Official TOEFL iBT TestsThe 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.

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.

Alright, so here is a quick summary of all the changes in the new editions of “Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1 (fourth edition)” and “Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2 (third edition).

General Changes

  1. Of course, the tests have been revised to match the new format.  The reading, speaking and listening sections have been shortened.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  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

  1.  The third reading passages from test two and test three have been switch.  I don’t know why.

 

Official TOEFL iBT Tests

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).

General Changes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Important:  you will see below that there are far fewer vocabulary questions on all of the tests.

Changes To Test One

  1. 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!
  2. One lecture has been deleted in the listening section.
  3. All four speaking questions are new!  This is welcome, as the old “academic lecture” question (number 6) seemed a bit non-standard to me.
  4. The integrated writing question is still flawed.  That sucks.
  5. 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

  1. 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).
  2. 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

  1. 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)
  2. One lecture was removed.

Changes to Test Four

  1. 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)
  2. One lecture was removed.

Digital Downloads

  1.  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.
  2. 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.

Coming Up

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 1 – Test Overview

My copy of the sixth edition of “The Official Guide to the TOEFL” has finally arrived!  Starting today, I will describe all of the changes in this edition.  I’ll begin, of course, with chapter one, “About the TOEFL iBT Test.”  After I have finished with all of the chapters, I will provide a general review of the book.

Page 1-2:  The description of the test in this edition makes it sound a lot more prestigious than before.

Page 5 (important): The book now mentions that “for the speaking and writing responses, ETS uses both certified human raters and artificial intelligence (AI) scoring to provide a complete and accurate picture of a test taker’s ability.”  

Page 5 (important):  The book now mentions that “after finishing the test, test takers will be able to view their unofficial scaled scores for the Reading and Listening sections.”

Page 5:  The “test format” chart now reflects the current number of questions in each section. The charts for each section later in this chapter do as well, and I won’t mention them below.  But see the END of the article for a possible discrepancy. 

Page 5 (important): The book now mentions that  “you may hear some native English-speaker accents that are not from North America, such as British or Australian.”  It includes as link to some samples, but I couldn’t find them.

About the Reading Section

Page 7: As indicated, the chart here reflects the current number of questions.  Which is “10 questions per passage.”  This probably misleading/incorrect information. See my final note in this article for more information about this. 

Page 9 (important): In the reading section “category chart” questions have been renamed “category table” questions.  The book indicates that “some table questions are worth up to 2 points and others are worth up to 3 points, depending on the number of correct answers expected.”  In the past, these questions were always worth 3 points.

Page 10: A new question is used to illustrate the reading “table” question.  The sample is worth 3 points.

About the Listening Section

Page 12 (important):  The lectures are described as being “4-5 minutes long.”  Previously, they were described as being “3-5 minutes long.”

About the Speaking Section

Page 17: The book now refers to the updated number of questions in this section (4) and the duration of the section (about 17 minutes).  It also refers to the fact that the section is partially scored by “the automated scoring system.”

About the Writing Section

No changes.

About Test Scores

Page 21:  The book indicates that each speaking response will be scored by a different rater.  Previously, the same rater might have scored two of your responses.

Page 22-23: The book now mentons MyBest scores, and that score reports are received after 6 days (instead of 10).  It makes clear that “Official Score reports will be sent directly to your designated recipients within eleven days after you take the test.”  It is nice to have that in writing now.

Page 24-25: The new (and less detailed) score report is depicted.

General Skill-Building Tips

Page 33: The previous edition says “do not panic.”  The new book says “do not become overwhelmed.”  I LOLed.

Test Delivery

Page 36 (important): Page 7 says that the reading section has 3-4 passages, with 10 questions per passage.  Page 36 says that the reading section has 27-40 questions.  Those descriptions do not match. However, this reflects my earlier comments on this blog about how sometimes there are just nine questions in a reading passage.  This happens when the “table” question is worth 3 points.  Indeed, this is the case in several of the practice reading sets later in the book!