Hey, I just noticed that ETS is finally selling ebook versions of the three new official books. That’s great news! You can find them here. It looks like ETS is the only place to get the eBook versions, as Amazon is only selling the paperback version at the moment.
There are a few good TOEFL books. There are a lot of bad ones. I hope that this article helps you pick the best TOEFL books. 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: October 31, 2020
Best Overview of the Test
The Official Guide to the TOEFL (6th Edition) is the best overview of the test. I’ve been teaching for a decade and I still open it up now and then to look up some specific detail. Needless to say, it will teach you about all four sections of the test and the different types of questions each section contains. It is also illustrated with plenty of examples. But note that is also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particular in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test). Note that the 6th edition matches the new version of the TOEFL that started in 2019. For more details, check out my complete review.
Other Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL
Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th Edition) was published on April 7, 2020. This is the first edition that matches the new version of the test. This is by far the best book not from ETS this year. However, it still has some issues 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. However, 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.
If you don’t want to buy a physical book, 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. The books also reflect the new version of the test that began in 2019. There are two books you can get – Volume 1 (4th edition) and Volume 2 (3rd Edition) . Each book contains an access code to download software that simulates the official test. If you want to know more about these two books, check out my review.
If you want some more practice tests, 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 has fewer 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 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.”
Upcoming TOEFL Books
- A new edition of “TOEFL iBT Prep” from Princeton Review will be published in February 2021.
- A new edition of “TOEFL iBT Writing” from Barron’s will be published in May 2021.
- Smart Edition will publish their first TOEFL book in May 2021.
Stuff I Don’t Like
- “Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barron’s – Very inaccurate sample questions
- “4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL” by Kaplan – Terrible sample tests
- “TOEFL Practice Exercises” by Barron’s – Accuracy problems
- “TOEFL Prep Plus” by Kaplan – Terrible, terrible, terrible
- “Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL” by Nova – Needless complication
- Best My Test
Note that the above links are sponsored – if you order the books from Amazon I’ll make a few bucks.
Hey, it’s time for another installment of “You Should Read More!” This blog series encourages you to increase your TOEFL reading score by reading more stuff. By reading stuff, you can develop your reading skills. The theme here is “comprehension before strategies.”
But not only does reading stuff develop your skills, it also increases your ability to concentrate on dense academic content like what appears on the TOEFL. Personally, I find that unless I force myself to read academic content on a regular basis my mind starts to wander when I am faced with a challenging text. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand the text, but rather that I can’t focus on it.
This month I read the September issue of National Geographic. I love this magazine. Every month I get a ton of great articles, and the cost of subscribing is pretty low. Right now it’s just $19 per year in the USA, and $59 per year worldwide. Or you can just read most of the articles for free online. This month there is a great story about ostrich behavior that I really enjoyed. And it goes without saying that ETS loves to write questions about animal behavior.
This month I also read two issues of Analog Science Fiction. Now, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me now… but hear me out! The issues contained the first two parts of a serialized novel called “House of Styx.” The novel is about colonists on Venus who live in a station sort of like the “station… floating in Venus’s atmosphere, like a balloon, rather than standing on its surface” described in the integrated writing question of TPO 40! The science here is well done, and the characters are sympathetic. If you are interested, don’t waste your time trying to get the magazines pictured here – just get the Kindle version from Amazon.
Next, I’m going to send you to an actual TOEFL book. I reviewed Pamela Sharpe’s “TOEFL Practice Exercises” last week and observed that the book has somewhat inaccurate questions. But it does have thirty-four reading passages about topics that commonly appear on the TOEFL. They are also at the same difficulty level and are of the same length as what you’ll get on the test. You’ll never find another collection like it. And you can treat the inaccurate questions as a sort of “skill building” thing that forces you to concentrate a bit more than you really want to. I know I am really mean when I write about TOEFL books, but I do want to stress that I appreciate the effort made by their authors. I could never write such a monumental collection of content. So check it out.
Finally, the late-August issue of “Science News” has an article about a certain beetle that gets eaten by frogs but is still alive after it gets pooped out. Wild. Fortunately you can read that article online. Meanwhile, if you want something closer to what you will find on the TOEFL, the issue also has an article about how smallpox affected Vikings more than 1000 years ago.
You know, a lot of students ask for “strategies” to increase their score in the reading section of the TOEFL. Sadly, the strategies are always the same – read the questions first, avoid answer choices with superlatives, skip the hard questions and come back to them… blah, blah, blah.
Those sorts of strategies help, but only a little bit. A better approach is comprehension before strategies. That means you should try to improve your overall reading ability before taking the test. If you truly understand what you read, you won’t need to use any “strategies” on the test… or will only need to use them for a few questions.
How can you improve your reading skills? By reading more!
Today I’m happy to help by beginning my one hundred part series that will highlight a few fun things you can read to improve your reading skills. I will focus mostly on non-fiction, but I will throw in a few pieces of fiction now and then. Some of the recommendations will be available online, but others will need to be purchased. Most should be available at your local library if you are in an English-speaking country already. I will only recommend stuff that I have read within the preceding month, but I am open to recommendations!
Let’s see how it goes.
First up, I finally read Freakonomics. This is a classic, and all of your English teachers have probably recommended it already. It is also available in the English section of most libraries around the world that I have visited. This is a really fun work of non-fiction that uses economic analysis to study topics not usually looked at by economists. Like sumo wrestling. And drug dealing. There is also a section on what makes real estate agents so frustrating which made me think a lot about TOEFL teachers. If you read this book, let me know if you spot that connection as well. Truly, this is a perfect example of mainstream, fun and accessible non-fiction. This book is available via the Open Library.
Speaking of fun and easy non-fiction, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.” This book is about miscommunication, and our inability to interact well with people we are not familiar with. I don’t think I grasped the nuance of the central thesis here, but I still enjoyed the book. This is a “ripped from the headlines” sort of thing, and you’ll recognize a lot of the main subjects, even if you aren’t American – Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Chandler & Monica, Bernie Madoff, etc. Like “Freakonomics” it isn’t the deepest of non-fiction, but it is a really fun way to boost your reading skills. Note also that the audiobook version is also wonderful (better, probably), as it combines music, audio from actual interviews and news clips with the author’s narration of the text.
Finally, I read the mid-August issue of Science News. If you are going to subscribe to one science magazine to boost your reading skills, this is the one. Yeah, it is mostly about COVID nowadays. But there this issue includes an article about the discovery of stone artifacts which is just like a TOEFL integrated writing question! Some scientists think the stone artifacts are proof that humans reached America earlier than thought… while other scientists think they are not proof! There are even three reasons given by each side! I think you can read that article at this link. If that link doesn’t work, you can find the same story in National Geographic. Meanwhile, this very short article about dinosaurs with feathers caught my eye, since that’s been a common topic on the TOEFL for a long time.
Okay, that’s all for now, but I will be back in a few weeks with additional recommendations. I’ll try to toss some fiction into the list at that time.
The two Official TOEFL iBT Tests books contain the most accurate practice tests available. Each book has five tests, and I recommend that students get both of them. Just working through each test is guaranteed to increase your score at least somewhat, and it will certainly give you a deeper understanding of how the TOEFL is constructed. The accuracy of these practice tests is what makes them so valuable – most third party books and websites have terrible sample questions. Some major publishers publish tests that are mind-bogglingly terrible.
I should mention at this point the current editions of these two books (Volume one has hit the 4th edition and Volume two has hit the third edition) are very similar to the previous editions. One reading passage has been changed in volume 1, but otherwise the tests have the same questions. They are, of course, modified to match the changes to the test introduced in 2019 so there are fewer reading, listening and speaking questions. The good news is that the omitted questions include all of the non-standard reading question types that plagued earlier editions.
The only real difference between the two books is how the speaking and writing answers are presented. In Volume 1, the book talks about what an answer should contain, while in Volume 2 actual sample answers are provided. Both methods are helpful. The explanations function sort of like a template, laying out exactly what information should be included and not included. The samples, of course, are more tangible. I do wish that each book included both. Oh well.
The digital content is no longer provided on a DVD. Instead, students must use a code to access the files on McGraw-Hill’s website. I like that the content can be accessed online, but sadly the code can only be used two times. Make sure to back up those files!
My bottom line is that these are the best TOEFL books available. They are the only ones that I wholeheartedly recommend.
The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT Test is a book that everyone preparing for the TOEFL should read. I recommend every edition, and the new sixth edition is no exception.
Note: If you just want to read about what has changed in this edition, start with this blog post.
First, though, a few words about changes to the edition. This edition has, more or less, the same content as the fifth edition. However, it has been modified to match the changes to the test introduced in August of 2019. This means that the reading, listening and speaking practice tests are all a bit shorter. The chapters that describe these sections have been updated accordingly. The only new questions are the speaking questions in practice test one. Everything else is the same as before. A few of the small inaccuracies scattered throughout the the previous edition have been revised, but some of the big errors (particularly in the writing section, as will be described in a moment) remain. Digital content must now be downloaded via an access code provided in the book. I’m glad that a DVD is no longer used, but it is shameful that McGraw-Hill only allows the access code to be used twice, even if the 600 MB download fails mid-download. If your download fails twice you are screwed. Good luck finding a customer support number for the publisher. It ain’t easy.
Anyways, the content here is mostly strong. The book doesn’t really focus on strategies but instead aims to accurately describe how the test is constructed, and what the questions look like. Descriptions of all of the question types are given, along with multiple sample questions of each. This comes in especially handy when students are studying for the reading and listening sections. Overall, this makes the book a really valuable resource, since most third party books provide misleading sample questions and inaccurate descriptions of test items. I find that if students actually understand the patterns of the test and how it is created they are able to improve their performance and study properly. If you want to know exactly what the test looks like, this is the book for you!
In this regard, the reading, listening and speaking chapters are great. The writing chapter falls short, though. Inexplicably, the authors provide a grossly inaccurate sample integrated writing question, with a reading consisting of only two paragraphs in total. The matching lecture is similarly inaccurate. What’s worse is that the integrated writing question in the first sample test is similarly flawed. These two flaws have been part of the book since the first edition was published 15 years ago, and it pains me to see them reprinted in edition after edition after edition. Likewise, the big list of sample independent questions included on pages 210 to 213 contains a bunch of prompt styles no longer used on the test. I’m pretty sure they are all leftovers from the CBT version of the test, as they have also been in the book since the first edition was published.
I will also point out that while the software used for the sample tests is functional, it is quite dated and clunky, which makes it a poor simulation of the real test. It is about time for Mcgraw-Hill to replace that with something more elegant, similar to what Barron’s is now using for their line of TOEFL prep books.
- Of course, the tests have been revised to match the new format. The reading, speaking and listening sections have been shortened.
- I believe that all of the pronoun reference questions have been removed from the reading tests in both books. This matches recent observations that the pronoun reference questions are quite rare nowadays (but this is not a guarantee that you won’t get one).
- The reading tests have mostly been shortened by eliminating vocabulary questions, but of course a few questions of other types have also been removed. Again, this matches recent observations that vocabulary questions are way less frequent than before.
- Thankfully, all of the non-standard reading questions have been removed. This includes the weird ones with the following phrasing: “which of the following best describes the author’s presentation of information in the passage,” “the passage is developed primarily by…” and “which of the terms is defined in the passage.” I’m really happy about this change.
- All of the table questions have been shortened (items have been removed) and they are now worth only two points (instead of 3 or 4 points).
Changes in Volume 1
- The first reading passage in test four is now “Galileo and his Telescope” (which is not a TPO). It used to be “Population and Climate.” I think this is because the old passage was dominated by a massive non-standard question that referred to four different paragraphs.
Changes in Volume 2
- The third reading passages from test two and test three have been switched (with each other). I don’t know why.
Changes in the Practice Tests
And, finally, this series comes to an end with some words about the practice tests in the 6th edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Note that I could have missed a few changes since I didn’t cross-reference every single word in the tests.
Basically, though, tests 2, 3 and 4 are exactly the same as before but with a few questions removed to match the new format introduced in 2019. Test 1 has a totally new speaking section, and the rest of the content is the same as before (but, again, shortened).
- There is a longer explanation at the beginning of the reading section in each test. The description now describes how students can use the “back” button during the test to move between questions. It also mentions the possibility of a dummy set. Those are both welcome. I hope the test center version includes this longer description as well.
- Important: the raw to scale conversion charts for the reading and listening sections have changed. This had to happen, of course, since the number of questions is different. But it is worth noting that every test now has the same chart, and it include a range of scaled scores for each single raw score. Some of the ranges are pretty huge. For example, a raw reading score of 17 can result in a scaled score of 13 to 19 points. This confirms my earlier speculation that there no universal conversion chart is possible, and that the conversion differs from test to test. I added photos of these charts to my article about the conversion process.
- Important: you will see below that there are far fewer vocabulary questions on all of the tests.
Changes To Test One
- The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, vocabulary, negative factual (set one); vocabulary, reference, sentence simplification (set two); vocabulary, vocabulary, reference (set 3). Note that only three questions were deleted, because in the previous edition these sets didn’t have enough questions. It is great to see that error finally corrected!
- One lecture has been deleted in the listening section.
- All four speaking questions are new! This is welcome, as the old “academic lecture” question (number 6) seemed a bit non-standard to me.
- The integrated writing question is still flawed. That sucks.
- There are longer and more detailed descriptions of good speaking answers. This mimics the design of “Official iBT Tests Volume 1.” This is a very welcome change, but the same content was not added to tests 2 to 4.
Changes to Test Two
- The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, factual information, vocabulary, factual information (set one); vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information (set two); sentence simplification, vocabulary, vocabulary, negative factual (set three).
- One lecture was removed. Thankfully, the one selected for removal was too short. This makes the test a bit more accurate!
Changes to Test Three
- The removed reading questions are the following types: vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information, vocabulary (set 1), negative factual, factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary (set 2); factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary (set 3)
- One lecture was removed.
Changes to Test Four
- The removed reading questions are the following types: factual information, vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information (set 1), vocabulary, vocabulary, factual information, rhetorical purpose (set 2), vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, inference (set 3)
- One lecture was removed.
- You must now download the audio and practice tests using an “access code” that can only be entered TWICE. That means you had better save the file somewhere. Make sure you have a reliable Internet connection, as the download is about 600 MB, and slow.
- The practice test uses the same terrible software it has always used. It looks like it is from 2003. ETS should do better. I’m surprised it doesn’t say “Made with Macromedia” somewhere.
I’ll write a general review of the book for Goodreads. Finally, I will move on to the two new Official Test Collection books. I won’t examine them so closely and will probably just upload a short article that summarizes the changes in each.
Changes in Chapter 5 – The Writing Section
Although the writing section of the TOEFL has not changed since the last edition of the Official Guide, there are a few changes in the book worth mentioning.
Page 187: There is a new warning for students: “be sure to use your own words rather than memorized sentences and examples in your essays. Essays that include memorized text will receive a lower score.”
Page 200: The book repeats the old warning about memorized examples, but adds “and your response will receive a lower score.”
Page 201: This warning is expanded upon. I won’t repeat the whole thing here, but it adds to the above: “extended stretches of memorized text do not represent the writer’s true academic writing skills. Responses that include memorized examples, arguments, or formulaic references to sources will receive considerably lower scores than essays containing the writer’s own words.“
It also adds an example of what it is referring. The example is a long body paragraph that summarizes a fictional poll conducted by the New York Times, which it describes as “not genuine development.”
This matches the advice I have long given students to not use fake research to support their arguments.
Those are all of the changes I could spot, but it is worth mentioning that the book still contains the following misleading parts:
- An inaccurate integrated sample question on page 188 (the reading only has two paragraphs in total)
- A reference to supporting lectures on page 190
- A poor list of sample questions on page 210 (some of them are styles of prompts no longer used on the real test)
I’ll wrap this series of articles up tomorrow with a few words about the sample tests.
Changes in Chapter 4 – The Speaking Section
Moving along, here are changes to the fourth chapter of the new Official Guide to the TOEFL. Of course the old question types (1 and 5) have been removed, but that’s not what this series is about!
Page 165 – 176: The four speaking questions are all given actual names now. They are: Paired Choice, Fit and Explain, General/Specific, Summary. That’s nice, and I will likely modify my guides to refer to the official names of each question. That said, I don’t really know why they call the second one “Fit and Explain.”
Page 165: The description of the first speaking question has been modified slightly. It now specifically mentions that you might be asked if you agree or disagree with a prompt, and a sample of that is given. This is a great change.
Page 166: The “tip” has been expanded. The new part is: “But don’t try to write out a full response because you won’t have time, and the raters scoring your response want to hear you speaking, not reading aloud.“
Page 167 (important): There is a new tip. This one will be controversial. It says: “Do not memorize responses before the test, especially ones that you get from the Internet, or from test preparation instructors who say this is a good idea. It is not a good idea, and it will lower your score. Raters will recognize a memorized response because the rhythm, intonation, and even the content of the response will be very different from a spontaneous response. Memorized responses are easy to identify.”
Page 185 (important): The SpeechRater is mentioned: “SpeechRater primarily measures features described in the Speaking rubrics under Language Use and Delivery.” Pay attention to the “primarily” weasel word. This means that the SpeechRater does, to some extent, grade your topic development as well!
Update: The files seem to be available now.
Just a word of warning about the new Official Guide.
You must use an access code from the book to download the audio files and software. The code can only be used two times.
If you enter the code right now, you will get a message that the downloads are not ready. That will count as one use of the code. If you enter the code again tomorrow and the files are still not ready, that will count as a second use of the code.
After that you will have no more uses left. You will not be able to get the files.
I will try, somehow, to get confirmation of when it is safe to use the download code.
Changes in Chapter 3 – The Listening Section
Okay, this will be a quick entry in this series, since chapter three is largely unchanged. But a few things are worth mentioning.
Page 119 (important): The 5th edition says that “each lecture or conversation is 3-6 minutes long.” The 6th edition says that “each lecture or conversation is approximately 4-5 minutes long.” I guess the conversations are trending longer, while the lectures are trending shorter nowadays.
Page 119: The old edition says “you should take notes.” The new edition says “you may take notes.” I like that change.
Everything else, including the practice sets, seems to be exactly the same.
Changes in Chapter 2 – Reading Section
Alright, I’ll continue my examination of the new edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL by looking at all of the changes in chapter two.
Page 38 (important): The chart depicting question types now reflects the fact that there are fewer questions in total.
The specific changes are (old –> new)
- Factual Information questions: 3-5 per set –> 2-5 per set
- Vocabulary questions: 3-4 per set –> 1-2 per set
The other question types are unchanged. This confirms our earlier speculation that vocabulary questions have been heavily reduced.
Page 55 (important): As discussed earlier, the “table” questions can be worth 2 or 3 points. Tables with four correct answers are worth two points, and those with five correct answers are worth three points. Partial points are possible for both.
Question deletions in the practice sets are as follows:
Set 1: Factual information, Inference, Vocabulary
Set 2: Vocabulary, Negative factual, Inference
Set 3: Vocabulary, Factual information, Vocabulary
Set 4: Factual information, Vocabulary, Vocabulary
Set 5: Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Reference
Set 6: Reference, Vocabulary, Vocabulary
Indeed, vocabulary questions are far less common than before. Note that only three questions were deleted from each set as these sets did not have enough questions in the previous version of the book.