So a real grab bag in the “You Should Read More” column this  month.  That means it was a good reading month for me… but maybe not a great month for you if you are looking for stuff perfectly suited for TOEFL prep.  In any case, let’s get right to it…

  • First up, I will remind you of the two book reviews I wrote this month. First up, check out my review of the new edition of TOEFL Essential Words.  The book remains a great resource for TOEFL prep, though the new edition has a bunch of errors in its description of the shorter TOEFL test.  Whoops.  Also, it seems to only be available as an ebook right now.  Next up, I reviewed IELTS 17.  Obviously the IELTS is a totally different test, but the articles used in the reading section are great practice if you want to read academic content.
  • Next, I read the September/October 2023 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact.  As always, you won’t be able to read any of its content unless you have a subscription, but I will mention that the issue’s “Guest Editorial” by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Brian Gifford about sacrificing privacy to increase safety inspired the creation of a specific TOEFL academic discussion question for a client.   And a poem called “Object Permanence” by Marissa Lingen inspired the creation of a speaking question about, uh, object permanence. 
  • Later, I finally pulled Stanley Kaplan’s autobiography Test Pilot off my shelf.  If you are into the history of standardized testing in the USA and/or the history of preparation for standardized testing, this one is worth finding.  Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads: “A very short book, but interesting if you are into the history of standardized testing in the USA. You’ll read about Kaplan’s founding, its tussles with ETS and the Princeton Review, and about the sale of the company to the fine folks over at the Washington Post. I wish Kaplan had written more about his interactions with ETS regarding the SAT, as that is still pretty relevant to today’s world.”
  • Following along (but still behind) with the Norton Library Podcast, I read Oedipus the King.  I don’t recommend it, but I mention it here because I enjoy posting updates about this read-along.
  • Finally, I read the September 2023 issue of History Today.  I liked Jane Eyre Goes to the Theatre, about an unauthorized theatrical production of the famous novel that launched shortly after the publication of the famous novel.  Back in the day, it seems, anyone could do anything they wanted with someone else’s intellectual property. Also worth checking out is Signs of the Zodiac: The Dendera Dating Controversy, about the discovery of the Dendera Zodiac in Egypt and its arrival in Paris.  

That’s all for this month, but check back in about 30 days for fresh recommendations.  Keep studying.

I was doing some IELTS tutoring earlier this week and I figured it would be fun to write a “review” of one of the numbered IELTS practice test books.  This is, I guess, a review of “IELTS 17” but it could be used as a review of any of the books… they are all pretty much the same (but new editions more closely match the current style of the test).

Any review must begin by thanking Cambridge for cranking out one of these books every year. Thanks to these books, people preparing for the IELTS have a ton of material to work with. The books keep pace with changes to the test, even though those changes are pretty minor.  As of the writing of this review, there are 18 such books.

Each book contains:

  1. A short introduction that describes the format of the test and how it is scored.
  2. Four practice tests with audio provided via QR codes
  3. Transcripts of the audio portions.
  4. Answer keys.
  5. Sample answer sheets
  6. Sample essays

There is also a single use code that will grant you access to a “resource bank” online that mostly duplicates the stuff available via the QR codes.

Speaking of the QR codes, it pleases me greatly that Cambridge provides access to the necessary audio without a limited-use code. That means that library patrons and second-hand shoppers can use the books. That compares favorably to the most recent official TOEFL prep material. Those books are useless for library patrons as the audio files can only be downloaded four times.

My only quibble is that the books are pretty expensive considering their slim size.

A few notes for teachers and students:

  1. There are 18 editions of this book as of the writing of this review. Each edition has different tests.
  2. Editions 13 and above are generally considered to be the most accurate books, as they match slight changes to the end of the listening section.
  3. That said, editions 6-12 are pretty darn close to the real test.
  4. Editions 1-5 should be avoided as they are quite out of date.

The eighth edition of “TOEFL Essential Words” by Steven J. Matthiesen was published a few days ago.  So far it is only available as an ebook, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that a printed version will be provided soon.  Note that previous editions of the book were published as “Essential Words for the TOEFL.”

This remains one of my favorite TOEFL books. While it focuses on just a small slice of one’s preparation for the TOEFL it handles that slice very well.  

So what does it contain?

After providing a brief overview of the TOEFL Test, a detailed overview of the TOEFL reading section, and a few notes about “improving your TOEFL Vocabulary,” the book gets to what people really want – words.  Thirty lessons worth of words, to be exact.

Each lesson consists of:

  • About 17 words
  • Dictionary-style definitions of each word
  • A synonym quiz
  • 10 TOEFL vocabulary questions featuring the words
  • An answer key

This is great.  You can use the above to learn about 500 words that might appear in the reading section of the TOEFL.  This makes the book a valuable part of a healthy TOEFL study plan.

A decent (but not perfect) reading practice test is provided at the very end of the book.  It consists of three articles with 13 questions (all types, not just vocabulary) for each.

Curious about the “difficulty level” of the words?  Here is a list of five words chosen via a random number generator:

  • Elicit
  • Partisan
  • Aggravating
  • Exceptional
  • Selective

Note that the words seem to be pretty much the same as those contained in the seventh edition of the book.  I spent a decent amount of time checking the editions side by side, but didn’t notice any differences.  I am sure some edits were made in the preparation of this edition, but I didn’t spot any.  That is a bit of a let down, as every previous edition of this book contained a decent amount of revisions.

That brings me to the bad part of this review. As most readers know, the TOEFL iBT Test was shortened this year. Chapter 1 of this book was revised to reflect these changes… but the revision was done poorly. The chapter incorrectly states the amount of time given to complete the reading section, the number of listening passages, and the amount of time given to complete the writing section.  It also incorrectly states the amount of time given to prepare for the speaking tasks.  Since this appears to be the only stuff actually revised in this edition, I’m a bit disappointed. This doesn’t take away from the value of the actual content people will study, so it isn’t a big deal… but someone should have done better.

It is worth mentioning that the book also attempts to explain the specifics of the TOEFL ITP, which is a whole different test that I suspect most readers will have no interest in.  For the sake of coherence, that content should probably be shuffled off to a separate chapter, where it can be easily ignored.

Your three official TOEFL books have had their release dates adjusted (and harmonized). All three now have release dates of January 12, per Amazon. Cover images are available now too. However, Amazon might not be the most reliable source of this information, of course. Does anyone from ETS want to confirm that January 12 is the actual release date?

Curiously, the listed page count for each is longer than the current editions. That’s weird, since the test is shorter than before and the number of included tests remains the same as before.

Meanwhile, Princeton Review has a book scheduled for February.  Barron’s has a book scheduled for April.

I just noticed that Amazon now has The Official Guide to the TOEFL (Seventh edition) available for pre-order!  The product listing indicates that it will ship on January 5, 2024.  It also indicates that the book has been updated to match the new version of the test.  Moreover, there are listings for Official TOEFL Tests  Volume 1 and Volume 2.  Both have shipping dates of March 22, 2024.

Meanwhile, Princeton Review has a new TOEFL book with a shipping date of February 6, 2024.  Barron’s has a new TOEFL book coming April 2, 2024.  Barron’s also has an updated version of their venerable TOEFL vocabulary book with an on-sale date of November 7 of 2023, but curiously only a Kindle version is listed (no paperback).

I just heard back from Collins that the new TOEFL books they published in June are not fully updated to match the current version of the test.  They still reflect the old 3.5 hour version of the test.  That’s unfortunate, as the Collins TOEFL books are generally really good.  It is also unfortunate for Collins that their publishing schedule couldn’t be delayed somehow to allow for revisions. 

I might still buy one or two of the books as I’m always interested to see what the big publishers are up to.  

If you want to go shopping for them on Amazon, you can start here.  Collins is usually pretty accurate when it comes to practice questions, so I’m sure they are still a valuable study resource.

I stumbled across a copy of the fifth edition of Rawdon Wyatt’s “Check Your English Vocabulary for the TOEFL” today.  This isn’t a particularly popular book, but it does come up now and then when I talk to students.

It must be said that this is barely a TOEFL book.  The TOEFL is referenced in the title and mentioned in the introduction to the book, but otherwise this is just a general vocabulary workbook.  It contains 50 chapters of fill-in-the-blank activities, crossword puzzles and other skill building things.  The vocabulary presented in the book is certainly useful, but it isn’t particularly focused on the TOEFL in any way.  Nor will you find any activities or questions that resemble what you’ll find on the TOEFL (like you will find in the TOEFL vocabulary book published by Barron’s).  It isn’t even focused on the sort of peculiar academic vocabulary one finds on the TOEFL.  Keep that in mind if you plan to use this as a self-study resource or a teaching tool.  This is fine as a vocabulary book, but it is about as useful as any old vocabulary book when it comes to TOEFL prep.  It isn’t any better than, say, “English Vocabulary in Use” or any other good vocabulary resource from a reputable publisher.

Note for teachers: this book is perfect if you are looking for photocopiables and your boss wants you to draw from something with “TOEFL” in the title.

You can get a copy from Amazon.

Alright, so there is a bit more variety in this week’s “You Should Read More” column!  

First up, I read the February 2023 issue of National Geographic.  A few stories stood out:

  • Why these colorful fish engage in mouth-to-mouth showdowns is a short article about some weird and wonderful fish.  The sarcastic fringefish has a unique way of fighting, but also of avoiding fights with others of its species.  This is an example what I think it called agonistic behavior, which I am 100% sure has been used as type three speaking question.

  • Origami is revolutionizing technology, from medicine to space is the month’s title story.  It is about practical and high-tech uses of techniques inspired by origami.  It isn’t exactly the sort of thing that would appear on the TOEFL, but it is a lengthy academic-level passage that will probably hold your attention.

  • The extraordinary benefits of a house made of mud is about the use of mud in construction.  Mud is actually a traditional building material in parts of Africa.  The article discusses some of its advantages.  There is plenty of good science in here, and I can picture a TOEFL reading passage about this construction material!

Meanwhile, I read the February 27/March 6 issue of Time Magazine.  A couple of things are worth mentioning:

For a recent project I read Did we get the ‘old-age dependency’ of aging countries all wrong?  It’s about the way we think about the productiveness of “old” people in society.  Traditionally, societies have considered those above the age of 65 to be “dependent” on the rest of society, and therefore when those people make up a greater and greater proportion of the overall population, alarm bells are sounded.  But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that.

Finally, I’ve been plugging away at a large textbook called “They Say, I Say.”  It’s a guide to essay writing for freshman students, but also contains a huge number of academic readings meant to stimulate critical thought and written discussion.  I am not quite finished with it, so I think I’ll save it for next month, when I will discuss it both as a source of writing advice and as a source of academic reading material.

Someone posted a recommendation last month.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t forgotten you, and I’m going to hunt around for a copy of the recommended text.  I’m always open to recommendations!

While I was in Canada last year, I found a copy of Arco’s “TOEFL” from 1974/75.  This is the oldest TOEFL book I have ever had in my hands.  It was written by Harriet N. Moreno, Edith H. Babin and Carol V Scallon.  Interestingly, the audio files came on vinyl records (which I could not get).

I can’t resist using this opportunity to write a few words about Arco.

Though it is largely forgotten nowadays, Arco was one of the very first publishers of test preparation books in the United States.  Founded in 1937 (two years before Barron’s) by Milton Gladstone, the company eventually branched out into fiction and cheap general reference books of all sorts.  Notably, the publisher attracted the attention of the United States government due to the publication of its “Arco Sophisticates” line of paperback erotica (many written by Jack Woodford). Gladstone was subpoenaed and spoke before the US House of Representatives in 1952.   

In 1978, the publisher was acquired by Simon and Schuster.  Thanks to its long association with test prep books, the “Arco” brand name was valuable enough to be passed through various hands including those of Pearson , IDG, Thomson, Cengage and Peterson’s.  I think Peterson’s still owns the name, but I suspect no one over there even knows that.  The last book to bear the Arco name was published in 2010, as far as I can tell.  It was a guide to the Federal Clerical Exam.  I think Peterson’s retired the brand after that.

Anyhow… the gallery below contains a few pictures of the TOEFL book, including the cover, back cover, preface and “how to be a master test taker” guide.  I took a few more pictures that I won’t share here.  Let me know if you need ’em for some reason.  They include some actual questions.

Since it is the end of the year, here is a quick run-down of the best TOEFL books and courses available today. I remind you that I have used and examined everything that is listed here, so if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.  I’m a picky teacher, but (I hope) a fair one when it comes to materials. Don’t consider the order I’ve listed these materials as a ranking system.  I don’t rank stuff.

Best Online TOEFL Courses in 2022

1. TST Prep Score Builder Program

Pros: This remains the gold-standard for third party courses. It includes a 20 hour video course, 1000+ activities, 1000+ practice questions, 10 practice tests and other stuff.  It has the most accurate practice tests and questions of any third-party publisher.

Cons: It costs $197, which some might consider expensive.  However, you can use the coupon code goodine10off to get a 10% discount.  TST Prep also runs sales now and then, so check their social media.  A sale + the coupon will make this a deal.

2. Official iBT Prep Course

The Prep Course is new for 2022!  Yes, ETS is now selling its own online course.  It costs $130.

Pros: Since it comes from ETS, all of the practice questions in this course are 100% accurate.  That’s important.  I really like the strategies for the writing and speaking sections, as they clear up a lot of misconceptions held by students.

Cons: It contains no video lessons; the lessons are all text. Also, the course contains far fewer practice questions than the TST Prep course does. There is no option to take even one complete practice test all at once.

3. GregMat+ TOEFL

GregMat’s TOEFL course became super-popular in 2022.  Young people adore it.   It costs $5 per month.  Just remember to cancel the auto-renew.

Pros:  The strength of this course it its simplicity.  It consists of about 60 videos.  And that’s it.  It doesn’t have any activities, PDF files, sample tests or clunky UI to navigate.  It is just a bunch of videos that explain test-taking strategy.  In this way, it complements what is available online for free quite well. This appeals a lot to younger students, I think.  It is also really frigging cheap. It also includes access to Greg’s GRE lessons.

Cons:  The videos use questions from ETS sources like the website and the official (green) books to illustrate the strategies. Many buyers will already have seen them before they buy the course.  And, uh, I’m not sure if Greg is really allowed to use them in this way.

Best TOEFL  Books in 2022

Here are some Amazon links to my favorite TOEFL books.  Keep in mind that as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases on that site.

1.  The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT Test, Sixth Edition

I think everyone should read the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  It is a perfect starting point for almost everyone planning to take the test.

Pros: This book contains the most detailed description of the test available.  It also contains four practice tests.

Cons: The integrated writing question in the first practice test is inaccurate.  The software used to deliver the practice tests is somewhat flawed (the listening section timers are wrong)

2. Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume One, and Volume Two

These two books complement the above guide.  They each contain five practice tests.  They represent the ten best practice tests currently available.  Every serious test-taker should use them.  Note that they use the same somewhat flawed software to deliver the tests that the Official Guide uses.

3. Barron’s TOEFL 17th edition

Barron’s TOEFL is the last TOEFL book from a major third-party publisher that still gets updated.  Once there were many TOEFL books, but now there is one. 

Pros: This is a pretty good TOEFL book.  It contains detailed strategies.  The strongest aspect of the book is its massive collection of practice tests.  It includes eight full tests and eight more “practice tests” which contain 1/3 of the usual content.  That’s a ton of practice.   New in 2022 is a kindle version sold via Amazon.

Cons: There are a few little inaccuracies here and there (like in all third-party materials), but not enough to turn me off of the book.  

4. Princeton Review TOEFL 2022

Princeton Review still has a TOEFL book, but it doesn’t get updated (they just change the cover and title each year).  The only changes I’ve noticed in recent editions are typo fixes. I think this will be the last year I list it on the blog, unless it gets a proper update.

Pros: This book is okay.  It has some solid strategies and one decent practice test.

Cons: It has just one practice test.  Just one!  It also contains inaccuracies that probably won’t ever get fixed.

5.  Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT: Third Edition

Kathy Spratt’s TOEFL reading book has a cult following online.  People love it.

Pros: Kathy focuses on what she knows best – the reading section of the TOEFL.  The book contains detailed strategies and original practice questions.  It is really cheap.

Cons: You’ll have to look elsewhere for help with the rest of the test.

Forthcoming in 2023

I believe that Collins will publish new editions of their TOEFL books sometime in 2023.  I like the current editions, but they are really old.

As I hear from publishers, I will update this post.

I found a copy of Kaplan’s TOEFL Pocket Vocabulary from 2018, and thought you guys might like a quick review.  

Here’s what you get in this book:

  • Thirty lists of words, containing 600 words in total.  Each includes a definition, sample sentence and other forms of the work (adjective, verb, noun, adverb, etc).
  • Twenty-one lists of idioms, containing 420 idioms in total.  Each includes a definition and sample sentence.
  • A handful of fill-in-the-blanks multiple choice exercises to help you remember the above.
  • No TOEFL practice questions.

This is probably a useful book, though some people might find the vocabulary a little too easy.  For your reference, here are the words in list 23: attitude, level, repel, uniform, trend, function, comment, lecture, emphasis, analysis, hypothesis, circumstance, strategy, tradition, regime, target, era, authority, generation, hierarchy. 

As you can see, some of those are “advanced” vocabulary, but others are pretty basic.  I suppose this means the book is suitable for an intermediate student.

More valuable, perhaps, is the collection of idioms.  Most ESL students will be able to learn quite a lot from those lists.  I don’t usually recommend the use of idioms on the TOEFL, but I know a lot of students (and some teachers) are obsessed with them.

If this book doesn’t appeal to you, I also recommend the “Barron’s” TOEFL Vocabulary book.  It contains somewhat more technical words and accurate TOEFL practice questions.

I read a couple of books about tests this month.  They might not be particularly interesting to TOEFL students, but teachers who read this blog might enjoy them.

First up, I read Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews.  It describes how Jaime Escalante prepared underprivileged students in East Los Angeles  to take the AP Calculus Exam in the 1970s and 80s.  Escalante’s unique approach to this task yielded amazing (and unprecedented) results.  I don’t know if his techniques would work forty years later, but this is a great book for anyone interested in teaching and in the value of testing.  It is also a great advertisement for the AP program, which continues to this day.  Readers might also benefit from its sketch of how public schools operated in LA during those decades.  They faced challenges then, and they face challenges now.

One incident in the book stood out to me.  In 1982, ETS (yes, ETS) determined that several of Escalante’s students may have cheated on the test.  Their suspicious were due in part to a controversial mathematical analysis called a “K Index.”  They were told that they could do one of three things:  cancel the test and get a refund, take the test again, or submit additional information.  The students were told that if they provided additional information, it would be reviewed by a panel of three ETS officials.  They would only have to convince one of the members of the panel to have their scores restored. Or they could turn it all over to the American Arbitration Association.

Skip ahead to 2022, and that’s almost exactly what some students are told when ETS challenges their TOEFL scores.  The mathematical analysis is different of course, but everything else remains the same.  Funny, that.

Next, I read Michael Young’s “The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033”   Young was a sociologist who coined the term “meritocracy.”  But this book is not in praise of meritocracy, as most are.  The book is actually a dystopia that uses the rise of intelligence testing in the 1940s and 50s as its launching point.  Young tracks a fictional history of the United Kingdom as it slips into a more and more segregated and caste-like society due to its emphasis on “merit” above all else.  It is an interesting thought-experiment.  Especially in 2022 when the general consensus seems to be that meritocracy is always a good thing. I think there is something in here that explains part of our current political chaos, but I’m going to keep the blog politics-free for now. But for more on this topic, check out this debate on IQ2.  Or my review of “The Big Test” a few months ago.



A few notes from the publishing world:

  1.  Book Depository now lists the 2023 edition of Princeton Review’s “TOEFL iBT” with an on-sale date of February 2023.  I think this one will be almost identical to the 2022 and 2021 editions.  Princeton Review sometimes fixes small typos, but doesn’t seem enthusiastic about making large revisions.
  2.  Book depository also has listings for new editions of all four TOEFL books from Harper Collins with on-sale dates in May and June of 2023.  I like those books, so new editions are certainly welcome.  The existing editions were published many years ago.
  3. Barron’s is now selling an ebook version of their most recent TOEFL iBT book!  That’s the first ebook edition of a major TOEFL book I have seen in ages.

It is about time for me to write a new “best TOEFL books” blog post.  Keep an eye out for that.