Page 3 - Reading Study Guide for the TOEFL Test

Other Reading Strategies

These are things you can do before test day that will transfer directly into your test-taking experience, as well as making you a better reader, in general. On test day, when you don’t have a lot of time to read the whole passage and then answer the questions, these quick tips and strategies will assist you in answering the questions successfully and in a timely manner. Be sure you are comfortable with each before you take the TOEFL Reading test.

Scanning the Questions

When you have scrolled down and back up again and hit the Next button at the upper right of your screen, you can scan the questions very quickly. As you take a quick look at the questions, pay attention to the paragraph numbers. Certain questions will be about a particular paragraph. Look for key words like mainly about, why, refer to, mean, imply, and most likely. This will give you a good idea of the types of questions you’ll be answering and you can quickly find the answers while you are going over the passage.You can also take a quick look to see if you have any sentence simplification tasks, insert a sentence task, and/or a prose summary task.

Skimming before Reading

It is useful to get a general impression of a passage before reading carefully. To skim is to read quickly in order to get a general idea. Skimming requires you to note only information and clues that provide an idea of the central theme or topic of the passage.

When you skim, it is necessary to read only selected sentences to get the main idea or the gist of the passage. How do you do this? First, read the title and get an idea of what the passage is about. If the title is Celestial Bodies, you will understand that the passage is most likely about objects in the sky, such as stars, planets, moons, etc.

Next, take note of how many paragraphs there are in the passage. It’s also important to pay close attention to transition words at the beginning of each paragraph. For example, if the paragraphs begin with first, second, finally, etc., the paragraphs are most likely giving reasons, or steps in a process. If you see transition words like additionally or furthermore, then however, it is most likely that you have arguments that are for and against. Paying attention to these signals will help you to map out how the passage is organized, which will in turn help you answer the questions quickly and accurately. While skimming, do not read every word or sentence, but instead read the first sentence in the paragraph, which is most likely the topic sentence.


Scanning is taking a more detailed look at paragraphs in a passage. It’s a good practice to use when looking for specific information in a passage, such as the answer to a question. Here are the basic steps for scanning:

  • Step 1: Read the question and decide exactly what information you are looking for and then think about the form it may take. For example, if the question wants to know when something happened, you would look for a date. If the question wants to know who did something, you would look for a name.

  • Step 2: Decide where you need to look for this information. Because you skimmed the passage, you should already have a good idea in which paragraph to look.

  • Step 3: Move your eyes as quickly as possible down the page until you find the information you need. Read it carefully.

  • Step 4: When you find what you need, do not read further. Luckily, in many instances, the TOEFL test question will tell you which paragraph to look in.

Pronoun Practice

On the TOEFL test, there will be 0 to 2 questions called Reference Questions. They are very similar to the vocabulary questions, but the word to define is usually a pronoun.

These questions require a good eye and a firm knowledge of singular/plural and masculine/feminine pronouns. Read up on gender and case (e.g. first person, second person, etc.). Here are some examples of pronouns with which you’ll need to be familiar:

  • Possessive: mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs

  • Reflexive: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself

  • Reciprocal: each other, one another

  • Relative: that, which, who, whose, whom, where, when

  • Demonstrative: this, that, these, those

  • Indefinite: anything, anybody, anyone, something, somebody, someone

To answer pronoun questions on the test, use the same strategies you use for the Vocabulary questions:

  • Step 1: Look at the word or phrase and read the choices to eliminate wrong answers.

  • Step 2: Substitute your answer choice in the sentence to see if it makes sense in context.

  • Step 3: Defend your answer by substituting the correct answer in the sentence one more time.

The correct answer will make sense in context.

Main Idea

The main idea is the central, or most important, idea in a paragraph or passage. It states the purpose and sets the direction of the message. In a passage or paragraph, the main idea may be stated or it may be implied. When the main idea of a paragraph is stated, it is most often found in the first sentence of the paragraph, but it may be found in any sentence.

To find the main idea of any paragraph or passage, ask these questions:

  1. Who or what is the paragraph about?

  2. With what feature or idea about the “who” or “what” is the author concerned?

If you have truly found the main idea, you will find that all, or nearly all, of the sentences in the passage or paragraph speak to this idea.

In the TOEFL Reading test, finding a main idea is dealt with through a prose summary question toward the end of the task. It is probably the most time consuming because you will most likely have to reread the passage. Therefore, it is very important to get to this question quickly. In the prose summary question, you will be asked to choose the major ideas of the passage from a list of six possible answers. You will drag three answers and and drop them into the table. The incorrect three choices have errors in detail, or state an unimportant concept. You are being tested on your ability to recognize the major ideas in a passage as well as being able to decide what is major, what is essential, and what is the important information in the passage.

Read the choices carefully so you can select the answer choices that best express the most important ideas in the passage. Remember, some sentences do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are either not presented in the passage or reflect minor ideas. Take care not to choose a sentence simply because you saw it in the passage.

Your answer choices do not have to be in order. You get 2 points if you choose all three correct answers. You get 1 point if you choose two correct answers. And you get zero points for one or no correct answers. Here are some tips for choosing the correct answers:

  • The introductory paragraph introduces the reader to the following paragraphs. The main points may be mentioned in the introductory paragraph, but it may not be in as much detail as needed. It’s better idea to look for a main idea in each of the paragraphs that follow.

  • Read the paragraphs and determine each paragraph’s main idea. Next, look at the answer choices. Do the answer choices reflect a main idea or a minor one? Is the sentence supporting a main idea (i.e. facts, figures, details, examples) or giving overall information supported later?

  • Put the answer choices in order in the table and reread the choices and see if they logically restate the main ideas of the passage.


Gaining information through inference is a bit more complex than merely knowing what you have read. Why? Because the answers are implied, but not explicitly stated. The answers to 0 to 2 of the questions on this test measure what you understand, not what is specifically stated in the text.

You can recognize and identify inference questions when you see these key words in the question: inferred, it can be determined…, implied, based on the information…, most likely, and/or suggest. Basically, you take the facts from the passage and use your own thoughts to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Inference questions often deal with a cause-and-effect situation by stating the effect of a change. The way the test writers do this is that the question will imply or strongly hint at something in the text that helps the test taker make a reasonable conclusion or infer. Let’s take a look at how to answer 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 took note of, look for some 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. At this time, you should double-check to make sure that the synonyms are used the same way. If you see the exact same words in both the question and the answer, carefully check whether they are used in the same way and context or not.

Step 3: Eliminate any answers that contradict the text. The test writers will not ask you to make huge 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, 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. action was never delayed
B. the term filibuster was not in use
C. the first filibuster took place
D. the filibuster was in use

B is the correct answer. We can infer that mid-nineteenth century was around 1850. The question says 1800, and the text says since. So we can infer that before 1850, they did not use the term filibuster. We can conclude that B is the correct answer in step 4.

Step 4: The correct answer is the one that makes a small, logical conclusion, usually from synonyms, from the details in the question. You should be able to defend your choice based on what is stated in the text.

When you are answering inference questions, take care not to infer too much. This can cause you to choose an incorrect answer. Even though the correct answer is not stated in the text, make sure you can 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.

Author’s Purpose

Determining the author’s purpose is addressed in the TOEFL Reading test by way of rhetorical structure or rhetorical purpose questions. There will be between 0 and 2 of them on the test. The test writers ask you not what the author says, but why the author has presented specific information in a distinct place or manner as it relates to the rest of the passage.

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

Here are some steps in solving Rhetorical Purpose questions:

  • Step 1: Look for key words 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: Ask yourself, “Does the answer choice accurately indicate why the author said this? Are there key words in the answer choice or its synonym, which is also in the passage?”

  • Step 4: You should be able to defend your answer from the information in the passage.

Reading Speed

Being a good reader doesn’t mean you can read everything at the same pace and with the same technique. While practicing reading to improve your skills, you get information from everything you read and yet you don’t read everything for the same reason or in the same way. Good readers are flexible. When you know your purpose for reading, you adjust your rate to fit that specific type of material.

Reading rate (or reading speed) can be of several types:

  • Careful—used to master content including details, memorize, outline, summarize, paraphrase, analyze, solve problems, and evaluate material

  • Normal—used to answer a specific question, understand relationship of details to main ideas, solve problems, and note details

  • Rapid—used to review familiar material, get the main idea, retrieve information for short-term use, and comprehend the basic plot

  • Scanning—used to get an overview of the content or to preview

  • Skimming—done a little more quickly when searching for something particular in the text; used to find a specific reference, locate the answer to a specific question, get the main idea of a selection, or review in more detail

Knowing how to use all five reading styles is a great advantage because it gives you a wide variety of ways to tackle reading.

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