Reading Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

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General Information

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Reading section assesses your ability to read English on a college entry level. The passages used for 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, prepare by studying all of the concepts listed here.

The Reading section is the first section of the TOEFL. During this test, you will have 35 minutes to read two passages and respond to 20 questions about them (10 questions per passage). Expect the length of each passage to be about 700 words.

The remaining information in this study guide addresses the types of questions you will see in the TOEFL Reading section and strategies for arriving at the correct answers. Additionally, the end of this guide includes tips for improving your reading skills and comprehension.

Information Questions

This type of question asks for information that is specifically stated in the passage. It may concern a major idea, a supporting detail, or a definition, but you will be able to locate the answer directly in the text. The question will usually state in which paragraph the answer can be found.

There are two types of information questions:

  • factual—This type of question ask you for a fact that is true according to the author of the passage.

  • negative factual—By contrast, a negative factual question asks you to find the answer choice that is not true according to the text. The question may be phrased in several ways:

    • Which of the following is FALSE?
    • Which of the following is NOT true?
    • The author mentioned all EXCEPT which of these?

On the actual TOEFL, the negative words may be capitalized as shown above. In our practice questions, these words may be in italics.

Here are the steps you can take to answer a negative factual information question:

Step 1: Locate key words in the answer choices.

Step 2: Scan those key words in the text to verify the statements.

Step 3: Eliminate true answers. The correct answer will be the one that directly contradicts or is not mentioned in the passage.

Inference and Rhetorical Purpose Questions

These types of questions require a bit more analysis than information questions. This section discusses what you’ll need to do to answer them.

Inference Questions

Gaining information through inference is more complex than merely knowing what you have read. Why? Because the answers are implied but not explicitly stated. The answers to a few of the questions on this test measure your ability to understand meaning in the text, not just what is written on the page.

You can recognize and identify inference questions when you see certain key words and phrases in the question, such as inferred, it can be determined…, implied, based on the information…, most likely, or suggest. Basically, you take the facts from the passage and use your own reasoning to come to a logical conclusion.

Inference questions often deal with a cause-and-effect situation by stating the effect of a change. The question will imply or strongly hint at something in the text that helps the test-taker come to a reasonable conclusion (or inference). These are the steps for answering an inference question:

Step 1: Read the questions and the answer choices thoroughly. Take note of the key words in both the question and the answer choices.

Step 2: From the key words you noted, look for synonyms in the question and the answer choices. For example, you might see the word traditional in the question and the word conventional in an answer choice. Always double-check that the synonyms are used the same way. Even if the same word is used in the passage and answer choice, still ensure it is used in the same way and context.

Step 3: Eliminate any answers that contradict the text. The test writers will not ask you to make complex conclusions, so make sure that the answer you choose is closely related to what is being asked. Some test-takers get hung up on dates in the passage and inference questions. This is a bit tricky. So, you will need to pay close attention to the question and the text.

For example, suppose the passage says, “The term filibuster has been used since the mid-nineteenth century.”

The question is, “It can be inferred from the paragraph that around 1800 ____.”

A. legislative action was never delayed
B. the term filibuster was not in use
C. the first filibuster took place
D. the filibuster was in use

Here, B is the correct answer. You should realize that “the mid-nineteenth century” was around 1850. The question says 1800, and the text says since. So, you can infer that before 1850, they did not use the term filibuster.

Step 4: Double-check that your answer makes sense based on what is stated in the provided text. The correct answer is the one that makes a small, logical conclusion from the details provided in the text and question.

When you are answering inference questions, be careful not to assume too much. This can lead you to an incorrect answer. Even though the correct answer will not be directly stated in the text, you should be able to find solid evidence to support your choice.

A good way to hone your inference skills is to read a piece of writing and make a list of things that are stated in the passage and another list of things you can infer.

Rhetorical Purpose Questions

The phrase rhetorical purpose essentially means “author’s purpose.” This type of test question will ask you not what the author says, but why the author has presented specific information in a distinct place or manner related to the rest of the passage.

You can identify rhetorical purpose questions when you see certain key phrases in the question, such as “Why does the author…”, “The author mentions…”, or “The author uses the phrase/words ____ in the passage…”

Here are useful steps for solving rhetorical purpose questions:

Step 1: Look for key words and phrases in the passage that relate to the question, such as definition, for example, to illustrate, to refute, to note, and function of. Also, determine how the transition words at the beginning of a paragraph relate to the other paragraphs.

Step 2: Eliminate answers that do not show links or relationships between sentences or paragraphs.

Step 3: Determine if an answer choice accurately indicates why the author said what they said. Is there a key word or synonym in the answer choice that is also in the passage?

Step 4: Verify that your answer can be defended based on the information in the passage.

Vocabulary Questions

The TOEFL will also test if you know the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in reading material. The more words you know, the better you will do on the test. The words you will encounter will not be especially technical in nature and are words that could be used in a number of disciplines. They should be understood by anyone studying at the college level.

These questions may begin by stating something from the text and asking what the author means by that word or phrase. Another type of vocabulary question may simply ask for the word that is closest in meaning to a given word. The following are strategies you can use to improve your vocabulary skills.

Word Lists

To increase your vocabulary skills, it’s always a good idea to increase the number of words you understand. There are lists of commonly used words and phrases on the TOEFL that are available online. Download them, find their synonyms, write them on index cards or in lists in a notebook, and practice them.

Words in Context

When an unknown word is part of a sentence or passage, you can use context clues such as the surrounding words to help you determine its meaning. For example, look at this sentence:

Joanne’s mother went to the school to get the cell phone the teacher had confiscated.

If you do not recognize or know the meaning of the word confiscated, you will need to look at other parts of the sentence to help determine its meaning.

The sentence tells you that Joanne’s mother went to the school. Why would she do that? Something must be wrong. The next set of context clues says “to get the cell phone the teacher had confiscated.” You can understand from the sentence that something caused the mother to go to school and get the cell phone. Likely, you would recall from your own past experiences that cell phones are usually not allowed in the classroom. So, most likely, the school took it away, and the mother must now come and get it. Therefore, confiscated must mean “taken away.”

You may not know the exact definition of an unfamiliar word, but using the context clues in the sentence will give you a good idea of what the word means.

Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words

Sometimes, when you encounter a word that is unfamiliar, you can break it down. In other words, you can split the word into its various parts: the prefix, suffix, and root word.

Let’s say you encounter the word discomfort in a passage. Presumably, you notice there is a word within this word that can stand on its own: comfort. This is the root word. Obviously, a prefix has been added to it: dis. This prefix means “apart from, away from, or opposite of.” Therefore, discomfort means to be away or apart from comfort.

What if we added the suffix able to comfort? The word becomes comfortable. We know that -able means “capable of” or “given to.” Therefore, comfortable means “capable of comfort.”

This type of analysis can help you to read and understand the meaning of unfamiliar words. Here are some you can try to break down on your own: rewind, dislocate, uncertain, happiness, biology.

Words with Similar Meanings

Words with the same or similar meanings are called synonyms. On the test, you will be given questions that require you to know the synonyms of a word or phrase. While practicing your reading skills, look up unfamiliar words in a thesaurus, a book of synonyms. Find the word and write down the words that have the same meaning. Try substituting the new word for the old word to see if it’s a good fit.

There are many online lists you can look at for synonyms. If you use Microsoft Word, you can highlight a word and press shift+F7 to see a list of synonyms. That’s an easy trick to use when writing as well.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Be careful when using synonyms, as a word can have more than one meaning. Consider the word coast as used in this sentence:

My house is on the coast.

There are multiple words that are synonyms of coast, but they have different meanings. One synonym for coast is oceanfront, but you may see that another synonym for coast is glide. Trying substituting each choice in the original sentence. The logical synonym for coast in this sentence is oceanfront. The other meaning of coast could be used in this sentence:

The boy tried to glide down the icy hill on a sled.

Dealing with Vocabulary Questions on the Test

Vocabulary questions are the easiest to identify because they will ask you the meaning of a word that is highlighted or in bold in your reading passage.

The question will specifically state where to find the word (e.g., “The phrase [X] in paragraph 2…”). You will see key phrases in the question, such as “closest in meaning to…” and “could best be replaced by…” The questions will not just ask the meaning of a word or phrase; you must also consider how it is used in the passage. You should be able to verify your answer by substituting it in the given sentence.

For example, in “polish the furniture” and “polish your skills,” the word polish has two different meanings. The given sentence will give clues about which meaning is being used. Let’s try it out:

Text: She embarked on her career by working as a newspaper reporter.

Question: The phrase embarked on is closest in meaning to ____.

A. took a trip to
B. started out on
C. improved upon
D. had an opinion about

Here are the basic steps for answering this type of question:

Step 1: Look at the word or phrase and read the choices to eliminate wrong answers. If you are familiar with the phrase embarked on, you will know that C and D are not definitions of it, so the answer will be between A and B. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, context clues and syntax can help you eliminate some of the wrong answers.

Step 2: Substitute A and B in the sentence to see which one makes sense in context. While choice A is a correct definition of the phrase, it does not make sense in this context. So, the correct answer must be choice B.

Step 3: Verify your answer by substituting the correct answer into the sentence. The correct answer must make sense in context.

Simplifying Sentence Questions

Sentence simplification or paraphrasing is one of the more challenging types of questions in the TOEFL Reading section. These questions require a more in-depth reading of the passage. Fortunately, you will have already skimmed, scanned, and answered many questions that have given you a deeper understanding of the passage.

In sentence simplification, you will be asked to choose the sentence from the answers that is most like a specific sentence from the passage. You can recognize and identify a sentence simplification type of question when you see phrasing such as “Which of the sentences below expresses the essential information?” The answer choices are usually shorter versions of the original sentence, but the correct one contains all the important information.

These are the steps for selecting the correct answer in a sentence simplification question:

Step 1: Read the original sentence and simplify it in your mind. Determine the most essential information and individual elements within it. Then restate them to yourself in plain English before you look at the answers. If you focus in this way, finding the correct answer is easier and more time-efficient.

Step 2: Eliminate wrong answers. When you have simplified the answer in your head (or notes), look at the answer choices for ones that can be easily rejected. Does it contradict the highlighted sentence? Does it say something that is simply not part of the passage content? Eliminating the obvious wrong answers right away will save you time.

Step 3: Compare the answer choices with the original sentence to see if they agree grammatically. Also, make sure you check for synonyms and accurate changes in the order of ideas. Consider any transformation between the active and passive voice and between general and specific nouns. Do they agree, or do they contradict each other?

If either of these things are in the original sentence, be sure they are also in your answer choice:

a cause-and-effect relationship a conclusion based on certain evidence

Step 4: Replace the sentence in the passage with your answer choice to double-check it. Does it flow easily with the rest of the paragraph or the passage as a whole? Does it restate the same idea as the original sentence? Or does it leave out something important? If your answer meets the requirements of simplifying the original sentence and restates the essential information, look no further. Move on to the next question.

Inserting a Sentence Questions

Inserting text, or improving coherence, is another task you will complete in the Reading section. Each passage includes one of this question type, and it can be the most time-consuming. Here, you will decide where a new sentence best fits into the reading passage. This tests your ability to see the logical flow of a passage and the ideological connections between sentences and paragraphs.

Here are steps for answering this type of question correctly:

Step 1: Read the sentence or idea suggestion in the question. Make sure you understand what it is saying and note the broad topic it addresses.

Step 2: Scan the passage’s paragraphs to determine where the addition would best fit and see if that place is one of the answer choices. If not, try each of the answer choices, one by one.

Step 3: Read through the paragraph with the sentence now added. Does it contribute to the flow of the passage? Read the sentence before and after it to see if the new sentence seems logical when placed there. If you still aren’t sure, try the new sentence in the other three positions. Look at the structure and logic. Watch for demonstrative words like these or those and transition words like on the other hand, for example, therefore, and as a result. These clues will help you determine which position is the most logical. You may have to read the paragraph several times to confirm your answer.

Prose Summary Questions

You will be asked to complete one prose summary or “fill in a table” question for each reading passage during the TOEFL iBT. To answer these questions, you will need to choose three pieces of essential information from a list of six points that the passage may make. To choose the correct options, you’ll need to identify and understand cause/effect and problem/solution relationships, as well as compare/contrast concepts. You’ll also need to classify major ideas in their appropriate context. The three incorrect choices will have errors in the details or state an unimportant concept. In other words, this task asks you to make a detailed outline for the reading passage.

Your answer choices do not have to be in order. You get two points if you choose all three correct answers, one point if you choose two correct answers, and no points for one or no correct answers.

The steps in choosing the correct options are simple if you can determine the outline.

Step 1: Read the options and find key words and phrases. Look in the passage to see if those words or passages appear in it.

Step 2: Scan the statements already placed in the table and see if your choices are equally as important as those. The correct answer choices will be more specific than one main idea, as they usually represent several major points or support details in the passage, but they still need to present main points. You may have to refer to the passage several times to confirm your choices.

Step 3: Verify your choices based on the information in the passage. You should also know that some options are not correct because they are not mentioned in the text, are not relevant to the table, or contradict the passage.


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