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.”

Yikes.

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.

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.

I also read the April 2022 issue of Reader’s Digest (Asia). One article seems relevant:

  • 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.

Try this:

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)

But:

“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).