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

The Official Guide to the TOEFL TestNobody 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, 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:

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

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.

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 only helpful for the practice tests.