Essential Words for the TOEFL

April 1994 — Volume 1, Number 1

Essential Words for the TOEFL

Matthiesen, Steven J. (1993)
Barrons Educational Series, Inc.
Pp. 202. US$8.95.

What vocabulary is necessary to score high on the TOEFL? How can I improve my vocabulary for this important test? How can I be a better TOEFL test taker?

The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is an English proficiency test for students and professionals whose native language is not English and who wish to study or work in the United States, Canada, and many other English speaking environments. A great deal of misunderstanding persists about TOEFL vocabulary. It is often assumed that there is an endless list of words that can be tested, making the task of vocabulary learning seem almost impossible. Actually, the number of words that can be tested is quite limited and predictable, including only words with synonyms. In addition, because the TOEFL is a test for colleges, universities, and the professions, only academic vocabulary will appear. In Essential Words for the TOEFL, 450 words likely to appear on the TOEFL, from abroad to zenith, are defined, explained, and practiced. The book focuses on vocabulary building, selecting the most likely words to appear and teaching the student how to learn them. It also gives the student the tools with which to learn many other words. Matthiesen invested a great deal of research in this book. Essential Words for the TOEFL is the product of an extensive study of TOEFL vocabulary, including over 2,000 TOEFL vocabulary questions from dozens of different TOEFL tests (p. v). It identifies words and the synonyms which have appeared as both correct and incorrect answers. While 450 essential TOEFL words are introduced in the 30 lessons, a large number of derivative words also appear, raising the total number of words actually taught by the book to about 1200. In addition, the student has the opportunity to use these words in 150 practice TOEFL items. As much as 60% of the vocabulary tested on any given TOEFL form would consist of one of these words in either the stem or the options. If such a list were studied by students, they could show a considerable improvement in their score on the vocabulary section of the test.

Because knowledge of vocabulary is basic to knowledge of language, many universities request a report of a subscore on this section of the TOEFL. Indeed, Matthiesen claims:

The words and practice questions that appear throughout this book will help you maximize your understanding of words that will likely appear in every section of the TOEFL (p. v).

To give the student a general frame of reference, Chapter 1 presents a sample test with instructions, questions, dialogs, and texts as well as explanations, correct answers, and general hints [-1-] about how to answer the TOEFL, such as On all parts of the TOEFL, be sure to answer every question, and Watch your time! (p. 7).

This chapter also describes the nature of TOEFL vocabulary, discussing in detail the types of words that are tested on the TOEFL and contrasting them with the more numerous types of words that are not tested on the TOEFL.

Chapter 2 discusses the way TOEFL vocabulary items are written to familiarize examinees with the content and format of TOEFL vocabulary items. It gives strategies for answering vocabulary items, such as: do not waste time reading the sentences because the sentence will not help you understand the meaning of the underlined word and words that contain similar sounds and spelling are usually not correct answers (p. 11). For example, in Chapter 2 it is stated: Notice that choices (A) and (C), idle and fragile, have sounds similar to agile [the underlined word]. Such words are not usually the correct choice (p. 10).

Chapter 3 gives a plan for studying vocabulary. Some advice includes reading college level material such as newspapers and college textbooks, and making flash cards and word lists.

Chapter 4 shows how common Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes can be used as tools to develop ones personal vocabulary and enable one to make an educated guess about unfamiliar words in a test situation. Words are examined in terms of roots and affixes. The word contact is examined in terms of its prefix con meaning with and its root tact meaning touch to mean communication with another person. The word autobiography is seen as a composite of self, life, and write meaning the story of a persons life written by that same person (p. 17). Definitions are short and clear.

Chapter 5 outlines how to use a dictionary and a thesaurus. Using the word maximum for comparison, both a dictionary entry from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1992) and a thesaurus entry from Websters New World Thesaurus (1985) are given. The readers attention is also drawn to word labels, such as parts of speech, and several styles of usage such as nonstandard, informal, slang, British, and others (p. 23).

The most valuable section of the book is Chapter 6, the essential TOEFL vocabulary. An introduction explains the rationale for the sequencing of the lessons. A vocabulary study plan follows, drawing on the overall plan in Lesson 3, but more specific to the vocabulary in this particular chapter.

The chapter is then divided into 30 lessons. Each lesson contains 15 words that are likely to appear on a TOEFL. Each essential word is defined and a synonym is given. Words formed from [-2-] the same word (derivatives) are also given along with their part of speech. Then, the word is used in two sample sentences. These sentences, unlike actual TOEFL stems, use the vocabulary in self-defining or near self-defining contexts in order to give the student a better understanding of the meaning and usage of the word. The first of the sample sentences illustrates the use of the essential word, while the second example sentence illustrates the use of one of the derivative words.

For each lesson, after the 15 entries, there are 10 matching exercises in which the reader matches a word (out of context) with one of four possible synonyms. At the end of each lesson, there are five well written TOEFL vocabulary items. Included among the underlined word, the stem, and the four options of these items are all fifteen words taught in the lesson. Answers to the exercises appear immediately at the end of the chapter, thus saving the reader the effort of having to look at the end of book.

After completing the book, the reader is given two 30-item vocabulary practice tests, with the instruction to take both of the tests on separate days (p. 186). No doubt separate test taking sessions would improve memory. Again, a key is immediately provided within the chapter.

Also included in this chapter is an ingenious but simple mathematical calculation of how to extrapolate a score on the vocabulary practice test that approximates the score that the examinee might have received if s/he had taken the entire Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension section. The method for calculating the scaled score on this section is original and seems to be reasonably accurate. The student multiplies his/her raw score by 1.47 and adds 23 to the product. Thus, a student who answers all thirty items correctly would have a scaled score of 67, which is the maximum possible TOEFL scaled Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension Section score. The examinee calculates a section score for that represents what s/he would earn if Section 3 of the TOEFL consisted of vocabulary items alone. The student is told that if his/her section 3 scores on the actual TOEFL differ, then this discrepancy would probably be due to a markedly different performance on the reading comprehension part of this section.

For easy reference, the index lists all 450 words in alphabetical order, as well as the page on which they are introduced. The book is written in clear, bold, large print that is easy to follow.

All in all, this small, user friendly book for self study has a real chance of improving the students score on the vocabulary section of the TOEFL. Although there are myriad TOEFL preparation [-3-] books on the market, this book fills a void, and can therefore be used to supplement any of them.

Dr. Marsha Bensoussan
Haifa University

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