The Princeton Review has updated their TOEFL book to match the 2019 version of the TOEFL and have given it a new name (it used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL”).  Sadly, though, it isn’t a very good book.  It is inaccurate, and it badly needs a good editor.  And some basic research.  I’ll go into detail about what is bad about the book in a moment, but I guess we should start with the good, right? 

The Good Stuff

The book begins with about 170 pages of skill building exercises connected to the “core concepts” of the TOEFL (reading, listening, speaking, writing).  This stuff is pretty good. I really like that the book begins with a whole lot of academic reading practice and questions that students can work through to hone their reading skills.  None of these questions are actually TOEFL questions (which could be confusing) but they are about content contained in TOEFL-style articles.  A lot of students need to really improve their reading skills before they even start looking at real TOEFL questions.

The core concepts stuff about listening is much sparser (9 pages vs 72 pages) but those nine pages are fine.  I can’t help shake the feeling that Princeton Review made this section short just because creating listening content is much more expensive than creating reading content.  Maybe I’m just crazy.

The speaking concepts chapter is a bit weird in that it blends TOEFL speaking questions with questions that are totally not TOEFL speaking questions.  It also includes some of the speaking question styles that were removed from the test last year.  I know this is just skill building stuff, but those should be totally excised from the book and replaced with something a bit more useful.

The writing concepts chapter is, again, a mix of TOEFL and non-TOEFL questions.  It has some fine exercises.  It includes a chart of useful vocabulary (which is nice) and a laughably basic page on grammar terms (which is not nice).

There are better books containing this sort of skill building content (just ask me) but I honestly would recommend these chapters to a student who can find the book for free at a library or something.  They have some value, especially for beginners.

The Bad Stuff

Cracking the Reading Section

The chapter about the reading section is really hard to follow, even for a teacher like myself.  There are ten pages of junk before we can find a list reading question types.  And sadly, the question types listed in the book are just wrong.  So much clarity could have been achieved by using the question type names established by ETS in the “Official Guide to the TOEFL.”  I mean… ETS makes the test so we should follow their lead on this!

For some reason, Princeton Review left out the “Factual Information” question type and the “Rhetorical Purpose” type, combining them into something they call a “Lead Words” question… which is different from a “Vocabulary in Context” question.  To make matters worse, this type is inexplicably renamed “lead word/detail” near the end of the chapter.  They’ve also left the “Fill in a Table” type out of their list, even though such a question appears later in one of their drills! Finally, they’ve added two types, the “Definition” (which, again, is not the same as a vocabulary question) type and the “Before/after” type, which aren’t used on the real test.

There are a few other little inaccuracies in their samples and drills.  For instance, many of the questions lack clear references to paragraph numbers, meaning students have to hunt through the whole reading to find the answer to their question (which is not the case on the real test).  They’ve also failed to end each of the reading sets with a fill-in-a-table question or a summary question.  Each reading set on the real test always ends with one of those.  Just a bit of basic research could have helped the authors avoid these problems.

Cracking the Listening Section

This section is actually okay.  The listening passages and questions are fine.  They are not perfect, but are good enough to be of value.  There are no table questions, though.  And the authors failed to move the questions where a chunk of audio is played to the end of each set.  The latter issue is not a big deal, but it is something that could have been fixed, again, with just a tiny bit of research.

Cracking the Speaking Section

Curiously, this section begins with a ton of additional skill building content.  And a lot of it is very unlike the actual TOEFL.  The book repeatedly refers to a speaking question about how a lecture casts doubt on a reading.  I just don’t know where they got that from.

There are some templates.  They are mediocre.

All of the sample type 2 speaking questions are inaccurate. They tend to lack reasons for the changes being announced in the reading part.  This means that the students in the listening part are mentioning details and responding to details that are not in the reading.  On the real test there is a very strict and close connection between the reading and the listening.  Two reasons are always given in the reading, and the student specifically responds to those two reasons when supporting their opinion.  Again… just reading all ten of the samples from the official iBT books would have informed the authors at Princeton Review of this pattern.

The sample type 3 speaking questions are also inaccurate.  On the real test, the prompt given to the test-taker will be something like:  “Explain CONCEPT using EXAMPLES FROM LECTURE.”  Or some variation.  Basically, the test-taker needs to state what the concept from the reading is, and then needs to just repeat the example (or examples) from the lecture.  Nothing more than that.   In this book, though, the prompts are weirdly specific.  Like:

“The professor discussed the characteristics of two kinds of heart valves. Explain how their characteristics are related to their suitability for younger and older transplant patients.”

Like… huh?  Where did they get that?

Cracking the Writing Section

The template provided for the integrated essay made me want to tear my hair out.  It recommends just two body paragraphs.  It says that the first body paragraph should deal with the first reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  The second body paragraph should deal with the second reading point and the contrasting point from the lecture.  And the third point from the reading?   Well, that isn’t mentioned.  The authors seem to be aware that there is always a third reading point and a contrasting lecture point… but they’ve just ignored that in the template.  All of the sample essays include that content… but the template does not.  As I said, an editor is needed.

More evidence than an editor is needed is the fact that instead of providing a step by step guide for constructing each of the essay tasks, this books provides a step by step guide for both, and just jumps back and forth.  WHY?

The book has some good independent essay prompts, but like the authors at Kaplan, they seem to think that only agree/disagree prompts are used.  Again… research is needed.

The Practice Test

There is a single practice test.  It contains the same inaccuracies as the “cracking” chapters, described above.

Overall

This isn’t a great book.  I don’t really recommend it.

As I’ve written here in the past, I dream of students who begin to prepare for the TOEFL far in advance of actually taking the test.  A huge problem students have with the TOEFL is that they lack the ability to comprehend academic texts in English.  And by the time they realize this problem, it is far too late to really do anything about it.  All they can do is familiarize themselves with the question styles, learn a few “strategies” and hope for the best.

In my dream world, though, students start preparing for the TOEFL a couple of years in advance.  Or they spend all of their undergraduate years working on their English skills.  If someone reads a non-fiction book a month for four years, they’ll ace the reading section of the TOEFL.  Really.  That person will develop the required comprehension skills and the required vocabulary to do well without using a single “strategy.”  Not only that, but they’ll be totally comfortable reading academic texts (something that even native speakers struggle with).

Anyways, I’ve been working on a list of books I’d recommend to such a student.  A little while ago I wrote about Reading for Thinking. Today I want to write about a fun book called The Science Class You Wish You Had.  This book fits all of my criteria for recommendation:

  • It covers a lot of the same topics used in the TOEFL reading section
  • It is written using language at a similar level to the TOEFL reading section
  • It is divided into chunks somewhat similar in length to the TOEFL reading section

In particular, this book covers scientific topics, and takes a “history of science” approach, which is something that often shows up on the test.  It attempts to introduce readers to the “seven greatest scientific discoveries in history” which are:

  • Gravity and the basic laws of physics
  • The structure of the atom
  • Relativity
  • The Big Bang
  • Evolution
  • The cell and genetics
  • DNA

Each of these gets a chapter, and the chapters are each broken into short essays of about 5 to 10 paragraphs in length.  Obviously that is longer than what you’ll see on the TOEFL, but it is close enough.  This is the sort of book that you might give to a recent high school graduate preparing for their freshman year.  That’s absolutely perfect in terms of difficulty level, as the TOEFL reading passages are generally designed to look like they came from freshman textbooks.

To use your time most efficiently, you may wish to skip the chapter on relativity as that is way more abstract than what you will find on the test… but I’ve always found the most difficult TOEFL reading passages are those that deal with abstract concepts, so maybe just struggle through it.

There ya go.  Read this book.  By the time you finish with it, I’ll have a recommendation that covers history or the social sciences.

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 ones.  Note that it is now February, 2020.  I’ll update and revise this list throughout the year as new books are released. At the end you can find my current list of non-recommended books and websites.

Books Updated to Match the New TOEFL

Kaplan’s TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2020-2021. This was the first TOEFL textbook 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.

 

Princeton Review’s TOEFL iBT Prep was the second book this year to match the new test.   This one is much better than Kaplan’s book, but it also has a lot of accuracy problems.  The most obvious are in the chapters about the reading and speaking sections.  You can read about all of them in my full review of the book.    I suppose the best part of this book is the collection of skill building exercises in the beginning of the book.  There is only one complete sample test (which can only be done on paper… there is no software included), but there are additional practice questions throughout the book.  Note that this book used to be called “Cracking the TOEFL.”  That was a stupid name.

 

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

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.

 

 

Kaplan’s 4 Practice Tests for the TOEFL will be updated on September 1, 2020.  It will also be sold as a bundle with the Kaplan book mentioned above.  It will probably suck like most of Kaplan’s TOEFL books.

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.  Apparently it has some material related to the TOEFL ITP (used by institutions), which is neat.  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 issued in June of 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).  ETS has hinted that new versions will be released in June of 2020, but that has not been stated officially.

 

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
  • Edusynch – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books
  • Best My Test – Questions are the same as the TPO and official books

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.