It’s time for more reading recommendations!

I read the June 14, 2021 issue of The New Yorker (I got it from the discard pile of my local library).  I liked:

  • How Nasty Was Nero?, which discusses the legend of the Roman Emperor Nero.  Nero might have been a nasty guy.  Like, a really nasty guy.  But maybe he wasn’t.  Maybe he was smeared after his death for political reasons.  This could form the basis of a decent integrated writing question, or maybe a reading passage.
  • The Classicist Who Killed Homer, which discusses whether Homer (you know, the guy who wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad) actually existed.  This would make for a perfect integrated writing question!

I also read the August 22, 2022 issue of the same magazine.  It had a few relevant articles:

  • Africa’s Cold Rush and the Power of Refrigeration is a dense article about a challenging topic.  It isn’t the most enticing of articles, but it is important that TOEFL test-takers strengthen their ability to pay attention in the face of boredom. 
  • The Untold History of the Biden Family is a fascinating examination of the lives of American President Joe Biden’s father and grandfather.  At that same time it is a compelling examination of the life of Bill Sheene (Biden’s great uncle) and his decedents.  This isn’t a TOEFL-like article, but it is one of the best things I’ve read in this magazine lately. 
  • American Democracy was Never Meant to be Democratic is about the fine art of gerrymandering.  I haven’t highlighted too many political science articles in this column, so do check this one out if you want to strengthen your ability to read stuff in that realm.

Meanwhile, I read a few books this month:

  • Shortchanged, by Annie Abrams is an examination of the Advanced Placement (AP) program which retains an iron grip on American schools.  The book presents a compelling argument against continued use of AP curriculum and tests, but for me the best part was Abrams’ detailed history of the creation and implementation of the AP program.  TOEFL test-takers can find better stuff to practice their reading skills with, but test-obsessed tutors might enjoy this one.
  • Fear of Falling, by Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the better political science texts of the past forty years.  Again, it isn’t great TOEFL practice, but I mention it here since I love it to bits.  Read it if you want an explanation of why America seems so bonkers at times.

Earlier this month I found myself at a library in Canada and finally read a copy of “Collins Cobuild English Usage.”  I think it is a great book for English learners.  Here’s my review from Goodreads:

The book lists thousands of words (or pairs of easily confused words) and attempts to explain their proper use. For each word various possible uses are listed and common errors are also highlighted. This isn’t a dictionary, though – the focus here is on explaining how to use the words in a grammatically correct way.

Rounding out the book are a short “topics” section that highlights words and phrases used in certain contexts (letter writing, talking on the phone, advising someone, etc) and a very short chapter about how language has changed over the past decade.

I like this book a lot. It is a good companion to something like Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage,” which covers much of the same territory.

More New Yorker articles next month as I continue to work my way through a stack of unread copies from 2022.  And at least one more library find.  Stay tuned!

This month I finished reading They Say, I Say (with readings).  If you are seeking a book that will help you get started along the path to better academic writing, I highly recommend it.  In about 200 pages, it introduces some effective methods of presenting your ideas as part of an ongoing dialog with other relevant scholars.    I’ve recently used the book in my own lessons on academic writing and it has been popular with my students.   Also included is a selection of readings to stimulate discussion and writing.  Fortunately, some of those readings can be found online.  A few of them are especially relevant to readers who are taking the TOEFL for college admission.  They include:

  • Should Everyone go to College? by Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill argues that attending college is often a path to future prosperity, but not in every circumstance.  Think carefully, kids!
  • The New Liberal Arts by Sanford Ungar hit close to home for me.  Now, more than ever, the people who have the ability to “participate in, and help shape, civil discourse.”  That’s an ability that a liberal arts education might empart.  One of the brightest students I have worked with recently is majoring in architecture at a very prestigious school and is minoring in…. sociology.  She knows what up.  She’ll be able to move comfortably in so-called “elite” circles.  Be like her, kids!
  • Shut Up About Harvard by Ben Casselman offers some food for thought.  I totally understand why people want to go to Harvard.  Those people want to not just make money, but they want to be part of the meritocracy.  They want to be part of the elite group that shapes their society.  I get that.  But maybe we need to stop thinking so much about those particular kids and those particular schools.

Anyway.  There are many more articles in the book, and most of them aren’t about education.  I’ll let you find them on your own (but feel free to ask if you want me to highlight a few more options).

I also read the December 2022 issue of “History Today.”  A few things grabbed my interest:

  • Are the Dark Ages Inevitable? is the issue’s “head to head” column, wherein a group of professors discuss a particular historical question.  Do you see what I mean about presenting your ideas as part of an ongoing dialog?  Get the writing book I mentioned above!  This particular column inspired me to create an integrated writing question about the Late Bronze Age Collapse.
  • Clean Sheets, about the history of paper, could be adapted into a perfect TOEFL reading passage.  It is almost the right length, too.  Best of all, the article is fascinating.  I didn’t realize that papermaking used to be such a difficult process.

The magazine also contains a few really wonderful long-form articles, but since they are all behind a paywall I won’t cite them here.  But, hey, if you love history this is the magazine for you.  It is the best of its category.

Finally, I read the August 8, 2022 issue of “The New Yorker.”  I absolutely loved The Hard Sell, a long article about the door-to-door sales profession.  Yes, that is still an occupation… and yes, it is weird.  The article is at once an investigation of how the job works in 2022 and a character study of one particularly effective salesman.  It’s the best thing I’ve read in this magazine all year.  It isn’t really TOEFL adjacent, but it is a fascinating read.

More of this in 30 days.

Alright, so there is a bit more variety in this week’s “You Should Read More” column!  

First up, I read the February 2023 issue of National Geographic.  A few stories stood out:

  • Why these colorful fish engage in mouth-to-mouth showdowns is a short article about some weird and wonderful fish.  The sarcastic fringefish has a unique way of fighting, but also of avoiding fights with others of its species.  This is an example what I think it called agonistic behavior, which I am 100% sure has been used as type three speaking question.

  • Origami is revolutionizing technology, from medicine to space is the month’s title story.  It is about practical and high-tech uses of techniques inspired by origami.  It isn’t exactly the sort of thing that would appear on the TOEFL, but it is a lengthy academic-level passage that will probably hold your attention.

  • The extraordinary benefits of a house made of mud is about the use of mud in construction.  Mud is actually a traditional building material in parts of Africa.  The article discusses some of its advantages.  There is plenty of good science in here, and I can picture a TOEFL reading passage about this construction material!

Meanwhile, I read the February 27/March 6 issue of Time Magazine.  A couple of things are worth mentioning:

For a recent project I read Did we get the ‘old-age dependency’ of aging countries all wrong?  It’s about the way we think about the productiveness of “old” people in society.  Traditionally, societies have considered those above the age of 65 to be “dependent” on the rest of society, and therefore when those people make up a greater and greater proportion of the overall population, alarm bells are sounded.  But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that.

Finally, I’ve been plugging away at a large textbook called “They Say, I Say.”  It’s a guide to essay writing for freshman students, but also contains a huge number of academic readings meant to stimulate critical thought and written discussion.  I am not quite finished with it, so I think I’ll save it for next month, when I will discuss it both as a source of writing advice and as a source of academic reading material.

Someone posted a recommendation last month.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t forgotten you, and I’m going to hunt around for a copy of the recommended text.  I’m always open to recommendations!

I spent most of this month traveling, so just a short column this month.  Sorry!

I read the August 2021 issue of Scientific American, and spotted a few relevant articles:

  • I enjoyed “Play is Serious Business for Elephants,” a long piece about the importance of play for elephants (and many other animal species).  ETS loves to include content on the test about animals.  I can imagine a reading passage about animal play, or a type four speaking question about “two ways that play is beneficial to animals.”  Read this one!
  • I also liked “Stuttering Stems from Problems in Brain Wiring, Not Personalities.” Obviously ETS will never include this sort of topic on the real test, but it is interesting reading for anyone studying for a test that requires rapid delivery of speech without any disfluencies.
  • Also interesting was “The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic.”  Again, ETS would never touch this topic with a 20-foot pole but the article is a great read.  It is a short look at the “Institute for Sexual Research” that existed for a short time in Germany before World War Two.  It is a reminder that progress does not always come in a continuous line.  Sometimes we move forward and backward as time marches on.  Perhaps, in some cases, our forefathers were more progressive than we are today.

At the Labuan Bajo airport, I found a copy of the May 2019 issue of National Geographic.  What a find!  Sadly, most of the content from that issue is now behind a paywall, but here’s an interesting Wikipedia article about a feature of some insects discussed in one article – ballooning.   It describes a way that spiders (and some other small invertebrates)  soar through the air.  Sometimes for very long distances.  That could certainly be the subject of a type three speaking question!  

I also read “Lizard” by Banana Yoshimoto.  This collection of short stories won’t improve your academic reading skills, but I liked it.  These stories from the early 1990s are about young urban sophisticates in Japan trying to figure out how to be young urban sophisticates in Japan.  I don’t think Gen-X in Japan had a road map.

More next month!


A short entry this month as I’m traveling now and am far away from my stack of unread magazines.

I’m in Labuan Bajo, by the way.  Wikipedia describes it as a “fishing town located at the western end of the large island of Flores in the Nusa Tenggara region of east Indonesia.”  It is often used by visitors as a gateway to Komodo National Park.

Here is a National Geographic article about the Komodo Dragon.  ETS loves to include content about animals on the test, so that’s a perfect bit of academic reading practice!

I’m in a small hotel in a more rural part of the town. The atmosphere here is peaceful and quiet.  Well, mostly quiet.  A few months ago kids in Indonesia discovered the old “clackers” toy so every ten minutes the silence is broken by the toy’s signature clack-clack-clack-clack.  It’s the weirdest thing.  Why clackers?  Why now?

I read a few things this month, though.

First up, I read Colin Thubron’s “To a Mountain in Tibet.”  Part travelogue, part history lesson, it describes the author’s visit to Mt. Kailas in the early 2000s.  Thubron is my favorite travel writer (as regular readers of this column already know) and this is one of his strongest and most personal works.  You can get it on Amazon

I have visited Tibet a few times.  The last was around 2012, I think.  I remember how a police car was waiting for my partner and myself when we arrived at one town with a recent history of protests.  Someone, probably the driver, had called ahead to let local officials know that some outsiders were coming.  The Chinese state is impressive, to say the least.

I also read the July 2021 issue of Scientific American.  A few things caught my attention:

This short article about new ways to grow coral cells might be a bit boring, but I’ve been snorkeling on this trip.  It’s relevant!

The month’s cover story about human evolution and why we are more dependent on water that other species is perfect!  On trips to tropical destinations like Indonesia I’m dehydrated pretty much all the time, so reading about why I have this problem is perfectly relevant.  The article is actually quite interesting, and I can imagine ETS creating a reading passage about a similar topic some day.

The issue also contains a long story about how we might solve the climate change crisis by pulling carbon from the air and sequestering it deep underground.  The article is a bit technical… but so is the TOEFL reading section.

So there you go.  Four articles and a book.  I think I’ll leave it at that.  I’ll check in again next month with more notes from the road, and a few more articles.

I read a couple of non-fiction books this month which I liked a lot.

First up, I reread my favorite travel book, “Shadow of the Silk Road” by Colin Thubron.  Followers of this column will note that I’ve spent the past few years slowly working my way through his expansive bibliography.  I think I will finish that journey in 2023.  I do recommend this particular book to anyone who enjoys travel, or who wants some challenging academic reading material.  The book, like everything by Thubron, functions as both a travelog and a collection of short historical sketches of the regions he moves though.  You can find it on Amazon or in the Open Library.

I also read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” in which she describes her experiences holding a series of low-wage jobs in the United States in the late 1990s.  Though the world has changed quite a lot in the decades since the book was published, it seems as timely as ever given the inflation we went through in 2022 and the recession that seems to be looming.  The book is mostly descriptive, but if you stick around for the final couple of chapters you’ll find some really insightful analysis.  Find it on Amazon or in the Open Library.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon an article in Science News about the private sale of fossils in the United States.  Experienced TOEFLers will recognize this very topic from one of the three ETS books.  As I’ve said before in this column, dinosaur-related topics seem to show up on the TOEFL (and in prep materials) quite often.

Lastly, I read the May 2021 issue of Scientific American (this one came from the discard bin at my local library) and a few things stood out:

That’s all for this month.  I will travel in January so expect an early column next month.  I’ll probably start with notes from my last two issues of “Scientific American.”

I’ve had trouble reading for the past few weeks.  I don’t know what it is – I’ve just had difficult maintaining my concentration.  I’ve been plugging away at the same book since October, and have only read a couple hundred pages.

But I did read a few other things this month.  Of note:

  • While doing research for a professional writing assignment, I read this great article about paleolithic art in The Guardian.  It covers potential purposes of ancient cave art left behind by our ancestors.  That’s definitely the sort of thing that might show up on the TOEFL.
  • I also read a scholarly article about Seneca Village in the Journal of Urban History, a predominantly African American community that was destroyed to make room for New York’s Central Park.  That isn’t the sort of thing that will appear in a TOEFL reading passage, but it is a really well-written article that will appeal to anyone with an interest  in the development and consequences of urban green spaces.  I went down a Central Park rabbit hole as a result of a special work assignment I had this month… so I guess I did read some stuff.
  • Actually, I’m happy to have some work assignments outside of my usual TOEFL wheelhouse, as it does encourage me to read some stuff I wouldn’t otherwise read.  I didn’t mention it last month’s column, but in October I found myself going down a Frank Lloyd Wright rabbit hole. He is one of the best-known American architects, and since architecture is one of the subjects that appears in the TOEFL reading section (albeit somewhat infrequently), here’s a nice article about his most famous design, from Travel + Leisure Magazine.  If you want to improve your academic reading skills, folks, keep on reading!  Don’t be picky.

I also read a couple more issues of “Science News” I picked up from the discard pile of my local library in Canada.  A few articles seem relevant.  First up, from the October 9/23, 2021 issue:

Next, I read the December 4, 2001 issue of the same magazine.  A few things stood out:

That’s all for now, but come back next month for more articles.  I’ve run out of “Science News” issues, but I have a few issues of “Scientific American” to go through.


While doing some research for a freelance writing job, I came across The Roman Empire:  A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press.  Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series now includes more than 500 titles.  Each one describes a topic in about 200 pages in a fairly accessible style.  And they are cheap, too.   The series could be really great for people who want an easy and fun way to improve their academic reading skills.  I suppose that titles related to history will be most relevant to the TOEFL.  Remember that TOEFL passages are supposed to simulate articles from freshman-level university textbooks (and sometimes they are lifted directly from such books).  These books are somewhat comparable to such textbooks.

Meanwhile, during my recent holiday in Canada, I snagged a few old issues of “Science News” from the library discard stack.   A few articles from the November 6 2021 issue stood out as particularly relevant:

I also read the November 20, 2021 issue of the same magazine:

  • How these sea-loving mangroves ended up far from the coast is a perfect practice article.  It describes a thing called a “relict ecosystem,” which is when an ecosystem shows adaptations to conditions that are no longer relevant to it.  I think one of ETS’s practice questions is about “relict adaptations” in animals.  Basically the same thing!
  • Here’s an article about links between Olmec and Maya societies of mesoamerica.  Again, this sort of thing is just what the TOEFL test creators like to include in the reading section.

There are actually many more great articles in both of the magazines, but I will leave it at that.  I’ll be back next month after I work my way through a few more science mags.  I think I have enough of those on hand to cover both the November and December columns.  

I found a copy of Kaplan’s TOEFL Pocket Vocabulary from 2018, and thought you guys might like a quick review.  

Here’s what you get in this book:

  • Thirty lists of words, containing 600 words in total.  Each includes a definition, sample sentence and other forms of the work (adjective, verb, noun, adverb, etc).
  • Twenty-one lists of idioms, containing 420 idioms in total.  Each includes a definition and sample sentence.
  • A handful of fill-in-the-blanks multiple choice exercises to help you remember the above.
  • No TOEFL practice questions.

This is probably a useful book, though some people might find the vocabulary a little too easy.  For your reference, here are the words in list 23: attitude, level, repel, uniform, trend, function, comment, lecture, emphasis, analysis, hypothesis, circumstance, strategy, tradition, regime, target, era, authority, generation, hierarchy. 

As you can see, some of those are “advanced” vocabulary, but others are pretty basic.  I suppose this means the book is suitable for an intermediate student.

More valuable, perhaps, is the collection of idioms.  Most ESL students will be able to learn quite a lot from those lists.  I don’t usually recommend the use of idioms on the TOEFL, but I know a lot of students (and some teachers) are obsessed with them.

If this book doesn’t appeal to you, I also recommend the “Barron’s” TOEFL Vocabulary book.  It contains somewhat more technical words and accurate TOEFL practice questions.

Hey, I’m on my first real trip since the beginning of the plague, so this month’s column will be really short.  Just a couple of things worth mentioning crossed my path.

First up, I read about a “massive effort to change the way kids are taught to read” in the USA in a recent article in Time Magazine. It seems that there is an effort to return to a method of reading instruction that was once brushed off as old-fashioned and un-helpful.  That method?  Phonics.  This quotation really grabbed my attention:

“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.”


Meanwhile, I finally read Norbert Elliot’s fine biography of ETS founder Henry Chauncey, “Henry Chauncey: An American Life.”  I don’t know if there is a huge audience for books like this one, but if you are interested in how ETS came to be what it is, and about the people who created it, Elliot’s book is highly recommended.  One day I will compile a list of essential reading for ETSologists, and this will be at the top of it. 

That’s it for now, but I will have a real column for you at the end of October.

I read a couple of books about tests this month.  They might not be particularly interesting to TOEFL students, but teachers who read this blog might enjoy them.

First up, I read Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews.  It describes how Jaime Escalante prepared underprivileged students in East Los Angeles  to take the AP Calculus Exam in the 1970s and 80s.  Escalante’s unique approach to this task yielded amazing (and unprecedented) results.  I don’t know if his techniques would work forty years later, but this is a great book for anyone interested in teaching and in the value of testing.  It is also a great advertisement for the AP program, which continues to this day.  Readers might also benefit from its sketch of how public schools operated in LA during those decades.  They faced challenges then, and they face challenges now.

One incident in the book stood out to me.  In 1982, ETS (yes, ETS) determined that several of Escalante’s students may have cheated on the test.  Their suspicious were due in part to a controversial mathematical analysis called a “K Index.”  They were told that they could do one of three things:  cancel the test and get a refund, take the test again, or submit additional information.  The students were told that if they provided additional information, it would be reviewed by a panel of three ETS officials.  They would only have to convince one of the members of the panel to have their scores restored. Or they could turn it all over to the American Arbitration Association.

Skip ahead to 2022, and that’s almost exactly what some students are told when ETS challenges their TOEFL scores.  The mathematical analysis is different of course, but everything else remains the same.  Funny, that.

Next, I read Michael Young’s “The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033”   Young was a sociologist who coined the term “meritocracy.”  But this book is not in praise of meritocracy, as most are.  The book is actually a dystopia that uses the rise of intelligence testing in the 1940s and 50s as its launching point.  Young tracks a fictional history of the United Kingdom as it slips into a more and more segregated and caste-like society due to its emphasis on “merit” above all else.  It is an interesting thought-experiment.  Especially in 2022 when the general consensus seems to be that meritocracy is always a good thing. I think there is something in here that explains part of our current political chaos, but I’m going to keep the blog politics-free for now. But for more on this topic, check out this debate on IQ2.  Or my review of “The Big Test” a few months ago.



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.