My overall grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test – Listening and Speaking: A

I like this book! If you’ve been reading all my TOEFL book reviews you might think I hate everything, but I really appreciate what Collins has managed to do with it’s “Skills…” series in general, and the entry focusing on listening and speaking in particular.

Just note that I’m only reviewing the speaking section of the book. The chapters focusing on listening look okay, but that isn’t really my area of expertise.

The biggest strength of this book is its concise organization. It doesn’t waste time on a lot of “skills building” activities. I guess the authors looked at a lot of other books and came to the conclusion that such content is confusing and a waste of time. Instead, they focus on breaking down the structure of each question type so that students are as comfortable as possible going into the test.

In the book is a short chapter on each question type. They flow as follows:

  • Quick Guide (describes the question and answer requirements)
  • Walk through (a sample question, sample student notes, and a sample answer)
  • Get it Right (one page of concise tips)
  • Progressive Practice (three sample questions and a template)

At the end of the book there is a sample test with one question of each type.

And that’s it. But it really works. In about ten pages per question students get an accurate depiction of how each question is structured, and a fairly good template they can use to answer the question on test day. The sample answers are complete, and sufficiently long (unlike, say, the answers in Cracking the TOEFL).

I really want to draw attention to how rare it is to find such accurate questions. Most major books I have looked at (Kaplan, Barron’s, Princeton, etc) all contain inaccurate questions which make student study time EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT. The authors of those books don’t even seem to have taken the test, and so their work makes students confused and frustrated.

When students study accurate questions they can avoid wasting time. That is the strength of this book.

It is clear that four questions of each type might not be enough for students to master the test, but once they have a decent understanding of how the questions are put together they will be able to supplement this book with content from the Official Test Collection books (10 questions of each type, in total).

Just note that starting August 1 of 2019 this book will be somewhat out of date because the TOEFL will change.

 

My Grade for Writing for the TOEFL iBT: F

I love the idea of a full-length TOEFL writing textbook, so I must acknowledge the effort that Barron’s and author Lin Lougheed put into this book. Sadly, “Writing for the TOEFL” is a terrible book.

Like the team from Kaplan, the folks at Barron’s seem incapable of writing proper integrated writing questions. This book contains page after page after page of terrible integrated writing practice questions. The questions in the model tests at the back of the book are bad as well.

It shouldn’t be hard for authors to realize that the integrated writing question always includes an article with four paragraphs, paired with a lecture that when transcribed contains four matching paragraphs, each of which casts doubt on a specific point from the reading. Likewise, it shouldn’t be too hard to notice that the specific counterpoints from the lecture are presented in the same order as the reading points. Just sitting for the TOEFL a few dozen times will teach them that.

I just don’t know how major publishers mess this up, since they can afford to let their authors take the test as many times as they want. Barron’s has been publishing this book for 17 years, and they still haven’t figured it out. The integrated writing questions all have articles that consist of four paragraphs and three points. Frustratingly, though, the matching lectures often don’t include specific counterpoints, and they aren’t broken down into a four paragraph structure.

The lectures here are merely descriptive. Most of the time they describe the topic at hand, without challenging the specific points made in the reading. This is similar to the flawed practice test contained in the Official Guide, which the author of this text might have leaned too heavily on.

For instance, Model Test 4 (page 169) presents three details related to the bubonic plague of the 1300s. They are: (i) it was transmitted starting in China, (ii) Italian ships spread it to Europe, and (iii) social order broke down because of it. The lecturer (page 309), though, spends about 2/3 of his time talking about how ancient Egyptians also suffered from plague, before talking about how people in the modern world also suffer from plague. The matching point/counterpoint style of the real TOEFL is completely missing.

The other error that experienced teachers will notice is that the article in this case lacks an overall argument. It merely describes the plague. A proper question would make some argument about the plague. For instance, the introduction would establish that the main argument is that the plague started in China. Each body paragraph, then, would present one piece of evidence in favor of this. The matching lecture would suggest that the plague did not start in China, and would challenge each of the authors points in turn.

Model test 2 (page 169) is pretty much the same. It lacks an argument, and presents three details about animal intelligence. The lecturer babbles on about mirrors for the full three minutes.

Model test 1 (page 167) also lacks an overall argument. Dealing with the effects of technology on learning, body paragraphs 1 and 3 suggest that it is beneficial, while body paragraph 2 suggests that it is not helping. The lecture, meanwhile, presents one story of success and one story of failure.

It must be said that model test 3 (page 171) is almost a perfect TOEFL integrated writing question. It does everything right – it presents a clear argument that Shakespeare did not write his famous plays, while the lecturer challenges each of these in turn. Evidently Barron’s is capable of coming up with proper questions, but are unaware of the fact that this structure is used every time the test is offered.

As far as the independent writing question goes, Barron’s has again leaned too heavily on the Official Guide. Indeed, they’ve pretty much reproduced the entire list of sample independent questions from that guide. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, though, that list has problems. This does lead to the book’s single strong point – a whopping 144 sample essays at the back of the book which answer these questions. These essays may be responding to slightly faulty questions and they don’t really utilize the structure I prefer, but they are a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration for students who might be struggling to come up with content on test day. With a proper warning from a teacher to ignore the rest of the book this could be a helpful resource for students.

That said, this highlight isn’t enough to save this faulty book. I can’t really recommend it.

 

My Grade for TOEFL Power Vocab: C+

TOEFL Vocabulary is a funny topic. I mostly teach TOEFL writing. When I am working with students on their essays, I usually stress that they should not try to utilize advanced vocabulary in their essays. Instead, I usually encourage them to improve their writing score by using a wide range of easy words in their essays. Basically, the TOEFL e-rater, I believe, is more concerned with how many different words students use, rather than how difficult the words are. Obviously, of course, the vocabulary level matters to some extent, but I mostly encourage students to use words they already know. This means that they don’t really need a TOEFL vocabulary book.

Reading is a slightly different story. I think that studying vocabulary books is a great long-term strategy for students. Expanding their vocabulary is a great way to increase their comprehension of the reading passages. Probably the listening passages too, now that I think about it.

By long-term I mean three months or more. If students have less than three months to prep for the test, they probably don’t need a vocabulary book either. It just won’t make a huge difference in such a short period of time.

So… is Princeton Review’s TOEFL Power Vocab a good vocabulary book?

Sort of.

At first glance I really wanted to like this book. It is really just 800 words (sorted alphabetically) with concise definitions and some short quizzes every few pages. It is free of any useless clutter. I would rather have 8000 words, but 800 seems to be as much as any book has nowadays (Kaplan includes about the same amount in their vocabulary book).

The words are relevant, too. But the problem is that too many of them are way too easy. Most students who are already scoring 80 points and above will probably already know them. For instance, here are the words from a random page (172): suggest, suitable, summarize, summon, support, supposed, surpass, surprised, surrounded.

I wouldn’t exactly call those examples of “power” vocabulary.

Another random page (121): imply, important, impressive, inactive, incandescent, inconspicuous, increase, increasingly.

A less random page (69): circumspect, circumstances, circumvent, clamor, classified, clearly, climactic, coincidence.

I think you get the point. Some of these words will really benefit students, but quite a few of them are just a waste of their time.

I am on the hunt for a good vocabulary book and will try to review a few more in the months ahead, so please let me know if you have any favorites. I’m all ears.

Note: I only review the speaking and writing parts of TOEFL books, since that is what I am most familiar with.

My Overall Grade for 4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL: F-

This is the worst TOEFL textbook I have ever seen. It is bad. It is very bad. It is surprisingly bad, since it just a collection of tests. There are no lessons here to mess up… just tests. And Kaplan sure did mess up those tests.

All of the sample integrated writing questions are terrible. The real test uses a mirror format, which you can read about in my guide to that task. Basically, the reading presents three points and the lecture casts doubt on those three points. It directly casts doubt on those three specific points, and does so in the same order as they are presented in in the reading. Kaplan, basically, doesn’t follow this pattern, making the practice questions totally useless. I just don’t understand how Kaplan could mess this up so badly. The TOEFL hasn’t changed in 14 years. Didn’t they notice the pattern? The questions in this book have a superficial similarity, but superficial isn’t good enough. Who the heck wrote this book?

The integrated speaking questions are just as bad. A few of them are actually close to the real test, but they seem to have achieved accuracy just by chance. Most of them are garbage.

Here is the prompt at the end of question five in test two (page 57):

“The woman tried to persuade the man to do something. Say what she tries to persuade him to do and explain the reasons she gives.”

What the heck? There has never been anything like that on the test!

Here’s the prompt that goes with question four in test 3 (page 86):

“The professor talks about the results of wolves being brought back to Yellowstone National Park. Explain what those results are and how those results are contrary to what people living near the park expected.”

Huh?

Meanwhile, that strange “persuade” prompt pops up again on test four, but this time as part of a task 3 question (page 113).

I could go on and on and on. This book is garbage. I haven’t even mentioned the printing errors, and the problems I had trying to use Kaplan’s online registration to access the audio files (the book doesn’t come with a CD). Avoid this like the plague.

If one of the authors of this book (Sumi Aktar, Kim Bowers, Matthew Callan, Louise Cook, Scarlet Edmonds, Joanna Graham, Brian Holmes, Nimesh Shah) happens to read this review please send me an email. I would love to hear about the messed up editorial process that produced this monstrosity. I know it isn’t your fault… just tell me what happened!

Note: I only review the speaking and writing sections of TOEFL books, since that is my area of expertise.

My Overall Grade for Kaplan TOEFL Prep Plus: F

Skills Building: What a strange book. The book is all about “strategy.” And it sure provides a lot of strategies. Strategy after strategy after strategy. The book just goes on and on and on. And it is written in a difficult style that I suspect a lot of ESL students will struggle with. This is a beefy book with fairly small print… and barely any sample questions.

I hate to say it, but I think it has too many strategies. Regarding speaking question four, for example, it provides 13 unique strategies, each about a paragraph long. This is the sort of thing that will overwhelm students, and makes the TOEFL needlessly complicated and perplexing. The book might be useful for teachers planning a long curriculum at a TOEFL tutoring center, but I don’t think students need this much information. To make matters worse, often these strategies are illustrated using inaccurate sample questions, which will just compound the problem. Grade: D-

Accuracy (speaking): The descriptions of speaking questions 1 and 2 are fine. The book doesn’t mention some of the more recent question styles (such as “giving advice” and “advantages and disadvantages”) but I can forgive that since it was published back in 2017.

The sample of speaking question 3 (page 201) is terrible. The reading is a “help wanted” posting for a school newspaper, and does not describe a change on campus. Obviously, then, it has no reasons for a change that can be referred to in the listening part.

The sample of speaking question 4 (page 213) is pretty bad as well. It includes a decent reading part, but the listening part includes four examples of the concept referred to in the reading. The real test includes one or two examples.

The samples of questions 5 and 6 are acceptable. Grade: C+

Accuracy (writing): This part of the book is pretty bad. This chapter starts with a terrible integrated writing question (page 269) that includes just two giant paragraphs in the reading section. The real test will always have four.

It includes a second terrible integrated writing question on page 291. The reading part has no introductory paragraph, and includes a gigantic body paragraph of ten sentences. The real test average about 4 or 5 sentences per paragraph. It pairs that with a lecture that is way too long.

The book does have one good integrated writing question – on page 290.

It includes a few good independent writing questions, but does not include any multiple choice prompts, which is a major shortcoming. Grade: F

Sample Tests: Note that the sample tests are only on Kaplan’s website. Follow the instructions in the book to gain access to them. Also note that while the book promises FOUR online tests, I can only find THREE. Maybe I’m dumb, or maybe Kaplan isn’t giving us what was promised. Let me know if you can find the last test.

Note also that there is no option to read transcripts of the tests, or to skip to certain sections. If you want to get to the speaking and writing sections, be prepare for a lot of clicking, and to sit through all of the listening stuff. I suffered a browser freeze up once after having wasted 15 minutes of my life clicking through just to get to the speaking section.

Anyways, I don’t recommend actually using the tests since they are also affected by the inaccuracies described above. Get the Official iBT Tests instead. Grade: D-

Note that this book (and all books) will be out of date starting August 1 of 2019 when the TOEFL will change.

Note: I only review the speaking and writing sections of TOEFL books, since those are my main areas of expertise.

My overall grade for Cracking the TOEFL iBT: B-

Skills Building Content: This book has some fine content when it comes to building the skills students need to take the test. It starts with a few “drills” that help students work through the basic skills needed on the test without actually giving them real TOEFL questions, which is a nice approach. I find that it needlessly mixes skills related to the integrated and independent writing tasks instead of separating them from each other, but that isn’t too much of a problem. Some students might find the organization of this section a bit cluttered, but at least they have tons to work with.

The book later moves on to chapters that show them how to “crack” each of the sections and utilize actual TOEFL questions to do so. This is where the book starts to get bad. The problem is accuracy. I’ll cover that in the next section. Grade: B

 

Hey, I found library copies of the new editions of the “Official iBT Tests” books (Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Vol. 2, 2nd edition) to see what was new.

The text seems to be 100% the same, except for a couple of references to online materials in the introduction. The old editions already had the reordered listening questions from the Official Guide (4th edition) and the varied Integrated writing prompts from the Official Guide (3rd Edition). Those are continued here, of course.

The “Tests” books do NOT contain the longer independent writing prompts (with the warning about memorized examples) found in the Official Guide (4th Edition).

The only difference I can see is that the tests are now delivered on DVD, rather than CD. I didn’t examine every page, though, so let me know if there is something I can double check for you.

For the record, these are 2019 publications. However, they will be somewhat obsolete when the TOEFL changes in August 1 of 2019. When that happens ETS will include an “insert” in future printings of their books that describe the new version of the test. This does not mean they will update them! The insert will just be a piece of paper that describes the changes. ETS does not know when the actual text of the books will be updated.

Update from 2020:  ETS has hinted that new editions of some of their books will be published this year, but nothing has been made official.

It has been a long time since I wrote about the best TOEFL textbooks on the market. That’s because I generally dislike most of what is available. Generally speaking, TOEFL textbooks are inaccurate and unhelpful. However, this used to be the most popular section of my blog, so I guess it is about time to write something about the topic. Here goes.

For an Introduction to the TOEFL

The Official Guide to the TOEFL

The best general overview of the TOEFL is still The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test. This book comes from ETS, who creates the TOEFL week after week. This basic textbook provides the most accurate description of the questions you will get on the test. It also comes with four practice tests that can be accessed via DVD. However, it must be said that the book is sometimes inaccurate, especially when it comes to the writing section of the test. If you buy this book, make sure to read my article about all of the mistakes it contains.

The link above is to the 5th edition. You can save money by getting the 4th edition, but I don’t recommend it. It contains one less test, uses only a CD-ROM and the descriptions of questions are slightly out of date.

Books For Practice TOEFL Tests

The Official Test Collection

The best source of practice tests is The Official iBT Tests Collection Volume 2. This book contains five actual TOEFL tests from the past, delivered on DVD. These are the most accurate practice tests you will find anywhere, though they are pretty old. You can save money by getting the CD-ROM version, which contains the same tests.

The second best source of practice tests is The Official iBT Tests Collection Volume 1. Same as above, but these are even older.

TST Prep

If you are looking for a third-party source of practice tests, check out TST Prep’s collection of 10 practice tests. This is the only third-party I ever recommend to students when it comes to practice tests. You might get a 10% discount if you use the coupon code “goodine10off.”

Books For The TOEFL Writing Section

TOEFL Resources

There is not a single good book about the writing section. Instead of using a book I recommend just reading my free resources.

TST Prep

I also recommend the writing course offered by TST Prep. It uses a series of video lectures to go into more detail than my own stuff provides. Again, save money by using the coupon code “goodine10off.”

Books for the TOEFL Reading Section

House of TOEFL

For the reading section, I recommend Kathy Spratt’s Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT. The second edition of this ebook was published in 2019. It will walk you through how to solve each possible question type and explain the “traps” that ETS commonly uses when designed incorrect answers. It contains plenty of original practice readings and questions.

Make sure you don’t get the first edition, which still shows up via some Amazon searches.

Books for Grammar Practice

English Grammar in Use

For grammar practice, I always recommend Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. It contains clear explanations of grammar points and plenty of practice exercises. If you are working with a teacher, they should be able to quickly tell you what chapters you, specifically, need to focus on. It was updated to a 5th edition in late 2018, but you can save money by getting the 4th edition, which is just as good.

When students need more practice exercises, I usually recommend the supplementary activities textbook that accompanies the main volume (again, the old edition is cheaper).

Practical English Usage

If you are a new TOEFL teacher, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage. This weighty volume will help you answer all of those difficult questions about why you corrected your student’s work in such a way. It really help you get out of the habit of saying “it just sounds more natural” in response to student questions.

If you are a student… don’t get this book for TOEFL prep. It might just be overkill.

Books for TOEFL Vocabulary

1800 TOEFL Essential Vocabulary

Honestly, I generally don’t recommend vocabulary books. Basically, I feel that in the short and medium term learning words might be a waste of your time. You might spend hours and hours studying a book of words, but only encounter one or two of them on the test. Vocabulary acquisition takes a really long time, and you pretty much have to depend on what you already know when you take the test. That said, if you want a bunch of words, I recommend Darakwon’s 1800 TOEFL Essential Vocabulary. And hey… the ebook version only costs two dollars, so it can’t hurt to try.

TOEFL Pocket Vocabulary

Kaplan seems to publish a new bite-sized vocabulary book every few years. The current version appears to be TOEFL Pocket Vocabulary. I haven’t seen this edition, but it is probably just as good as the older ones. It has more words, at least.

Official Guide to the TOEFLI want to finish off my series on the 5th edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL by listing everything in the book that is wrong or just misleading.

This is the kind of information that I think is very important for both students and teachers. I remember when I started preparing students for the TOEFL and put too much trust in textbook publishers. I ended up teaching useless lessons with inaccurate material.

While I have noted quite a few problems with this book, it is worth noting that the Official Guide is still the most accurate prep book for the TOEFL. Yes, the stuff from third-party publishers is way worse. I’ve considered writing lists of all the stuff wrong with those books, but it seems like it might be a waste of both my time and my money.

Anyways… here’s what I spotted:

Chapter 2: Reading

Each of the practice sets (Page 60-67, 69-73) have 13 questions. On the real test there are 14 questions per set. Students using these sections to time their ability to complete a set should adjust their clocks accordingly.

Chapter 4: Speaking

The description of speaking question 1 (page 166) says that students “will be asked to speak about a person, place, object or event that is familiar to you.” The example question fits this description. However, the real test includes at least three other styles of questions which are not mentioned. Descriptions can be found here.

Likewise the description of speaking question 2 (page 168) insists that students “will be presented with two possible actions, situations or opinions… and will be asked to say which of the actions or situations you think is preferable.” The example question fits this description. However, the real test includes at least three other styles of questions which are not mentioned. Descriptions can be found here.

Notably, the “advantages and disadvantages” styles in questions one and two are not mentioned anywhere. They are described at the links above.

Chapter 5: Writing

The sample integrated writing question (page 196-198) does not match the structure used on the real test. On the real test the reading will have four paragraphs. In the book it has two. On the real test the lecture will have four “paragraphs.” Here it has three. On the real test the reading points and lecture counter-points are presented in a “mirror” style and come in the same order. Here that is not the case. Students can consult this guide for a proper depiction of the integrated writing question.

Page 198 suggests that sometimes the lecture will support the argument made in the reading. On the real test that never happens.

Pages 217-220 contain a collection of 40 sample independent writing questions. About 12 of them are of a style that does not match what is used on the real test. Since the book does not describe the three main styles, students should read this blog post that does.

The Practice Tests

The integrated writing question in practice test one does not match the real test. Again, the structure does not match what is used by ETS nowadays. The reading contains just three paragraphs, and the lecture does not rebut the reading’s arguments in the proper order.

The rest of the practice tests seem fine.

This will be the last in my series about updates to the Official Guide to the TOEFL (5th Edition).

Let’s start with chapter 4 (speaking):

Page 171: The reading part of speaking question 3 is now described as 80-110 words long. In the fourth edition it was described as 75-100 words long.

Page 175: The reading part of speaking question 4 is described as 80-11- words long. In the fourth edition it was described as 75-100 words long.

Flannel shirts have been removed from many of the illustrations in this chapter.


Next, chapter 5 (writing):

It must be noted that the sample integrated writing question on page 196 is still wrong. It does not match the structure used on the real test.

Page 207: The warning “be sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples” has been added to the end of the sample independent writing question/

Page 208: Same as above.

Page 208: The following tip is given (to explain the warning used above):

“When you develop your response, do not use examples or reasons that you memorized word-for-word previously (at school, for example). Raters will not consider examples or reasons expressed in a completely memorized language to represent your own writing.”

Page 212: The warning is also given.

Page 217-220: This is interesting. The 4th edition contained 185 sample independent writing prompts that were described as being used on the test. These were likely from the old CBT version of the test, as they were also in the first edition of the guide, which was written even before the iBT version had been given 185 times.

The problem with this list has always been that it contains questions that don’t match the three main styles used on the test (agree/disagree, preference, multiple-choice).

The list of 40 now contains 20 questions from the 4th edition, and 20 new questions.

22 of the questions are agree/disagree style questions, which is the most common style nowadays. The remaining 18 are a mix of preference, multiple choice, and incorrect styles. Two of the questions are really long prompts, which is a recent trend. These are both new.


Moving on, a quick look at the practice tests included with the 5th edition:

  1. The new test included in this edition is TPO 18. That means it is a very, very old test. That sucks.
  2. The order of listening questions has been adjusted. This is mostly to stick “why does the professor say” questions to the end of each set, but there are other changes as well.
  3. The new warning has been added to each independent writing question.
  4. The sample integrated writing question in test one is still an incorrect style. That drives me crazy. It has been 14 years since the first edition of the book came out!