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The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test Book Review

The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test iBT Edition Cover ImageDon’t let the simplicity of the name deceive you–this book is not the official guide written by ETS, the makers of the test. And there’s no big test prep name (like Barron’s or Kaplan) anywhere on the book. Instead, the publisher, Heinle, is a more general English language book publisher with much less influence in the test preparation world. So why is this one of the first books I am reviewing?

A few years ago, another TOEFL teacher told me that this was the best book on the market for TOEFL prep. Then, more recently, I found the same claim on a forum. The book is not extremely popular, and it didn’t seem very good for classroom use (I was teaching a class), so I didn’t research it, but the message was memorable. Every other TOEFL book I’ve used has been imperfect. Was it true that The Complete Guide was actually a perfect book?

Well, honestly, no. It has flaws. But this is fantastic resource, nonetheless. I definitely don’t recommend it for a classroom, but for self-study, it should get some serious attention, especially if you prefer books to studying for the TOEFL online or want to supplement internet-based preparation. (Remember that the TOEFL iBT is an internet-based test).

 

TOEFL Practice Material

The first and possibly most important point to make about this book is simple: there is a lot of material here. For example, there are more than 40 full length reading passages, and there are many more short ones, too. Most of those passages only ask specific question types (such as 10 consecutive vocabulary questions), but there is also a total of 4 full practice tests in the book–two at the end, and two broken up, mixed into the other chapters–which include the full range of question types. To have that much reading practice is almost unnecessary. Ultimately, it’s a good thing.

But the quality of those readings isn’t perfect. It’s good–better than many other books’ passages–but it’s inconsistent. Some passages are oddly structured or barely structured at all. The real TOEFL reading passages (in each of the reading, speaking, and writing sections) are very carefully structured. Some of those in the Complete Guide are a bit hurried. The level is, occasionally, too easy. The vocabulary is at the right level, but many sentences are too simplified and too direct. Still, the passages are on the right topics, the vocabulary is appropriate, and most of the passages are very similar to real TOEFL texts.

If the reading is good, the listening is even better, on average. It suffers some of the same problems that most TOEFL books do–poor acting, lectures that are too simply structured–but in general it is generally a very level appropriate, accurate representation of what you will hear on the real test. The book doesn’t come with a CD, though; instead, you have to listen or download from the publisher’s site, which is free, or buy the CDs separately, which is not free.

The questions are well written. There are very rarely questions that a native speaker might get “wrong” because they’re poorly made, like you might see in Oxford’s offering, for example.

 

Skill Practice

Good TOEFL preparation is a difficult balance to strike. There should be plenty of test-specific, TOEFL-like material, but there should also be skill-building exercises. For example, how do you speak more clearly? How should you organize your thoughts before that speaking task? How should you transition between thoughts in an essay? How do you find the main points in a reading passage?

Unlike many books, The Complete Guide strikes that balance very well. Other than your general English practice, the most important thing to improve is to get experience with the test. Writing transition words or conjugating verbs into gaps for 20 pages might help a little, but in the end, it’s writing the essays that makes you more comfortable. There is an abundance of skill-building in this book, and it is mixed very well with the TOEFL-specific practice. It could be better organized–the skill building should come before the test practice–but all of the major skills are included in the book, from pronunciation to grammar to note-taking. Granted, there are some skills which should get more attention, such as paraphrasing or finding the main points of a text. But there are few of these, and the good outweighs the bad. Most exercises are helpful and appropriate.

The biggest fault is vocabulary. Vocabulary is massively important for scoring highly on the TOEFL. It affects every section of the test: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. You don’t need to know rare words like “obstreperous” or “Luddite,” but you do need a good academic vocabulary including words like “behavioral” and “therein.” But it seems that the author picked words at random from the reading passages to go in his vocabulary lists. For example, “ idea,” “incessant,” and “jolly” are all in the same list. “Idea” is an incredibly common word that any student should already know; “incessant” is good, challenging vocabulary; and “jolly” will almost definitely not appear in any section of a TOEFL. These words do not belong in the same list.

 

Explanations

In the main book, there are no explanations. In fact, there are no answers! Instead, you need another book which has the answers, some explanations, and the scripts for the audio.

This is the biggest problem with the Complete Guide. After all, it’s not cheap, and that book of answers isn’t either! And if you bought the CDs as well as the main book? That’s a lot of material and money for just one book.

But knowing whether your answers were correct or not—and why you got wrong answers—is one of the most important parts of studying, so I do recommend buying the answer book. It’s not perfect, but some of it is very helpful. There are twelve sample essays, six for each task, each with sample notes, which is great, and there are brief explanations for every listening question. But many of the questions in the reading section aren’t explained–only answered with a letter–and the speaking section guidelines aren’t always helpful. Sample answer recordings, including both good and bad responses, would have been better.

I imagine there was simply too much material to spend a lot of time writing the explanations. Full explanations on each practice question or exercise might have filled another 800+ page book, so maybe I should be grateful that the answer book is as short as it is. Still, the book needs more explanation, and you shouldn’t have to buy a whole separate book for it.

 

Test Strategy and Advice

Again, the Complete Guide is generally good, but not perfect in this aspect. The direction and advice is written very clearly for even low-level students. This is one of the best parts of this book; many publishers don’t write for a TOEFL audience. Instead, they write in complicated English when they describe the test and the strategies, and that’s pointless. Maybe the reading passages will be difficult to understand, but the instruction should not be. The Complete Guide understands that point very well.

The test strategy is good, not great, and every aspect of the test is covered in sufficient detail. There are a few points that are lacking, though: a few places where the strategy should be more closely connected with practice activities, some strategies that are discussed too quickly or not discussed at all, and a couple of unrealistic strategies (such as trying to remember all 12-14 of the questions on a reading passage while you read). I think we will find better strategy in a future review of another book.

 

Report Card:

Authenticity of practice material: B

Amount of practice material: A+

Quality of explanations: F (Not in the book. If you buy the answer book, then I’d give that a C)

Skill building material: A-

Test strategy and advice: B

 

The Final Word:

This is definitely one of the top five books on the market for studying for the TOEFL by yourself, but it may not really be the best. My hunt for the perfect book continues!

But if you want a lot of practice, good strategy, and clear writing this is definitely a good book for you. Students who have a month or more to study for the test and only want to buy one book would do well to buy this one.

 

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26 Responses to The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test Book Review

  1. Farsa December 15, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    Thank you very much for your through review. However, I’m really baffled which book is the best choice for TOEFL because before reading your review I thought this is the best book available. I would be grateful if you suggest the best book.
    By the way, when are you going to write a review for other popular TOEFL books?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      Hi Farsa,

      I’m still working on reviews—I’ll post my Cambridge review soon—so I can’t yet give a definite best book. The Complete Guide is definitely a good book, as is Cambridge Preparation. I recommend Cambridge for more long-term, step-by-step practice of skills, and just the Official Guide if you only need to know the format of the test and study for a short time. But that might change as I review even more books 🙂

      Best,
      Lucas

  2. farsa December 16, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Thank you very much for your answer Lucas. Actually I aim for a +105 mark in the TOEFL that is why I am really curious about using the books appropriately and getting advantage of strong points of different available books in the market. As a result, Identification of pros and cons of different TOEFL books is really important for me and fortunately your through reviews help me a a lot. I’m waiting for your Cambridge review to see whether it can cover drawbacks of The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test Book, specially “Authenticity of practice material” and “Test strategy and advice” sections.

    P.S. I have already studied Grammar and Barron’s 504 words and now I want to start the TOEFL itself and I already own The Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test Book and I want to supplement it with other books you will recommend in the future. Moreover, I have about 4 months until my TOEFL exam.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 8, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      Well, the Cambridge review is up, now 🙂 I hope these reviews have helped!

      • farsa January 25, 2014 at 10:38 am #

        Thank you very much Lucas, your reviews are really helpful 🙂

  3. farsa February 11, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

    Lucas, do you know or have any useful vocabulary list or book for the TOEFL like Magoosh GRE Flashcards? I mean a vocabulary list or vocabulary book which words have been chosen wisely for the TOEFL and it does have a minimum number of useless words for the TOEFL. Thanks in advance for your help

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 12, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

      You’re in luck, Farsa! We actually have a TOEFL vocabulary flashcard app which should be helpful 🙂 Keep in mind that if you’re studying for the GRE, too, these words will be much easier. The TOEFL doesn’t test for extremely rare vocabulary.

      Most or all of those words also appear in the list of academic words you can find here. If you know everything on that list, you’ll be well prepared for many of the texts and lectures on the TOEFL!

      • farsa February 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

        WOW!!! Fantastic!! when did you release that?! I have not seen any post regarding it in your TOEFL and GRE Blogs. Thanks a million 🙂 Nothing could make me this much joyful at the moment!

      • farsa March 1, 2014 at 8:07 am #

        Lucas do you recommend the book “McGraw-Hill Education 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL by Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz & Lawrence Zwier in addition to Magoosh TOEFL Flashcards? I’m using Magoosh TOEFL Flashcards at the moment, however, I want to strengthen my vocabulary even more. Do you recommend the above-mentioned book?

        • Lucas Fink
          Lucas March 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

          Hi Farsa,

          I’d recommend knowing all the words in the academic word list I mentioned earlier more than I’d recommend McGraw-Hill’s book of 400 words. Many words in that book are extremely unlikely to appear on your test (I’d say about 15% – 30% are probably a waste of time). Those words are too topic-specific: what we call “jargon“. You cannot predict which specific topics will be on your test. It’s better to study the words with more general uses and meanings. If you want more than our flashcards, I recommend that academic word list, and, more importantly, reading a lot. Learn vocabulary through your reading, and you’ll be getting fantastic TOEFL practice.

          • farsa March 7, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

            Thanks a million Lucas for your insightful advice 🙂

  4. Thaysa May 21, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Hi Lucas,
    I’m planning to take the test by september and I have couples questions about it. I can speak and listen quite well but I’m not very good with grammar. I was thinking about the official guide, however, there’re no much practice, or the Barrons…do you have any suggestion? I readed you reviews but I still can’t decide.
    Thank you

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas May 23, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

      The official guide is an important start! I definitely recommend buying at least some official tests, either by getting the official guide or by getting the book of 5 practice tests. Then, as for grammar practice, no TOEFL book that I know of has both good TOEFL practice and good grammar lessons. The best is probably Cambridge; it has about 50 pages of okay grammar lessons—not great, but not terrible. Many books have much less. You might want to buy another book, separately. English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy is one of my long-time favorites. It’s not very advanced grammar, but it covers all of the basics in very clear explanations, and it’s easy to use.

      If you want grammar practice, definitely do not buy Barron’s. There is no grammar practice in that book (and nothing else is very good, either…).

      • carcass May 28, 2014 at 3:04 am #

        Hi Lucas,

        your insights are very useful. So at the end of the day could you suggest at least the top notch books AND at the moment the best prep company test that resemble as close as possible the real exam ??

        Barron’s , Kaplan…….

        Your advice would be useful for my thread, as well. Check it if you wanna

        http://gmatclub.com/forum/best-resources-to-tackle-each-section-of-the-toefl-ibt-144802.html

        Thank you in advance

        • Lucas Fink
          Lucas June 2, 2014 at 11:39 am #

          Hi Carcass,

          At the moment, the best books I’ve found are Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test and Bruce Rogers’s Complete Guide to the TOEFL Test. Of those two, the Complete Guide has more accurate representations of what’s on the real TOEFL. But Cambridge has better skill-building exercises, in my opinion. If you’d like to know my reactions to Kaplan and Barron’s material, here are my book reviews on those two:
          Kaplan
          Barron’s

  5. carcass June 4, 2014 at 3:58 am #

    Thanks Lucas.

    I appreciate quite a lot your feedback 🙂

    Regards.

  6. Jean-Marc July 24, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    Hi Lucas,
    Thanks for your great blog.
    I bought the book and learning from it.
    I can however not access the links with the answers:

    Reading answers
    Listening scripts and answers
    Speaking scripts and answers
    Writing scripts and answers

    It seems broken. Are you aware of any other link to access this content?

    Thanks !

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas July 24, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

      You’re right! It looks like the publishing company changed their site and locked the pages with answers. Now you need a username and password to access them, I’m afraid. That wasn’t the case when I wrote this book review—they were public until recently. I’ll change this blog post so other people aren’t confused. I’m sorry about that! I wish the publisher had kept those answers as free to the public.

  7. Jennifer September 27, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    hi Lucas,
    i’m an university student who need to take toefl test before graduation. I’ve already practice with toefl test but never take toefl test. i wonder how your review about this book : Barron’s Pass Key to the TOEFL iBT. is it recommended for me? thank you

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas September 29, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

      Thank you for the recommendation, Jennifer! I’ll start reviewing books again soon. But before I review Barron’s Pass Key, I have some other more popular books I’d like to review, first. I’m afraid I haven’t used Pass Key before, so I can’t comment on how good the material is. I hope you can find more information on that book elsewhere!

  8. rose merry November 7, 2014 at 4:42 am #

    hi,
    i want this review……….how????
    i want to download it online
    thanks,

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas November 10, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Unfortunately, I don’t think there is an eBook version of the Complete Guide for sale. Sorry! All I have seen and could find was the real book for sale.

  9. reena December 12, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    hi lucas,
    i am planning to appear for the toefl and based on the blog i purchased cambridge and ets guide to toefl .
    any other book you would recommend.I am fairly good at the language and want a well written book with strategies.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 12, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

      Those two will do you very well to start with! I would hold off on buying more material until you’re sure you need it. Cambridge alone can take a very long time to use thoroughly. If you find you need more official material (you might), then check out the official book of TOEFL IBT tests.

  10. Shivani January 6, 2015 at 4:09 am #

    Hi Lucas,

    Thank you for your reviews!!

    I want to have more practice on speaking and writing section. As in what kind of writing is required. Can you please let me know any book that is exclusive for these two sections?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 6, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

      You’re welcome! While I don’t know of any exceptional books that are for the writing and speaking sections specifically, I can recommend “The Complete Guide” for both. 🙂 That book will guide you through each TOEFL task and give plenty of examples, too—especially if you buy the answer book as well. I hope that helps at least a bit!


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