I have this dream that one day there will be a student who will spend a year or two working on his reading comprehension skills before taking the TOEFL. Maybe he’s an freshman undergraduate who knows he will do his graduate studies in the USA. Or maybe he’s a high school student. If I ever find this student, Reading for Thinking is the book I would recommend to him.

This is a great book to spend a year with and to use as a sort of “strategy guide” as you engage with a variety of books, articles and magazines.

The book starts by describing methods that can be used to increase one’s comprehension of academic texts that can be applied in a variety of contexts. Interestingly, the book’s “reading paraphrase” strategy (pages 16 to 21, 7th edition) mirror one of the strategies that my friend Josh MacPherson uses to teach the TOEFL reading section at TST Prep.


There must have been a boom in grammar books aimed at general audiences between Eats, Shoots & Leaves in 2001 and the last Grammar Girl book in 2012.

I certainly haven’t read all of the books published during this period, but so far Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences might be my favorite. In seven clear chapters Bell covers the most common mistakes that writers of English make.

What makes this book so appealing to me is that it contains both instruction that is easily understood, and plenty of grammar terminology. The latter is something that other books of this type shy away from in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Bell’s willingness to use terminology, though, means that her book is one I would certainly recommend to rookie ESL teachers.

Now, some people might scoff at the idea of giving a tiny little book to serious English teachers. Seriously, though, there is a huge mass of teachers going overseas every day without proper resources and training. If someone had asked me when I started teaching how to use the present perfect tense properly, I wouldn’t have known how to respond. Nor would I be able to explain the subjunctive mood, or the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction… or any of the most basic grammatical terms and concepts. Like most teachers I just wasn’t taught that kind of stuff. Obviously a teacher who takes their job seriously will reach for something more comprehensive (like, say, Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage”) but Bell’s book is a perfect way to grasp the basics in under an hour. Heck, an eager teacher could read it on the flight over.

Anyways, the chapters here are:

  • Case
  • Agreement
  • Verb Tense and Usage
  • Verb Mood
  • Modifiers
  • Connectives
  • Punctuation

Each chapter ends with a little quiz.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to ESL students (Swan’s book is a better reference) but I think it is perfect for general audiences and teachers.

Oh, if you are curious about the book’s odd title, it is a riff on the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

English Grammar in Use (Supplementary Exercises) isn’t the sort of book that one reviews, so I will keep this brief.

Freshly updated for 2019, this book complements the new fifth edition of “English Grammar in Use” by providing additional practice exercises for students to work through. And exercises are all you get here – there aren’t any explanations provided.

The exercises are fine. They seem to be more contextualized than in the main book, which means they are more likely to take the form of emails, dialogs and articles. That’s a great choice for a supplementary book that digs deeper than a primary classroom textbook.

The exercises in the book are match the units in the main book, but since this is a shorter book it combines units. Note that these aren’t always sequential (it starts with five pages of exercises about units 1-4 and 19 and 25), but the groupings are logical and obvious.

Overall, I do recommend this book to intermediate level students and teachers… just as long as you already have the main book.

I should also mention that unlike the main book, this one is in black and white and is printed on non-glossy paper. That means it is much cheaper.

Finally, I haven’t seen the fourth edition of the book, so I don’t know exactly how much it has been updated. Anyways, that edition seems to be selling for even more than this one, so I guess you don’t need to bother with it.

There are quite a few good grammar books available nowadays, but English Grammar in Use is still my favorite. A new fifth edition was published this year, and I will continue recommend it to students. Though it is advertised as a book for intermediate learners, I usually recommend it even to upper-intermediate and advanced students.

The 145 units in the book (and related appendices and extra exercises) make it a fairly comprehensive look at English grammar. With 34 years worth of revisions over the course of the book’s five editions some obvious thought has been put into how the information in the book is presented. It is remarkably easy to follow.

A moderate level of revision has occurred since the fourth edition was published in 2012. This seems to mostly have affected the organization of the exercises in the book, but the explanatory parts have been revised to some extent as well. On a shallower note, I’m happy to report that the illustrations in the book finally reflect a modern aesthetic – those in the fourth edition were not particularly attractive.

Overall, though, the book maintains the organization used since at least the second edition (the earliest I have in my collection). Each unit is two facing pages long. The left-hand page explains a specific grammar point, and the right-hand page includes exercises that students can work through. Answers are included at the end, though Cambridge does sell a version with those omitted. The seven appendices list verb forms, contractions, tricky spelling rules and notes about American English usage. There is also a study guide which might help students discover specific grammar points they should focus on.

Note that the units are grouped into logical chapters (present and past, modals, adjectives and adverbs, etc) rather than from “easy to difficult.” This isn’t a book that students work through from the beginning to end, but rather one where they focus on units covering their specific needs. The study guide might help, but they really need a teacher to show them the way. While the cover bills this as a “self-study guide,” it is better used as a supplement to classroom instruction or personal tutoring.

These activities pair well with Cambridge’s companion text English Grammar in Use: Supplementary Exercises. That book was updated in 2019 to match the new edition of the main text. Obviously, it provides additional practice which matches the units in the main book. Keep in mind, though, that it book lumps units together, and not always in chronological order.

Continue reading “Book Review: English Grammar in Use (Fifth Edition)”

Since the TOEFL changed quite a lot on August 1 of this year, there is a need for new practice materials. A bunch of new books are due out in late 2019 and early 2020. I’ll try to contact the publishers to confirm that they will match the new format. In the meantime, here’s what I know (links are to Amazon, when possible):

  • Barron’s will issue the 16th edition of its TOEFL book on September 3, 2019.
  • Barron’s will also issue a new version of its Superpack on September 3, 2019. I don’t know if the other books in the superpack (writing, vocabulary, tests) will be updated.
  • This book will NOT be updated to reflect the new version of the TOEFL, but the practice tests will be put online, and they WILL match the new version.
  • Kaplan will issue a new version of its TOEFL Prep Plus Book on September 3, 2019. It will be updated to match the new version of the test.
  • Princeton Review will release a book currently called “Princeton Review TOEFL iBT Prep” on February 4, 2020. I assume this will actually just be the 2020 edition of “Cracking the TOEFL.”
  • It looks like Smart Edition will publish their first ever TOEFL book on June 1, 2020.
  • They have no listings anywhere, but Collins Language Tweeted at me a few days ago that they plan to issue new books this year.
  • ETS has indicated to me that they do not know when they will issue a new version of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, but that new printings will come with an insert that explains the changes to the test.

If you want to purchase a TPO based on the new version of the TOEFL there are some complicated instructions you need to follow. Here’s what to know

1. On the main ETS site the new TPO 31 is listed as part of the “TOEFL Value Pack Prep,” but it is NOT in the new style. Do not buy it.

2. However, you can get an alternate version of TPO 31 which is in the new style.

3. To do that, first you need to create an ETS account and select a date and time for a test sitting. Select any date. You will remove it from the cart later. But for now, add that to your “cart.”

4. After that is done, you will get an option to buy test prep materials. Select TPO 31 from that screen. It will explain that this version of TPO 31 matches the new style.

5. After that, REMOVE the test sitting from your cart so you don’t have to pay for it.

6. Then proceed to checkout and pay for the TPO, which should be the only thing in your cart. MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT PAYING FOR A TEST SITTING AS WELL. DO NOT COMPLAIN TO ME IF YOU ACCIDENTALLY PAY FOR A TEST SITTING.

7. I do not know why this is the only way to buy the new version.

8. Enjoy. Let me know if the integrated writing question is about “trees in deserts.” That is the one I bought a couple months ago from the Korean reseller.

Despite the name, this big book from McGraw-Hill Education isn’t really a TOEFL book at all. It sort of seems like they just slapped “TOEFL” on to a vocabulary book that needed a few more sales. It has some nice tips about building and using vocabulary in a general sense, but nothing that relates specifically to the TOEFL.

The same publisher also offers a “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL” book that is likely similar to traditional TOEFL vocabulary books, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.

My grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test (Reading and Writing): A-

Note: I am only reviewing the writing section of this book, since that is my area of expertise. Someone else will need to look more closely at the reading section.

I like this book just as much as I like the matching speaking and listening book from Collins. Like that book, this title is incredibly accurate in its depictions of TOEFL questions. Indeed, I have never seen a printed book with such accurate TOEFL integrated writing questions. There are only five of them, but they are all perfectly designed to match the real test. In each of them the author makes three points, and the lecturer casts doubt on the three points in the right order. Reading these five questions is a heavenly experience. You will remember from my earlier blog posts that textbooks from Kaplan, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are all ruined by the inclusion of inaccurate questions. Heck, this book is even better than the Official Guide to the TOEFL, which famously contains a couple of incorrectly designed integrated questions.

So if your students need accurate practice writing questions, this is a good source. The book also benefits from a concise explanation of how the questions are put together, though I suppose it could be even more explicit.

The independent questions here are merely adequate, however. The problem is that the book includes only agree/disagree style questions, and totally ignores both paired-choice and multiple choice questions. This is probably because the authors relied too much on materials from ETS, which also emphasize this question type. I’m not too bothered by that, since good practice independent questions are easy to find elsewhere, and they aren’t fundamentally misleading students as some other publishers to when they print shitty integrated questions.

The book also includes concise tips for each task and decent templates. You will have to go elsewhere to learn the fundamentals of writing, but that will always be outside the scope of a good TOEFL book. I’ll review some grammar books at a later date, perhaps.

Note: The reading section of this book will be slightly out of date starting August 1 when the test will change.

My grade for Essential Words for the TOEFL: B+. Note, however, that I have the 4th edition, from 2007. This book has now reached its 7th edition. I have no idea what has changed. Barron’s doesn’t usually change much from edition to edition, so I suspect the new edition is pretty similar.

I’m going to keep this review quite short, since you can read my feelings about vocabulary books over in my review of TOEFL Power Vocab from Princeton Review. Basically, though, I don’t want students to focus too much on vocabulary in the speaking and writing sections, but I recognize that studying vocabulary can help them in the listening and reading sections. Especially the latter section.

Barron’s vocabulary book is similar to Princeton Review’s book. It is mostly just lists of words and definitions. In this case they are divided into 30 “lessons” of about 15 words each. The words selected for each lesson don’t seem to be based on similar themes or structures.

While Princeton Review’s book includes a short quiz every few pages, Barron’s includes ten actual TOEFL reading question (vocabulary type, of course) at the end of each lesson. I can’t really say if the questions are accurate, but I don’t think that is the point. They mainly serve to help students understand the meaning and usage of each word. And, yeah, I guess they help students understand what a vocabulary question looks like and how it is put together.

The words here seem a bit more difficult that in Princeton Review’s book thankfully. Some of them are still too easy, though.

Here’s page 69: forbid, petition, relinquish, resilient, tempt.
Here’s page 229: maintain, mediocre, negligible, parallel, peculiar, potent
Here’s page 277: forfeit, precarious, severe, sporadic, superior, wanton

I guess teachers should glance at the book to see if the overall level is suitable for their students. I would probably recommend it for students scoring 90 and below.

My overall grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test – Listening and Speaking: A

I like this book! If you’ve been reading all my TOEFL book reviews you might think I hate everything, but I really appreciate what Collins has managed to do with it’s “Skills…” series in general, and the entry focusing on listening and speaking in particular.

Just note that I’m only reviewing the speaking section of the book. The chapters focusing on listening look okay, but that isn’t really my area of expertise.

The biggest strength of this book is its concise organization. It doesn’t waste time on a lot of “skills building” activities. I guess the authors looked at a lot of other books and came to the conclusion that such content is confusing and a waste of time. Instead, they focus on breaking down the structure of each question type so that students are as comfortable as possible going into the test.

In the book is a short chapter on each question type. They flow as follows:

  • Quick Guide (describes the question and answer requirements)
  • Walk through (a sample question, sample student notes, and a sample answer)
  • Get it Right (one page of concise tips)
  • Progressive Practice (three sample questions and a template)

At the end of the book there is a sample test with one question of each type.

And that’s it. But it really works. In about ten pages per question students get an accurate depiction of how each question is structured, and a fairly good template they can use to answer the question on test day. The sample answers are complete, and sufficiently long (unlike, say, the answers in Cracking the TOEFL).

I really want to draw attention to how rare it is to find such accurate questions. Most major books I have looked at (Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton, etc) all contain inaccurate questions which make student study time EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT. The authors of those books don’t even seem to have taken the test, and so their work makes students confused and frustrated.

When students study accurate questions they can avoid wasting time. That is the strength of this book.

It is clear that four questions of each type might not be enough for students to master the test, but once they have a decent understanding of how the questions are put together they will be able to supplement this book with content from the Official Test Collection books (10 questions of each type, in total).

Just note that starting August 1 of 2019 this book will be somewhat out of date because the TOEFL will change.