About the TOEFL Reading Test

The TOEFL reading section consists of a series of long articles on academic topics.  You will read these articles and answer detailed questions about their content.  You can read the article while you are answering the questions.  This is how you can master this section of the test.  A good textbook to accompany this guide is Mastering the Reading Section of the TOEFL by Kathy Spratt.

TOEFL Reading Strategies

The most important thing that I teach my students is to not read the article when they first see it.  You simply do not have enough time to do a close reading of the article.  Instead, you should skim the article, paying particular attention to the first paragraph, and the opening sentences of the rest of the paragraphs.  You will get a chance to read the article more closely when you are given questions to answer.  Fortunately, the questions usually state explicitly which paragraph they are dealing with.  You can read the paragraphs more closely at that time.


Types of TOEFL Reading Questions


One:  Factual Information

This is the easiest type of question.  It tests your ability to find a specific piece of information in the passage.  The information is explicitly stated.  Here's an example:

Archeology delivers traces of dance from prehistoric times such as the 9,000 year old Bhimbetka rock shelters paintings in India and Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures from 3300 BC. One of the earliest structured uses of dances may have been in the performance and in the telling of myths.   Before the production of written languages, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from generation to generation. Another early use of dance may have been as a precursor to ecstatic trance states in healing rituals. Dance is still used for this purpose by many cultures from the Brazilian rain forest to the Kalahari Desert.  Some European tribes also used loud group singing and dancing in order to prepare themselves for the dangerous combat with other tribes.

According to paragraph one, why was dance used to pass stories down between generations?

          A.  Because it was more expressive than writing

          B.  Because writing had not been developed

          C.  It was a good way of depicting stories from myth

          D.  Dances could be shared between tribes

The answer to this question is B.  The passage doesn't use the exact same words, but the answer is explicitly stated: "Before the production of written languages, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from one generation to the next."

Locate this type of answer by looking for key words and phrases from the possible answers in the paragraph.  Here, "writing" appears in the correct answer and in the paragraph.  But don't use this technique too much - many of the questions are "trick questions."  Answer C includes the key word "myth" but it is not the answer.  Too often my students pick incorrect answers solely because they spot a few words that are shared between the passage and the answer.

Two: Negative Factual

These questions are similar to the factual questions.  In negative factual questions you are given a list of answer choices and you must identify the one that is not stated in the passage.  For example, if given the same paragraph as above, a question might ask:

Which of the following is not listed as a historic use of dance in paragraph 1?

          A. The telling of myths

          B. Healing rituals

          C. As a prayer for good weather

          D. To prepare for combat

The answer to this question is C.  To answer this type of question skim the passage for key words from each of the questions.  Doing so you will find that A, B and D are all explicitly mentioned in the paragraph.  C is not and is thus the correct answer.

Three:  Inference Questions

These questions require you to draw conclusions based on information that is given in the passage.  The answer is not explicitly stated in the passage.  Rather, you must be able to pick the answer based what the passage suggests.  Here's an example:

By the 18th century ballet had migrated from the royal court to the Paris Opera. During this century the ballet spread through Europe and developed from a courtly arrangement of moving images used as part of a larger spectacle, to a performance art in its own right, the ballet d'action. This new form swept away much of the artificiality of the court dance and strove towards the concept that art should aspire to imitate nature. This ultimately resulted in costumes that allowed the dancer much more freedom of movement than before and were conducive to a fuller use of the expressive capacity of the body. It also opened the door to pointework, for this acceptance of more naturalistic costuming allowed the development of the heel-less shoe, which led to the dancer being able to make more use of the rise onto demi-pointe.

In paragraph 3, what does the author imply about ballet costumes?

          A.  Costumes used in the 17th century often restricted the movements of ballet dancers

          B.  Early ballet costumes were modeled after the appearances of animals in nature

          C. Dancers performed barefoot on stage

          D. Early ballet costumes differed between European countries

The answer to this question is A.  The author says that in the 18th century costumes "allowed the dancer much more freedom of movement than before..." thus we can infer (guess) that costumes in the 17th century sometimes restricted the movement of dancers.

Answer B was designed to trick you.  Yes, it contains the word "nature," which is a keyword that you will spot in the passage, but it is incorrect.  This is designed to punish test takers who guess without understanding the passage completely.

Four: Rhetorical Purpose Questions

This type of question requires you to understand why the author of a passage has included some piece of information.

To solve this type of question try to understand the main point of the paragraph and how the referenced information has been included.  Familiarize yourself with phrases like "to support," "to explain," "to contrast," "to compare," "to question," "to show," "to account for," which may appear in the answer choices.

Here are two examples:

A brief exception to the new ideas and designs used in the twentieth century occurred in the 1960's, which saw the growth of postmodernism. Postmodernism veered towards simplicity, the beauty of small things, the beauty of untrained body, and unsophisticated movement. The famous 'No' manifesto rejecting all costumes, stories and outer trappings in favor of raw and unpolished movement was perhaps the extreme of this wave of thinking. Unfortunately lack of costumes, stories and outer trappings do not make a good dance show, and by the end of the 1960s, sets, décor and shock value re-entered the vocabulary of modern choreographers."

Why does the author mention the "No" manifesto in paragraph 5?

          A. To explain the cause of minimalistic dance perfomances in 1960s dance

          B. To show the effect that new ideas had on dance performances in the 1960s

          C. To illustrate the extreme ideas that some dancers and choreographers had in the 1960s

          D. To explain why dance performances after the 1960s once again used sets, decor and shock value

The answer to this question is C.  The main point of the passage is to talk about dance performances in the 1960s.  The "No" manifesto is mentioned to illustrate some of the ideas that shaped dance in the 1960s.  Choice A sounds like a correct answer, but the manifesto was not the cause of the ideas.  The cause of the ideas was postmodernism.  As you can see, a careful reading of the passage is required to find the correct answer.  Here's another rhetorical type question about the same passage:

In paragraph 5, why does the author mention that performances without costumes and stories don't result in good shows?

          A. To explain why dance performances after the 1960s once again used sets, decor and shock value

          B. To criticize dance performances of the 1960s

          C. To compare dance performances of the 1960s to those after the 1960s

          D. To account for trends in 1970s ballet

The answer is A.  He is clearly explaining why dance in the late 1960s shifted back to using costumes, sets and stories.  Choices B and C also sound okay, but the author's main intention is to explain why dance changed at the end of the 1960s.

Five: Vocabulary

This is a fairly straightforward type of question.  You are asked to pick the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on its use in the passage.  If you are familiar with the word the question will be fairly easy.  If not, you should look for clues by examining the surrounding sentences.  Here's an example:

The 20th century was indeed a period of breaking away from everything that ballet stood for. It was a time of unprecedented creative growth, for dancers and choreographers. It was also a time of shock, surprise and broadening of minds for the public, in terms of their definitions of what dance was. It was a revolution in the truest sense.

The word "unprecedented" is paragraph 2 is most similar in meaning to:

          A. unique

          B. popular

          C. demanding

          D. difficult

The answer is A.  Unique is a synonym of unprecedented.  Generally, the words contained in the answer will be more familiar to you than the word given in the question.  Thus, you can look at the passage for clues that match up with the answer choices.  Unique is hinted at by phrases like "breaking away from everything ballet stood for."

To continue preparing for the reading section of the TOEFL, please continue to part two of this article.