Reading Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

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General Information

The TOEFL Reading test assesses your ability to read English on a college entry level. The passages used on the test are typical of what you would find during college study, and the skills tested are critical for successful performance in college and in the workplace. Whatever your purpose for taking the TOEFL test, prepare yourself well by studying all of the concepts listed here.

The Reading section is the first section in the TOEFL® test. During this test, you will have 60 to 80 minutes to respond to 36 to 56 questions about reading passages given to you. You will know how much time you have by looking at the time clock at the upper right-hand side of your screen. It will either display 1:00 or 1:20. Based on the time display, you will know how many passages to complete. If 1:00 is displayed, it means that you have 60 minutes to read and respond to three academic passages. If 1:20 is displayed, then you will have 80 minutes to read and respond to four academic passages.

Each passage typically has 12 to 14 questions. When beginning the Reading section, your screen will be split in half. The left side of the screen will be empty, while the right side of the screen will be your reading passage.

Some test takers prefer not to see the questions while reading, although we don’t recommend this. For those test takers, you can begin reading right away. However, we recommend the optimal way of taking the Reading section. This option is to see your questions while you skim and scan the passage. To do that, scroll down to the bottom of the reading passage, then scroll back up. Click on the Next button at the top right of your screen and your questions will appear on the left side of the screen. Seeing your questions is an advantage, because you will be more in tune with what to look for in the passage. Your reading passage will always be visible on the right side of your screen.

General Reading Practice

Simply practicing the act of reading on a regular basis can help improve your skills. It’s important to use your time wisely, however, and read materials that will challenge you to read and comprehend at the appropriate level.

Types of Reading Material

The Reading portion of the TOEFL test covers many fields of study, including literature, science, and the humanities. So, as you prepare for this test, be sure to seek a variety of reading practice material. Note that reading nonfiction often requires an additional set of reading skills, including reading headings and picture captions, which are not as vital for understanding fiction.

Level of Reading Material

The passages in the Reading portion of the TOEFL test are excerpts from typical university textbooks in all subject areas. Consider this when choosing reading practice material. Seeking books used in college courses would be a good idea. Keep in mind that the average test passage is around 700 words in length.


There are many sources of material that can help you improve your reading skills. Because the TOEFL test is a measurement of your comprehension skills in an academic environment, we recommend you choose reading selections that focus on subjects and areas that lean more toward academic texts. Here are some examples:

  • Books are an obvious recommendation. Books are designed for reading. They are descriptive and include information that is similar to reading material you will encounter in the TOEFL test. Choose a variety of books to help you increase your comprehension and vocabulary. Choose some nonfiction books, professional books, and university textbooks.

  • Periodicals and magazines are another helpful source of reading material. Whether online or on paper, periodicals and magazines offer rich language with subject-specific details. Social and celebrity-style magazines have a lower vocabulary level to reach the masses, while news magazines or specialized magazines (financial, political, professional,etc.) use a richer vocabulary and are closer to the excerpts you might find in the actual test.

  • Online ESL Reading sites will help you improve your comprehension skills. However, not all comprehension texts and passages are the same. Some quiz you after reading, covering vocabulary or factual information. Do your best to search online sources that include what is arguably the most important ingredient: critical thinking. Critical thinking questions teach the reader to manipulate bits of information that can be used to formulate their own answer—one that may not be clearly outlined in the text. Choose reading comprehension exercises that include a short passage followed by answering about details in the passage. These exercises are interactive, colorful, and unique and are sure to improve your reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Specific Reading Strategies

If you want to gain more out of what you read, there are certain things you can do. Reading strategies are things that good readers do, and they can help you comprehend all kinds of reading material. These strategies are especially helpful when you read text about an unfamiliar subject or material that contains terms new to you. During a test, you will not always have time to do all these things, but they are helpful as you read to prepare for the test. Taking quick notes as you read is never a bad idea. Just don’t spend too much time on it during a test.

Before Reading

Your before reading skills are very important when preparing to read a passage. You can use several strategies to improve your reading, your comprehension and vocabulary, and your preparedness for the TOEFL exam, even though you won’t have time to do this completely during the actual exam.

Activating prior knowledge is mapping out what you already know about the subject. Here are some strategies for doing this:

  • Look and analyze the title of the passage you are about to read. List all the information that comes to mind about this title. Ask yourself, “What do I already know about this information?” Do any of your experiences help you recall related information?

  • Look at the visual items in the passage, if any. Pictures and other visual material can activate your prior knowledge.

  • Skim through the material and get a basic idea of its content. Look at highlighted words or headings to get a clearer idea of what you already know and what you expect to read.

Use these pieces of information to recall and understand the material before you read. This will help you during the reading.

While Reading

When you have “warmed up” your mind, you are ready to read. Now, you can use some strategies to connect your prior knowledge and your comprehension and critical thinking.

  • Take notes to help you organize the information you are receiving from the material.

  • Ask yourself questions or hypothesize along the way: “I think this word means …” or “This word is similar to …”

  • Identify important concepts and write them in the margins.

  • Summarize what you understand at the end of each section.

  • Monitor and review for accurate understanding. If you understand a piece of the passage and then, during another paragraph, have a different understanding, you should go back and relate the two thoughts. Review and repair your understanding.

After Reading

When you’ve finished reading, you’re not quite finished. Here are some valuable tips for retaining the information:

  • Summarize and reflect. You can do this by summarizing in your mind and rereading selected, important elements of the passage.

  • Review your notes and verify that they reflect your understanding, and ask yourself if you can relate the information to personal experiences.

  • Think about how this information might be used in the future.


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