I’ve been meaning to write a review of Magoosh TOEFL for ages.  Magoosh has been around forever and is still really popular with students.  But is a good source of information?  Well, I recommend it for reading and listening practice.  It is a poor resource for writing and speaking practice.

Let’s take a closer look…

The Lessons

The lessons aren’t flashy, but they are functional.  They are mostly just the Magoosh teacher talking over a whiteboard style presentation.  Thankfully transcripts are provided, and students can speed up the videos if they find them too slow.  The lessons have all been updated for the 2019 version of the TOEFL, except for a few minor instances which the site’s editors missed.

I like the reading lessons provided by Magoosh quite a lot.  The site provides 19 video lessons, totaling about three hours of video.  Each question type is described in detail with a sample of each one.  Common “answer traps” for each type are described in separate videos.  There aren’t a whole lot of “strategies” other than pacing techniques, but I think that’s probably a fine approach.  As I’ve talked about in my own content, using strategies is probably a bad idea for this section of the test.

The listening lessons are also quite strong.  Honestly, there aren’t any good TOEFL listening lessons online, so I’d enthusiastically recommend this content.  These are presented just like the reading lessons – videos for each section question type and for common traps.  There is more content on basic strategy here, which is probably more appropriate for the listening section.

The speaking lessons are decent.  Speaking question one is described in accurate terms, which is something that most books and websites don’t do.  Magoosh makes sure to mention the “paired choice” style prompt that is mostly ignored by other sources.  It is quite disappointing that the lessons for questions 2 to 4 use the old TOEFL “Quick Prep” sets from ETS, since students can get those for free on their own, but at least it makes the material in the lessons more accurate that most sites.  Heck… that’s what I do for many of my videos.  The templates and timing suggestions for each question (provided in separate videos) are very good.  Sadly, this is all paired with weak practice questions (see below).

The writing lessons are a bit weaker.  There are a few inaccuracies in the videos.  Early in his description of the integrated writing task, the teacher suggests that the details in the reading might be in a different order than the details in the lecture.  That’s not true.  Likewise, the lesson on the independent writing task leaves out the multiple-choice style prompts.  That’s an unfortunate over site. The lessons about constructing the essay, though, are fine.  They will lead to the creation of effective essays.  These are also paired with bad practice questions (see below).

Finally, there are a bunch of grammar videos.  I checked a few of them out and they seem fine.  Honestly, though, there are better places to study grammar.  That’s not why anyone is buying a Magoosh membership.

The Practice

Well, the writing practice is bad.  Of the seven integrated writing questions provided, only three of them are accurate (Globalization, Rococo, Trade).  The rest are badly created with either too many or too few paragraphs, points that don’t match up, or faulty ordering of points.  Sadly the very first practice question (Gone with the Wind) is especially bad.  I wish that one could be moved to the end of the practice section so fewer students would see it.  The independent writing questions are all accurate, but no multiple-choice prompts are provided.  That makes the material seem a bit dated.

The speaking practice is weak.  The practice questions for task one are all accurate… but they don’t include any of the more modern “good idea” style questions.    The sample questions for task two don’t always follow the same structure used by ETS when they create questions.  They seem to emphasize the giving of details about the changes being announced rather than two two reasons for the changes on the real test.  Moreover,  the students in the Magoosh conversations sometimes address details not mentioned in the reading part, which is unlike the real test.  For what it’s worth, I recommend two of the practice questions (vegetarian meals, college radio).  You can skip the rest.  The task three and four practice questions are fine.  I feel that the prompts are a bit too specific and verbose (the real test is more likely to ask the students to more broadly define the term or concept using the examples) the construction of the questions is acceptable here.  Students might not even notice the difference when they take the real test (which is easier).

I like the reading practice a lot.  The passages and questions all look accurate.  The authors of the passages seem to really understand how the test is put together, and they avoid all of the problems that most textbook authors make.  The tests have been updated for the new TOEFL, and the number of questions for each article has been reduced to ten.  I didn’t count the question type distribution, but it seems accurate.  I would wholeheartedly recommend this section of Magoosh.

The listening practice looks good and updated.  I would also recommend it.  It appears quite accurate.  I would also recommend it.  I love that the questions here all include detailed explanations instead of just an answer key.  A lot of work went into those. 

Verdict

If you can afford it, buy this only for listening and reading practice.  There is a ton of good content here to help you prepare for those parts of the test.  Use the speaking and writing content sparingly, and make sure to supplement with some more accurate practice questions (the Official Guide and iBT Tests books, for instance).

 

A few weeks ago, I recommended a book that will help students improve their ability to read about scientific topics.  Today I want to share a quick review of The Little Book of Big History, which can help students improve their ability to read articles about history.

This book attempts to tell the entire history of the earth in a series of fairly short articles.  What I like about this book is that the articles are just about the same length as the articles in the reading section of the test (about six paragraphs).  Moreover, the language used in the articles is at about the same level as the test.  They seem to have a Flesch Reading East score of about 40 to 50.  That makes them a bit easier than the test, but it is close enough.

The selection of topics is great.  Indeed, I noted a bunch of topics I’d like to use to create my own reading practice tests (not to mention some integrated writing practice questions).  Topics here include things like:

  • Hunter-gatherer technologies
  • The beginning of art
  • Mass extinctions
  • Domesticating animals
  • From barter to money
  • Credit, debt and investment

Depending on how much time you have, I’d recommend just reading five or six of these per day, along with a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.  Consider keeping a list of new words to study from later.

To use the book most effectively, perhaps skip the first part (which deals with the creation of the universe, and the last two parts (which deal with slightly more modern topics than are used on the TOEFL).

If you do pick up the book leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

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.

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 somewhat hurt 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 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.

Note: I only review the speaking and writing sections of TOEFL books, since those are my main areas of expertise.

My overall grade for Cracking the TOEFL iBT: B-

Skills Building Content: This book has some fine content when it comes to building the skills students need to take the test. It starts with a few “drills” that help students work through the basic skills needed on the test without actually giving them real TOEFL questions, which is a nice approach. I find that it needlessly mixes skills related to the integrated and independent writing tasks instead of separating them from each other, but that isn’t too much of a problem. Some students might find the organization of this section a bit cluttered, but at least they have tons to work with.

The book later moves on to chapters that show them how to “crack” each of the sections and utilize actual TOEFL questions to do so. This is where the book starts to get bad. The problem is accuracy. I’ll cover that in the next section. Grade: B

 

A lot of BestMyTest Stuff is Way too Similar to ETS Stuff

I don’t like BestMyTest. The main problem I have with the site is that it appears to be providing slightly modified versions of TOEFL content created by ETS (the makers of the TOEFL).

I teach writing, so after creating my account I immediately loaded up the writing questions on BestMyTest. I immediately noticed that many of them are just slightly modified versions of tests from The Official Guide to the TOEFL, the two Official iBT Test books and the TOEFL Test Practice Online. In my opinion, they really shouldn’t be charging students for this stuff.

For example, here’s part of a writing test from Volume 1 of the iBT Tests series:

“One theory holds that the Chaco structures were purely residential, with each housing hundreds of people. Supporters of this theory have interpreted Chaco great houses as earlier versions of the architecture seen in more recent Southwest societies. In particular, the Chaco houses appear strikingly similar to the large, well-known “apartment buildings” at Taos, New Mexico, in which many people have been living for centuries.”

Here’s Best My Test:

“One theory states the Chaco structures were residential and held hundreds of people. Supporters of this theory look to similar architectural structures in more recent Southwest societies. One structure, in particular, that is strikingly similar to the Chaco buildings is the apartment building at Taos, New Mexico, which has housed several people of the centuries.”

That’s not cool. Likewise, here’s part of a test from the Official Guide to the TOEFL:

“In the United States, employees typically work five days a week for eight hours each day. However, many employees want to work a four-day week and are willing to accept less pay in order to do so.”

Here’s a nearly identical passage on BestMyTest:

“Employees in the United States typically work five eight-hour days per week; however, many employees would prefer to work four days per week and are willing to accept less pay in order to do so.”

You know, I’m totally okay with copying from ETS. ETS is a big company and they can take care of themselves. I just don’t think a third party should charge students for that stuff. Especially since most students have already used the Official Guide.

And here’s the thing: all of the slight modifications done by the BestMyTest staff just make the questions worse.

 And the questions that don’t seem to come from any TPO? Well, they suffer the cardinal sin of not being very good. I’m talking about reading passages with two or three sentences per body paragraph. They aren’t realistic, and they aren’t good practice.

Below is a gallery of some of the copied content.

The Bottom Line

Teachers, make sure your students are studying with the best possible material. Students, ask a teacher to look at the materials you are studying with. When it comes to TOEFL, there is a real chance that they aren’t any good.

Hey, BestMyTest might be okay for the other sections of the test. I didn’t look at them too hard. But don’t use it for writing practice.