There are a few good TOEFL books.  There are a lot of bad TOEFL books.  I hope that this article helps you pick the best TOEFL books.  Note that it is now January, 2020.  I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released.  Hopefully the list will become shorter as I check out the new books (and delete the bad ones).  For now, it starts with books that match the new version of the TOEFL that began in August 2019.  It continues with some new books that will be published later in the year, and concludes with lists of the best older books that focus on specific skills (writing, speaking, reading, listening, grammar, etc).  At the end you can find my current list of non-recommended books and sites.

Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

Kaplan’s TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021.  So far,  this is the only TOEFL book updated to match the new version of the test.  However, I don’t really recommend it.  The sample questions in the book are not very accurate, especially the reading and writing questions.  The questions in the sample tests (provided online) are also very inaccurate.  They just don’t match the structure and organization of questions used on the real test.  Moreover, there are only three practice tests provided online (instead of the four promised on the book’s cover).  While the book has a ton of strategies, they are organized in such a way that many students will just be left confused after reading them.  You can also read my complete review.

 

Barron’s TOEFL IBT (16th Edition)This one is sort of updated to match the new test.  The textbook itself is not updated.  However, the eight practice tests have been updated to match the new format.  Also new in this edition is the fact that the practice tests are now provided online, rather than on CD.  Note that I have not purchased this book because I’m waiting for the 17th edition which will be published in April of 2020.  I will wait until then before I comment on the quality of the book.  Note that this is also sold as part of a Superpack, with three other books (writing, vocabulary and “strategies”).

 


Upcoming Books that Will Match the New TOEFL

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep will be published on February 4, 2020.  Older editions had the name “Cracking the TOEFL.”  I’m glad they got rid of that name, because it was pretty stupid.  Previous editions of this book have been fairly good.  They have included fairly good questions and plenty of skill-building exercises.  The book only includes one complete test, but I don’t think that is a problem.  There are plenty of other places to get practice tests.  Note that electronic content will be provided both on CD and online.  I will write a detailed review when this one is published.

 

 

Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th Edition) will be published on April 7, 2020.  This time the entire book and the practice tests will match the new version of the test.  Content will be provided online (not on CD).  Honestly, I haven’t been happy with some previous books by Barron’s, but the last one of their TOEFL books I looked at really closely was probably the 14th edition, so I am optimistic that this one will be better.  I’ll publish a complete review when it is available.  I think that a Superpack featuring this book will be provided in October.

 

Smart Edition’s TOEFL Full Study Guide is also scheduled to be published on April 7, 2020 (though the publisher told me a few months ago that it will be published in June).  This is Smart Editions’ very first TOEFL book.  I don’t know anything about them, but I am really excited to see a new publisher jump into the TOEFL business.  The cover promises three practice tests, which will be provided online.  It also promises “online flash cards.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, to tell you the truth.

 

 

Barron’s Practice Exercises for the TOEFL (Ninth Edition) will be published on October 6, 2020.  This is the first edition of the book published since 2015.  Honestly, I’ve never used this book, so I can’t comment on the quality.  I’ll try to get a copy in October.


Best Overview of the Test

The Official Guide to the TOEFL (5th Edition) is probably the best overview of the test.  I’ve been teaching for a decade and I still open it up now and then to check some specific detail.  Needless to say, it will teach you about all four sections of the test and the different types of questions.  It is also illustrated with plenty of examples.  Note, though, that it has not been updated to match the changes mentioned above.  It also contains a few errors and inaccurate sample questions (particular in the chapter on integrated writing and the first practice test).  ETS has hinted that a new version will be issues in 2020, but that has not been stated officially.

 

 

The TOEFL Emergency Course from TST Prep is the best overview of the test that is actually updated for the new version.  Just note that it is an online course, not an actual book.  It includes a 12 page overview of the test provided via PDF, some sample questions and strategies.  If you just want the overview, choose the “basic” version since it is cheapest.  And if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you can get a 10% discount.


Best Books for Practice Tests

I suppose that the two Official TOEFL iBT Test books are still the best source of practice tests.  Each contains five complete practice tests.  They are the closest you will get to the real test, since they are made by ETS.  Note, though, that they are not updated to match the changes I mentioned above so you will have to “modify” the tests by chopping out speaking questions 1 and 5 (and by remembering the the listening and reading sections are shorter.  Note, also, that the independent writing questions are a bit old and that the real test has a greater variety of question styles.  Remember that there are two books you can get – Volume 1 (3rd edition) and Volume 2 (2nd Edition).

 

If you want some practice tests that are updated to match the new format, I recommend the ten test pack from TST Prep.  These are the most accurate practice tests you will get from an unofficial source.  They also include all of the modern independent writing prompt styles, so in some ways they are even better than the official materials.  The price is pretty good, and if you use the coupon code “goodine10off” you will probably get a 10% discount.  Note that these are provided online, and not in an actual book.


Best Books for TOEFL Reading

There are a couple of independently published books I recommend for the reading section, both written by TOEFL tutors who I know and communicate with regularly.  First is Kathy Spratt’s “Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL,” which is in its second edition.  It is available only as an Amazon ebook, but remember that you can also read Amazon ebooks in your browser.   Second is the “TOEFL Thrive Guide” by Kirstyn Lazur.  That one is available as an Amazon e-book and a (hefty) paperback edition.  Note that neither book has been updated to match the new version of the test.


Best Book for TOEFL Speaking

I still really love “TOEFL Listening and Speaking Skills” from Collins Cobuild.  It is sort of old (it was published in 2012) but it still has the most accurate speaking sample questions of any printed textbook not from ETS.  It also comes with some decent templates and very concise strategies to use on the test.  And heck, you get some listening stuff too.  Audio files are provided online (though the company also sells a version with a CD).  Note that the book has not been updated to match the most recent changes to the test, so you will just have to ignore the sections on speaking questions 1 and 5.  That said, Collins has hinted (on Twitter) that this book will be updated in 2020 so just keep an eye out for a newer version.


Best Book for TOEFL Writing

Collins again!  I really like their  “TOEFL Reading and Writing Skills.”  This book has really accurate question samples.  Even the integrated questions, which almost EVERYONE ELSE messes up.  It also includes some decent templates and concise strategies.  It isn’t bogged down with “information overload” like the Kaplan book, for example.  The independent writing prompts are a bit weaker, though, as they don’t include all of the modern styles.

 


Best Books for Vocabulary

I don’t usually recommend TOEFL vocabulary books.  I’m not entirely sure that studying vocabulary lists is totally helpful, as the odds that the words you study will actually show up on the test are somewhat low.  Not only that, but the new TOEFL introduced in 2019 seems to de-emphasize vocabulary questions in the reading section.  That said, you have a few options.  First up, “Essential Words for the TOEFL” from Barron’s is pretty good.  I like the difficulty level of the words, and I like that it includes some realistic reading questions as well.  Meanwhile, if you just want a whole bunch of words for a really low price (2 bucks) I recommend Darakwon’s “1800 TOEFL Essential Vocabulary.”

 


Best Books for Grammar

I don’t recommend any “TOEFL Grammar” books.  For now, I just suggest my students get the 5th edition of “English Grammar in Use.” From Cambridge University press. This book has been around forever, and it is still the best source of grammar explanations and practice questions.  After getting a copy, you can check out my list of  recommended units to study.  if you want even more content,  Cambridge sells asupplementary book with more practice questions!  For lower level students (writing scores below 20), I recommend getting something a bit easier like “Basic Grammar in Use.”

 


Stuff I Don’t Like

  • “Writing for the TOEFL iBT” from Barrons – Inexcusably inaccurate sample questions
  • “Essential TOEFL Vocabulary” from McGraw-Hill – It isn’t a TOEFL book (despite the name)
  • “4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL” by Kaplan – Terrible sample tests
  • “Speaking and Writing Strategies for the TOEFL” by Nova – Needless complication

Another year and another bad edition of TOEFL Prep Plus by Kaplan.  

There are four problems with this book every year.  They are:

  • It isn’t updated very much.
  • It needlessly complicates the test.
  • The practice questions and sample are terribly inaccurate.
  • The online resources are not as promised

I’ll deal with these one at a time.

First of all, though this is the “2020-20201” edition of the book, it is pretty much the same as the 2008-2009 edition from 11 years ago

The online content seems even older, and looks to be the same stuff that was on the CD-ROM of the 2007-2008 edition. The publisher has deleted the stuff that was dropped from the test this year, but everything else (the strategies and the samples) is almost entirely the same.  The contents badly need to be replaced with new material, especially the samples which don’t reflect what students get on the actual test.  The samples were bad even when the book was first published, but now that a decade has passed, the errors are much less forgivable.

Secondly, the book is way too complicated.  The book includes 69 strategies for mastering the reading section. I counted  another 69 numbered strategies for the writing section (not to mention the fact that number 16 is broken down into 16A through 16E). That’s just too much crap. This aspect of the book needs be culled.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the questions in the book are inaccurate.  As always, that’s the aspect I want to focus on most of all in this review.  Let’s get started.

Reading

The book starts out okay with a few decent samples of articles used in the reading section (pages 19, 25), but then pairs these with inaccurate sample questions.  Instead of matching a question with a specific paragraph, students are required to read through the whole article looking for the paragraph that matches the given question.  This becomes a major problem on page 32 when a NOT/EXCEPT style question refers to details that are actually spread out over three paragraphs.  That means the student is actually required to use all three paragraphs to answer the question, rather than using just a single paragraph as on the real test.  This is replicated on page 54 where students have to look through four long paragraphs to properly answer an inference question that would be specific to only a single paragraph on the real test.

It should also be mentioned that beyond the problems with question designs, most of the sample articles are somewhat weak overall.  On pages 35, 51, 66 and 94 students are given articles that are generally longer than the real test, and with fewer paragraphs.  This means that the paragraphs are really long, some stretching out to about 300 words.  This bothers me as students really need to become familiar with hunting for answers in short but dense paragraphs.

Listening

This is probably the strongest section of the book.  The conversations and lectures are about the same length as what is used on the real test.  The delivery of the voice actors is somewhat monotone and lacks the natural quality of the actors on the real test, but that’s a minor complaint.  The questions themselves are not as accurate as the ones in the Official iBT Tests Collection, but they are pretty close.  I might actually recommend this chapter to someone who needs a bit of extra practice and has already worked through everything in better books.

Speaking

Mostly bad here.  The sample independent speaking questions on page 168 are all terrible.  Instead of using proper agree/disagree or preference choices it just lists 15 yes/no questions.  Kaplan should know by now that “Do government workers need privacy?” is not how a TOEFL speaking question is phrased.

The book does have a decent type 2 speaking question on page 174 about parking on campus (a very common topic!) but quickly jumps into a terrible question on page 180 where the reading is a job posting rather than an announcement of some change on campus.

It then includes a completely wrong type 3 question which illustrates a concept using three examples, rather than 1 or 2 like on the real test (page 182/183).

The chapter finishes with a massive type 4 question, which includes a lecture probably twice as long as what would be used on the real test.

Writing

The integrated writing here is all bad as well.  The authors of the book just don’t understand how the reading and lecture are structured on the real test.  On test day, students get a four paragraph reading that has an introduction followed by three body paragraphs, each of which includes a unique and specific point.  That is followed by a lecture which begins with an introduction and challenges each of those three points in turn (and in the same order).  I call this a “mirror” structure.  If you look at the samples on pages 233 and 255 they are nothing like this.  The sample on page 253 almost figures this out, but the listening fails to rebut the reading’s points in the right order.

The section on independent writing is equally weak.  It includes a bunch of opened-ended questions (268, 287, 288) that aren’t used on the real test.  It fails to include any multiple choice questions, which are used very often these days.

The Online Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above problems are also present in the online tests.  In the reading section students again have to hunt around the whole article to answer many of the questions, instead of being told to focus on a single paragraph as on the real TOEFL.  The articles again include freakishly long paragraphs that don’t match the real test. Not only is this inaccurate, but it really messes up any chance students have of learning proper time management in this section.

The listening content is okay, while the speaking and writing content is marred by the same sort of problems I identified above.  The questions all have a superficial resemblance to the real test, but never quite achieve an acceptable level of accuracy.  Notably, speaking Q3 in the first test asked me to “explain the  major differences” between what was in the reading and the lecture.  There’s just no excuse for that.

Just as frustrating is the clunkiness of the online test software.  Users are unable to quickly skip ahead to desired sections.  If you wish to study only writing?  Too bad, you are going to have to sit through the reading, listening and speaking sections.  This represents a step back from when Kaplan offered the same tests on CD. 

Speaking of taking a step back, it must be mentioned that the practice tests don’t record student answers, so they cannot listen to what they said for review purposes.  This functionality was provided 11 years ago when the same tests were provided on CD.

I noticed also that Kaplan failed to record new instructions for the shortened speaking section, so the questions are now misnumbered.  The same is true in the lectures provided online.  That’s just laziness.  In addition, the timers in the practice test are all wrong, and don’t reset between questions in the speaking and writing sections.  So, for example, if you only use 10 minutes to answer the first writing question you’ll have 40 minutes to answer the second writing question.  This needs to be fixed.

Finally, the cover of the book promises “4 Practice Tests” (and an insert clarifies that they are all provided online) but there are only three tests provided.  Last year’s edition had the same problem.  I find that kind of sleazy.

 

Overall

Don’t get this book.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  Kaplan needs to get serious about updating their material.  They haven’t done a proper update since 2008.  There are so many good resources they can use to study the design of the TOEFL that were not available when this material was first created.  They need to take advantage of them.

 

Well, I took three of the writing simulations offered by Edusynch, and they were all terrible.

None of them followed the structure used by ETS. One of them was, ostensibly, a “supporting type” question which is a style that hasn’t appeared on the TOEFL since 2005.

If you are reading this, People of Edusynch, take a look at the following graphic:

TOEFL Integrated Essay Question

That is what an integrated writing question is supposed to look like. Take a look at the left-hand side. The reading always has four paragraphs. The first paragraph states the main argument of the reading. After that, there are three body paragraphs, and each one of them presents one point in support of the main argument.

Now take a look at the lecture. Of course a lecture can’t have paragraphs… but if you were to type out a typical TOEFL integrated question you would see that it starts with an introduction, and that one at a time it specifically challenges each of the points from the reading. The lecture actually mirrors the reading so much that it challenges the points in the exact same order as they are presented in the reading!

The three samples I bought from Edusynch didn’t do this. Two of them had only three paragraphs, none of them had point-counterpoint matching structures. Can you believe that one of them had only TWO paragraphs in the reading?

Guys, you are charging $12.50 a pop for these. You can do better You’ve taken the test. You know these aren’t accurate. Pay someone to fix them.

The TOEFL Course offered by English Live is not very good. Don’t use it.

The questions in the course are not very accurate, and English Live (also doing business as Education First) should know better. To illustrate, let’s look at a few of their sample questions, chosen at random.

Integrated Writing, Question Two (Animism)

  • The reading section in the question has three paragraphs, while the real test always has three.
  • The reading lacks an overall argument and (obviously) three supporting reasons. The real test always has this. In the sample question the reading just describes an academic term.
  • The lecture also lacks the “three counterpoints” structure of the real test.
  • The question prompt asks students to “distinguish between the two views presented on the topic” which the real test never does.
  • Basically, on the real test ETS uses a very specific structure which is not presented here. This limits the usefulness of the practice question.

Integrated Writing, Question Eight (The Titanic)

  • Again, we’ve got just paragraphs in the reading. The real test always has four.
  • There is no argument in the reading. It just describes the building of the titanic. On the real test, students will see an argument with three supporting reasons or a problem with three possible solutions (or vice versa). There is nothing even close to that here… the reading is just a description of the launch and sinking of the Titanic… and the box office revenue of the movie based on the sinking!
  • Obviously there is nothing for the lecture to challenge, which is the sole purpose of the lecture on the real test. In this sample question the lecture just talks about the discovery of the Titanic and exploration of the wreck. There is absolutely no way to turn this into a TOEFL question. This is a completely useless practice exercise.
  • The question prompt says: “Summarize the points made in the reading and explain why the Titanic has continued to fascinate people all over the world.
  • This question is complete and utter garbage and Education First should be ashamed of charging money for it.

It seems to me that all of the integrated writing questions are terrible. But how about the independent writing questions? They are just as bad. Only two out of the ten practice questions match the patterns used on the test. Wow.

Let’s just to a few random speaking questions

Speaking Question Two, Sample 1

  • On the real test, the reading is an announcement of a change, or a letter proposing a change. On this sample question, the reading is just a list of rules for a chemistry lab. No change is announced. This is not an accurate question.

Speaking Question Two, Sample 6

  • The reading is totally fine. It describes a change on campus, and gives two reasons for it.
  • The conversation is pretty bad. On the real test the student first mentions one specific reason in support of her opinion, and then gives a second specific reason in support of her opinion. These reasons directly refer to the two reasons given in the announcement for the change. That doesn’t happen in this sample

Speaking Question Three, Sample 1 (Benedict Arnold)

  • The reading in the sample question is a biography. This isn’t done on the real test. The real test introduces an academic term, process or concept.
  • On the real test, the lecture provides an example (or examples) of the term, concept or idea from the reading. Obviously that isn’t possible here. The lecture just continues the biography. This is terrible.
  • The question prompt says: “The text and lecture cover two distinct periods of Benedict Arnold’s life. Summarize the major points made. ” This isn’t even close to the real test, which will ask students something like ” “Explain the concept of _____ using the examples of ____ and ____ given in the lecture.”

Speaking Question Three, Sample 8 (Eugenics)

  • The reading is fine. It introduces an academic topic with details. It is too long, but only slightly.
  • The real test sure as hell isn’t going to talk about a controversial topic like eugenics, though.
  • The lecture fails to produce an example (or two examples) of the concept. It merely describes the concept in more detail. This makes the question useless for preparation. It is nothing like the real test.
  • The prompt asks students to “Describe the concept of eugenics as it has been applied to humans, and relay racist and classist ideas inherent in the concept.” This is just so different from the real test that I have to believe the author of the question hasn’t even read the Official Guide to the TOEFL, or looked at ANY official materials from ETS.

Speaking Question Four, Sample 3 (Tornadoes)

  • Terrible. The structure is all wrong. I’m tired now. Stop doing this to me, English Live.

But how about the independent speaking questions? Surprisingly, they are pretty accurate. I like that they are really long, which is a recent trend that has been observed. However, are all paired choice types, and there are no agree/disagree, multiple choice or agree/disagree style questions. This is a major problem.

Conclusion

I think I will leave it at that. Overall, the content I looked at was all pretty terrible. I think the source of the problem is that Education First appears to have outsourced the creation of its practice materials to TestDEN. Blindly trusting a third party for your content is not a smart idea, as it involves placing your reputation in the hands of people who might lack the requisite expertise to do a good job. It is worth mentioning here that this is the problem that EduSynch has run into. They have an amazing platform and a lot of enthusiasm… but they are using garbage questions from Best My Test that compromise their whole operation.

Anyways. If you want practice TOEFL questions don’t get ’em from English Live/Education First.

There must have been a boom in grammar books aimed at general audiences between Eats, Shoots & Leaves in 2001 and the last Grammar Girl book in 2012.

I certainly haven’t read all of the books published during this period, but so far Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences might be my favorite. In seven clear chapters Bell covers the most common mistakes that writers of English make.

What makes this book so appealing to me is that it contains both instruction that is easily understood, and plenty of grammar terminology. The latter is something that other books of this type shy away from in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Bell’s willingness to use terminology, though, means that her book is one I would certainly recommend to rookie ESL teachers.

Now, some people might scoff at the idea of giving a tiny little book to serious English teachers. Seriously, though, there is a huge mass of teachers going overseas every day without proper resources and training. If someone had asked me when I started teaching how to use the present perfect tense properly, I wouldn’t have known how to respond. Nor would I be able to explain the subjunctive mood, or the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction… or any of the most basic grammatical terms and concepts. Like most teachers I just wasn’t taught that kind of stuff. Obviously a teacher who takes their job seriously will reach for something more comprehensive (like, say, Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage”) but Bell’s book is a perfect way to grasp the basics in under an hour. Heck, an eager teacher could read it on the flight over.

Anyways, the chapters here are:

  • Case
  • Agreement
  • Verb Tense and Usage
  • Verb Mood
  • Modifiers
  • Connectives
  • Punctuation

Each chapter ends with a little quiz.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to ESL students (Swan’s book is a better reference) but I think it is perfect for general audiences and teachers.

Oh, if you are curious about the book’s odd title, it is a riff on the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway.

English Grammar in Use (Supplementary Exercises) isn’t the sort of book that one reviews, so I will keep this brief.

Freshly updated for 2019, this book complements the new fifth edition of “English Grammar in Use” by providing additional practice exercises for students to work through. And exercises are all you get here – there aren’t any explanations provided.

The exercises are fine. They seem to be more contextualized than in the main book, which means they are more likely to take the form of emails, dialogs and articles. That’s a great choice for a supplementary book that digs deeper than a primary classroom textbook.

The exercises in the book are match the units in the main book, but since this is a shorter book it combines units. Note that these aren’t always sequential (it starts with five pages of exercises about units 1-4 and 19 and 25), but the groupings are logical and obvious.

Overall, I do recommend this book to intermediate level students and teachers… just as long as you already have the main book.

I should also mention that unlike the main book, this one is in black and white and is printed on non-glossy paper. That means it is much cheaper.

Finally, I haven’t seen the fourth edition of the book, so I don’t know exactly how much it has been updated. Anyways, that edition seems to be selling for even more than this one, so I guess you don’t need to bother with it.

Despite the name, this big book from McGraw-Hill Education isn’t really a TOEFL book at all. It sort of seems like they just slapped “TOEFL” on to a vocabulary book that needed a few more sales. It has some nice tips about building and using vocabulary in a general sense, but nothing that relates specifically to the TOEFL.

The same publisher also offers a “400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL” book that is likely similar to traditional TOEFL vocabulary books, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.

My grade for Skills for the TOEFL iBT Test (Reading and Writing): A-

Note: I am only reviewing the writing section of this book, since that is my area of expertise. Someone else will need to look more closely at the reading section.

I like this book just as much as I like the matching speaking and listening book from Collins. Like that book, this title is incredibly accurate in its depictions of TOEFL questions. Indeed, I have never seen a printed book with such accurate TOEFL integrated writing questions. There are only five of them, but they are all perfectly designed to match the real test. In each of them the author makes three points, and the lecturer casts doubt on the three points in the right order. Reading these five questions is a heavenly experience. You will remember from my earlier blog posts that textbooks from Kaplan, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are all ruined by the inclusion of inaccurate questions. Heck, this book is even better than the Official Guide to the TOEFL, which famously contains a couple of incorrectly designed integrated questions.

So if your students need accurate practice writing questions, this is a good source. The book also benefits from a concise explanation of how the questions are put together, though I suppose it could be even more explicit.

The independent questions here are merely adequate, however. The problem is that the book includes only agree/disagree style questions, and totally ignores both paired-choice and multiple choice questions. This is probably because the authors relied too much on materials from ETS, which also emphasize this question type. I’m not too bothered by that, since good practice independent questions are easy to find elsewhere, and they aren’t fundamentally misleading students as some other publishers to when they print shitty integrated questions.

The book also includes concise tips for each task and decent templates. You will have to go elsewhere to learn the fundamentals of writing, but that will always be outside the scope of a good TOEFL book. I’ll review some grammar books at a later date, perhaps.

Note: The reading section of this book will be slightly out of date starting August 1 when the test will change.

My Grade for Writing for the TOEFL iBT: F

I love the idea of a full-length TOEFL writing textbook, so I must acknowledge the effort that Barron’s and author Lin Lougheed put into this book. Sadly, “Writing for the TOEFL” is a terrible book.

Like the team from Kaplan, the folks at Barron’s seem incapable of writing proper integrated writing questions. This book contains page after page after page of terrible integrated writing practice questions. The questions in the model tests at the back of the book are bad as well.

It shouldn’t be hard for authors to realize that the integrated writing question always includes an article with four paragraphs, paired with a lecture that when transcribed contains four matching paragraphs, each of which casts doubt on a specific point from the reading. Likewise, it shouldn’t be too hard to notice that the specific counterpoints from the lecture are presented in the same order as the reading points. Just sitting for the TOEFL a few dozen times will teach them that.

I just don’t know how major publishers mess this up, since they can afford to let their authors take the test as many times as they want. Barron’s has been publishing this book for 17 years, and they still haven’t figured it out. The integrated writing questions all have articles that consist of four paragraphs and three points. Frustratingly, though, the matching lectures often don’t include specific counterpoints, and they aren’t broken down into a four paragraph structure.

The lectures here are merely descriptive. Most of the time they describe the topic at hand, without challenging the specific points made in the reading. This is similar to the flawed practice test contained in the Official Guide, which the author of this text might have leaned too heavily on.

For instance, Model Test 4 (page 169) presents three details related to the bubonic plague of the 1300s. They are: (i) it was transmitted starting in China, (ii) Italian ships spread it to Europe, and (iii) social order broke down because of it. The lecturer (page 309), though, spends about 2/3 of his time talking about how ancient Egyptians also suffered from plague, before talking about how people in the modern world also suffer from plague. The matching point/counterpoint style of the real TOEFL is completely missing.

The other error that experienced teachers will notice is that the article in this case lacks an overall argument. It merely describes the plague. A proper question would make some argument about the plague. For instance, the introduction would establish that the main argument is that the plague started in China. Each body paragraph, then, would present one piece of evidence in favor of this. The matching lecture would suggest that the plague did not start in China, and would challenge each of the authors points in turn.

Model test 2 (page 169) is pretty much the same. It lacks an argument, and presents three details about animal intelligence. The lecturer babbles on about mirrors for the full three minutes.

Model test 1 (page 167) also lacks an overall argument. Dealing with the effects of technology on learning, body paragraphs 1 and 3 suggest that it is beneficial, while body paragraph 2 suggests that it is not helping. The lecture, meanwhile, presents one story of success and one story of failure.

It must be said that model test 3 (page 171) is almost a perfect TOEFL integrated writing question. It does everything right – it presents a clear argument that Shakespeare did not write his famous plays, while the lecturer challenges each of these in turn. Evidently Barron’s is capable of coming up with proper questions, but are unaware of the fact that this structure is used every time the test is offered.

As far as the independent writing question goes, Barron’s has again leaned too heavily on the Official Guide. Indeed, they’ve pretty much reproduced the entire list of sample independent questions from that guide. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, though, that list has problems. This does lead to the book’s single strong point – a whopping 144 sample essays at the back of the book which answer these questions. These essays may be responding to slightly faulty questions and they don’t really utilize the structure I prefer, but they are a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration for students who might be struggling to come up with content on test day. With a proper warning from a teacher to ignore the rest of the book this could be a helpful resource for students.

That said, this highlight isn’t enough to save this faulty book. I can’t really recommend it.

 

My Grade for TOEFL Power Vocab: C+

TOEFL Vocabulary is a funny topic. I mostly teach TOEFL writing. When I am working with students on their essays, I usually stress that they should not try to utilize advanced vocabulary in their essays. Instead, I usually encourage them to improve their writing score by using a wide range of easy words in their essays. Basically, the TOEFL e-rater, I believe, is more concerned with how many different words students use, rather than how difficult the words are. Obviously, of course, the vocabulary level matters to some extent, but I mostly encourage students to use words they already know. This means that they don’t really need a TOEFL vocabulary book.

Reading is a slightly different story. I think that studying vocabulary books is a great long-term strategy for students. Expanding their vocabulary is a great way to increase their comprehension of the reading passages. Probably the listening passages too, now that I think about it.

By long-term I mean three months or more. If students have less than three months to prep for the test, they probably don’t need a vocabulary book either. It just won’t make a huge difference in such a short period of time.

So… is Princeton Review’s TOEFL Power Vocab a good vocabulary book?

Sort of.

At first glance I really wanted to like this book. It is really just 800 words (sorted alphabetically) with concise definitions and some short quizzes every few pages. It is free of any useless clutter. I would rather have 8000 words, but 800 seems to be as much as any book has nowadays (Kaplan includes about the same amount in their vocabulary book).

The words are relevant, too. But the problem is that too many of them are way too easy. Most students who are already scoring 80 points and above will probably already know them. For instance, here are the words from a random page (172): suggest, suitable, summarize, summon, support, supposed, surpass, surprised, surrounded.

I wouldn’t exactly call those examples of “power” vocabulary.

Another random page (121): imply, important, impressive, inactive, incandescent, inconspicuous, increase, increasingly.

A less random page (69): circumspect, circumstances, circumvent, clamor, classified, clearly, climactic, coincidence.

I think you get the point. Some of these words will really benefit students, but quite a few of them are just a waste of their time.

I am on the hunt for a good vocabulary book and will try to review a few more in the months ahead, so please let me know if you have any favorites. I’m all ears.