It’s the end of September, and you know what that means – some book and article recommendations!  If you are new to the blog, you might want to check out the master index of articles.  I recommend starting with the newer articles as they are less likely to have dead links.

We’ll start today with some short articles.  This month I read the July issue of “Science News” and spotted a few interesting stories, including:

I also found a few longer articles in the June issue of National Geographic.  They include:

A Week at the AirportI also read a few books!  First up, I read Alain de Botton’s “A Week at the Airport,” which is a very short book (barely longer than a magazine article) about a week he spent living at London’s Heathrow Airport. The book mixes his observations of the everyday goings-on of the airport with the philosophical musing’s he’s known for.  It isn’t exactly “TOEFL English” but it is a fun read if you are looking for non-fiction to keep your reading skills sharp.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

Journey into CyprusMeanwhile, I’ve continued to stay home and enjoy travels only in the literary sense.  I read Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus.  Again, I warn you that his stuff is hard to read, but he remains my favorite living travel writer, so I’ll keep mentioning his books in this column!  This one describes a 900 kilometer walk he took through the country just before the partition of the country.  While this is the fourth of Thubron’s books I’ve mentioned here, I think it is his first perfect travel book, and the first written in the style he is known for today.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

That’s all for this month.  But I’ve already found some fun stuff to mention at the end of October.  Stay tuned.

The little library in my neighborhood got rid of its entire collection of English books… and replaced it with an entirely new collection.  What a strange occurrence.  I had to walk to the next city over to get a copy of the first book on today’s list.

Guns Germs and SteelAnyways, that book was Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” (available on Amazon, and in the Open Library).  This book attempts to explain why events happens in certain places on earth, but not on others. This means it deals a lot with what I’ve called here “early human history,” which happens to be a favorite topic of the people who write the reading section of the TOEFL. Actually, I suppose Diamond’s book is on the shelf of all of the ETS item writers. It truly is just page after page after page of “TOEFL style” stuff.  Even the reading level and vocabulary usage seem to be quite similar to the TOEFL.  The best part, though, is that the book presents arguments instead of just describing things.  Seriously, if you only buy one book mentioned in my columns, get this one.

Jerusalem by Colin ThubronNext, I read Colin Thubron’s “Jerusalem” (out of print now, but available in the Open Library)  I’ve mentioned a few of his other travel books here.  They are probably too challenging to be of use to TOEFL test-takers, but I like to mention them here as I’m slowly working my way through Thubron’s complete bibliography of travel books.  This one marks the end of Thubron’s trilogy of books on middle eastern locales.  If you are interested in the region, you might like the book.  Just be prepared to keep Wikipedia open to look up his references, as Thubron assumes his readers already have a well-rounded education.  

Finally, I read both of the June issues of Science News. A few short articles stood out as relevant to TOEFL test-takers.  They are:

Hey, would you believe that I’ve been writing this column for a whole year?  Don’t worry… I’m not going to stop anytime soon.  Keep checking in every month for the remaining 88 parts!

 

Well, I took on some outside work this month and didn’t have time for anything on July’s to-do list, but I always have time for the least popular part of this blog – the monthly “you should read more” article!

MgazinesThis month I read the April 24 issue of “Science News.”  As always, the magazine contained a ton of great articles that resemble the various reading (and listening) tasks that appear on the TOEFL.  There were a few standouts this month:

Next I read the July Issue of “History Today.”  Articles about history are really common in the reading section of the test… and not just articles about “early” human history.  Most of the content from this  magazine is behind a paywall, but a few great articles are available online:

  • China’s First International Students discusses a group of young Chinese children sent to study abroad in 1872.  It’s a fascinating story. They were pulled back by the regime earlier than planned, but many of them played important roles in the development of the country upon their return.
  • Baby Boom or Bust compares today’s low birth rates to the history of France from the 19th to mid 20th centuries.

I also read the May issue of National Geographic.  This was the best issue of NatGeo in a long time.  Here’s what caught my eye:

  • The Conservation Popularity Contest could form the basis of a type 1 writing question.  I imagine a reading about the problem of ugly endangered species being ignored, and the lecture suggesting solutions to this problem.
  • There is a tiny little space-filler about the hummingbird being a “surrogate species.”  That would make a perfect type 3 speaking question!  I can’t find a link to the little article online, but here is a little article from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • One of the long feature articles this month is about saving coral reefs. That could certainly form the basis of a problem/solution writing question as well.

Finally, I read the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Cat Magazine. You had better believe it. I liked:

  • The Evolution of the Social Feline.  I think I will submit my foster cat for Modern Cat’s “Cat of the Week” award.  I hope you’ll all vote for it if I post a link here.

Nellie BlyI also read some books that aren’t worth mentioning here, but I will mention the Penguin Classics collection of journalist Nellie Bly’s work.  It’s titled “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings.”  Bly was a pioneering New York journalist in the late 19th and early 20th century.  She was noted for her “stunt reporting” including how she got herself committed to a mental hospital in 1887 to secretly investigate the conditions there, and her recording-breaking around the world trip in 1890.

That’s all for now.  More recommendations next month.

It’s June!  Time for another “You Should Read More” column.

A few interesting tidbits in the April 10 issue of “Science News.”  Like:

I enjoyed an article about the negative health effects of forest fires in the April issue of National Geographic.

Finally, I got my first issue of “History Today” magazine (the June issue).  I really enjoyed an article about English king Alfred the Great and whether he actually was great.  Alas, you’ll need a subscription to read that one (which you can get really, really cheap over here).  There are couple of free articles from this month, though:

  • Women and the Birth of England’s Stock Market discusses how women got heavily involved in the first British Stock Market.
  • Blood, Stone and Holy Bones discusses the concept of Holy Relics (that is artifacts of Christian saints) and how travelers to the Middle East  related to them in the middle ages.  I recall writing a very long essay on this topic when I was in university.

Before I close, I must mention that I published another TOEFL book review this month!  You can find my comments about Barron’s TOEFL Writing over here.

 

It’s May!

As always, “Science News” is a good source of articles for academic reading practice. A few stories stood out this month.  In particular:

Meanwhile, a reader sent in this article from the New York Times:

Sapiens Book CoverI finally read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“last month.  This is one of the most popular history books of all time, and it is a perfect source of academic reading practice.  It is about the early history of mankind, which (as I indicated last month) is one of the most frequent topics on the reading section of the TOEFL.  You can buy it on Amazon, or get borrow it from the Open Library.

I listened to the audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “The Bomber Mafia.”  Like Harari, Gladwell is a rock star in the world of non-fiction publishing.  His latest is about bombing missions carried out by the American military during World War II.  It is certainly thought provoking.  You can buy it on Amazon.

Hills of Adonis CoverFinally, I read Colin Thubron’s travel book “In the Hills of Adonis.”  This one is an account of his walking tour of Lebanon in 1967.  I recommended one of his earlier travel books last month.  Actually, I’m working my way through his whole bibliography in anticipation of his newest book, due out this November.  His work can be challenging but if you like travel and you like history check it out.  You can buy it on Amazon, or borrow it from the Open Library

Alright, that’s all for this month.  Next month I’ll have some words about a new TOEFL prep book published by Barrons.  Hopefully my first issue of “History Today” magazine will arrive, and I will be able to switch from science to history in terms of article recommendations.

 

Before I begin this  month’s column, I must draw your attention to a new article I published a few weeks ago.  I took a deep dive into all of the official TOEFL reading passages (47 in total) to see which topics  pop up most often.  I discovered that history is, by far, the most frequent topic.  Zoology is a distant second.  I’ll adjust my reading habits in the months ahead so that I can recommend a few more reading passages.

A few stories in Science News stood out this month.  In particular:

  • Naked Mole-Rats Squeak in Dialects describes how members of mole-rat colonies chirp in such a way that they can identify each other.  Interesting stuff.  I also learned that mole-rat groups resemble ant colonies in that they have a single breeding queen.
  • Upwellings May Push Continents Apart doesn’t have the same weird-factor, but as my survey indicated, physical geography is a common topic in the reading section.  Check it out.
  • Meatier Meals and More Playtime Might Reduce Cats’ Toll on Wildlife is about methods to prevents domestic cats from wiping out local bird and small-mammal populations.  Yeah, the TOEFL probably won’t have anything about cats on it, but this article would be perfect for someone trying to put together a problem/solution integrated writing passage.  It describes a problem (cats keep killing things) and several solutions to that problem (giving them more meat, playing with them, and putting a colorful collar on them).  I like it!
  • Stonehenge May Have Welsh Roots talks about the mysterious origin of Stonehenge.  As I said above, history is important!

I didn’t spend too much time with my stack of National Geographic Magazines this month, but a couple of things did catch my eye:

  • Our Obsession with Mars is the cover story from the March, 2021 issue.  Space stuff doesn’t appear in the reading section too often, but it does show up in the integrated writing section quite often.  Check it out.
  • I can’t find a link to an online version, but the same issue has a great infographic about species that thrive after a forest fire.  I can see that being the sort of thing that might appear in an integrated speaking question.

I read a great Science Fiction story by Charles Q. Choi in the January/February issue of Analog.  The good news for you is that you can buy it for two bucks from his own website.  Go check it out.  I’ll give you the two bucks.

That’s all for now, but next month I’ll have more recommendations.  I started in on a hefty history book which I should be finished with by then.

Science News Covers

I took a deep dive into the publicly available TOEFL reading sets to measure which academic subjects appear most frequently.  My study included the tests in:

  • The Official Guide to the TOEFL 
  • The Official iBT Tests Vol. 1
  • The Official iBT Tests Vol. 2
  • The free practice test on ETS.org
  • The TOEFL PDF sets on ETS.org
  • The Propell Workshop Teacher’s Book

These contain 47 passages in total.

I think this is everything that is easily accessible.  I didn’t include the TPO sets in my study because we aren’t really supposed to have access to those.  If there are any other sources I should consult please let me know, and I will add them to the list.

I examined each reading passage and classified it by subject.  I focused on the broadest possible subject headings.  So, for example, I used “history” as a category but not “political history.”  This wasn’t always an easy task as some of the passages cover overlapping subject areas.

Following this chart, I’ll include a few notes about more specific subject areas.

Anyways, here’s what I found:

Subject

Number of Passages

History

16

Zoology

7

Physical Geography

5

Biology

4

Geology

3

Psychology

3

Ecology

2

Architecture

1

Astronomy

1

Sociology

1

Education

1

Anthropology

1

Art

1

Paleontology

1

As you can see, history is by far the most common subject area in the reading section.  Zoology is also pretty common.  

There are a few other things that are worth mentioning here.  They are:

  • The passages about history often focus on the history of early humans and early civilizations.  
  • Political history is also somewhat common.
  • One of the passages marked as “geology” was actually about the history of geology.
  • Likewise, the passage about astronomy was about the history of astronomy.  Read some history!

Perhaps this information will serve as a guide you as look for materials to develop your academic reading skills before the test.

Hey, it’s the end of the month, which means it is time for some recommended reading.

I spent some time catching up with my National Geographic subscription. Honestly, it has been a tough year for Nat Geo, as they’ve attempted to pivot into being something of a current events magazine. They haven’t always been successful at that, but there are usually a few good items in every issue. Here’s what I liked from the December thru February issues:

  • So Great, So Fragile  is a long article about threats to the Great Lakes in North America.  It is really long, but still worth your time as physical geography is a common topic on the reading section of the test.
  • Reclaiming History is a long article about the desire to remove symbols of the Confederate States of America from the USA.  This is a great example of how the magazine is succeeding in its coverage of current events.  Of course it touches on  history quite a lot, which is another common topic on the TOEFL.

As usual, I read a few issues of “Science News.”  As always, everything in this magazine is useful.  A few things caught my eye, though.  They are:

  • Rats with Poison Hairdos Show a Cuddly Side is another weird animal story.  These rats chew on poisonous tree bark and droll it all over their bodies to protect themselves from predators.  Zoology is a common topic on the reading section of the test, so I always recommend articles about animals.  Actually, keep an eye on the blog for a “research report” on the most common subject areas.  I’ve got the numbers and will post them soon!
  • Ice Age Hunters’ Leftovers May have Fueled Dog Domestication is a very short article that I found particularly interesting.  Apparently early humans had too much protein in their food supplies.  Like, they had so much meat that was free of fat that they couldn’t eat it all.  They gave it to wolves and, presto, the domesticated dog was born.  A lot of TOEFL reading passages deal with early humans, so check this one out.
  • Early Sea Trip was Probably No Accident also covers early humans.  This one is about how ancient mariners first reached Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

Alright, so those are your articles for the month.  I also read a few books, for what it’s worth.  A few are worth mentioning:

  • I read “Gigged” by Sarah Kessler.  It’s a book about the “gig economy,” which is dominated by companies like Uber.  Economics doesn’t seem to be a particularly common topic on the TOEFL, but all non-fiction has some value when it comes to improving your academic reading skills.  This is a fairly easy read, and it feels something like an extended magazine article.  No free versions are available online, but you can get it via Amazon.
  • I also read Colin Thubron’s “Mirror to  Damascus.”  This is a hard book.  But if you are interested in history and travel take a moment to check out a free version on Open Library.  Thubron is, in my opinion, the best living travel writer. This year I will be revisiting a bunch of his travelogues in preparation for his latest book, which will be published in a few months.  “Mirror to Damascus” is his very first book, written after he took a trip to Syria in his early twenties.  I also visited Syria in my early twenties (but 40 years after Thubron).  His book makes me feel some guilt for just mucking about when I was in the country, but I do remember my time there fondly.  It was one of the happiest months of my life.

That’s all for now, but I’ll have a few more recommendations next month.  Stay tuned.

A visitor requested a single collection of all of my “You Should Read More” blog posts.  Here is the master index:

I intend to write one post per month, and will add them to the list as they are created. 

Through this series of blog posts, I hope to encourage students to read more.  Improving our reading skills is the only reliable way to improve our TOEFL reading scores.  Too often students try to learn “tricks” and “strategies” for the reading section, when they ought to be learning how to read better

The blog posts recommend a variety of things to read.  Some of them include links to magazine articles I’ve read.  Others recommend fiction and non-fiction books that I’ve read and enjoyed, and even a few audio books.   Some of these will be easy to find online or at your local library.  Some of them will be harder to find.  Just keep clicking around until you get something that you enjoy.

And, of course, I’m always happy to read stuff that you recommend!  If you’ve got something to share, please leave a comment.

PS:  Let me know if you find any broken links.

 

Okay, so this month’s collection is purely academic writing.  This stuff is the closest you will get to reading TOEFL articles outside of the TOEFL.  Don’t worry, though, I will have more random junk next month.  I promise.

Everything is from “Science News,” which I get in the mail every couple of weeks.  Here are a few highlights from the November and December issues.  I took the headlines from the print version, so they might not match what you see online.

  • ” Why Were Megalodon Sharks So Big ?” asks questions about why some ancient sharks got so massive.  This would make a perfect integrated writing question, as it presents some theories… and then presents the challenges to them.  One of the theories is intrauterine cannibalism.  What the f–k?
  • Farming on Mars Will be Nothing Like in The Martian” is a fun article.  I mention it here because “The Martian” is a book I recommended in an earlier column.
  • Who Invented Bone Points?” is a nice long article that resembles some of the historical articles you will get in the reading section.  Lots of great vocabulary here. Update: Sorry, broken link.  I’ll try to fix it.
  • Toads on Two Islands are Shrinking Fast” is a nice long biology article that looks a bit like what you will see in the reading section.  Update: Sorry, broken link.  I’ll try to fix it.
  • Early American Women Hunted Game” is another article covering early human history.  It is a medium-length article.
  • A Night with Colugos” is a feature-length article, which means it is a lot longer than what you will get on the test.  But it is a lot of fun.  It is also a breezy and light read.  You’ll enjoy it.  Interestingly, I visited the island in Malaysia discussed here.  I didn’t have a great impression of it, but the article makes it look really wonderful.  Now I hope to return.

That’s all for now, but more to come in March!

Science News Magazines

I got an email the other day that asked something like:

Hey, I took the TOEFL yesterday and in one of the reading questions I had to pick TWO correct answers.  Is that normal?

My answer was that this is rare, but normal.  These questions seem to always be “Factual Information” questions where you have to “identify factual information that is explicitly stated in the passage…  they can focus on facts, details, definitions, or other information presented by the author” (ETS).  Basically, you are identifying stuff mentioned in the reading.

Theoretically, these might also be “negative factual questions” which as you to identify stuff NOT mentioned in the reading.

To find examples of what they look like, I scanned the three official TOEFL books. I did not find any such questions in the Official Guide to the TOEFL test.

But I did find the following sample in Volume 1 of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests book (test 3, question 17):

TOEFL Reading Question

I also found the following sample in Volume 2 of the Official TOEFL iBT Tests book (test 1, question 27):

There could be more samples in the books.  I just scanned them quickly.

So there you go.  Just don’t be shocked by questions of this type.  They are basically the same as the “factual information” questions you are already familiar with.  Just remember to select TWO answers.  You must get pick both correct choices to get the point.  You will get no points if you only pick one, or if you only pick one correctly.

The other day, someone asked:

I’ve got twelve months to prepare for the TOEFL, and I need 100 points.  What should I do?

The good news for that student is that they have time to really improve their English fluency instead of just learning TOEFL tricks and strategies.  I know it sounds crazy, but the best way to increase your TOEFL score is to become more fluent in English.

 

Here’s how I responded:

  1.  Get a good grammar book like “English Grammar in Use” (also called “Grammar in Use – Intermediate” in some countries).  I read about a dozen TOEFL essays every day, and I see that most students suffer from grammar and language use problems.   Reduce your error rate and your writing score will go up.
  2. Find someone to practice speaking with.  To improve your score you need to speak fluidly.  You need to eliminate pauses, “umm breaks”, and repetitions.  You need to pronounce vowels and consonants properly.  You need to reduce the effort required to understand what you are saying.  Regular practice will help with this.  You don’t necessarily have t pay big bucks for a special TOEFL teacher to do this.  You can probably find an affordable tutor on a service like italki for this.
  3. Take accurate practice TOEFL tests.  There are 15 official ETS practice tests available (Official Guide x 4, Official iBT Tests x 10, website x 1) plus some PDF junk on the website.  You should work through all of those.  Fortunately, you have time to buy all of the books!  Switch to unofficial material only when you run out.
  4. If you have a year to prepare you can also improve your reading and listening skills in a general sense.  Spend some time reading good non-fiction books and articles (I like Science News, and National Geographic).  Make use of your local library, if they have an English section.  For listening, try Khan Academy, or podcasts like 60 Second Science.
  5. Towards the end of your preparation period take one of the scored practice tests from ETS to gauge your current level and see how to use the last few months most effectively.

 

And, yes, along the way you should devote some time to becoming familiar with the test.  Read the Official Guide cover to cover (a few times).  Read some of the guides on this website and watch some Youtube videos.  Review sample writing and speaking responses.  Just don’t get bogged down in “strategies” if the test is still a year away.