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Book Review: 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL

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.

Grade: C-

Let’s start with a short list of words that are in this book that you probably won’t see on the TOEFL:

  • animism
  • deify
  • ecclesiastical
  • pious (almost the whole chapter on religion is useless)
  • forensics
  • prognosis
  • divination
  • phantom

These are all from just three chapters out of 41 in the book. Some of them are great words, and I recommend that very advanced students who are improving their English vocabulary in general learn words just like these, but they’re simply not TOEFL vocabulary. “Must-Have Words” was the wrong title for this book. Maybe they should have called it “200 Must-Have Words, Plus 100 You Might See and 100 You Don’t Need.” That would have been a bit more accurate, albeit a little long.

Now, it’s possible that all of the words above were on a TOEFL before, but there is a difference between a word that appeared once and a word that is regularly used. Vocabulary that is about an extremely specific topic (e.g. “animism”) can only appear on the test if you are very lucky—or unlucky—and see a text on that exact, specific topic. Words like “deduce,” on the other hand, can appear in many different contexts and so are more useful.

Clearly, a TOEFL vocabulary book that doesn’t focus on TOEFL vocabulary is not perfect. But McGraw-Hills 400 Must-Have Words does try hard to be helpful. Besides just the definitions, there are practice exercises, some of which are in the format of TOEFL reading. In that respect, this book is similar to Collins’ Vocabulary and Grammar for the TOEFL Test. But the exercises don’t compare in quality or in variety.

That’s because Vocabulary and Grammar for the TOEFL Test includes exercises that mimic every part of the TOEFL, whereas is reading-only. There is no CD, so this book doesn’t have any listening. And because it focuses only on words from texts, there are few conversational words in this book. Keep in mind that TOEFL listening is ⅓ conversations, and you hear informal language before speaking tasks, too.

And even within the reading tasks, this book doesn’t focus on the themes of texts in an actual TOEFL. There are some chapters that are TOEFL-like, such as “Evolution and Migration” and “Ancient Life,” but the many chapters of the book lose that focus completely. “Government Corruption” is not a topic you will see on your test, nor is “Ghosts.” That overly-wide range of topics also means words don’t repeat as often as they should. It’s better to have ten texts on evolution than it is to have one text on evolution and nine on other topics. If the common TOEFL topics are repeated, then words associated with those topics can be repeated, too. And that gives you an opportunity to review words that you previously learned.

Basically, if you learn all the words in this book, it will help you , but if you have a choice, this is definitely not the best way to learn real TOEFL vocabulary well.


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