I read a whole bunch of random things this month!

  • Most importantly, I read the newly-released seventh edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  The guide was heavily revised for this edition, which came as a pleasant surprise.  For my complete coverage of what was changed, start reading here.  Next month I’ll dig into the new editions of the two official test collection books.
  • I also read a bunch of the TOEFL e-books published by Jackie Bolan which are available on Amazon, Hoopla and various other services.  Specifically, I read:  Phrasal Verbs for TOEFL, TOEFL Vocabulary Builder, and English Vocabulary Masterclass for TOEFL.  They are decent vocabulary books, but aren’t exactly TOEFL books as they don’t contain any TOEFL-specific content.  I suppose the “Vocabulary Builder” is the best, as it might help you learn some words used in campus situations (that you’ll need to know for parts of the listening and speaking sections).  In the months ahead I’ll dig into more of the TOEFL odds-and-ends that litter libraries and online bookstores.
  • I also read College Board: Its First Fifty Years.  You bet I did!
  • I read a couple more issues of History Today, which I’ve mentioned here is one of my favorite sources of academic reading practice.  In the April, 2024 issue I enjoyed The Value of Wills to Historians, which explores a somewhat mundane topic… exactly like the TOEFL reading section.  I also enjoyed When Nostalgia was Deadly, an examination of the deadly disease known as “nostalgia.”  Apparently this was a pretty big deal in medieval Europe.  In the May 2024 issue, I liked Inventing Cyrillic, which is a quick look at the history of the Cyrillic alphabet.  That sort of thing is exactly what the folks at ETS like to put on the TOEFL test.
  • Lastly, I continued my read-along with the Norton Library Podcast and read Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I can’t recommend this book to people learning English, but you might enjoy the podcast episodes that cover it.




And, finally, here are changes to the practice tests in the new Official Guide to the TOEFL.   Note that all of the academic discussion questions are new.  They have not appeared elsewhere.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Test One

Reading section: “Geology and Landscape” and “The Expression of Emotions” have been removed.  A new reading, “Birdsongs and Calls” has been added.

Listening section: No changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section: The integrated question about altruism has been removed and replaced with a new question about biofuels has been added.   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Two

Reading section: “Feeding Habits of East African Herbivores” has been removed.

Listening section: No changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Three

Reading section: “The Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer” has been removed.

Listening section: One lecture and one conversation have been replaced with new ones.  Don’t ask me why.

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:   An academic discussion question has been added.

Test Four

Reading section: “Lightning” has been removed.

Listening section: No Changes

Speaking Section: No changes

Writing section:  An academic discussion question has been added.

Next up, a list of changes in Chapter 5 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  This chapter is wonderful.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Again, note that I am focusing on changes other than the big test revisions that were implemented in July of last year.

Page 192-193: The example question about teamwork (which was quite inaccurate) has been replaced with a new question about “vitrified forts.”

Page 194:  The guide used to say “typically, an effective response will be 150 to 225 words.”  It now says “typically, an effective response will contain a minimum of 150 words.”

Page 194:  The guide now notes that “the lecture usually contradicts or disagrees with the information in the reading passage.”

Page 194:  The question prompts for the integrated task have been revised to emphasize that the lecture challenges the reading.  A new prompt called “solutions and their weaknesses” has also been added

Page 194:  The “as you write your response” section is updated to include new “the best way to organize the response…” tips about how to organize the essay properly.

Page 196:  The word count change is repeated.

Page 197-198:  This section on how responses are scored is all-new.  And it is beautiful.  Among other things, it notes:

“It is important to include all the most important details from the lecture, not only the main ideas”

“Within each body paragraph, consider devoting the first sentence or two to summarizing the idea the reading is expressing, and then explain in detail how the lecture responds to that idea”

“You should devote most of each paragraph to conveying information from the lecture”

“A concluding paragraph for your essay is typically not necessary”

Page 201-205:  There are sample responses for the new integrated writing task (see above)

Page 205+: The new WAD task is described.

Moving along, here’s a quick list of changes to Chapters 3 (Listening) and Chapters 4 (Reading) in the new Official Guide to the TOEFL.  Again, I’m focusing on stuff other than the major changes to the test that started back in July.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Chapter 3

Pages 122-123:

“Painters and Painting” is added as a potential lecture topic.

“Computer Science” is removed as a potential lecture topic.

“TV/Radio as mass communication” is now “media broadcasting and digital media as mass communication.”

Chapter 4:

Page 171:  Again, the length of the reading passage in question #2 is listed as 90-115 words.

Page 177:  Same as above, for question #3.

Page 178:  The sample reading for question #3 is now a single paragraph (same content, though)

Page 189:  Again, the reading passages are listed as 90-115 words.

Moving along, here are all of the major changes to Chapter 2 of the new Official Guide to the TOEFL.  This chapter covers the reading section of the TOEFL test.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Throughout the chapter, the “how to recognize” stuff for each question type has been rephrased to emphasize that questions are based on single paragraphs instead of on the whole article.

Page 37:  again, “historical” articles are now referred to “historical and biographical narrative” articles.

Page 38:  The frequency of “reference questions” is reduced from “0 to 2 questions per set” to “0 to 1 questions per set.”

Page 38:  Again, “fill in a table” questions are not referred to.

Page 45:  The book includes a more detailed description of what an “inference” actually is.

Page 58:  The old book had the following practice sets:  “The Origins of Cetaceans” and “Desert Formation” and “Early Cinema” and “Aggression” and “Artisans and Industrialization” and “Swimming Machines.”  

The new book has: “Impact of Railroad Transportation in the United States” and “Desert Formation” and “Early Cinema” and “Water and Ocean Life” and “Frederick Taylor and United States Industry” and “The Distribution of Plants and Animals.”

This means that all of the passages with with fill-in-a-table questions have been removed.  Note that the “Artisans and Industrialization” set also had an inference question that required reading of the whole passage.

I spotted at least one reference question, by the way.  That is found in “Early Cinema.” That question type is not dead yet!

My copy of the Official Guide to the TOEFL (7th edition) finally arrived.  As with previous editions, I will spend the next week taking a quick look at every chapter so that I can note all of the changes.  I’ll start today with Chapter One, which introduces the test in a general way.  Note that I won’t spend too much time talking about big-picture stuff (that is, the changes to the test from last year) since those are obvious.  I’m going to focus on smaller details that most readers might not notice.

You can read the whole blog series on changes at the following links: chapter one, chapter two, chapter three and four, chapter five, the tests.

Page 4:  Deleted the following study advice:  “select all the pronouns (he, him, they, them, and others) and identify which nouns each one refers to in the passage

Page 5: Added a reference to  New Zealand accents appearing on the test.

Page 5: Deleted this description of the headphones:  “test takers wear noise canceling headphones”

Page 5:  The test format chart is updated, of course.  Frustratingly, it uses the same “estimated timing” that ETS uses in its marketing materials so that it can claim that the test takes less than two hours to complete.  For instance, it notes that the “estimated timing” of the reading section is 35 minutes, when in reality it is 36 minutes long.

Page 6: No more references to confirming listening answers in the UI of the test.

Page 8: Description of possible reading passages changed from “historical” to “historical and biographical narrative” 

Page 8:  Shows that the reading article is now on the left side of the screen, and the questions on the right

Page 9/10:  The “category table” reading question is no longer mentioned (important)

Page 13:  “the pictures that accompany the lecture help you to know whether one or several people will be speaking”  changed to “pictures on the computer screen are intended to help you identify the roles of the speakers”

Page 15:  Listening questions worth more than one point are mentioned:  “Most questions are worth one point.  Some questions, however, are worth two points.  Special directions will indicate which, if any, questions are worth two points.  No more than one such question will appear on any test.” (important)

Page 18: campus situation reading passage changed from 80-110 words to 90-115 words.  (back in the 4th edition this was 75-100 words).  Likewise, General/specific reading passage length changed from 80-110 words to 90-115 words.

Page 20:  The following description of the integrated writing task has been deleted: “Test takers write a summary in connected English prose of important points made in the listening passage, and explain how these relate to the key points of the reading passage.  Suggested response length is 150-225 words; however, there is no penalty for writing more as long as it is in response to the task presented.” It has been replaced with:  “Test takers express information in an organized, logical and coherent manner.”

Page 21:  Updated score report description

Page 34:  Updated score report timeline.


Happy April, folks!

First up – new versions of the Official Guide to the TOEFL and the two Official Tests books were published this month, but my copies haven’t arrived so no news about those in this month’s column.  Maybe next month.  Meanwhile, I did read a few things.  They are…

  • Nancy’s Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America.  This scholarly look at the class divide in America had been on my to-read list for some time.  It was worth the effort it took to find a copy in Korea.  Check this one out to learn about the sometimes deplorable conditions of the poor in North America, beginning with the early days of colonization.  The story of America, I think, is the story of the poor.
  • In the March 2024 issue of “History Today,” I liked Was the Trojan Horse Real ? , a short article about the fake horse of Greek Mythology.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it – Greek soldiers apparently hid inside of it to better facilitate the capture of the city of Troy.  But was it real or is it just part of a made-up story that has endured for centuries? 
  • I also liked The Golden Age of Medieval Nostalgia.  You’ll have to pay for this one so I will keep it brief, but it’s a fun look at life in Europe in the 14th century when “the world turned upside down” due to significant social changes.  Any number of the trends and events described here could be turned into TOEFL reading questions.  Real TOEFL nerds might recognize “the Little Ice Age,” which is referred to early in the article.
  • Measuring the Shape of the Earth is about the exact sort of “why this?” thing that might show up in a TOEFL reading passage.  Is the earth flatter at the poles or around the equator?  Who cares?  Well, geographers, I guess.  As I’ve written here before, physical geography is a common topic in the TOEFL reading section.

By the way, you can get three issues of History today for Five GBP.  That’s like the best deal in magazines out there.  Just make sure to unsubscribe before the auto-renewal kicks in.

  • Finally, I read the June 2023 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.  It included a short article about the work of John Tuzo Wilson, the so-called “Charles Darwin of Geology.”  He contributed greatly to the theory of plate tectonics.  Geology is another common topic on the TOEFL (really, check out the link above).  And I am 100% sure that plate tectonics have come up more than once on the test.

That’s all for now.  Catch you again in May.

Amazon is now shipping copies of the new Official Guide to the TOEFL. As noted a few days ago, the guide no longer contains certain long running inaccuracies, so it’s probably a good time to record the Saga of the Altruism Question.

In late 2005 the first edition of “The Official Guide to the New TOEFL iBT” was published. It contained numerous inaccuracies. One can’t really blame the writers, as they compiled the book before the test launched. It brings to mind those early Star Trek: The Next Generation paperbacks where Troi calls Riker “Bill” and Tasha Yar has long hair.

The most notable errors were two depictions of the integrated writing task. One about group work (contained in the chapter about the writing section), and one about altruism (found in the practice set). I can go into details in the comments if you like, but basically this question has a very specific form and neither of the samples followed it.

Sadly, these two questions also appeared in the second edition, published in 2006.

By this time, third party publishers were releasing their own TOEFL prep books. And here’s the thing: they naturally based their books on the contents of the Official Guide. As a result, every single one of them contained terrible integrated writing questions. I’ll try to create a slideshow below that highlights some examples.  Sorry… it will probably look like trash on mobile.

For the most part, major publishers are adverse to spending money, so these errors remained in the books for ages. Kaplan included terrible integrated writing questions in their famous purple books right to the day they discontinued them. Princeton Review added a new integrated writing question to the 2024 edition of their TOEFL book which is horrific. If you squint at it long enough you’ll notice that it was inspired by the Official Guide.

Had the original book contained proper questions, this problem could have been avoided.

Anyway, the bad questions remained in the third edition, which was published in 2009.

By this time I was teaching TOEFL. At least twice a week someone would send me a practice essay based on the famous altruism question and ask me to grade it. Every time I’d politely explain that even though the question came from the Official Guide, it wasn’t accurate and it would be a waste of their time and money to have me check it. Fifteen years later, I still have to explain that a few times a month.

The questions remained in the fourth edition, published in 2012. By this time ETS had licensed dozens of retired tests to New Oriental, so the proper format was widely known.

The questions remained in the fifth edition, published in 2017.

Teachers were hopeful that the sixth edition, published in 2021, would not contain these faulty questions given that the book required radical revisions to match the changes to the test of 2019. Sadly…  it appeared once more.

But hey.  It’s 2024 now.  Nineteen years have passed.  The bad questions have finally been removed from the book.

My copy of the new TOEFL iBT Premium from Barron’s just arrived.

I was really lucky to have the opportunity to contribute a little bit to this edition (the 18th). My job was mainly to revise the integrated writing questions and make them a bit more accurate. I also fact checked the boring stuff (payment methods, acceptable IDs, whiteboard rules, supported operating systems, score arrival times, etc) that most people don’t read (but really should read).

I think regular users of this book will really appreciate revisions to the practice reading tests, which have been tightened up quite a lot. The design of the questions more closely matches the look of the real test.

Pamela Sharpe has written every edition of this book, starting in 1978. If you want to know something about the history of the TOEFL program, she’s the one to ask.


Some may be interested to know that publication of the three official TOEFL books has been pushed back again. Per Amazon, they will be published on April 24. The bundles still have an April 22 street date, but I suppose that will be changed.

In other book news:

  1. The 18th edition of Barron’s TOEFL will be released on April 2.
  2. The print publication of “English,” Sanaz Toossi’s Pulitzer prize winning depiction of a TOEFL classroom, has been pushed back to June 25.
  3. When I reduced the price of the Kindle version of my TOEFL writing book to a buck, sales increased ten-fold. But surprisingly, about half of the sales were of the print version, which had the same old price. Maybe this is a good tip for self-publishers. If you get some attention via a cheap ebook version, people who like the looks of the book will go ahead and get the paper version.
  4. I was hoping that some of the sales would result in reviews on Amazon. Sadly, only one more person wrote a review. So, if you like the book, it would be cool if you could take a moment to write a few words on Amazon.

Hey, so I’ve reduced the price of my TOEFL ebook to 99 cents on Amazon.  The book covers the TOEFL iBT writing section and contains some of the best practice questions and answers I’ve created over the years.  It also collects a bunch of the grammar articles that appeared on this blog before August of last year.  If that seems like the sort of the thing that might interest you, do pick up a copy on Amazon.  The book is no longer part of the Kindle Unlimited program, so even Prime members can buy a copy.  It is also available in paperback, but obviously that’s a bit more expensive.  Buying a copy will help me fulfill my dream of having the best-selling TOEFL book on Amazon, where I’m currently #6.

The Princeton Review is the first major publisher with a TOEFL book that matches the new format.  I ordered a copy for myself but, sadly, the new edition isn’t great.  It looks like the editors rushed the book to market and left the job of updating it half finished.

Practice questions for the new “Writing for Academic Discussion” question are present in the new edition.  It’s clear that the editors created them by sort of “upgrading” the old independent writing questions with the required discussion stuff.  That’s fine.  But, strangely, the sample responses have not been updated to match the new task format.  They are all independent essays… some more than 300 words.

Similarly, the “core concept” and “cracking the writing section” chapters still teach readers how to write four-paragraph independent essays.  They’ve even got a big ol’ independent essay template… but none of that is relevant any more.

The upside?  Well, the book still has some good skill building stuff that is relevant to the rest of the test.  There are now two practice tests instead of one, but that necessitated the creation of a new integrated writing task which isn’t very good.  At first listen, I thought that PR had included the wrong audio track, but eventually I figured out that the question was just poorly constructed.

Anyway.  I don’t recommend this one. Princeton Review issues a new edition every year so I’ll check in again in 2025.

If you desire to have a copy of the book, it is available via Amazon.