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TOEFL iBT in Depth: TOEFL iBT Reading

published by Ken Chan

tags: effective reading, toefl ibt reading, toefl strategies, (all tags)

origin: TOEFL iBT in Depth: TOEFL iBT Reading (

This lesson will cover the types of questions you will encounter on the Reading section of the TOEFL iBT test, as well as strategies you can use to improve your score in this section.

The Reading section of the TOEFL present you with 3-5 passage of approximately 700 words. While the passages are all basically the same length, they become increasingly difficult as you progress, so while 20 minutes is allotted for reading and answering questions on the first passage, 40 minutes is given for reading and answering questions of the second, third, fourth and fifth passages. Each passage you are given will have between 12-14 questions, and we'll cover what types of questions you can except bellow.

Passage will be either a exposition, which is a description or explanation of a topic; narrative, which is a discussion of events or persons; or argument, in which the authors offers a persuasive explanation as to why you should adopt their point of view.

Quick tips:

Familiarize yourself with the basic structure of the passages. These are short essays, expect and Introduction, some body paragraphs in which the details of the thesis will be expanded upon, and a concluding paragraph.

Read Actively. While completing your initial reading of the passage make brief notes on each paragraph (the key ideas or details given) to refer to later. This notes will come in handy when you answering the questions.

Get ready to infer meaning. Details will not always be presently openly to you. Be prepared to use the present details, combined with your own logic to figure out what the author is inferring/implying, even when they don't directly say it.

-Fact/Detail Questions

These questions are meant to test your basic comprehension abilities as they ask you direct facts or details about the passage you've just read. 3 to 6 of the questions you receive on each passage will be detail or fact questions. These questions most often come in the form of who, whom, what, and relate to people, places, times, reasons, methods, etc. Example: What does the author say about… When did x happen … According to paragraph 3, why did y happen?

How to deal:

Indentify the key idea or ideas of question. If the question is: According to the author, the early works of Shakespeare, recognize that the key idea of the question is "early works of Shakespeare".

Scan the paragraphs for the key idea. Scanning a passage means looking over the passage quickly (as opposed to actively reading the passage) to quickly locate certain words, in this case, "early works" and Shakespeare.

Once you've found the key ideas in you passage, read closely and carefully. You don't want to pick the wrong answer because you misread your passage!

Check the available answers for paraphrasing of the original idea.

Do not make inferences for these questions. These are fact and details questions, there is no need to infer in this instances, so if you cannot find it in the passage, do not select that option.

Watch out for these wrong answers that try to trick you:

*Answer contains information not in the passage
*Answer refers to an idea unrelated to the question
*Answer contains the correct idea, but has reversed the positive/negative state. Ex Passage: Shakespeare's early works are considered his best. Wrong answer: Shakespeare's early works are not considered his best.

-Not/Except Questions

These questions are similar to fact/details question in that you will be ask questions about factual information, however in these questions you will be asked what is NOT the case. These questions are easy to identify since they will say NOT or EXCEPT directly in the question. Ex: All of the following are mentioned in the above passage except… Which of the following is not listed as an influence on jazz music….

Since the questions are very similar to fact/detail questions, the same strategies apply.

How to deal:

*Find the key idea in the question, if the key ideas are not located in the question, find the key idea(s) of the answers.
*Scan the passages for the key idea(s)
*Read relevant sentences very closely
*Choose the answer with the missing, altered, or contradictory key idea.

Watch out for:

*Correct answers that have been paraphrased with vocabulary that is not in the passage.
*Correct answers that have combined multiple ideas from the passage.

-Referent Questions

As the name suggest, these questions involve your ability to connect the referent pronoun to another word, clause, or phrase. For example: Bob's face always goes red when he is angry. "Bob" is referred to by "he" later in the sentence. There will be at most 2 referent questions on each passage, but some may not even have any.

How to deal:

Know your grammar! Get yourself familiar with pronouns and adjective clauses. Remember: "it" refers to an animal, thing or place - not a person. "They" can refer to people, animals, places, or things, and is always plural. Other referents include "he" "she" "we" "them".

Once you have located the referent, read the surrounding sentences carefully to find what the word is referring to. Pay special attention to the context surround the sentence your referent is in, specially the sentence directly before, you may find the antecedent in them.

Recognize that the antecedent will only appear after the referent in very specific cases - when the sentence begins with an adverb clause. In these cases the referent and antecedent are almost always in the same sentence - a second independent clause. These sentences look like this: adverb clause which includes the referent*,* independent clause which includes the antecedent. For example: Once he arrived at the school, Billy went directly to the Principal's office.

Pay attention to things like number, gender, and category (ie, person or thing) to help you rule out answers. For example, if the referent is "it" we know it must be singular, and a thing - not a person.

After eliminating as many options as possible, replace the referent with each remaining option and read them to yourself. Do they make sense in that context?

Watch out for:

*Wrong answers that fit all of the characteristics, but makes no sense in the context.
*Wrong answers that seem like the "best" option yet don't fit the grammatical structure of the sentence.

-Vocabulary Questions

These questions will test your understand of specific words that have been presented in the passage. There will be 3 to 5 questions for each reading passage. Remember, these questions are not about analyzing the passage so you aren't likely to find any clues in the reading passage. These questions can be spotted because they ask you do identify or explain the meaning of. Ex: X is closest in meaning to … When stating Y, the author means….

The best way of scoring will on this section is to define the word to yourself before looking at the available options. Pick the choice that most resembles what you know the word to mean.

How to deal:

Locate the word you are being asked to define and reread the surround sentences carefully. You maybe able to find some clues by studying the context of the sentence, or discover some examples of the word you need to define.

Know your prefixes, suffixes and roots. Deconstruct the word to help you understand what it may mean. For example: you may not recognize the word demote, but if you break down the word you find "de" a prefix that means remove, take away or lower. Now that you know this, look for a definition or synonym that means to remove, take away or lower. Or use your powers of deduction to compare words that share roots and suffixes.

Use word clues to eliminate choices. Take the word you are being asked to define and replace it with your available options. For example: We used to laugh at their (antics). If you have the choice of pain, or behavior, replace antic with each word and decide which one fits the context better.
Watch out for:

Words that share the same prefix, root, or suffix but means different things. Ex: mislead - to trick and misplace - to lose.

-Inference Questions:

These questions will be asking you to find the implicit, inferred, or implied meaning of a passage - to understand ideas that have not be directly stated by the author. Answering these questions will require you to pay attention to the details that are mentioned and use logic to fid the implied meaning. These questions can be recognized relatively easily as they most often include the words infer, suggest, or imply. There will be no more then 2 question of this type per reading passage, and there may not be any at all.

How to deal:

Identify the key idea(s) or theme in question. Make sure you're looking for the idea and not the word since you're attempting to infer something you won't find in the text. Ex: If the questions is asking 'Which of the following can be inferred about Jim's time as a student' look for the paragraph that discusses Jim's time at school.

Once you locate the key idea/theme, read the relevant sentences carefully to make sure you completely understand the information.

Look for cohesive devices (which may be adverbs, adjectives, transitions, repetition, etc) that connect various ideas in the text.

Check your final choice against the given passage and ask yourself, does this make logical sense?

Watch out for:

*Wrong answers that list information that isn't correct. Inferred information must still be correct.
*Facts/details choices. The question is asking you to infer something, meaning the answer won't be stated in the passage.

-Rhetorical Structure Questions

These questions will be about how the author of the passage supports key points of the passage through the use of details, specifically, description, examples, definitions and explanation. Before you can answer these questions you will have to know what details are being used and why they are being used. So take a moment to ask yourself, am I reading a description or an explanation? Why is the author presenting this description?

You will be faced with two types of Rhetorical Structure Questions. The first asks you to identify a particular idea, or ideas and questions you on the purpose. Ex: Why does the writer mention X? To emphasis Y. The second type of question presents a type of rhetorical structure and asks you how the writer accomplishes it. Ex: How does the author explain A? By comparing B and C. There will be no more then 2 question of this type per reading passage.

How to deal:

Recognize types of details and other Rhetorical Structure. Are you looking at a description, a definition, an example, or an explanation? Is the author attempting to demonstrate, clarify, distinguish, expand, emphasize prove or refute something?

Identify the key ideas of the questions, locate them in the passage and reread the surround area carefully.

Get ready to infer meaning. You may be require to connect multiple phrases to form the complete answer.

Watch out for:

*Answers that refer to another part of the passage
*Answers that provide similar, but unmentioned or altered ideas.

-Coherence Questions

These questions, also called 'insert the text' provide you with sample sentences that can be inserted into your reading passage at various points. Your job is to find where the given sentence fits in with the passage. You'll easily recognize these questions as the passage will be marked with black squares showing you where the sentences may be inserted. There will be no more then 1 question of this type per reading passage.

How to deal:

Be familiar with paragraph structure. Recognize what types of sentences belong in which area of paragraph, for example, if you're given a description sentence, you'll know it belong near the beginning of the paragraph somewhere after the opening sentence.

Find the overall sequence of ideas in the passage. What are the key ideas of your given sentence? Do they match some existing key ideas already in the paragraph?

Look for matching vocabulary. This can be another clue as to wear to put the new sentence.

Compare the Rhetoric structure of the given sentence and the existing passages. If the given sentence is a description of the physical characteristics of a specific bird, look for the sentence that names, or provides an example of a unique bird.

Ask yourself if the sentences can be separated to narrow your choices. Ex: An example of such a bird is the peacock. [black square] The peacock's tail features have an eye pattern on them which serve as a defense mechanism, frightening away potential predators. Since the second sentence is a direct explanation of the first, they should not be separated. You would be able to rule this option out as a potential place to insert your new sentence.

Put the given sentence in the remaining options and reread them. Which makes the most logical sense?

Watch out for:

*Assume that because two sentences share the same vocabulary, they must belong together. As mentioned above, they can be used as clues, but do not necessarily indicate a correct answer.
*Inserting the answer next to the correct sentence, but on the wrong side. Remember the square indicates exactly where the new sentence will be inserted, so pay close attention.

-Paraphrasing Questions

These questions are about taking what you've just read, and figuring out a new way to say it. These questions will provide you with a highlighted passage in the text and ask you which of the follow options best paraphrase the highlighted words. Remember, what's important here is keeping the meaning the same, not structure. Watch out from wrong answers that leave out important information, or add information that was not covered. There will be no more then 1 question of this type per reading passage.

How to deal:

Locate the most important words within the highlighted passage and focus on them.

Watch for answers with synonyms, change of tense, or change in sentence structure yet still contain the key ideas of the highlighted passage.

Try rephrases the highlighted passage in your own words, the comparing your notes to the presented options.

Test your answer by reading it into the passage; check to ensure the same information is still being conveyed.

Watch out for:

*Answers that have added or subtracted key points of information from the highlighted passage.

*Answers that use similar words but change the meaning. Ex: the highlighted passage specifically mentions a Tsunami, but one of the answers merely mentioned 'waves'. A tsunami is not simply a regular wave, it significantly larger and causes much more destruction!

-Table Completion Questions

Unlike the previous questions, these are not multiple choice. There question require you to "drag and drop' details from a presented passage into a table (hence their alternative name: "Fill in a table" For these questions you will be using your mouse to sort details into their proper category. Not all of the details belong in categories - some are there purely to distract you, so be careful!

These questions measure you ability to understand and organize conceptual information that is given to you. If you're familiar with LearnHub's concept game, you'll have already had some practice as organizing information into concepts.

How to deal:

Get read to recognize paraphrasing and restatements. The ideas present to you in the answer question are very unlike to be direct quotes from the passage.

Make brief notes as you read so you can refer them later. Remember, these questions are asking you to sort the details you were presented with in the passage.

Read the instructions carefully - you may not be required to place all of the options. If there are choices that are not to be used they will be noted in CAPTIAL letters.

Watch out for:

*Using all of the options when only a certain number where asked for
*Choices that include information that was not included in the test
*Choices that included similar information to the next that has been slightly altered or distorted.

-Prose Summary Questions

These questions are also 'drag and drop' style questions that will ask provide you with a main idea from the presented passage, and asks you to pick 3 sentences (out of a given 6) that express the most important ideas in the passage. You must choose at least 2 of the 3 correct sentences to be awarded any points for this question.

How to deal:

Treat the thesis provided as your guide. Choose answers that support this thesis.

Prepare for paraphrasing - the key ideas are important in these questions, not the specific vocabulary used.

Eliminate the overly specific options, or points that offer minor details. Remember, the focus of these questions is to test your ability to recognize a summary, which usually means a collection of important, but general points.

Make note of the key idea of each paragraph, and look for a combination of one paragraph or more in the offered summary sentence.

Watch out for:

*Choices offering information that was never mentioned in the passage
*Choices offering information similar to what was in the passage, but that has been altered or distorted in some day.

-Final Thoughts

You have now covered every question style you'll be seeing when you write the TOEFL iBT. There are a few things you can do to improve your overall score on this section. Can you guess the number 1 tip?


Read English magazines, newspapers, blogs, books - anything that is interesting to you and will expose you to more of the English language. When you come across words you don't recognize, use your English language dictionary to translate the word and make a record of it in a journal you can refer to later.

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