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 a list of stuff I don’t like, and a list of stuff that will be published in the future.

Last Updated: July 12, 2020

Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

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. This is by far the best book available from a major publisher, but it still has some problems so make sure to read my full review of the book before you use it.  In short, it has fairly good reading and listening content, decent writing content, and weak speaking content.  It also has a huge amount of practice questions. Audio content and practice tests are provided online (not on CD).  For what it’s worth,  a Superpack featuring this book (and a couple others) is also available.

 

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep is the second best book this year.  It has a lot of problems.  The most obvious are in the chapters about the reading and speaking sections.  You can read about all of them in my full review of the book.  There is only one complete sample test (which can only be done on paper as there is no test software included), but there are additional practice questions throughout the book. The only part of this book I really recommend is the collection of skill building exercises found at the beginning.   Note that this book used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL.”  That was a stupid name.

 

Kaplan’s  TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021 is the worst of the three modern TOEFL books.  It truly is flaming garbage.  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 even though the cover of the book promises four tests.  While the book suggests a ton of strategies, they are organized in such a way that many students will just feel confused and overwhelmed after reading them.  For more information, you can also read my complete review.


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 August (see below).

 

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


Best Books for Practice Tests

The two Official TOEFL iBT Tests books are still the best source of practice tests.  Each contains five complete practice tests.  They are the closest you will get to the real test, since they are made by ETS.  Note, though, that they are not updated to match the changes from 2019 so you will have to “modify” the tests by chopping out speaking questions 1 and 5. You must also remember that the the listening and reading sections are now shorter.  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 August (see below).

 

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 don’t need a special device to read ebooks.  You can just access them in your web browser if necessary. 


Best “Book” for TOEFL Listening

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


Best Book for TOEFL Speaking

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


Best Book for TOEFL Writing

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

 


Best Books for Vocabulary

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

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

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


Best Books for Grammar

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


Upcoming TOEFL Books

Stuff I Don’t Like

  • “Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barrons – Very inaccurate sample questions
  • “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

Barron’s TOEFL iBT is probably the best TOEFL book available that covers the whole test.  However, I am hesitant to recommend it because it still has some errors, and students will need a teacher to tell them which parts of the book to ignore, or to supplement with other sources.

Let’s start by talking about the positive aspects of the book.  The foremost of these is that the book is regularly updated.  Author Pamela Sharpe has been working on this book since 1977 (!) and regularly revises its content.  This means that it now matches the changes to the TOEFL introduced in 2019.  A few editions ago (I think the 14th) almost all of the integrated writing questions in the book were replaced with more accurate questions.   The 16th edition, meanwhile, introduced a brand new chapter containing eight one-hour practice tests.  All of this compares favorably to competing books from Kaplan and Princeton Review.  Those ones have been revised to reflect the new TOEFL from last year, but otherwise they are reprinted with the same junk content year after year.  It is worth noting that since last year Barron’s has been a division of Kaplan.  I hope that doesn’t affect future revisions.

Another positive aspect of the book is its wealth of practice material.  There is a ton of stuff to practice with.  The books has eight full model tests, eight mini practice tests and a bunch of illustrative questions.  Compare that to the ONE practice test provided in the Princeton Review TOEFL book.  As I will describe below, there are some errors and inaccuracies in these test, but even if you cut out the bad parts, you’ve still got way more practice material than any other book.  Overall, I’d estimate that about 80% of the practice questions here are accurate.  That compares very favorably to Kaplan, where only about 10% of the questions are accurate.

Finally, I must note that the new system being used for the online tests is beautiful.  It is way better than anything being used elsewhere, including the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  It is a breeze to jump between both sections and whole tests.  You don’t have to spend 15 minutes clicking and waiting to skip through everything else if you just want to do the writing section.  Not only that, but transcripts and separate MP3 downloads are available for all test questions.  I wish all publishers could use something so elegant.   Also, the man who reads the test instructions sounds a little bit like Sam Elliot.

Okay, let’s talk specifically about the content here.  Beginning with…

Missing Audio Files

Yes, there are some missing audio files.  Audio is missing for all of the integrated speaking questions in seven (of eight) practice tests.  The audio files provided online by Barron’s cut off after the independent speaking question finishes.   This problem is compounded by the fact that the practice tests all refer to audio track numbers… but Barrons no longer uses track numbers for delivering test content (they just link to MP3 files).  I’ll nag the publisher until they upload those.  I promise.

Reading Practice

I like the reading practice in the book quite a lot.  The articles are generally close to the proper length.  I think they skew a bit too long, but only barely.  Meanwhile, I checked the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score for four random articles, and they came out at 28.4, 51.1, 43.2, 47.3 and 48.  That is a bit easier than the real test, which I think averages closer to 30, but again I don’t think it is a big deal.  I’m willing to accept some superficial differences when it comes to unofficial test prep.  This kind of prep should be used for skill building, rather than for predicting scores.

The only problem I have with the reading practice here is that occasionally it contains inference or factual information questions where the student must use the whole passage to find the answer. That is, no specific paragraph is mentioned in the question (see page 389).  That’s a problem, since the real test doesn’t use questions like that.  If my student were using this book, I would tell them to just skip those and give themselves a “free point” for them.

Listening Practice

The listening is also pretty good.  I know it has some superficial differences from the real test, but it is close enough to provide valuable practice for students.  Passage lengths and difficulty levels seem appropriate, and the questions also match the real test.

Speaking Practice

Here’s where the book starts to suffer a bit. 

I can recommend most of the independent speaking questions (type 1).  They are good, although I did spot at least one obsolete “giving advice” style prompt (page 432).

Some of the type 2 questions are poor.  Frequently, the reading part (announcement) fails to give reasons for the stated change.  The announcements just describe the change with ample details.  As a result, the conversations about the announcements don’t have reasons that directly match up with details from the reading.  I guess these questions can still be used for skill-building practice, but it is just as easy to design proper questions, so I find this flaw frustrating. Also, there are some type 2 speaking questions where instead of a conversation between two students, the opinion is expressed by  a solo speaker (page 496), in monologue form.  This has never been used on the test, so it shouldn’t appear here.

The type 3 questions here tend to be needlessly complicated.  I’ll share a few examples to show you what I mean.  Here are some prompts from type 3 questions direct from ETS:

  • Explain how the example in the lecture illustrates the concept of scope creep.
  • Explain how the example from the professor’s lecture illustrates the irrational commitment.
  • Explain how the example in the lecture illustrates agonistic behavior.
  • Using the example of the macaw from the lecture, explain the concept of flagship species.
  • Using the examples of mice and rabbits from the lecture, describe the two different types of factors that can cause population changes.

Do you see the pattern?  The real test asks you to use the given example(s) to illustrate a concept.  That’s it.  In contrast, Barron’s asks things like:

  • Using the points and examples from the reading, explain the differences between myths and legends.  Then refer to the lecture to explain why Paul Bunyan would be considered a legend (page 574).

This is too complicated and specific. Often, the lectures here are descriptive in nature instead of focusing on examples of something.

On the real test, Type 4 prompts look something like this:

  • Using the example of the mole, explain the two different types of underground adaptation.
  • Using points and examples from the talk, describe two changes that occurred after machines began to be used for manufacturing goods.

Again, they are very specific.  They just ask the student to use examples to illustrate a concept  But in Barron’s, you might see something like:

  • Using the main points and examples from the lecture, describe the three parts of a fax machine and then explain how the fax process works (page 692).
  • Using the main points and examples from the lecture, define a planet and explain why Pluto is no longer considered a planet (page 731).

You can see how the real test asks students to summarize specific examples of some concept, while Barron’s is asking students for a whole lot more.  It is also using two-part question prompts, which the real test does not do.

I guess what I’m saying here is don’t use this book for speaking practice.  You are better off just getting the two Official IBT Tests books from ETS.  Together, those will give you ten full tests.  Toss in the Official Guide to the TOEFL and you’ll have 14 full tests.  That’s more than enough.

Writing Practice

Proper TOEFL integrated writing questions have a fixed format.  The reading has an introduction, and three body paragraphs.  The introduction presents an overall argument, and each body paragraph represents a specific supporting point or reason.  The lecture matches this format.  It begins by introducing the main argument, and continues by challenging each of the body paragraphs (and in the same order).  If your practice questions don’t have this format, they should be replaced with some that do.

While the revisions to the 14th edition massively improved this part of the book, there are still a few integrated writing questions that don’t match the proper structure.  Surprisingly, most of these are contained in the new chapter of one-hour practice tests.  Very briefly, here’s a list that will guide you.  

Use these integrated writing questions:

  1.  Model Test 1
  2.  Model Test 2
  3.  Model Test 3 (but note the missing into. paragraph)
  4.  Model Test 4 (but note the missing into. paragraph)
  5.  Model Test 5
  6.  Model Test 6
  7.  Model Test 7
  8.  Model Test 8 (but note the missing intro. paragraph)

Do not use these ones:

  1.  Practice Test 1
  2.  Practice Test 4
  3.  Practice Test 8

What I mean about tests 3, 4 and 8 is that the reading part is missing a proper introductory paragraph.  They just have three body paragraphs.  That’s a strange omission, but I guess they are still usable.  If  I were teaching with this book I would just write an introduction for each and paste them into my student’s book.

The independent writing questions are mostly fine.  I did spot a few obsolete “describe a thing” questions like in model tests 5 and 7.  There might be a few more.

Other Stuff

While practice questions make up the bulk of the book, there are a few other things, and some of them are quite valuable.  I like the ten pages focused on “campus vocabulary.”  I don’t know exactly how helpful that stuff really is, but a student with a medium or long-term study plan should certainly spend a few hours review key terminology.  There is also a beefy chapter on grammar and style issues that highlights the most common errors made by students.  It is something I wish I could create for my own website.

The Final Word

So that’s the review.  I guess my advice is to use this book for skill-building practice, but to just forget about the speaking questions.  You should also be aware of the minor problems present in the reading and writing sections.  I also encourage students to go beyond this book, and to supplement with some official publications so you get a clearer picture of what the actual test looks like.

There is now an  Amazon listing  for an updated edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL.  According to the guide, the sixth edition of the guide will be published on July 10.  This will be the first version of the guide to reflect the changes to the test that were introduced in August of 2019.

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.

In addition, there are also listings for updated editions of both Volume 1 (4th ed) and Volume 2 (3rd ed) of the “Official TOEFL iBT Tests” books.

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

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.

The Practice

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. 

Verdict

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).

 

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:

  • Hunter-gatherer technologies
  • The beginning of art
  • Mass extinctions
  • Domesticating animals
  • 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.

Overall

This isn’t a great book.  I don’t really recommend it.