Update: According to McGraw Hill’s own site, the book will be published on June 19.
The listing does not indicate much about what else has changed in the book, but fortunately the audio and software content will be provided online instead of on a DVD. It is also mentioned that the book will still contain just four tests. Previously, updated editions of the book included a new practice test.
I‘ve never had a student ask me about McGraw-Hill Education’s main TOEFL book. It must have had a tiny print run, as I haven’t even seen people talking about it online. Regardless, a copy just came into my hands, so you guys get a quick review of the book.
To make a long story short, it isn’t very good. I actually had high hopes for this one, since McGraw-Hill has the licence to publish official TOEFL materials (they publish the Official Guide and the two iBT Tests books). However, it doesn’t look like they have access to insider information or notes about test design from ETS. Most of the sample questions in the book are inaccurate. This includes really major problems like integrated writing questions where the reading has just two paragraphs, and minor problems like “campus announcement” speaking questions where the opinionated student gives three reasons for their position. Or reading questions where you have to search through the whole article to find the article. For these reasons I don’t recommend the book to anyone. Note, meanwhile, that this book was published before the TOEFL was changed (August, 2019) so it is dated in a general sense.
Regular readers of my reviews will know that I am not particularly enthusiastic about TOEFL vocabulary books (I think it is probably better to just study the Academic Word List), but McGraw-Hill’s “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL Test” (2014) is a book I’m happy to recommend to students.
What you get here are 41 chapters, each containing a themed list of 10 words with detailed definitions and practice exercises (fill-in-the-blanks, matching). The last page of each chapter contains a paragraph “excerpted” from a larger TOEFL reading and two accompanying questions . What sets this book apart from, say, Barron’s TOEFL Vocabulary is that these questions are not just vocabulary style questions. Instead, all of the TOEFL reading question types are represented. Those, specifically, make this a valuable study resource for anyone preparing for the TOEFL reading section.
The lists themselves are meant to represent the various topics used in the writing of the reading passages on the TOEFL. The authors have included a few topics that probably don’t ever appear on the test (spirituality and ghosts) but most of them are relevant. The words themselves are a mix of those which are mostly just used in discussion of the given topic, but also words used beyond the given topic. That means that the list in the chapter on agriculture contains the words “irrigation” and “photosynthesis” but also the words “adversely” and “aggregate.”
The vocabulary here seems to be a bit more challenging than words in the aforementioned Barron’s book, and are much more challenging than those in the Princeton Review’s TOEFL Power Vocab. That’s a good thing!
Note that the second edition is quite similar to the first edition. The main difference seems to be the addition of a single chapter on “Parenting.” There may be some revisions to the other chapters, but I didn’t look that closely.
Today I want to write a few words about an interesting new (December, 2019) text from ETS. “Automated Speaking Assessment” is the first book-length study of SpeechRater, which is the organization’s automated speaking assessment technology. That makes it an extremely valuable resource for those of us who are interested in the TOEFL and how our students are assessed. There is little in here that will make someone a better TOEFL teacher, but many readers will appreciate how it demystifies the changes to the TOEFL speaking section that were implemented in August of 2019 (that is, when the SpeechRater was put into use on the test).
I highly recommend that TOEFL teachers dive into chapter five of the book, which discusses the scoring models used in the development of SpeechRater. Check out chapter four as well, which discusses how recorded input from students is converted into something that can actually be graded.
Chapters six, seven and eight will be the most useful for teachers. These discuss, in turn: features measuring fluency and pronunciation, features measuring vocabulary and grammar, and features measuring content and discourse coherence. Experienced teachers will recognize that these three categories are quite similar to the published scoring rubrics for the TOEFL speaking section.
In chapter six readers will learn about how the SpeechRater measures the fluency of a student by counting silences and disfluencies. They will also learn about how it handles speed, chunking and self-corrections. These are actually things that could influence how they prepare students for this section of the test, though I suspect that most teachers don’t need a book to tell them that silences in the middle of an answer are a bad idea. There is also a detailed depiction of how the technology judges pronunciation, though that section was a bit to academic for me to grasp.
Chapter seven discusses grammar and vocabulary features that SpeechRater checks for. Impressively, it just sticks them in a list. A diligent teacher might create a sort of check list to provide to students. Finally, chapter eight discusses how the software assesses topic development in student answers.
Sadly, this book was finished just before ETS started using automated speaking scoring on high-stakes assessment. Chapter nine discusses how the technology is used to grade TOEFL practice tests (low-stakes testing), but nothing is mentioned about its use on the actual TOEFL. I would really love to hear more about that, particularly its ongoing relationship with the human raters who grade the same responses.
I’ve been meaning to write a review of Magoosh TOEFL for ages. Magoosh has been around forever and is still really popular with students. But is a good source of information? Well, I recommend it for reading and listening practice. It is a poor resource for writing and speaking practice.
Let’s take a closer look…
The lessons aren’t flashy, but they are functional. They are mostly just the Magoosh teacher talking over a whiteboard style presentation. Thankfully transcripts are provided, and students can speed up the videos if they find them too slow. The lessons have all been updated for the 2019 version of the TOEFL, except for a few minor instances which the site’s editors missed.
I like the reading lessons provided by Magoosh quite a lot. The site provides 19 video lessons, totaling about three hours of video. Each question type is described in detail with a sample of each one. Common “answer traps” for each type are described in separate videos. There aren’t a whole lot of “strategies” other than pacing techniques, but I think that’s probably a fine approach. As I’ve talked about in my own content, using strategies is probably a bad idea for this section of the test.
The listening lessons are also quite strong. Honestly, there aren’t any good TOEFL listening lessons online, so I’d enthusiastically recommend this content. These are presented the same as the reading lessons – videos for each section question type and for common traps. There is more content on basic strategy here, which is probably more appropriate for the listening section.
The speaking lessons are decent. Speaking question one is described in accurate terms, which is something that most books and websites don’t do. Magoosh makes sure to mention the “paired choice” style prompt that is mostly ignored by other sources. It is quite disappointing that the lessons for questions 2 to 4 use the old TOEFL “Quick Prep” sets from ETS, since students can get those for free on their own, but at least it makes the material in the lessons more accurate that most sites. Heck… that’s what I do for many of my videos. The templates and timing suggestions for each question (provided in separate videos) are very good. Sadly, this is all paired with weak practice questions (see below).
The writing lessons are a bit weaker. There are a few inaccuracies in the videos. Early in his description of the integrated writing task, the teacher suggests that the details in the reading might be in a different order than the details in the lecture. That’s not true. Likewise, the lesson on the independent writing task leaves out the multiple-choice style prompts. That’s an unfortunate over site. The lessons about constructing the essay, though, are fine. They will lead to the creation of effective essays. These are also paired with bad practice questions (see below).
Finally, there are a bunch of grammar videos. I checked a few of them out and they seem fine. Honestly, though, there are better places to study grammar. That’s not why anyone is buying a Magoosh membership.
Well, the writing practice is bad. Of the seven integrated writing questions provided, only three of them are accurate (Globalization, Rococo, Trade). The rest are badly created with either too many or too few paragraphs, points that don’t match up, or faulty ordering of points. Sadly the very first practice question (Gone with the Wind) is especially bad. I wish that one could be moved to the end of the practice section so fewer students would see it. The independent writing questions are all accurate, but no multiple-choice prompts are provided. That makes the material seem a bit dated.
The speaking practice is weak. The practice questions for task one are all accurate… but they don’t include any of the more modern “good idea” style questions. The sample questions for task two don’t always follow the same structure used by ETS when they create questions. They seem to emphasize the giving of details about the changes being announced rather than two two reasons for the changes on the real test. Moreover, the students in the Magoosh conversations sometimes address details not mentioned in the reading part, which is unlike the real test. For what it’s worth, I recommend two of the practice questions (vegetarian meals, college radio). You can skip the rest. The task three and four practice questions are fine. I feel that the prompts are a bit too specific and verbose (the real test is more likely to ask the students to more broadly define the term or concept using the examples) the construction of the questions is acceptable here. Students might not even notice the difference when they take the real test (which is easier).
I like the reading practice a lot. The passages and questions all look accurate. The authors of the passages seem to really understand how the test is put together, and they avoid all of the problems that most textbook authors make. The tests have been updated for the new TOEFL, and the number of questions for each article has been reduced to ten. I didn’t count the question type distribution, but it seems accurate. I would wholeheartedly recommend this section of Magoosh.
The listening practice looks good and updated. I would also recommend it. It appears quite accurate. I would also recommend it. I love that the questions here all include detailed explanations instead of just an answer key. A lot of work went into those.
If you can afford it, buy this only for listening and reading practice. There is a ton of good content here to help you prepare for those parts of the test. Use the speaking and writing content sparingly, and make sure to supplement with some more accurate practice questions (the Official Guide and iBT Tests books, for instance).
There are a few good TOEFL books. There are a lot of bad TOEFL books. I hope that this article helps you pick the best ones. I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find my current list of non-recommended books and websites.
Last Updated: May 16, 2020
Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL
Kaplan’s TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021. This was the first TOEFL textbook updated to match the new version of the test. However, I don’t really recommend it. The sample questions in the book are not very accurate, especially the reading and writing questions. The questions in the sample tests (provided online) are also very inaccurate. They just don’t match the structure and organization of questions used on the real test. Moreover, there are only three practice tests provided online (instead of the four promised on the book’s cover). While the book has a ton of strategies, they are organized in such a way that many students will just be left confused after reading them. You can also read my complete review.
Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep was the second book this year to match the new test. This one is much better than Kaplan’s book, but it also has a lot of accuracy 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 software included), but there are additional practice questions throughout the book. The only good part of this book is the collection of skill building exercises in the beginning. Note that this book used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL.” That was a stupid name.
Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th Edition) was published on April 7, 2020. This is the first edition where the entire book and the practice tests match the new version of the test. Audio content and tests are provided online (not on CD). Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet, but I’ll publish a full review when I do. I think that a Superpack featuring this book (and a couple others) will be sold in July.
Upcoming Books that Will Match the New TOEFL
An updated edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL will be published in June or July of this year. The Amazon listing says July, while the publisher’s website says June. Keep checking here for updated information. I’m happy to report that for the first time, audio and software content will be provided online, rather than on a DVD. It will contain four practice tests, just like the previous edition. I’ll write a detailed review as soon as I can get a copy for myself.
Note that on the same day as this guide is published, ETS will also publish updated versions of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the Official iBT Tests books.
Kaplan’s 4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL will be updated on September 1, 2020. It will also be sold as a bundle with the Kaplan book mentioned above. It will probably suck like most of Kaplan’s TOEFL books.
Barron’s Practice Exercises for the TOEFL (Ninth Edition) will be published on October 6, 2020. This is the first edition of the book published since 2015. Honestly, I’ve never used this book, so I can’t comment on the quality. Apparently it has some material related to the TOEFL ITP (used by institutions), which is neat. I’ll try to get a copy in October.
It looks like Smart Edition’s planned “TOEFL Full Study Guide” has been cancelled or delayed. But check Amazon if you are interested.
Best Overview of the Test
The Official Guide to the TOEFL (5th Edition) is still probably the best overview of the test. I’ve been teaching for a decade and I still open it up now and then to check some specific detail of the test. Needless to say, it will teach you about all four sections of the test and the different types of questions. It is also illustrated with plenty of examples. Note, though, that it has not been updated to match the changes to the test that began in August of 2019. It also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particular in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test). ETS will publish a new version in June or July (see above).
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
I suppose that 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. Note, though, that they are not updated to match the changes I mentioned above so you will have to “modify” the tests by chopping out speaking questions 1 and 5 (and by remembering the the listening and reading sections are shorter. Note, also, that the independent writing questions are a bit old and that the real test has a greater variety of question styles. Remember that there are two books you can get – Volume 1 (3rd edition) and Volume 2 (2nd Edition). They have different tests. ETS will publish new versions of these books in June or July (see above).
If you want some practice tests that are updated to match the new format, 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 can also read Amazon ebooks in your browser. This book has been updated to match the new version of the test.
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 ELSE messes up. It also includes some decent templates and concise strategies. It isn’t bogged down with “information overload” like the Kaplan book, for example. 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 seems to de-emphasize 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 reading questions as well.
An equally good book is McGraw Hill’s 400 Essential Words for the TOEFL. It also includes some decent words, and has accurate TOEFL 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 Use” from 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.”
Stuff I Don’t Like
“Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barrons – Inexcusably inaccurate sample questions
“Essential TOEFL Vocabulary” from McGraw-Hill – It isn’t a TOEFL book (despite the name)
“4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL” by Kaplan – Terrible sample tests
“Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL” by Nova – Needless complication
Edusynch – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books
Best My Test – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books
A few weeks ago, I recommended a book that will help students improve their ability to read about scientific topics. Today I want to share a quick review of The Little Book of Big History, which can help students improve their ability to read articles about history.
This book attempts to tell the entire history of the earth in a series of fairly short articles. What I like about this book is that the articles are just about the same length as the articles in the reading section of the test (about six paragraphs). Moreover, the language used in the articles is at about the same level as the test. They seem to have a Flesch Reading East score of about 40 to 50. That makes them a bit easier than the test, but it is close enough.
The selection of topics is great. Indeed, I noted a bunch of topics I’d like to use to create my own reading practice tests (not to mention some integrated writing practice questions). Topics here include things like:
The beginning of art
From barter to money
Credit, debt and investment
Depending on how much time you have, I’d recommend just reading five or six of these per day, along with a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Consider keeping a list of new words to study from later.
To use the book most effectively, perhaps skip the first part (which deals with the creation of the universe, and the last two parts (which deal with slightly more modern topics than are used on the TOEFL).
If you do pick up the book leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
The Princeton Review has updated their TOEFL book to match the 2019 version of the TOEFL and have given it a new name (it used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL”). Sadly, though, it isn’t a very good book. It is inaccurate, and it badly needs a good editor. And some basic research. I’ll go into detail about what is bad about the book in a moment, but I guess we should start with the good, right?
The Good Stuff
The book begins with about 170 pages of skill building exercises connected to the “core concepts” of the TOEFL (reading, listening, speaking, writing). This stuff is pretty good. I really like that the book begins with a whole lot of academic reading practice and questions that students can work through to hone their reading skills. None of these questions are actually TOEFL questions (which could be confusing) but they are about content contained in TOEFL-style articles. A lot of students need to really improve their reading skills before they even start looking at real TOEFL questions.
The core concepts stuff about listening is much sparser (9 pages vs 72 pages) but those nine pages are fine. I can’t help shake the feeling that Princeton Review made this section short just because creating listening content is much more expensive than creating reading content. Maybe I’m just crazy.
The speaking concepts chapter is a bit weird in that it blends TOEFL speaking questions with questions that are totally not TOEFL speaking questions. It also includes some of the speaking question styles that were removed from the test last year. I know this is just skill building stuff, but those should be totally excised from the book and replaced with something a bit more useful.
The writing concepts chapter is, again, a mix of TOEFL and non-TOEFL questions. It has some fine exercises. It includes a chart of useful vocabulary (which is nice) and a laughably basic page on grammar terms (which is not nice).
There are better books containing this sort of skill building content (just ask me) but I honestly would recommend these chapters to a student who can find the book for free at a library or something. They have some value, especially for beginners.
The Bad Stuff
Cracking the Reading Section
The chapter about the reading section is really hard to follow, even for a teacher like myself. There are ten pages of junk before we can find a list reading question types. And sadly, the question types listed in the book are just wrong. So much clarity could have been achieved by using the question type names established by ETS in the “Official Guide to the TOEFL.” I mean… ETS makes the test so we should follow their lead on this!
For some reason, Princeton Review left out the “Factual Information” question type and the “Rhetorical Purpose” type, combining them into something they call a “Lead Words” question… which is different from a “Vocabulary in Context” question. To make matters worse, this type is inexplicably renamed “lead word/detail” near the end of the chapter. They’ve also left the “Fill in a Table” type out of their list, even though such a question appears later in one of their drills! Finally, they’ve added two types, the “Definition” (which, again, is not the same as a vocabulary question) type and the “Before/after” type, which aren’t used on the real test.
There are a few other little inaccuracies in their samples and drills. For instance, many of the questions lack clear references to paragraph numbers, meaning students have to hunt through the whole reading to find the answer to their question (which is not the case on the real test). They’ve also failed to end each of the reading sets with a fill-in-a-table question or a summary question. Each reading set on the real test always ends with one of those. Just a bit of basic research could have helped the authors avoid these problems.
Cracking the Listening Section
This section is actually okay. The listening passages and questions are fine. They are not perfect, but are good enough to be of value. There are no table questions, though. And the authors failed to move the questions where a chunk of audio is played to the end of each set. The latter issue is not a big deal, but it is something that could have been fixed, again, with just a tiny bit of research.
Cracking the Speaking Section
Curiously, this section begins with a ton of additional skill building content. And a lot of it is very unlike the actual TOEFL. The book repeatedly refers to a speaking question about how a lecture casts doubt on a reading. I just don’t know where they got that from.
There are some templates. They are mediocre.
All of the sample type 2 speaking questions are inaccurate. They tend to lack reasons for the changes being announced in the reading part. This means that the students in the listening part are mentioning details and responding to details that are not in the reading. On the real test there is a very strict and close connection between the reading and the listening. Two reasons are always given in the reading, and the student specifically responds to those two reasons when supporting their opinion. Again… just reading all ten of the samples from the official iBT books would have informed the authors at Princeton Review of this pattern.
The sample type 3 speaking questions are also inaccurate. On the real test, the prompt given to the test-taker will be something like: “Explain CONCEPT using EXAMPLES FROM LECTURE.” Or some variation. Basically, the test-taker needs to state what the concept from the reading is, and then needs to just repeat the example (or examples) from the lecture. Nothing more than that. In this book, though, the prompts are weirdly specific. Like:
“The professor discussed the characteristics of two kinds of heart valves. Explain how their characteristics are related to their suitability for younger and older transplant patients.”
Like… huh? Where did they get that?
Cracking the Writing Section
The template provided for the integrated essay made me want to tear my hair out. It recommends just two body paragraphs. It says that the first body paragraph should deal with the first reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture. The second body paragraph should deal with the second reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture. And the third point from the reading? Well, that isn’t mentioned. The authors seem to be aware that there is always a third reading point and a contrasting lecture point… but they’ve just ignored that in the template. All of the sample essays include that content… but the template does not. As I said, an editor is needed.
More evidence than an editor is needed is the fact that instead of providing a step by step guide for constructing each of the essay tasks, this books provides a step by step guide for both, and just jumps back and forth. WHY?
The book has some good independent essay prompts, but like the authors at Kaplan, they seem to think that only agree/disagree prompts are used. Again… research is needed.
The Practice Test
There is a single practice test. It contains the same inaccuracies as the “cracking” chapters, described above.
This isn’t a great book. I don’t really recommend it.
As I’ve written here in the past, I dream of students who begin to prepare for the TOEFL far in advance of actually taking the test. A huge problem students have with the TOEFL is that they lack the ability to comprehend academic texts in English. And by the time they realize this problem, it is far too late to really do anything about it. All they can do is familiarize themselves with the question styles, learn a few “strategies” and hope for the best.
In my dream world, though, students start preparing for the TOEFL a couple of years in advance. Or they spend all of their undergraduate years working on their English skills. If someone reads a non-fiction book a month for four years, they’ll ace the reading section of the TOEFL. Really. That person will develop the required comprehension skills and the required vocabulary to do well without using a single “strategy.” Not only that, but they’ll be totally comfortable reading academic texts (something that even native speakers struggle with).
It covers a lot of the same topics used in the TOEFL reading section
It is written using language at a similar level to the TOEFL reading section
It is divided into chunks somewhat similar in length to the TOEFL reading section
In particular, this book covers scientific topics, and takes a “history of science” approach, which is something that often shows up on the test. It attempts to introduce readers to the “seven greatest scientific discoveries in history” which are:
Gravity and the basic laws of physics
The structure of the atom
The Big Bang
The cell and genetics
Each of these gets a chapter, and the chapters are each broken into short essays of about 5 to 10 paragraphs in length. Obviously that is longer than what you’ll see on the TOEFL, but it is close enough. This is the sort of book that you might give to a recent high school graduate preparing for their freshman year. That’s absolutely perfect in terms of difficulty level, as the TOEFL reading passages are generally designed to look like they came from freshman textbooks.
To use your time most efficiently, you may wish to skip the chapter on relativity as that is way more abstract than what you will find on the test… but I’ve always found the most difficult TOEFL reading passages are those that deal with abstract concepts, so maybe just struggle through it.
There ya go. Read this book. By the time you finish with it, I’ll have a recommendation that covers history or the social sciences.
There are four problems with this book every year. They are:
It isn’t updated very much.
It needlessly complicates the test.
The practice questions and sample are terribly inaccurate.
The online resources are not as promised
I’ll deal with these one at a time.
First of all, though this is the “2020-20201” edition of the book, it is pretty much the same as the 2008-2009 edition from 11 years ago.
The online content seems even older, and looks to be the same stuff that was on the CD-ROM of the 2007-2008 edition. The publisher has deleted the stuff that was dropped from the test this year, but everything else (the strategies and the samples) is almost entirely the same. The contents badly need to be replaced with new material, especially the samples which don’t reflect what students get on the actual test. The samples were bad even when the book was first published, but now that a decade has passed, the errors are much less forgivable.
Secondly, the book is way too complicated. The book includes 69 strategies for mastering the reading section. I counted another 69 numbered strategies for the writing section (not to mention the fact that number 16 is broken down into 16A through 16E). That’s just too much crap. This aspect of the book needs be culled.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the questions in the book are inaccurate. As always, that’s the aspect I want to focus on most of all in this review. Let’s get started.
The book starts out okay with a few decent samples of articles used in the reading section (pages 19, 25), but then pairs these with inaccurate sample questions. Instead of matching a question with a specific paragraph, students are required to read through the whole article looking for the paragraph that matches the given question. This becomes a major problem on page 32 when a NOT/EXCEPT style question refers to details that are actually spread out over three paragraphs. That means the student is actually required to use all three paragraphs to answer the question, rather than using just a single paragraph as on the real test. This is replicated on page 54 where students have to look through four long paragraphs to properly answer an inference question that would be specific to only a single paragraph on the real test.
It should also be mentioned that beyond the problems with question designs, most of the sample articles are somewhat weak overall. On pages 35, 51, 66 and 94 students are given articles that are generally longer than the real test, and with fewer paragraphs. This means that the paragraphs are really long, some stretching out to about 300 words. This bothers me as students really need to become familiar with hunting for answers in short but dense paragraphs.
This is probably the strongest section of the book. The conversations and lectures are about the same length as what is used on the real test. The delivery of the voice actors is somewhat monotone and lacks the natural quality of the actors on the real test, but that’s a minor complaint. The questions themselves are not as accurate as the ones in the Official iBT Tests Collection, but they are pretty close. I might actually recommend this chapter to someone who needs a bit of extra practice and has already worked through everything in better books.
Mostly bad here. The sample independent speaking questions on page 168 are all terrible. Instead of using proper agree/disagree or preference choices it just lists 15 yes/no questions. Kaplan should know by now that “Do government workers need privacy?” is not how a TOEFL speaking question is phrased.
The book does have a decent type 2 speaking question on page 174 about parking on campus (a very common topic!) but quickly jumps into a terrible question on page 180 where the reading is a job posting rather than an announcement of some change on campus.
It then includes a completely wrong type 3 question which illustrates a concept using three examples, rather than 1 or 2 like on the real test (page 182/183).
The chapter finishes with a massive type 4 question, which includes a lecture probably twice as long as what would be used on the real test.
The integrated writing here is all bad as well. The authors of the book just don’t understand how the reading and lecture are structured on the real test. On test day, students get a four paragraph reading that has an introduction followed by three body paragraphs, each of which includes a unique and specific point. That is followed by a lecture which begins with an introduction and challenges each of those three points in turn (and in the same order). I call this a “mirror” structure. If you look at the samples on pages 233 and 255 they are nothing like this. The sample on page 253 almost figures this out, but the listening fails to rebut the reading’s points in the right order.
The section on independent writing is equally weak. It includes a bunch of opened-ended questions (268, 287, 288) that aren’t used on the real test. It fails to include any multiple choice questions, which are used very often these days.
The Online Resources
The above problems are also present in the online tests. In the reading section students again have to hunt around the whole article to answer many of the questions, instead of being told to focus on a single paragraph as on the real TOEFL. The articles again include freakishly long paragraphs that don’t match the real test. Not only is this inaccurate, but it really messes up any chance students have of learning proper time management in this section.
The listening content is okay, while the speaking and writing content is marred by the same sort of problems I identified above. The questions all have a superficial resemblance to the real test, but never quite achieve an acceptable level of accuracy. Notably, speaking Q3 in the first test asked me to “explain the major differences” between what was in the reading and the lecture. There’s just no excuse for that.
Just as frustrating is the clunkiness of the online test software. Users are unable to quickly skip ahead to desired sections. If you wish to study only writing? Too bad, you are going to have to sit through the reading, listening and speaking sections. This represents a step back from when Kaplan offered the same tests on CD.
Speaking of taking a step back, it must be mentioned that the practice tests don’t record student answers, so they cannot listen to what they said for review purposes. This functionality was provided 11 years ago when the same tests were provided on CD.
I noticed also that Kaplan failed to record new instructions for the shortened speaking section, so the questions are now misnumbered. The same is true in the lectures provided online. That’s just laziness. In addition, the timers in the practice test are all wrong, and don’t reset between questions in the speaking and writing sections. So, for example, if you only use 10 minutes to answer the first writing question you’ll have 40 minutes to answer the second writing question. This needs to be fixed.
Finally, the cover of the book promises “4 Practice Tests” (and an insert clarifies that they are all provided online) but there are only three tests provided. Last year’s edition had the same problem. I find that kind of sleazy.
Don’t get this book. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Kaplan needs to get serious about updating their material. They haven’t done a proper update since 2008. There are so many good resources they can use to study the design of the TOEFL that were not available when this material was first created. They need to take advantage of them.