’t exactly easy to find, and might be a bit niche.  However, this one has some great stories.  It’s my favorite issue of the year (so far)! Keep an eye out for “Retention” by Alec Nevala-Lee, which is a funny little story about a fellow who is having a really hard time cancelling his Internet service; “Ennui” by Filip Wiltgren, which is a great story about an AI struggling to run the systems on a colony ship that spends hundreds of years in space (a favorite SF concept of mine); and  the final installment of “House of Styx,” which I mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago.

Okay.  Over and out for now.  I’ll have some more articles next time, and some short fiction you can read online.

 

 

There are a few good TOEFL books.  There are a lot of bad ones.  I hope that this article helps you pick the best TOEFL books.   I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find a list of stuff I don’t like, and a list of stuff that will be published in the future.

Last Updated: October 31, 2020

Best Overview of the Test

The Official Guide to the TOEFL (6th Edition)  is  the best overview of the test.  I’ve been teaching for a decade and I still open it up now and then to look up some specific detail. Needless to say, it will teach you about all four sections of the test and the different types of questions each section contains.  It is also illustrated with plenty of examples.  But note that is also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particular in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test).  Note that the 6th edition matches the new version of the TOEFL that started in 2019. For more details, check out my complete review.

Other Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th Edition) was published on April 7, 2020.  This is the first edition that matches the new version of the test. This is by far the best book not from ETS this year. However, it still has some issues so make sure to read my full review of the book before you use it.  In short, it has fairly good reading and listening content, decent writing content, and weak speaking content.  It also has a huge amount of practice questions. Audio content and practice tests are provided online (not on CD).  For what it’s worth,  a Superpack featuring this book (and a couple others) is also available.

 

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep is the second best book this year.  However, it has a lot of problems.  The most obvious are 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 as there is no test software included), but there are additional practice questions throughout the book. The only part of this book I really recommend is the collection of skill building exercises found at the beginning.   Note that this book used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL.”  That was a stupid name.

If you don’t want to buy a physical book, the TOEFL Emergency Course from TST Prep is the best overview of the test that is actually updated for the new version.  Just note that it is an online course, not an actual book.  It includes a 12 page overview of the test provided via PDF, some sample questions and strategies.  If you just want the overview, choose the “basic” version since it is cheapest.  And if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you can get a 10% discount.


Best Books for Practice Tests

The two Official TOEFL iBT Tests books are still the best source of practice tests.  Each contains five complete practice tests.  They are the closest you will get to the real test, since they are made by ETS.  The books also reflect the new version of the test that began in 2019.  There are two books you can get – Volume 1 (4th edition) and Volume 2 (3rd Edition) .  Each book contains an access code to download software that simulates the official test.   If you want to know more about these two books, check out my review.

 

If you want some more practice tests, I recommend the ten test pack from TST Prep.  These are the most accurate practice tests you will get from an unofficial source.  They also include all of the modern independent writing prompt styles, so in some ways they are even better than the official materials.  The price is pretty good, and if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you will probably get a 10% discount.  Note that these are provided online, and not in an actual book.


Best Book for TOEFL Reading

I recommend Kathy Spratt’s “Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL,” which is in its third edition.  It is available only as an Amazon ebook, but remember that you don’t need a special device to read ebooks.  You can just access them in your web browser if necessary. 


Best “Book” for TOEFL Listening

There really aren’t any good TOEFL listening books.  If you want some decent content, though, I recommend signing up at Magoosh TOEFL.  They have some good reading and listening stuff, but note that their writing and speaking content is quite bad.  You can also read my full review of Magoosh.


Best Book for TOEFL Speaking

I still really love “TOEFL Listening and Speaking Skills ” from Collins Cobuild.  It is sort of old (it was published in 2012) but it still has the most accurate speaking sample questions of any printed textbook not from ETS.  It also comes with some decent templates and very concise strategies to use on the test.  And, heck, you get some listening stuff too.  Audio files are provided online (though the company also sells a version with a CD).  Note that the book has not been updated to match the most recent changes to the test, so you will just have to ignore the sections on speaking questions 1 and 5.  That said, Collins has hinted (on Twitter) that this book will be updated in 2020 so just keep an eye out for a newer version.


Best Book for TOEFL Writing

Collins again!  I really like their  “TOEFL Reading and Writing Skills.”  This book has really accurate question samples.  Even the integrated questions, which almost everyone messes up.  It also includes some decent templates and concise strategies.  It isn’t bogged down with “information overload” like the Kaplan book mentioned above.  The independent writing prompts are a bit weaker, though, as they don’t include all of the modern styles.

 


Best Books for Vocabulary

I don’t usually recommend TOEFL vocabulary books.  I’m not entirely sure that studying vocabulary lists is totally helpful, as the odds that the words you study will actually show up on the test are somewhat low.  Not only that, but the new TOEFL introduced in 2019 has fewer vocabulary questions in the reading section.  That said, you have a few options. 

First up, “Essential Words for the TOEFL” from Barron’s is pretty good.  I like the difficulty level of the words, and I like that it includes some realistic vocabulary questions as well.

An equally good book is McGraw Hill’s 400 Essential Words for the TOEFL. It includes helpful vocabulary, and has accurate practice reading questions of all types.  That’s neat.

Meanwhile, if you just want a whole bunch of words for a really low price (2 bucks) I recommend Darakwon’s “1800 TOEFL Essential Vocabulary .”  It’s an ebook.


Best Books for Grammar

I don’t recommend any “TOEFL Grammar” books.  For now, I just suggest my students get the 5th edition of English Grammar in Usefrom Cambridge University press. This book has been around forever, and it is still the best source of grammar explanations and practice questions.  After getting a copy, you can check out my list of  recommended units to study.  if you want even more content,  Cambridge sells a supplementary book with more practice questions!  For lower level students (writing scores below 20), I recommend getting something a bit easier like “Basic Grammar in Use.”


Upcoming TOEFL Books

  • A new edition of  “TOEFL iBT Prep” from Princeton Review will be published in February 2021.
  • A new edition of “TOEFL iBT Writing” from Barron’s will be published in May 2021.
  • Smart Edition will publish their first TOEFL book in May 2021.

Stuff I Don’t Like

  • “Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barron’s – Very inaccurate sample questions
  • “4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL” by Kaplan – Terrible sample tests
  • “TOEFL Practice Exercises” by Barron’s – Accuracy problems
  • “TOEFL Prep Plus” by Kaplan – Terrible, terrible, terrible
  • “Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL” by Nova – Needless complication
  • Edusynch
  • Best My Test 

Note that the above links are sponsored – if you order the books from Amazon I’ll make a few bucks.

Hey, it’s time for another installment of “You Should Read More!”  This blog series encourages you to increase your TOEFL reading score by reading more stuff.  By reading stuff, you can develop your reading skills. The theme here is “comprehension before strategies.”  

But not only does reading stuff develop your skills, it also increases your ability to concentrate on dense academic content like what appears on the TOEFL.  Personally, I find that unless I force myself to read academic content on a regular basis my mind starts to wander when I am faced with a challenging text.  The problem isn’t that I don’t understand the text, but rather that I can’t focus on it.

This month I read the September issue of National Geographic.  I love this magazine.  Every month I get a ton of great articles, and the cost of subscribing is pretty low.  Right now it’s just $19 per year in the USA, and $59 per year worldwide.  Or you can just read most of the articles for free online.  This month there is a great story about ostrich behavior that I really enjoyed.  And it goes without saying that ETS loves to write questions about animal behavior.

 

This month I also read two issues of Analog Science Fiction.  Now, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me now… but hear me out!  The issues contained the first two parts of a serialized novel called “House of Styx.”  The novel is about colonists on Venus who live in a station sort of like the “station… floating in Venus’s atmosphere, like a balloon, rather than standing on its surface” described in the integrated writing question of TPO 40!  The science here is well done, and the characters are sympathetic. If you are interested,  don’t waste your time trying to get the magazines pictured here – just get the Kindle version from Amazon

TOEFL Practice ExercisesNext, I’m going to send you to an actual TOEFL book.  I reviewed Pamela Sharpe’s “TOEFL Practice Exercises” last week and observed that the book has somewhat inaccurate questions.  But it does have thirty-four reading passages about topics that commonly appear on the TOEFL.  They are also at the same difficulty level and are of the same length as what you’ll get on the test.  You’ll never find another collection like it.  And you can treat the inaccurate questions as a sort of “skill building” thing that forces you to concentrate a bit more than you really want to.  I know I am really mean when I write about TOEFL books, but I do want to stress that I appreciate the effort made by their authors.  I could never write such a monumental collection of content.  So check it out.

Finally, the late-August issue of “Science News” has an article about a certain beetle that gets eaten by frogs but is still alive after it gets pooped out.  Wild.  Fortunately you can read that article online.  Meanwhile, if you want something closer to what you will find on the TOEFL, the issue also has an article about how smallpox affected Vikings more than 1000 years ago.  

 

TOEFL Practice ExercisesI should begin by mentioning that while Barron’s forgot to mention the website where audio files for this book can be downloaded.  That’s a pretty major problem, since they are not easy to find on Google or via the Barron’s website.  If you are still looking for those, check this page.

Overall, I don’t recommend this edition of TOEFL Practice Exercises.  That’s a shame because it looks like the book has been extensively revised since the previous edition.  The questions here just aren’t accurate enough. There was a time when books with “good enough” TOEFL questions were acceptable, but now there is a wealth of research online about how questions are designed by ETS.  Heck, just reading all of the Chinese TPOs will give any author a good idea of how to design questions.

A few issues stand out:

  • Reading passages contain a ton of questions that require students to scour the whole passage to find the answer.  On the actual test students are told which paragraph contains the answer to the question.  The only exceptions are the summary and table questions at the end of the passage.  Certain reading passages in the book might contain four or five questions where the paragraph isn’t indicated.
  • Many of the “campus announcement” speaking questions include only one speaker in the listening part.  This is never done on the real test.  Meanwhile, the reading parts don’t always give specific reasons for the stated changes.  They are merely descriptive.
  • Most of the integrated writing questions lack the requisite number of paragraphs in the reading.  Specifically, they lack separate introductory paragraphs.  A few of them lack the requisite number of body paragraphs.

It is worth mentioning that this book has an absolute ton of good academic reading and listening practice.  Just pages and pages of practice material that is both interesting and at the exact level that students need when preparing for the TOEFL.  Not only that, but the inaccurate questions are still wonderful for skill-building.  This means that it can still be a key part of a student’s preparation for the TOEFL… as long as they are reminded of how it differs from the actual test experience.

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.