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

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

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

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

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

It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed when you begin to study vocabulary for the TOEFL. Students are unsure of what words they should study, and how studying TOEFL vocabulary is different from studying vocabulary in other ESL situations.

Studying vocabulary for the TOEFL is not the same as studying vocabulary in general. While most ESL students can focus on core vocabulary (the most commonly used words in English), TOEFL-takers should focus on four categories of vocabulary. They are:

  1. Core Vocabulary – the most commonly used words in English
  2. Topic Specific Vocabulary – academic words related to specific academic fields
  3. Transitionals – Transitional words and phrases, used in essay writing
  4. “Summary Words” – words used to summarize listening and reading passages

So how can you increase your vocabulary in each of these areas?  Read on!

Core Vocabulary

The English “core vocabulary” represents the language’s most commonly used words.  You already know many of these words because they are the words that you’ve been studying since you began learning English.  These are the words that you find in newspaper articles, ESL textbooks and graded readers.

Want to build up your core vocabulary?  Do it the old fashioned way: keep reading, keep listening, keep talking.  There is nothing “TOEFL” about learning core vocabulary.  Use the same methods that you’ve been using since you began studying the language.

My students always use flashcards to practice and memorize vocabulary. They create standard flashcards – one side lists a word (including parts of speech), while the other lists a definition and some contextual examples. We keep track of how many times they correctly identify each word. Words that they can consistently identify are set aside in favor of newer, more challenging words.

When my students are creating their first deck of flashcards, I usually point them to the Vocabulary.com Top 1000 list.

Core TOEFL Vocabulary Categories

I feel that it is very important to categorize vocabulary flashcards. While studying core vocabulary is about studying “everything,” TOEFL students can choose to focus on certain categories of words. I analyzed the 185 sample writing questions contained in the Official Guide to the TOEFL, and found that the ten most frequent “categories” of the questions are as follows:

  1. School and Studying
  2. Family
  3. Technology
  4. Jobs and Working
  5. Friendship
  6. Entertainment
  7. Friendship
  8. Countries of the world (including your own)
  9. Famous People
  10. Travel

As you study the core vocabulary of English, you might want to place a certain emphasis on words that fit into the above topics. Seek out words that fit the above categories and add them to your flashcard stack.

If you feel comfortable with the above topics, the next five most frequent categories in the official guide are:

  1. Government and Society
  2. The Environment
  3. The Future and The Past
  4. Your Local Community
  5. Modern Life

If you are looking for a categorized flashcard “starter set” I recommend purchasing Princeton Review’s Essential ESL Vocabulary Test Prep box set of 550 words or Princeton’s Essential TOEFL Vocabulary box. Note that any box set you buy will be targeted toward intermediate students. High level students might find the words too obvious.

Check back in a few days for part two of this article, which will discuss topic specific (academic) vocabulary for the TOEFL!