You know, a lot of students ask for “strategies” to increase their score in the reading section of the TOEFL.  Sadly, the strategies are always the same – read the questions first, avoid answer choices with superlatives,  skip the hard questions and come back to them… blah, blah, blah.

Those sorts of strategies help, but only a little bit.  A better approach is comprehension before strategies.  That means you should try to improve your overall reading ability before taking the test.  If you truly understand what you read, you won’t need to use any “strategies” on the test… or will only need to use them for a few questions.

How can you improve your reading skills?  By reading more!

Today I’m happy to help by beginning my one hundred part series that will highlight a few fun things you can read to improve your reading skills.  I will focus mostly on non-fiction, but I will throw in a few pieces of fiction now and then.  Some of the recommendations will be available online, but others will need to be purchased.  Most should be available at your local library if you are in an English-speaking country already.  I will only recommend stuff that I have read within the preceding month, but I am open to recommendations!

Let’s see how it goes.

First up, I finally read Freakonomics.  This is a classic, and all of your English teachers have probably recommended it already.  It is also available in the English section of most libraries around the world that I have visited.  This is a really fun work of non-fiction that uses economic analysis to study topics not usually looked at by economists.  Like sumo wrestling.  And drug dealing.  There is also a section on what makes real estate agents so frustrating which made me think a lot about TOEFL teachers.  If you read this book, let me know if you spot that connection as well.  Truly, this is a perfect example of mainstream, fun and accessible non-fiction.  This book is available via the Open Library.

 

Speaking of fun and easy non-fiction, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.”  This book is about miscommunication, and our inability to interact well with people we are not familiar with.  I don’t think I grasped the nuance of the central thesis here, but I still enjoyed the book.  This is a “ripped from the headlines” sort of thing, and you’ll recognize a lot of the main subjects, even if you aren’t American – Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Chandler & Monica, Bernie Madoff, etc.  Like “Freakonomics” it isn’t the deepest of non-fiction, but it is a really fun way to boost your reading skills.  Note also that the audiobook version is also wonderful (better, probably), as it combines music, audio from actual interviews and news clips with the author’s narration of the text.

Science News August 15Finally, I read the mid-August issue of Science News.  If you are going to subscribe to one science magazine to boost your reading skills, this is the one.  Yeah, it is mostly about COVID nowadays.  But there this issue includes an article about the discovery of stone artifacts which is just like a TOEFL integrated writing question!  Some scientists think the stone artifacts are proof that humans reached America earlier than thought… while other scientists think they are not proof!  There are even three reasons given by each side!  I think you can read that article at this link.  If that link doesn’t work, you can find the same story in National Geographic.  Meanwhile, this very short article about dinosaurs with feathers caught my eye, since that’s been a common topic on the TOEFL for a long time.

Okay, that’s all for now, but I will be back in a few weeks with additional recommendations.  I’ll try to toss some fiction into the list at that time.

Changes in Chapter 2 – Reading Section

Alright, I’ll continue my examination of the new edition of the Official Guide to the TOEFL by looking at all of the changes in chapter two.

Page 38 (important): The chart depicting question types now reflects the fact that there are fewer questions in total.

The specific changes are (old –> new)

  • Factual Information questions: 3-5 per set –> 2-5 per set
  • Vocabulary questions: 3-4 per set –> 1-2 per set

The other question types are unchanged.  This confirms our earlier speculation that vocabulary questions have been heavily reduced.

Page 55 (important): As discussed earlier, the “table” questions can be worth 2 or 3 points.  Tables with four correct answers are worth two points, and those with five correct answers are worth three points.  Partial points are possible for both.

Question deletions in the practice sets are as follows:

Set 1:  Factual information, Inference, Vocabulary

Set 2:  Vocabulary, Negative factual, Inference

Set 3:  Vocabulary, Factual information, Vocabulary

Set 4:  Factual information, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

Set 5:  Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Reference

Set 6:  Reference, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

Indeed, vocabulary questions are far less common than before.  Note that only three questions were deleted from each set as these sets did not have enough questions in the previous version of the book.

Regular readers of my reviews will know that I am not particularly enthusiastic about TOEFL vocabulary books (I think it is probably better to just study the Academic Word List), but McGraw-Hill’s “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL Test” (2014) is a book I’m happy to recommend to students.

What you get here are 41 chapters, each containing a themed list of 10 words with detailed definitions and practice exercises (fill-in-the-blanks, matching).  The last page of each chapter contains a paragraph “excerpted” from a larger TOEFL reading and two accompanying questions .  What sets this book apart from, say, Barron’s TOEFL Vocabulary is that these questions are not just vocabulary style questions.  Instead, all of the TOEFL reading question types are represented.  Those, specifically, make this a valuable study resource for anyone preparing for the TOEFL reading section.

The lists themselves are meant to represent the various topics used in the writing of the reading passages on the TOEFL.  The authors have included a few topics that probably don’t ever appear on the test (spirituality and ghosts) but most of them are relevant.   The words themselves are a mix of those which are mostly just used in discussion of the given topic, but also words used beyond the given topic.  That means that the list in the chapter on agriculture contains the words “irrigation” and “photosynthesis” but also the words “adversely” and “aggregate.” 

The vocabulary here seems to be a bit more challenging than words in the aforementioned Barron’s book, and are much more challenging than those in the Princeton Review’s TOEFL Power Vocab.  That’s a good thing!

Note that the second edition is quite similar to the first edition.  The main difference seems to be the addition of a single chapter on “Parenting.”  There may be some revisions to the other chapters, but I didn’t look that closely.

Updated Story:  It has been confirmed by ETS   that students now get their TOEFL listening and reading scores at the test center, at the end of the test.  They say:

You can now view unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on screen immediately upon completing the test. These scores can give you an early indication of your performance and help you make a well-informed decision about reporting your scores before leaving the test center.

Note that these are “unofficial” scores, which mean the final scores could be different.  I will try to gather data to see how often this happens.  

Note, also, that these are “scaled” scores, which means they are on the same 1-30 scale as your final score report.  They are NOT “raw” scores.

Update 2:  After five months, it seems that the instant scores match the final scores almost all of the time.

Original Story:

If you go to the ETS page on getting scores (https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/scores/get/) and look at the page source, the following was added sometime in January, but was “commented out” so it doesn’t actually appear:

“At the end of your test, you will see your unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections on the screen. This gives you an idea of how you did on the test and helps you determine whether to report or cancel your scores.”

I assume this  means that in the future ETS will provide scaled reading and listening scores at the end of the test, but that they will not be adjusted for the difficulty level of the test that week.  This means the scores given will usually be accurate… but that the final (official) score could be plus or minus one point.  If this is confusing to you, just note that ETS adjusts everyone’s score some days if the questions are deemed too easy or too hard after everyone has taken the test.

While this remains hidden (we aren’t supposed to see it) my guess is that this is a change that will be announced in the coming weeks. I just hope they don’t frame it as helping students determine if they should cancel their scores, as that should only  be done if they are planning to make a test center complaint (in my opinion).

 

This week I was lucky enough to again have an opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by ETS for TOEFL teachers.  Here is a quick summary of some of the questions that were asked by attendees of the workshop.  Note that the answers are not direct quotes, unless indicated.

 

Q:  Are scores adjusted statistically for difficulty each time the test is given?

A: Yes.  This means that there is no direct conversion from raw to scaled scores in the reading and listening section.  The conversion depends on the performance of all students that week.

 

Q: Do all the individual reading and listening questions have equal weight?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  When will new editions of the Official Guide and Official iBT Test books be published?

A:  There is no timeline.

 

Q:  Are accents from outside of North America now used when the question directions are given on the test?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How are the scores from the human raters and the SpeechRater combined?

A:  “Human scores and machines scores are optimally weighted to produce raw scores.”  This means ETS isn’t really going to answer this question.

 

Q: Can the human rater override the SpeechRater if he disagrees with its score?

A: Yes.

 

Q:  How many different human raters will judge a single student’s speaking section?

A:  Each question will be judged by a different human.

 

Q:  Will students get a penalty for using the same templates as many other students?

A:   Templates “are not a problem at all.”

 

Q: Why were the question-specific levels removed from the score reports?

A: That information was deemed unnecessary.

 

Q:  Is there a “maximum” word count  in the writing section?

A:  No.

 

Q:  Is it always okay to pick more than one choice in multiple choice writing prompts?

A:  Yes.

I was able to ask a few more questions at an ETS webinar. Here’s what I learned (the answers are not direct quotes):

Q: Will results come back in six calendar days or six business days now?
A: Six calendar days.

Q: How significant are pauses when students are answering questions in the speaking section?
A: They can be very significant and can affect the score a lot.

Q: Could the same human grader score all four speaking responses?
A: No.

Q: Will a new Official Guide be published in 2019?
A: No. That has not been prioritized.

Q: Could students get only NINE reading questions with a specific reading passage?
A: Yes. This will happen if a fill-in-a-table question is given.

Q: Is it okay to mention the reading first in integrated essay body paragraphs?
A: The order “does not matter.” The scoring rubric is “not that structured.”

Well, I’ve had enough reports from students to confirm that fill in a table questions are again being used in the reading section of the TOEFL.

This is interesting because before the TOEFL changed in August of this year they had mostly disappeared.

It is important to note that when a fill in a table question is used with a reading passage, that passage will only have nine questions in total. This means that ETS’s statement that each reading passage has ten questions is not exactly correct.

There are a few things to note:

  • You will not get both a prose summary question and a fill in a table question with the same passage.
  • The prose summary question is still more common that the fill in a table question.
  • You can earn from zero to three points from the fill in a table question.

Regarding scoring, here’s what the Official Guide to the TOEFL says:

“You can earn up to a total of 3 points, depending on how many correct answers you select and correctly place. For zero, one, or two correct answers you will receive no points. For three correct answers you will receive 1 point; for four correct answers you will receive 2 points; and for all five correct answers you will receive the entire 3 points.”

Overall, I think this is a positive development. The fill in a table question is challenging, but it is a bit more reasonable that the other question types which sometimes seem intentionally obtuse.

Introduction

I get this question a lot. Broadly speaking, here’s what I think you should do to prepare for the TOEFL reading section:

  • Learn your current level
  • Learn how the reading section is designed
  • Get some accurate practice tests
  • Improve your reading comprehension
  • Get some strategies for solving questions
  • Hire a good tutor

Details about how to do these things are below!

Learn Your Current Level

If you haven’t taken the test already, make sure you know your current level in the TOEFL reading section. The easiest way to do this is to take the free sample test from ETS. You can also take one of the tests in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Once you have done this you will know how much you need to improve.

Learn How the Reading Section is Designed

Okay, this might be obvious, but you need to know how the TOEFL reading section is designed. If you understand how the test is designed, you will have fewer surprises on test day. Start by checking out the practice reading set from ETS. Read that set very carefully. Pay attention to the length of the passages and the number of questions included with each passage.

Pay special attention to the types of reading questions used by ETS. Briefly, the main types are:

  • Factual Information
  • Negative Factual Information
  • Rhetorical Purpose
  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence Simplification
  • Insert a Sentence
  • Inference
  • Reference
  • Summary
  • Fill in a table

The best descriptions of these question types is found in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Note that you don’t need to pay for the 5th edition, as every edition of the guide has pretty much the same descriptions. Read them carefully.

You can get the same descriptions and advice in the TOEFL Insider’s Guide course on edX. This is free, and is mostly video. I like it.

I recently analyzed the most recent practice materials. Read my blog post for an indication of how frequently each question type will appear on test day.

I should mention a few things before we go on:

  • Since August 1, ETS has used fewer vocabulary questions than before. Expect just one or two per article. In the past, you would get three to five per article.
  • “Fill in a table” and “reference” questions seem to be used much less than before. I used to think they were gone forever, but since posting the original version of this guide, I’ve gotten some reports that they have reappeared. Be prepared.
  • You might get an unexpected question like “how does paragraph 1 relate to paragraph 2” or “what function does paragraph 2 serve in the organization of the passage as a whole.” These types are not mentioned in most popular study guides. Sorry.

 

To get a better sense of the distribution of questions on the new version of the TOEFL, I have compared the new versions of the TOEFL Reading Practice Sets released by ETS to their old versions. Note that the three sets in the above link are modified versions of the old TPO 7 and 8 sets. The articles are the same, but certain questions have been removed. Here’s what I found out about the question types on the new version of the test.

 Old Set 1Old Set 2Old Set 3New Set 1New Set 2New Set 3
Factual Information4433 (-1)3 (-1)3
Negative Factual Information2211 (-1)1 (-1)1
Rhetorical Purpose112112
Vocabulary4432 (-2)2 (-2)1 (-2)
Sentence Simplification111111
Insert a Sentence111111
Inference001000 (-1)
Summary111111
       

This confirms my earlier reports that the new test has far fewer vocabulary questions. Factual and Negative Factual questions have also been reduced, it would seem.

This also confirms that Reference and “Fill in a Table” questions will probably not appear on the test much nowadays, as they are totally absent from the practice materials. Note that even though the single Inference question has been removed from the test, it is still being used quite frequently, according to reports.

Next up, I’ve done the same analysis of the Free Practice Test provided by ETS. The results are as follows.

 Old Set 1Old Set 2Old Set 3New Set 1New Set 2New Set 3
Factual Information3142 (-1)13 (-1)
Negative Factual Information221222
Rhetorical Purpose011011
Vocabulary4432 (-2)2 (-2)1 (-2)
Sentence Simplification11110 (-1)0 (-1)
Insert a Sentence111111
Function of Paragraph1000 (-1)00
Inference13112 (-1)1
Summary111111

Again, we can see that there are far fewer vocabulary questions. But we can also see that all of the question types are affected, except for the Insert Sentence and Summary types.

The odd “function of paragraph” entry refers to a non-standard question that isn’t mentioned in the Official Guide or any other ETS resources. On the original set it was phrased as “What function does paragraph 3 serve in the organization of the passage as a whole?”. I guess this is sort of like a rhetorical purpose question, but it really surprises students when it comes up. Note that although it has been removed from the practice test, I have had reports that it has appeared on the real test since August 1.