on 10 May 2012
As students know, there are a host of TOEFL iBT preparation books on the market that espouse to guide test takers through the process and teach them the ins and outs of what they should know. But, the critical question is does this book--or any of them, for that matter--really teach students and give them the experience that they need to score well? As a veteran teacher of TOEFT iBT and university professor, I feel prepared to provide some answers that might help.
Dr. Pamela Sharpe has teamed up with the respected name of Barron's to publish a new edition of the TOEFL iBT preparation book. This book can be purchased alone or as part of a so-called Super Pack, complete with computer software, audio CDs, and related material. Dr. Sharpe no doubt has a wealth of experience and has taught at a number of universities in the United States and abroad. Like all books there are both positives and negatives to this volume--let me explain them in that order.
Dr. Sharpe is a respected authority in English education and it shows from her publications overall as well as her authoritative tone in this text. There is no doubt of her credentials and this reviewer applauds the attempt to provide TOEFL test-takers with her vast knowledge. Several helpful items inform the reader, such as pre-planned syllabi to guide students through the preparation process. She rightly says that "two hours every day for two months will give you better results than twelve hours every day for ten days," because our minds will absorb and process more information over a longer period than if we rush (page 2). Students should also heed her advice on being studious, organized, motivated, and realistic regarding their goals. Moreover, practice is one of the best methods towards mastery. With respect to the latter point, it is fantastic that she has put together and compiled 7 complete practice tests for students to evaluate their performance during their preparation period. A pre-test establishes a student's level and gives something to compare future scores. This is a primary concern among students for a preparation program and here Barron's delivers.
One of the things that this reviewer especially likes is the campus vocabulary section at the end of the book, which will help foreign students familiarize themselves with the kinds of phrases and terms common at colleges and universities in the United States. Dr. Sharpe's phrases and terms are more realistic and should help not only in the listening section of the test but perhaps also give students some phrases to repeat in certain speaking question responses.
While the above points reflect highly on the work that Dr. Sharpe has done in this volume, this reviewer sees several critical factors as lacking. First, while Dr. Sharpe is an expert of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, her book does not really teach students how to master skills specifically for the TOEFL iBT. Her methods and suggestions--watching the History or Discovery Channels, listening to National Public Radio, and visiting certain websites for speaking and writing help--do not teach the TOEFL but rather do more to aid an overall English proficiency. Yet, as she points out, "there is not always a direct correspondence between proficiency in English and a score on the TOEFL" (page 20). So, how does a student pick this book up and learn how to take the TOEFL?
The short answer to the above question is that students will have a difficult time learning much beyond what their experience taking seven practice tests will give them. The only section that goes in-depth is the "Academic Skills" chapter and while that has some good pointers, this reviewer feels that they miss the mark. In the orientation section, Dr. Sharpe tells people that they should guess if they are not sure of an answer. Technically this can be good advice, but only if the student cannot use a deliberate process of elimination to remove the majority of incorrect answers. She recognizes elimination of wrong choices but does not tell the reader how to do that. In the end, she states, "If you have no idea of the correct answer for a question, choose one letter and use it for your "`guess answer'" throughout the entire examination." Moreover, the so-called guess answer is "especially useful for finishing a section quickly" (page 16). Guessing is a strategy that many students will need to employ at certain times, but the idea of having a guess letter--let's randomly say "C"--and to use that as a default, or when a student is running out of time, seems less than helpful. The reason for that is because there are certain rules and procedures that guide everything on the TOEFL iBT, and understanding those should mean that a student never needs to rely on guessing. Guessing is an absolute last resort and only for one question type.
Like with the above strategy, Dr. Sharpe previews her academic skills section with some strategies that in general might be useful but lack explanation. For instance, she breaks things down into a few categories, such as "skim and scan," "use contexts," "make connections," and "summarize." One of her methods of advice is to "read faster," which for her means to "read for meaning" and understand sentences or paragraphs without focusing on every word (page 32). It is a sound method to understand things in larger pieces and ignore vocabulary words that students may not know, but simply saying "read faster" is not instructive enough. For the reading section, a student simply cannot read the passage and answer 12-14 questions in 20 minutes. Reading--at any speed--will waste too much time and require most students to guess to complete the test in the time allotted. Instead, there are specific methods for dealing with sentences where one encounters difficult vocabulary and that method is lacking in this volume. Another example is when Dr. Sharpe mentions the importance of taking notes--this is in fact one of the most critical skills for the Listening, Speaking, and Writing Sections--but has a convoluted method of presenting students with a roadmap or guideline as to how to take notes. A "taking notes" section comes at the beginning of Chapter 3, which shows an understanding of how important it is, but the directions here--that is really the only attempt to teach students in the entire book--comes across as confusing. There are some good pointers, but the overall affect falls short of educating students with the very critical skills that she recognizes on page 95: "Organize your notes, Identify important information," and "Take notes quickly." Chapter 3 relies on an audio CD that may or may not come with the book, but it seems overall that she is generalizing too much and assuming what students already know. The fact is that conversations and lectures have different formats for notes and nowhere does she give those templates. Instead, there are good but less important strategies like "anticipate the purpose," (page 96) which means that you can make some assumptions about the material based on the heading (for instance, in the Listening Section, a student would hear, "Now listen to a lecture in an American History class").
One of the most important things that TOEFL students need to understand is that the test is simply designed on the premise of basic American academic structure and has rules for choosing correct answers based on the clues in the passages, question types and, especially, eliminating wrong choices based on specific rules of elimination. Assuming anything or bringing in outside information will make you choose incorrectly and your score will suffer. To master the TOEFL iBT, you need a set of specific rules and procedures that you can follow. While this book does a nice job of giving you ample practice tests, it does NOT teach you how to achieve a high score on the TOEFL iBT. To learn the rules and procedures to succeed on the TOEFL iBT visit [...] and see how years of experience has made the materials there the best available for mastering the TOEFL iBT. No matter what training program you use, good luck!