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).

Anyways, I’ve been working on a list of books I’d recommend to such a student.  A little while ago I wrote about Reading for Thinking. Today I want to write about a fun book called The Science Class You Wish You Had.  This book fits all of my criteria for recommendation:

  • 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
  • Relativity
  • The Big Bang
  • Evolution
  • The cell and genetics
  • DNA

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.

Another year and another bad edition of TOEFL Prep Plus by Kaplan.  

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.

Reading

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.

Listening

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.

Speaking

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.

Writing

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.

 

Overall

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.

 

 

I have this dream that one day there will be a student who will spend a year or two working on his reading comprehension skills before taking the TOEFL. Maybe he’s an freshman undergraduate who knows he will do his graduate studies in the USA. Or maybe he’s a high school student. If I ever find this student, Reading for Thinking is the book I would recommend to him.

This is a great book to spend a year with and to use as a sort of “strategy guide” as you engage with a variety of books, articles and magazines.

The book starts by describing methods that can be used to increase one’s comprehension of academic texts that can be applied in a variety of contexts. Interestingly, the book’s “reading paraphrase” strategy (pages 16 to 21, 7th edition) mirror one of the strategies that my friend Josh MacPherson uses to teach the TOEFL reading section at TST Prep.

 

There must have been a boom in grammar books aimed at general audiences between Eats, Shoots & Leaves in 2001 and the last Grammar Girl book in 2012.

I certainly haven’t read all of the books published during this period, but so far Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences might be my favorite. In seven clear chapters Bell covers the most common mistakes that writers of English make.

What makes this book so appealing to me is that it contains both instruction that is easily understood, and plenty of grammar terminology. The latter is something that other books of this type shy away from in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Bell’s willingness to use terminology, though, means that her book is one I would certainly recommend to rookie ESL teachers.

Now, some people might scoff at the idea of giving a tiny little book to serious English teachers. Seriously, though, there is a huge mass of teachers going overseas every day without proper resources and training. If someone had asked me when I started teaching how to use the present perfect tense properly, I wouldn’t have known how to respond. Nor would I be able to explain the subjunctive mood, or the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction… or any of the most basic grammatical terms and concepts. Like most teachers I just wasn’t taught that kind of stuff. Obviously a teacher who takes their job seriously will reach for something more comprehensive (like, say, Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage”) but Bell’s book is a perfect way to grasp the basics in under an hour. Heck, an eager teacher could read it on the flight over.

Anyways, the chapters here are:

  • Case
  • Agreement
  • Verb Tense and Usage
  • Verb Mood
  • Modifiers
  • Connectives
  • Punctuation

Each chapter ends with a little quiz.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to ESL students (Swan’s book is a better reference) but I think it is perfect for general audiences and teachers.

Oh, if you are curious about the book’s odd title, it is a riff on the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

English Grammar in Use (Supplementary Exercises) isn’t the sort of book that one reviews, so I will keep this brief.

Freshly updated for 2019, this book complements the new fifth edition of “English Grammar in Use” by providing additional practice exercises for students to work through. And exercises are all you get here – there aren’t any explanations provided.

The exercises are fine. They seem to be more contextualized than in the main book, which means they are more likely to take the form of emails, dialogs and articles. That’s a great choice for a supplementary book that digs deeper than a primary classroom textbook.

The exercises in the book are match the units in the main book, but since this is a shorter book it combines units. Note that these aren’t always sequential (it starts with five pages of exercises about units 1-4 and 19 and 25), but the groupings are logical and obvious.

Overall, I do recommend this book to intermediate level students and teachers… just as long as you already have the main book.

I should also mention that unlike the main book, this one is in black and white and is printed on non-glossy paper. That means it is much cheaper.

Finally, I haven’t seen the fourth edition of the book, so I don’t know exactly how much it has been updated. Anyways, that edition seems to be selling for even more than this one, so I guess you don’t need to bother with it.

There are quite a few good grammar books available nowadays, but English Grammar in Use is still my favorite. A new fifth edition was published this year, and I will continue recommend it to students. Though it is advertised as a book for intermediate learners, I usually recommend it even to upper-intermediate and advanced students.

The 145 units in the book (and related appendices and extra exercises) make it a fairly comprehensive look at English grammar. With 34 years worth of revisions over the course of the book’s five editions some obvious thought has been put into how the information in the book is presented. It is remarkably easy to follow.

A moderate level of revision has occurred since the fourth edition was published in 2012. This seems to mostly have affected the organization of the exercises in the book, but the explanatory parts have been revised to some extent as well. On a shallower note, I’m happy to report that the illustrations in the book finally reflect a modern aesthetic – those in the fourth edition were not particularly attractive.

Overall, though, the book maintains the organization used since at least the second edition (the earliest I have in my collection). Each unit is two facing pages long. The left-hand page explains a specific grammar point, and the right-hand page includes exercises that students can work through. Answers are included at the end, though Cambridge does sell a version with those omitted. The seven appendices list verb forms, contractions, tricky spelling rules and notes about American English usage. There is also a study guide which might help students discover specific grammar points they should focus on.

Note that the units are grouped into logical chapters (present and past, modals, adjectives and adverbs, etc) rather than from “easy to difficult.” This isn’t a book that students work through from the beginning to end, but rather one where they focus on units covering their specific needs. The study guide might help, but they really need a teacher to show them the way. While the cover bills this as a “self-study guide,” it is better used as a supplement to classroom instruction or personal tutoring.

These activities pair well with Cambridge’s companion text English Grammar in Use: Supplementary Exercises. That book was updated in 2019 to match the new edition of the main text. Obviously, it provides additional practice which matches the units in the main book. Keep in mind, though, that it book lumps units together, and not always in chronological order.

Continue reading “Book Review: English Grammar in Use (Fifth Edition)”

Since the TOEFL changed quite a lot on August 1 of this year, there is a need for new practice materials. A bunch of new books are due out in late 2019 and early 2020. I’ll try to contact the publishers to confirm that they will match the new format. In the meantime, here’s what I know (links are to Amazon, when possible):

  • Barron’s will issue the 16th edition of its TOEFL book on September 3, 2019.
  • Barron’s will also issue a new version of its Superpack on September 3, 2019. I don’t know if the other books in the superpack (writing, vocabulary, tests) will be updated.
  • This book will NOT be updated to reflect the new version of the TOEFL, but the practice tests will be put online, and they WILL match the new version.
  • Kaplan will issue a new version of its TOEFL Prep Plus Book on September 3, 2019. It will be updated to match the new version of the test.
  • Princeton Review will release a book currently called “Princeton Review TOEFL iBT Prep” on February 4, 2020. I assume this will actually just be the 2020 edition of “Cracking the TOEFL.”
  • It looks like Smart Edition will publish their first ever TOEFL book on June 1, 2020.
  • They have no listings anywhere, but Collins Language Tweeted at me a few days ago that they plan to issue new books this year.
  • ETS has indicated to me that they do not know when they will issue a new version of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, but that new printings will come with an insert that explains the changes to the test.

Despite the name, this big book from McGraw-Hill Education isn’t really a TOEFL book at all. It sort of seems like they just slapped “TOEFL” on to a vocabulary book that needed a few more sales. It has some nice tips about building and using vocabulary in a general sense, but nothing that relates specifically to the TOEFL.

The same publisher also offers a “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL” book that is likely similar to traditional TOEFL vocabulary books, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.

My grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test (Reading and Writing): A-

Note: I am only reviewing the writing section of this book, since that is my area of expertise. Someone else will need to look more closely at the reading section.

I like this book just as much as I like the matching speaking and listening book from Collins. Like that book, this title is incredibly accurate in its depictions of TOEFL questions. Indeed, I have never seen a printed book with such accurate TOEFL integrated writing questions. There are only five of them, but they are all perfectly designed to match the real test. In each of them the author makes three points, and the lecturer casts doubt on the three points in the right order. Reading these five questions is a heavenly experience. You will remember from my earlier blog posts that textbooks from Kaplan, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are all ruined by the inclusion of inaccurate questions. Heck, this book is even better than the Official Guide to the TOEFL, which famously contains a couple of incorrectly designed integrated questions.

So if your students need accurate practice writing questions, this is a good source. The book also benefits from a concise explanation of how the questions are put together, though I suppose it could be even more explicit.

The independent questions here are merely adequate, however. The problem is that the book includes only agree/disagree style questions, and totally ignores both paired-choice and multiple choice questions. This is probably because the authors relied too much on materials from ETS, which also emphasize this question type. I’m not too bothered by that, since good practice independent questions are easy to find elsewhere, and they aren’t fundamentally misleading students as some other publishers to when they print shitty integrated questions.

The book also includes concise tips for each task and decent templates. You will have to go elsewhere to learn the fundamentals of writing, but that will always be outside the scope of a good TOEFL book. I’ll review some grammar books at a later date, perhaps.

Note: The reading section of this book will be slightly out of date starting August 1 when the test will change.

My grade for Essential Words for the TOEFL: B+. Note, however, that I have the 4th edition, from 2007. This book has now reached its 7th edition. I have no idea what has changed. Barron’s doesn’t usually change much from edition to edition, so I suspect the new edition is pretty similar.

I’m going to keep this review quite short, since you can read my feelings about vocabulary books over in my review of TOEFL Power Vocab from Princeton Review. Basically, though, I don’t want students to focus too much on vocabulary in the speaking and writing sections, but I recognize that studying vocabulary can help them in the listening and reading sections. Especially the latter section.

Barron’s vocabulary book is similar to Princeton Review’s book. It is mostly just lists of words and definitions. In this case they are divided into 30 “lessons” of about 15 words each. The words selected for each lesson don’t seem to be based on similar themes or structures.

While Princeton Review’s book includes a short quiz every few pages, Barron’s includes ten actual TOEFL reading question (vocabulary type, of course) at the end of each lesson. I can’t really say if the questions are accurate, but I don’t think that is the point. They mainly serve to help students understand the meaning and usage of each word. And, yeah, I guess they help students understand what a vocabulary question looks like and how it is put together.

The words here seem a bit more difficult that in Princeton Review’s book thankfully. Some of them are still too easy, though.

Here’s page 69: forbid, petition, relinquish, resilient, tempt.
Here’s page 229: maintain, mediocre, negligible, parallel, peculiar, potent
Here’s page 277: forfeit, precarious, severe, sporadic, superior, wanton

I guess teachers should glance at the book to see if the overall level is suitable for their students. I would probably recommend it for students scoring 90 and below.