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The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (Fourth Edition) Book Review

Nobody makes a practice question like the people who make the test, right? There are hundreds of places you can find practice TOEFL questions, and hundreds of them will be poorly made. There’s a much smaller number—only a handful of, really—of places you can look for well made practice. But there’s only one place you can get official practice, and that’s from ETS.

So, in a way, this review is over before it begins. This book has the most accurate-to-the-test practice questions, period. Well, that’s the main attraction, but to be honest, the Official Guide is actually very lacking in many areas. Let’s break down the most important part of any TOEFL prep book and see how good the Official Guide really is:

 

Included Practice Material

While it may have the best practice TOEFL questions, The Official Guide to the TOEFL offers a middling amount of material, really. There are three full practice tests, which is great. Those alone make about 12 hours of practice material. But outside of those practice tests, the examples are a bit sparse. For some reason, the authors included a good amount of reading samples—there are five additional passages outside of the practice tests—but very little speaking practice, and no audio for any examples outside of the practice tests. Since the speaking, listening, and writing sections all rely heavily on audio recordings, this cripples the material outside of the practice tests.

What’s more, there are no skill-building exercises in the book, such as brainstorming practice, identifying grammar errors, or any of the many other helpful exercises you’ll find in other books. There is a “writer’s handbook” at the end, but it simply lists common English mistakes (in an apparently random order) and does not offer any practice exercises for these small lessons. The lack of skill-building material is a huge flaw.

The included CD is a great resource. On it, there are three practice tests in a format that’s very similar (but not completely identical) to the real test. But there’s one problem: these are the same three tests that are in the book on paper. So this doesn’t add much value.

 

Explanations

This is one of the most important parts of any test preparation book. If you get a question wrong while practicing, you have to know why you got it wrong. The Official Guide doesn’t really provide this for reading and listening questions.

Yes, there are explanations, but they’re really not helpful. There are no explanations for why wrong answers are actually wrong, only brief descriptions of why the correct answers are correct. And usually, this reads similar to “A is correct because A is correct.” Well, thanks, ETS! That’s very insightful!

The best part of the explanations is the examples of high- and low-level speaking responses. These are real responses from real test takers, and there are a total of 36 of them—one high and one low from each speaking task on each test, with comments from the grader. Similarly, there are many examples of essays; there’s a sample of each score (1-6) of each essay in easy practice test, along with grader comments. Again, that’s 36 sample essays with comments. This actually is very helpful.

 

Test Strategy and Advice

Maybe ETS wants people to believe that there are no strategies for increasing your score on the TOEFL. This would be good for them: if that was true, then the test would only measure your English abilities, rather than your test-taking abilities. That would explain why there is such minimal strategy in the book. But fortunately for us, there are strategies that can help you to improve your TOEFL scores. Only ETS doesn’t really address them.

The only real specific advice on how to approach specific question types is in the descriptions of each type, and it’s mostly limited to the obvious advice. There are no practice exercises for learning these strategies. This is another big issue.

Meanwhile, many TOEFL books have the opposite problem from the Official Guide. That is, they try to convince you that the test is all strategy. It’s not. The most important way to raise your score is simply to get more English experience. So I have to agree with the Official Guide’s writers on this point: you have to practice your English outside of doing bookwork and test practice to get a higher TOEFL score. The book does a good job of stressing this fact.

But it becomes a bit repetitive when you see the same advice for the third time. Yes, joining an English club to get speaking practice is a good idea. Is it a revolutionary thought? Not really. Does it help me to see that advice more than once? I probably already knew it anyway, so no.

 

Writing Style

The writing is generally clear and concrete, which is great. It’s not especially exciting, but that’s okay. It would be nice if there was less focus on the dry, factual information and more focus on the test taker’s experience, but this is not a huge problem.

It’s great that some of the more difficult vocabulary words in the book are defined in footnotes, but this book does include many descriptions and explanations which are not written for non-native speakers. It would be helpful if those non-practice text sections (such as explanations) were very clear and easy to read. If you are already scoring above 80 on the TOEFL, this shouldn’t be a problem. But for the lower levels of TOEFL takers, the English level of the writing might be too difficult.

 

Report Card:

Authenticity of practice material: A+

Amount of practice material: B-

Quality of explanations: C+

Skill building material: F

Test strategy and advice: C

Writing style: B

 

The Final Word:

The Official Guide to the TOEFL test is the best source for realistic practice tests. It is helpful for students who are unfamiliar with the test but do not expect to need a lot of preparation. If you already know the test, and you need to build your English skills and test-taking skills, this book is not for you.

 

About the Author

Lucas is an SAT and TOEFL expert at Magoosh and has been teaching standardized test preparation since 2008, including the SAT, ACT and TOEFL. He lived in Prague for two years yet speaks better Japanese than he does Czech. Follow him on Google+!

22 Responses to The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (Fourth Edition) Book Review

  1. Amit December 3, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    Hi Lucas

    Great review! Keep it up.

    I am starting to prepare for TOEFL. I need help selecting my sources of books for the preparation. I would appreciate if you can advise me which book/books are the best for the purpose.

    Thanks
    Amit

    • Lucas
      Lucas December 3, 2013 at 10:09 am #

      Hi Amit,

      Good question! I’m still working through various TOEFL books to write reviews of them all and choose the best, but as of now I’d recommend Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test. Many of the practice questions aren’t—reading especially can be a bit different from the real test—but the skill-building exercises are generally helpful and the there’s a lot of material. If you only need to become familiar with the test, though, the official guide may be the only thing you need.

      • Amit December 5, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

        Dear Lucas

        Thanks a ton for the recommendation.

        I find that the latest edition of the Cambridge Preparation for TOEFL is 4th, published in 2006. In your opinion, is the book still good for conforming to and being useful for the latest test pattern? I am not sure whether the test has witnessed any change in content, ways of testing etc. since 2006.

        Amit

        • Lucas
          Lucas December 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

          Hi Amit,

          You’re welcome, of course! There’s been no change to the TOEFL since 2006 (standardized tests rarely change), so the Cambridge Preparation is still a valuable resource. Happy studying!

          Lucas

          • Amit December 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

            Thanks once again for the clarification Lucas! I appreciate your advice.

      • Mário César February 21, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

        Hi Lucas,
        I just bought the Barron’s book for intensive everyday practice and the Official Guide CD-ROM to do the full tests on the weekends and get familiar with TOEFL structure. Is this a good approach?
        Thank you in advance!

        • Lucas
          Lucas February 24, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

          Well, I don’t have a very high opinion of Barron’s TOEFL iBT. Your general study schedule is a good idea. Taking official, full length practice tests regularly is definitely important, and the Official Guide is a good resource for that. Make sure you’re aware of the problems with Barron’s, though; don’t believe everything in the book. You can still get good practice from it, but trust the official guide on the difficulty and details of the real test.

  2. ALEXHOU January 6, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    For me I think the CD attached to the book has one good improvements: they improved the user interface of OG(offical guide), which is quite confusing in the last version. But the method of time-counting is a little different in the Listening section: in OG 4th, there are 60 minutes for the whole listening section. But in TPO there are only 10 minutes for students to answer questions in one section.
    Plus there are some revisions in the Listening section. They removed math from Physical Science section. They also made a more clear explanation towards the Gist-Purpose Questions.

    • Lucas
      Lucas January 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

      Awesome! Thanks for filling in some details on the change between editions. The timer for the listening section in the OG software isn’t like the real test, it’s true. The TPO gives a more accurate test experience.

  3. aleksander January 18, 2014 at 5:29 am #

    Hello Lucas.Really helpful and interesting your analysis.I think that only i few students tend to tell such truths on reviews.

    Anyway, I want a big favor from your side.Can you send me a link to download the entire CD of ETS 4th Edition brcause i have lost them and doing the 4 full tests from the book is a bit annoying.

    Thank you pal!

    • Lucas
      Lucas January 18, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

      I’m glad that you’ve like the reviews, Aleksander! I can’t provide a copy of the CD, though, since it’s copyrighted material. To simply copy it and put it online would be piracy. I understand what you mean about using the paper tests, though—it’s definitely different from taking a computer test—so I sympathize! I’m really sorry I can’t be of more help with that.

  4. Julia January 31, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Hi,
    You said that format of the practice test is very similar to the real test. I would like to know if this is true. Did you talk to anybody who recently took a test? Do you think that integrated writing task is in the same format? usually three very clear points in the reading and three points (agree or opose) in the lecture. Should I expect something different? and what this could be? Thank you so much!
    Julia

    • Lucas
      Lucas January 31, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Hi Julia,

      Yes, I do know somebody who took the test recently: me. :-) That format is true of almost all TOEFL integrated writing tasks, yes. The reading makes three points, and the lecture opposes those three points (usually in a different order). Sometimes–very occasionally–the lecture agrees with the reading, and very, very rarely, there is a cause-effect relationship or something else a little bit different (the reading describes three steps to a phenomenon and the lecture gives a specific example which illustrates those three steps, for example).

      The content of the Official Guide (and anything else from ETS) is the most reliable source for realistic practice. The only important exception in this book is the first practice test, which is older and has one conversation in the listening that’s slightly different from more recent TOEFL tests. Generally, if you see it in the Official Guide, you can expect to see something similar on your test.

      • Julia February 3, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

        Thank you so much! My exam is in 5 days and I am super streesed!

        • Lucas
          Lucas February 3, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

          You’re welcome, and good luck on test day!

  5. Kshitiz March 5, 2014 at 12:35 am #

    Hi !
    Thank You! For Your Awesome Post!
    I have ETS-TOEFL OG 3rd Edition.
    I was wondering if 4th edition is different from 3rd edition?
    Do I need to buy the 4th edition?
    Thank You!

    • Lucas
      Lucas March 10, 2014 at 11:34 am #

      Good question! There are just a couple of changes between the 3rd and 4th edition:

      1) There’s one more practice test in the 4th edition (this is important to know!).
      2) The CD in the 3rd edition doesn’t work on Macs.
      3) The “writer’s handbook” isn’t in the 3rd edition. (It’s not very helpful anyway.)

      So the 3rd edition is definitely okay to use, although the 4th edition is better because of the extra practice test. When you use both tests in the 3rd edition, if you need more, I recommend the book of 5 Official TOEFLs (with the red cover).

      • Kshitiz March 19, 2014 at 7:47 am #

        Thank You!

  6. Natasha Rakó March 25, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Hola Lucas!

    What an awesome review and of course your self experience!

    Actually im starting to prepare for Proficiency test.,(later on definetly TOEFL) and i saw in other pages really good reviews about CAMBRIDGE PREPARATION TOEFL fourth edition and decided to study from there wich i think it will help me alot. I would appreciate if you can advise me about how to improve doing essays since is my Achilles heel ?

    Thank you!

    Natasha

    • Lucas
      Lucas March 25, 2014 at 11:54 am #

      Hi, Natasha!

      You’re referring to the CPE when you say “Proficiency Test,” right? I should mention that the CPE is very different from the TOEFL both in structure and content, so a TOEFL book such as Cambridge TOEFL might not be the best choice when preparing for the CPE. I haven’t taught the CPE before, personally (only CAE, FCE, and PET), so I’m afraid I don’t have any recommendations for the CPE, but if you are going to take the TOEFL later, Cambridge TOEFL is a good choice for that. :-)

      As for improving your essays, there are really two very important things: read a lot and write a lot. Reading is very important to improve your writing—it helps you learn new vocabulary, learn new grammar structures, improve spelling, and reinforce grammar you already know. But if you don’t also write regularly, it’s easier to forget those things you learn while reading. You need to use the things you learn, imitate what you read in your own writing, to make long-term improvement. For the TOEFL, it’s best if you read academic texts. The science and technology sections of advanced English news sources are great, challenging practice.

      And here’s an exercise that’s really helpful for the TOEFL, specifically. After you read an English article, if you can, sit down and write a summary of what you just read. You don’t need to include your opinion or any other information, just a few hundred words of your own—not copying—that explains what you learned from the text. That gives you opportunity to both learn and practice natural English, plus use the types of words and phrases you’ll need on the TOEFL to reference a reading and lecture.

  7. Vivian March 31, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Hello Lucas! I am planning to take TOEFL test this coming May 10. I am weak in English Vocabulary and grammar. What is your best recommendation for a month preparation. I am shopping around, I will start to study tomorrow April 1.( I hope that don’t get fooled of choosing guide book !) . Based on your review,should I get Official Guide to the Toefl Test 4th edition?
    Notice that it is only a month preparation , I would appreciate your advice of the best approach to get the required score. I need Official TOEFL score of at least 550 (paper test), 213 (computer test).

    • Lucas
      Lucas March 31, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Vivian,

      First, be sure about which test you’re taking! The PBT (paper-based test) is very rare, depending on your country, and the CBT (computer-based test) is gone; most students take the IBT (internet-based test). That score is from 0 to 120, and it’s a very different test from the PBT. If you’re going to take the PBT, don’t buy the official guide! That book is only for the IBT.

      If you’re going to take the IBT, then you might like to follow [the study schedule Kate wrote](http://magoosh.com/toefl/2013/one-month-toefl-study-schedule/). That schedule is one month long and only requires the official guide. :-) Then, if you have more time to study or need more material, either the Complete Guide by Bruce Rogers or The Cambridge Guide to the TOEFL are great books for more detailed strategy and skill practice, not just descriptions of the test and practice questions.

      Again, though, those are for the IBT.

      Lucas


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