“We abandoned what worked because we didn’t like how it felt to us as adults, when actually, the social-justice thing to do is to teach them explicitly how to read.”
This month I read the March 7 issue of “The New Yorker.” It contained a captivating article about animal rights called “The Elephant in the Courtroom.” Like all New Yorker articles it is a bit too long and a lot too convoluted to stand in for a TOEFL reading passage, but it does contain a few interesting concepts that could be turned into TOEFL questions by readers with time on their hands. It discusses self-recognition in animals, which would make a perfect type three speaking question. One could even write a question about autonomy in animals.
The same issue also contains a long review of Sanaz Toosi’s play “English,” which I’ve written about here before. The play is set in a TOEFL classroom in Iran in 2008. I am far from New York and unable to see it, but it sounds really compelling.
Next, I read the March 14 issue of the same magazine. It contains an article about the booming demand for deer antlers in the USA (and abroad). I mention this one because it contains some details about the purpose of deer antlers which could become a TOEFL question. Indeed, I am pretty sure it already has.
There is a fantastic article in the same issue called “The Access Trap” about a particular high school in the USA that switched from selective admissions based on test scores to a lottery-based admissions system. This isn’t something you will read about on the TOEFL, but I mention it here in case any readers are as interested in standardized testing (and related topics) as I am. The story perfectly encapsulates a debate that is raging right now across the country. Interesting stuff!
My final New Yorker, was the March 21 issue. It contains a fun article about the history of the fitness industry and of exercise science . It’s a fun and breezy read. And it is almost like a TOEFL reading. As you likely recall, the TOEFL often focuses on the history of some field of study.
I also read the May/June issue of Analog, but it is 100% behind a subscription wall, so I can’t link to the articles. But it contained a fantastic article about mining asteroids. Which TOEFL fans will recall is a pretty common topic in prep materials. One day I will adapt the article into a practice integrated writing passage. It talks about how the economics of colonizing asteroids is bad right now, but that it will get better when new energy sources are discovered. It talks about how prices for mined resources will drop, but that cultural motivations will take their place as a justification for colonization. TOEFL, right?
The same issue also contains a long story about how human bodies evolved to cope with “yesterday’s problems” which means we are currently stuck with adaptations that are no longer useful (and in some cases detrimental) in contemporary life. That’s a type three TOEFL speaking question right there! If you are interested in this sort of stuff, you can probably buy a copy of the magazine through their website.
This month I read the May 23 issue of Time Magazine, and found a few useful articles about climate change, both by Aryn Baker.
First up, I read a short essay called “After Visiting Both Ends of the Earth, I Realized How Much Trouble We’re In.” This description of the impact of climate change is similar in length to what you will read on the TOEFL, and it contains a lot of great vocabulary that you might need to succeed on the test. I don’t often recommend Time here, but if you skip the political stuff you might find some good scientific content.
Next, I read a longer piece called “Polar Paradox: The Melting Arctic Could Destroy Indigenous Ways of Life While Making Some Alaskans Rich.” It contains a lot of great on-the-ground reporting that captured my attention. One of the nice things about Time is that the writing level is fairly similar to what you will see on the test (or in a freshman university textbook). It contains articles that are challenging for ESL students, but not too challenging. Consider making a short list of all the words in these two articles that are new to you. After that you can look up their definitions and play with them a bit.
Moving along, I found a Popular Science article (via Reader’s Digest) about an effort to preserve the sound of a 1727 Stradivarius violin. This one is a bit more fun that the above two articles, but still includes a lot of useful academic vocabulary.
Finally, I want to recommend a few things to listen to this month. Listening is good too, right? I listened to a trio of Malcom Gladwell podcasts from 2016 about higher education in the USA. I know that’s something that most readers here have an interest in. Here are some quick links:
- Carlos Doesn’t Remember covers the difficult of the American education system to foster the academic development of kids that are smart, but poor. It’s heartbreaking at times.
- Food Fight is about the differing ways that American universities use their money. It’s frustrating.
- My Little Hundred Million is about how wealthy Americans choose to donate to universities. It is sometimes inspiring, but often frustrating.
I learned this month that Cheolsan Library in Gwangmyeong has a wealth of English magazines. They subscribe to: Scientific American, Discover, Reader’s Digest, The Monocle, Time, National Geographic, The Economist and Guitar World. How about that? That’s the best haul of English-language magazines I’ve yet encountered in Korea.
I read a few relevant articles this month. In the May/June 2022 issue of Discover, I read “Massive Craters are Exploding into Existence.” Big holes are appearing across Siberia, and scientists don’t exactly know why. Articles about physical geography are common the TOEFL, and I don’t often link to examples here, so make sure to check this one out. It is longer than what you will find on the real test, but in the same ballpark. It has a great amount of relevant vocabulary. Highly recommended.
In the May 2022 issue of Scientific American, I read “Innovative Fish Farms Aim to Save the Planet.” I know that fish farms may not be the most interesting topic in the world, but they are a topic that ETS has used in the past, both in the reading and writing sections of the test. This is pure TOEFL content.
Finally, in the February 14 and 21 issue of “The New Yorker” I read an enormously long article about Caetano Veloso. It isn’t exactly TOEFL material, but I recommend anyone interested in modern Brazilian history or in music from that country.
I can’t believe I’ve been writing this column for twenty months! Remember, I’m always happy to receive your recommendations. I’ve tracked down a few books recommended by readers over the past year and a half.
I’ll get started with a few article recommendations. First up, I read the January 31 issue of The New Yorker. A few things stood out:
- America’s Favorite Pickup Truck Goes Electric is about the release of a new electric vehicle in the United States. In the usual New Yorker fashion it meanders through a rough history of the Ford Motor Company and about the automobile industry in general. I found it fascinating, and it is about a topic that is certainly attracting quite a lot of attention nowadays.
- Invasion of the Pacific Football Fish! is about a sighting of a peculiar type of anglerfish. Unlike most New Yorker articles, this one is similar in length to a real TOEFL article. Actually, I think the anglerfish has made a few appearances on the TOEFL over the past year. I might have created a few questions about it myself.
Next, I peeked at the February 7 issue of the same magazine. One article stood out:
- Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind? is another long article that mixes a technical topic with a social history. There is a lot to dig into here. The New Yorker articles I’ve linked to over the past couple months are quite long, so you might want to read them over the course of a day or two.
- The Farmer Trying to Save Italy’s Ancient Olive Trees is about efforts to prevent the spread of a bacteria that is killing olive trees. TOEFL veterans will know that this sort of topic is really common on the test, especially in the integrated writing section. If you read only one article from today’s column, this one should be it. Note that I’ve linked to the original source of the article, which is Atlas Obscura.
Lastly, I read the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D Vance. In it, Vance talks about growing up in poverty in rural America and how he improved his life through education and personal growth. This one attracted a ton of attention five years ago when people were seeking answers to why America went crazy in 2016. People claim this book has some profound insights into why that happened, but I didn’t find them. It is a good book, though, and if ETS wasn’t so conservative they could do an amazing reading about the “Hillbilly Migration.” The subject matter here overlaps a little with that of “Educated” which I wrote about a few months ago. You can borrow a copy from the Open Library or buy your own from Amazon.
A pharmacist sent me a message like: “I’ve taken 30 hours of classes with Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones and Dr. Ford. But my reading score hasn’t improved. Can you teach me?”
I said that I couldn’t teach her because there was nothing left to teach. After 30 hours of lessons, she probably got everything that a teacher could impart. There aren’t any secrets or magic tricks to getting a high score. What could I possibly tell her that Smith, Jones and Ford hadn’t already said?
I suggested, instead, that she build her comprehension through individual self-study.
Every day, pick one TOEFL reading from a reliable source (just one article, not a whole section). Read it very slowly and closely. Every time you find a new word, write it down in a notebook with its definition. Use a good dictionary (COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is great). Read it a few times until you totally understand the content.
When you finish, note the subject of the article: history, biology, zoology, anthropology, whatever.
After that, look at the ten questions really closely. Examine each one and all of the answer choices. Even if you can easily find the answer, study all of the incorrect choices and make notes about why each one is incorrect. Maybe a choice is incorrect because it includes a detail not mentioned. Maybe it is an issue of chronology. Whatever it is… just make a note of it and then move to the next one. This will encourage even closer and even deeper readings of the articles.
Do that for an hour every day for the next six months and your overall reading comprehension will likely improve. So will your score. You don’t need a teacher to do this, and you likely have access to a near-infinite supply of TOEFL reading articles.
Do you want to read a 400 page book (plus an index) all about your friends at ETS? Well, maybe you should! This month I read Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” Writing in a fairly accessible tone, Lehman describes the founding of ETS in the 1940s and the goals that the creators of the standardized testing movement had in mind when the radically reformed how American universities (especially the good ones) admitted students. These reforms were borne out of a desire to foster a “meritocracy” of talented people which they hoped would emerge from the universities and shape the post-war nation. Needless to say, things didn’t work out as well as they hoped they would, but the ideas behind their plan still loom large in American society. Part of the book examines the movement for affirmative action at American universities, which Lemann seems to think came about as a result of their heavy reliance on SAT scores.
This is a valuable chronicle of a unique part of American history which I don’t think has been sufficiently documented. As Lehmann notes later in the book, all of this stuff was put into place without political purview or open debate. Instead, a small number of men made some important choices that have had a major impact on American society for almost eighty years. And counting.
A few passages of the book are worth repeating here. Just for fun.
Regarding ETS founder Henry Chauncey:
“He didn’t believe that he and his colleagues had been explicit social engineers; they were simply trying to help the country” (120).
Though the book was written 23 years ago, much of it sounds chillingly contemporary:
“The psychological side [of being a new-style meritocrat” was… a powerful experience – being constantly evaluated as you grew up and then being admitted into a special group. One’s impulse was to go through life repeating the fundamental cycle of gratification: selective admission, followed by membership in a tight, reassuring (though rivalrous) cadre of similarly chosen people. […] At the same time the idea that you might be a national leader was still alive. You wanted assured success and security, but not just that. The most popular professions were not dentistry or certified public accountancy. You also wanted to matter, to be admired, to take a part in shaping American society.” (186)
“By the 1970s there were already signs that the meritocratic order was not going to be so popular in American society as its founders had anticipated. […] The people selected for the elite were starting to look less like selfless leaders. They were on their way to making a lot of money, they took advantage of the tradition of draft exemptions for the brainy to get out of serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, they held themselves apart. And what had they done, really, to earn such privilege or authority other than to get high test scores and get good grades? The astonishing rise of Ronald Reagan demonstrated that political careers were being built by people who were exploiting public resentment of this new elite.” (187)
Those of you interested in buying a copy should seek out the paperback edition, which includes a new afterword. That afterword takes the form of a fairly scathing indictment of using IQ tests like the SAT to select who gets put on the path to joining the “elite” of society. I won’t type it up here as I suppose I’ve quoted too much already. But seek it out. It is quite an essay. Heck, if you call me on the phone I’ll read it to you.
A good companion to this book is “None of the Above” by David Owen. It was written about 15 years earlier and covers some of the same territory, but with a more irreverent tone. I reviewed that on Goodreads some months ago. Perhaps I’ll paste that review into the blog in April.
I fear I’ve ruined the “You Should Read More” series! It wasn’t supposed to be a book review column! But I did read some magazines this week. Here are a few article recommendations to hone your academic reading skills:
- The February 2022 issue of “Apollo” has a wonderful article about the history of Kabuki in Japan. Articles about history are commonly used in the reading section of the TOEFL, and I think dance has come up a few times.
- The January 24, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” has an interesting article about the book which the movie “Bambi” was based on. Turns out that the book is quite unlike the film. The fun thing about most articles on the New Yorker website is that you can listen to them, read by an actual human being (not a computer voice).
A bit of a grab bag in today’s collection of recommended readings. But that’s never stopped me before, so let’s get started!
First up, I read another travel book by Colin Thubron. This one is “Behind the Wall,” his first book on travel in China. As you may have noticed, since beginning this column, I have slowly been working my way through all of Thubron’s travel books. This one might be the weakest so far, but it is still worth reading. Thubron spent about four months moving across the country in the mid 1980s, when the effects of the Cultural Revolution were still evident. To some extent it seems to lack the scholarship and erudition of the other Thurbon works I’ve mentioned here and veers into a depiction of the strangeness of the country. You can get a copy on Amazon, or borrow it for free via the Open Library.
Next, I read the January 17 issue of “The New Yorker” Magazine. Now, you might wonder why a regular guy like me is reading such a fancy magazine. Well, it’s because they have a really good subscription deal right now. You can get 12 issues sent to you anywhere in the world for just $10. And they’ll also send you a cute tote bag. It is a good bag, too: my wife put our cat in the bag and carried him around the apartment for ten minutes. All three of us were quite happy. If you’ve got ten bucks to spare, the magazine is worthwhile. Much of the content is silly, but each issue has at least one good article with an academic bent. In this issue, I enjoyed “The Great Siberian Thaw,” which talks about the effects of melting permafrost in Russia. It’s a long article, but it is the sort of topic that you might find in the reading section of the TOEFL. Indeed, I could even imagine a solution/problem integrated writing question based on this story.
After that, I glanced at the February issue of National Geographic at my local library. At this point I should mention that if you are planning to stalk me, I’m often found at Doksan Library in Seoul. It’s quite nice there. Anyway, the magazine contained a decent article about the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I was surprised to learn that the damage caused by the recent fire there was not severe, and that the restoration may be finished by 2023. The article talks about the ongoing work, and also discusses the history of the famous site.
Finally, while visiting my other local library, I found a copy of the February issue of Reader’s Digest. That amused me quite a lot, since I had no idea that Reader’s Digest was still published. Also, it reminded me of a much simpler time, before everyone got irrationally angry about the state of the world. I don’t think I’ll make reading it part of my monthly routine, but it is really reassuring to know that I could read it. And, hey, if you want a mixture of casual and formal English content perhaps you can find a copy for yourself. This month’s issue contained a decent article about the Danube Express, a train that travels between Istanbul and Budapest. The thing about Reader’s Digest is that it prints edited (shortened) versions of popular articles. If you want to read the full version of this story, you can find it in Travel and Leisure.
Okay. That’s it for now. Next month I’ll have yet more travel writing, a few more magazine articles and maybe a non-fiction book about a familiar topic.
It is the end of the month, and that means it is time for my favorite part of the blog… the monthly “you should read more” column! Every month I I recommend a few things you can read to improve your academic reading skills. I mostly focus on short non-fiction magazine articles, but sometimes (like today) I mention longer materials. Everything I recommend is something I, personally, read in the previous month. And to keep things a bit more unpredictable, I only mention stuff that I am able to track down in hard copy form.
First up, this month I read Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated.” That book was one of the best-selling books of 2018, with recommendations from all of the usual celebrities: Bill Gates, Barak Obama, Oprah (and more). Normally I avoid stuff like that because I’m a snob, but this book was recommended by a reader of this blog. In fact, it was recommended in the comments section of the very first one of these columns! Basically, I will read anything you guys recommend, as long as I can find a cheap (or free) copy of it. The book is actually quite good, and not at all what I expected. It tells the true story of Tara Westover, who grew up in an abusive family presided over by her paranoid survivalist father. Tara’s experience is more terrifying than I expected it to be. Again and again and again the book depicts horrific events that the young Tara lived through. Besides that, there is an important message about the beneficial effects of education and how it helps us to expand our world. I think that many of the eager and talented students that read this blog will appreciate it. You can buy a copy on Amazon in a zillion different formats. Sadly it is too recent to be on the Open Library.
Next, I read the January 2022 issue of “Apollo – the International Art Magazine.” I started reading this magazine last month, and I am really digging it. A few articles stood out:
- The Shock of the New Towns is about the “new town” movement in the United Kingdom after World War II. It talks about how the government there dealt with a housing shortage by constructing wholly new towns in parts of the country. These were unique in that they were heavily planned and not organically created in a hodge-podge like most towns and cities across the world. This exactly the sort of topic that the TOEFL writers would use on the test. I bet that over the past 17 years of the TOEFL iBT it has appeared at least once!
- Has the Humboldt Forum Got it Horribly Wrong? is a longer article that discusses the debate around whether European museums ought to display cultural works acquired (or, some would say, stolen) from Africa and Asia. It also discusses how they can be displayed if they choice is made to keep doing so. This is too controversial to be on the TOEFL, but I can picture a third-party prep book turning it into an integrated writing question. In any case, it is great academic reading practice, and quite interesting.
Finally, I read the Winter 21/22 issue of “Modern Dog.” Yeah, last month I said that I had no more animal magazines coming… but I was wrong! There was one more. In between advertisements for canine CBD supplements I read a very nice profile of the Berger Picard dog. It’s basically academic reading practice. And highly recommended if you like dogs.
That’s it for January, but check in next month. I’ll list a travel book I’m currently reading and something from a new magazine subscription I managed to get for cheap.
I just recreated the landing page for TOEFL reading resources. Now you can quickly access my description of the test, my sample article and a few key blog posts. New this week is an article about time management in the reading section. It includes five tips that I think will help you avoid running out of time while taking the test. Enjoy!
Happy holidays! It’s just about the end of the month, and that means it is time for my monthly list of recommended academic readings. Check out the following links if you want to strengthen your reading skills before you take the test.
This month I started my reading with the November issue of History Today. A few stories stood out:
- In Good Spirits highlights the role of alcohol in the diplomacy of early modern Russia. It turns out that everyone had to drink back then. A lot.
- Swimming in the Sahara is about rock art from about ten thousand years ago, and differing opinions as to what it means. This is a bit closer to what you might get on the real test, as the TOEFL makers love articles about distant (but not too distant) history.
- A Donkey’s Day in Court is a humorous article about an abused Donkey that was able to get justice in early 19th century England. I enjoyed this one a lot.
Next, I read the December issue of the same magazine. This will be the last issue of “History Today” I cite here, as my subscription has ended and one of my ground rules for this column is that I only mention stuff I’ve read in hard copy. This issue was quite good. A few pieces are worth highlighting:
- Crimes of Fashion is a curious article about the lengths people went to to update their wardrobes in seventeenth century English. Apparently, new clothing was extremely expensive, so some folks resorted to crime when they wanted something new to wear.
- How Father Christmas Got His Reindeer arrives just in time for Christmas. It is a surprisingly long and detailed article about how the characters of Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer came to be. I liked it.
I should mention that, as usual, some of the best stuff in these magazines are hidden behind the paywall. You might consider subscribing.
Next, I checked out a new magazine – the December issue of “Apollo: the International Art Magazine.” You see, I got a deal on a three issue subscription last month. This is a fascinating publication. Part of its business model seems to be the paid promotion of sales of art and antiquities. Looking through the adverts, I was struck by the sort of stuff one can buy, if one has the right sort of bank account. Like £90,000 for a 2500 year old vase. Or £1,200,000 for a portrait by El Greco. Or, heck, you could just buy a microscope that belonged to Charles Darwin (well, “the Charles Darwin Family”) for £350,000.
Anyways, the magazine did have a few interesting articles:
- Travel fans will like this article about the puzzling (but, yes, inspiring) Rocchetta Mattei castle in Italy.
- There is a really wonderful article about the history of the Faberge firm (famous for the Faberge Eggs) but sadly it is available only for subscribers. As a substitute, here is a similar article from an earlier issue of the mag.
Finally, I read the Fall/Winter issue of “Modern Cat.” Sadly, the content of Modern Cat isn’t quite as good as what is found in Modern Dog. But…
- Cats Prefer a Free Meal is basically academic reading material. It’s about studies. If you squint hard enough, it sort of resembles the fourth TOEFL speaking question.
That’s my last house pet magazine, by the way. No more cats and dogs on the blog.
Stay tuned until next month when I’ll have at least one book to recommend. Finally!