Reading Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

Page 2


The TOEFL test creators want to know if you know the meaning of words, 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 are not very 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.

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 most commonly used words and phrases online. Download them, find their synonyms, write them on index cards or on 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, or 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 we do not recognize or know the meaning of the word confiscated, we’ll need to look at other parts of the sentence to help determine its meaning.

We understand from the sentence 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.” We can understand from the sentence that something caused the mother to go to school and get the cell phone. We can recall from our 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 take away.

You may not know the exact definition of a word that is unfamiliar, but using the surrounding words in the sentence will give you a very 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 by its prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Let’s take a look at an example:

You encounter the word discomfort. You notice there is a word within this word that can stand on its own: comfort. This is the root word. Obviously, the prefix, dis, has been added to it. 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, 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 out on your own: rewind, dislocate, banker, happiness, biology. Can you break down these words?

Words with Similar Meanings

Words with similar meanings are also called synonyms. They are words that have the same or nearly the same meaning. During the test, you will get questions that require you to know the synonyms of an important word or phrase. While practicing your reading skills, look up unfamiliar words in a thesaurus. A thesaurus is a book of synonyms. Find the word and then write down the words that have the same meaning. Be sure to substitute 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, and in Microsoft Word, you can highlight the word and then press shift+F7, and you will see a list of synonyms. That’s an easy trick to use in writing as well.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Be careful when you look for synonyms, as a word can have more than one meaning. Let’s look at the word coast as used in this sentence:

My house is on the coast.

There are two 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 coast down the road on his bike.

Dealing with Vocabulary Questions on the Test

Vocabulary questions are the easiest to identify because you are asked the meaning of a word that is highlighted or in bold in your reading passage. There will be three to five of these on the TOEFL Reading test.

The question will specifically state where to find the word (e.g. “The phrase X in paragraph 2…”). You will see key words in the question, such as “closest in meaning to” and “could best be replaced by.” The questions do not just ask the meaning of a word or phrase, but 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. handed an opinion about

Step 1: Look at the word or phrase and read the choices to eliminate wrong answers. We know that C and D are not definitions of embarked on, so we need to choose between A and B.

Step 2: Substitute A and B in the sentence to see which one makes sense in context. Choice A does not make sense in context. So the correct answer is B.

Step 3: Defend your answer by substituting the correct answer in the sentence one more time. The correct answer will make sense in context.

Text Organization

Knowing the manner in which a reading passage and/or paragraph is organized, also called text structure, can help you find the information you need to answer questions. This skill is especially helpful when dealing with questions related to the author’s purpose. With reading practice, you will be able to spot these common types of text organization quickly.


A cause-and-effect paragraph is commonly used to focus on the reason for an occurrence. A cause is a reason, and the thing that happens is the effect. Cause-and-effect writing is common in TOEFL exams, especially in questions about the author’s purpose. When the author gives reasons why something happened, he or she is explaining what caused an effect. You can quickly identify cause and effect when you see certain signal words such as because, as a result, resulted, caused, affected, since, due to, and effect.

Even if the text doesn’t explicitly state a cause and effect, you can practice it while reading. Ask yourself, “Why did this thing happen? What is the effect of this action?” Jotting notes in the margin will help you identify and better understand the role of cause and effect in the reading material.


Another important comprehension skill is compare and contrast. Compare and contrast is a text structure where the similarities and differences of two or more things are explored. It is important to remember that compare-and-contrast text structure involves discussing similarities and differences. If the text only discusses similarities, it is only comparing. Similarly, if the text only discusses ways that the things are different, it is only contrasting. The text must do both to be considered compare and contrast.

Identifying when a passage is comparing and contrasting is usually not hard because the text will go back and forth between two topics and this pattern is generally pretty easy to identify. However, here are some signal words that help you determine this, such as like, unlike, both, neither, similar, and different.


It’s important to understand classification in written material as it will help you organize important ideas in the passage. Classification allows you to group information and distinguish the essential information from the nonessential, as well as identify cause and effect, problem and solution, and *compare and contrast. It also helps you create an outline to assist in choosing the correct answer choices.

Some TOEFL questions ask you to categorize information on a table. To do this correctly, you should compare and contrast concepts and classify major ideas in an outline as you read. There are some signal words that will help you identify classification text, such as together, classify, categorize, order, organize, sort, group, arrange and rank.


Problem-and-solution text structure is a pattern of organization where information in a passage is expressed as a dilemma or a problem, and something that can be done to remedy this issue (a solution) is recommended. The problem-and-solution text structure can sometimes be difficult to identify. Problem/solution organization is related to cause and effect, but there are differences. If you look specifically for both a problem and a solution to the problem, you should be able to distinguish it from cause-and-effect passages because the latter do not propose solutions to any negative issues; it just explains why they happen.

There are a few signal words that may indicate that information in a passage is of the problem-and-solution pattern of organization, such as propose, solution, answer, issue, problem, problematic, remedy, prevention, and fix.


Description organizational structure in a passage or paragraph is essentially listing or describing how to do something with details or examples. It could provide information about a location and characters or define a complex term or idea. You can quickly identify description organizational structures when you see signal words, such as is defined as, is defined by, is called, means, refers to, is described as, and for example.


Found mostly in fictional/story passages, narration or narrative text structure is about a story and its plot. Story refers to dramatic action as it might be described in chronological order. Plot refers to the main events in the story. The story includes key conflicts and their resolution, main characters, setting, and events.

There are three basic parts of a narrative text structure:

  • Stage 1 is where all of the main characters and their basic situations are introduced and contains the primary level of characterization (exploring the characters’ backgrounds and personalities). A problem is also introduced, which is what drives the story forward.

  • Stage 2 is the conflict, or the body of the story, and begins when you find the incident that sets things into motion. This is the part of the story where the characters go through major changes.

  • Stage 3 is the resolution, when all the elements of the story come together and lead to the ending.


When information in a passage is organized by the time in which each event occurred, it is considered chronologically structured.

Nonfiction passages that are organized chronologically often contain dates. Fiction passages that are organized chronologically usually have no dates but show the passage of time through details.

A chronological passage has a beginning, middle, and end.

All Study Guides for the TOEFL Test are now available as downloadable PDFs