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ETS’s Official TOEFL Course Online, Week 2: Reading

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

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As I’ve mentioned before, ETS is running a free official TOEFL course through EdX. Last time, I covered the first week of ETS’s Official TOEFL Course Online.

Today, we’ll look at Week 2. The second week of this course focuses on TOEFL Reading.

Structure of the Reading Unit

The Week 2 TOEFL Reading unit of this EdX course has 13 modules. The first two modules give an overview of academic reading and the TOEFL Reading Section. Modules 3 through 9 cover the different TOEFL Reading question types, as they’re categorized by ETS. Modules 11 and 12 focused on TOEFL Reading practice. Module 11 featured a TOEFL Reading practice test; the 12th module included additional skills-building activities and links to academic reading practice. Week 13 briefly reviewed all of the content from the unit, while also previewing next week’s TOEFL Listening Unit.

The Lecture Videos

The course started with an introductory video from Cynthia, the TOEFL Reading specialist for the course. She discussed common challenges of TOEFL Reading and showed clips of TOEFL test-takers discussing their personal challenges on this part of the exam.

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The next video lecture gave an overview of academic reading in English. The instructor talked about the key features of formal academic writing in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and tone. This video, while short, did a good job of demystifying English academic texts; it’s a pretty good resource for people who aren’t very familiar with English language academic passages.

The third video lecture talked about the best ways to approach a TOEFL Reading passage. A lot of the advice was good — there was a helpful walkthrough of skills such as skimming, identifying main ideas and supporting details, and understanding author attitude and purpose. However, the video instructor gave one piece of advice I strongly disagree with — she recommended reading the whole passage first and taking notes on all of the passage’s content.

In my own experience, this is a bad strategy. Reading the whole passage first is needlessly time-consuming because not everything in the passage will come up in the questions. It’s much better to take approaches that are question-focused, not passage-focused. (See our blog’s list of alternatives to reading the whole TOEFL passage right away.) Taking notes on the whole passage is also unnecessary and harmful for most test-takers. It’s unnecessary because you’ll be able to revisit the actual passage as you answer the questions. It can be harmful because it’s very difficult to focus both on note-taking and reading comprehension at the same time.

The next several videos talked about the following TOEFL Reading question types: factual and negative factual questions, inference and rhetorical purpose questions, vocabulary questions, reference questions, sentence simplification questions, prose summary questions, and fill-in-the-table questions. All of these videos are also available on TOEFLtv, the official YouTube channel for the exam. These videos focused on example TOEFL Reading questions and provided answer explanations.

Finally, there was a video overview of the way that TOEFL Reading is scored, followed by a short review lecture summarizing all the lessons on TOEFL Reading.

The Practice Questions

The videos about the Reading Question types all included onscreen example passages — or at least paragraphs from TOEFL Reading passages. The practice questions were taken — for the most part — either from The Official Guide to the TOEFL, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Vol. 1, or from the free content on the ETS TOEFL website.

The practice test for TOEFL Reading featured a full-length official TOEFL Reading passage and question set. The passage was reproduced from TOEFL Practice Online (TPO). This makes the material a great value, because — as Lucas observed in his TOEFL Practice Online (TPO) review — TPO is very expensive. Getting some TPO content for free is a wonderful benefit of this course.

Both the videos and the practice test include answer explanations.

Teacher and Student Interaction

The instructors continue to give only very light guidance. More often than not, instructors don’t answer the written questions that students post to course discussion. And when they do, the responses are usually very brief, with links to information rather than full, personalized answers. However, there are some exceptions. In several cases, when students were struggling to understand the answer explanations from the unit, course instructors would step in and give an additional, in-depth text explanation.

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