I get this question a lot. Broadly speaking, here’s what I think you should do to prepare for the TOEFL reading section:
- Learn your current level
- Learn how the reading section is designed
- Get some accurate practice tests
- Improve your reading comprehension
- Get some strategies for solving questions
- Hire a good tutor
Details about how to do these things are below!
Learn Your Current Level
If you haven’t taken the test already, make sure you know your current level in the TOEFL reading section. The easiest way to do this is to take the free sample test from ETS. You can also take one of the tests in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Once you have done this you will know how much you need to improve.
Learn How the Reading Section is Designed
Okay, this might be obvious, but you need to know how the TOEFL reading section is designed. If you understand how the test is designed, you will have fewer surprises on test day. Start by checking out the practice reading set from ETS. Read that set very carefully. Pay attention to the length of the passages and the number of questions included with each passage.
Pay special attention to the types of reading questions used by ETS. Briefly, the main types are:
- Factual Information
- Negative Factual Information
- Rhetorical Purpose
- Sentence Simplification
- Insert a Sentence
- Fill in a table
The best descriptions of these question types is found in the Official Guide to the TOEFL. Note that you don’t need to pay for the 5th edition, as every edition of the guide has pretty much the same descriptions. Read them carefully.
You can get the same descriptions and advice in the TOEFL Insider’s Guide course on edX. This is free, and is mostly video. I like it.
I recently analyzed the most recent practice materials. Read my blog post for an indication of how frequently each question type will appear on test day.
I should mention a few things before we go on:
- Since August 1, ETS has used fewer vocabulary questions than before. Expect just one or two per article. In the past, you would get three to five per article.
- “Fill in a table” and “reference” questions seem to be used much less than before. I used to think they were gone forever, but since posting the original version of this guide, I’ve gotten some reports that they have reappeared. Be prepared.
- You might get an unexpected question like “how does paragraph 1 relate to paragraph 2” or “what function does paragraph 2 serve in the organization of the passage as a whole.” These types are not mentioned in most popular study guides. Sorry.
Get Some Accurate Practice Tests
Once you understand what the test looks like., you absolutely need to build a collection of accurate reading sets. As you work through the “improve your reading comprehension” and “learn some strategies” stuff below, you should complete about one of these tests every week.
- The Official Guide to the TOEFL (four good tests)
- The Official iBT Test Collection Volume 1 (five good tests)
- The Official iBT Test Collection Volume 2 (five good tests)
- TSTPrep’s Test Pack (10 good tests, online) – try the coupon code “goodine10off” for a discount.
If you complete one test per week, these materials will be good enough for 6 months of preparation. Adjust the frequency to match the amount of time you have to prepare for the test.
Note that I don’t recommend any of the following sources of tests:
- Kaplan TOEFL
- Barron’s TOEFL
- Best My Test
Improve Your Reading Comprehension
If you have more than a month to prepare for the test, you should work on your reading comprehension instead of studying “tricks” and “strategies” for answering specific TOEFL reading questions.
It seems obvious, but if you can read better, you will get a better score on the TOEFL. When native speakers take the test, they don’t use strategies, obviously. I promise I will link to some strategies in a moment, but I hope you don’t need to use them.
Excessively focusing on strategies might make things too complicated for you on test day. My friend Josh MacPherson wrote about this in EFL Magazine last year. His article is meant for teachers, but it does make clear that trying to use a 5-step strategy to answer 10 different question types can be challenging and time-consuming.
Of course, I can’t really teach you how to read better in this blog post. Sorry. But I can suggest a few things. They are:
- Read “non-TOEFL” articles about the sorts of subjects that will appear on the test. My favorite sources are National Geographic and both the science and history sections of Smithsonian Magazine. Try to read three or four of these every day. As you read, make use of something like Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary to ensure that you comprehension is as high as possible. If you are confused about what you are reading, seek help.
- You can also find relevant articles in the crappy TOEFL Textbooks I hate. I do want to emphasize that these books are not very accurate when it comes to the TOEFL, but they are full of academic articles you can read for general practice. Consider using: Kaplan’s Practice Tests, Barron’s TOEFL iBT, and Compass Publishing’s Mastering Skills for the TOEFL. Again, I want to repeat that these books do not have accurate practice tests, but they do have articles about the subjects that ETS uses on the test.
- Read anything. Seriously. Read newspaper articles about current events that relate to your life. Read good books that you enjoy. Both fiction and non-fiction will help, in the long run. If you want to know what I’m reading nowadays, check out my profile on Goodreads. Send me a note and we’ll chat about books.
I know this is all vague, but if you have a few months to improve, your goal should be to gradually improve your vocabulary and reading comprehension so that you don’t need to use strategies on the test. This can only be done by exposing yourself to written English.
Learn Some Strategies
If you have improved your comprehension and you still can’t figure out the answers you will need to try some strategies. Here’s a few of my favorite sources:
- Kathy Spratt’s Mastering the Reading Section for the TOEFL iBT ebook from Amazon
- The TST Prep TOEFL Emergency Course (try coupon code “goodine10off” for a 10% discount)
Yeah, you have to pay for these. Right now, there aren’t very many good free resources online. I’m always open to suggestions, though. Leave a comment if you have something for me.
Get a Good TOEFL Teacher
If you really want to improve your score, you should hire a tutor to work with you one on one. I recommend the following experts:
- Katie Mary – firstname.lastname@example.org
- John Healy – Study WIth It
- Miguel Marcano – email@example.com
- SherlenTanner – TOEFL iBT Academy
- Jonathan Huggins – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sierra Yohalem – email@example.com
- Danijela Jovanovic – proesltestprep.com
- Josh MacPherson – tstprep.com
- Jane Birkenhead – Birkenhead English
Mention that you were referred by Michael at “TOEFL Resources” for preferential treatment (maybe).