TOEFL Reading – An Introduction

The reading section in the first part of the TOEFL test. You will read three or four academic articles and answer ten questions about each of them. You will have 54 minutes (three articles) or 72 minutes (four articles) to read the articles and answer all of the questions. If you are given four articles, one of them will not be scored. You will not be able to identify the unscored article, so try to answer all of the questions correctly.

The reading section has just a single timer that starts counting down when the first article appears. You will not get a new timer for each article. Note that you can always move forward and backwards between all of the questions as long as time remains in the reading section. There will be arrows to move between questions one at a time, and a button labelled “review” to jump to specific questions. This means you can use your time however you like.

To master the reading section you must become familiar with the articles and question styles. This article will describe them, but you should read some accurate sample articles and questions as well. Some good samples are:

TOEFL Reading – About the Articles

Articles in the TOEFL reading section are about 700 words. They seem to have Flesch-Kinkaid levels between 40 and 60, which means they similar to what you might find in a textbook for first year university students.

You can expect to get articles about any topics that a freshman student might study, but my study of official ETS practice tests indicate that the most common topics on the test are:

  • History
  • Zoology
  • Physical Geography
  • Biology
  • Geology

Note that history is the most common topic by far, so be sure to practice by reading articles about history as much as you can. History even intrudes on the other subjects, as an article about geology might be about the history of geology.

Remember that the articles are all introductory level, so you don’t need special background knowledge to understand them and answer the questions. That said, having background knowledge can’t hurt… so remember to spend time before the test reading short articles about topics like these. A great source of short articles is ScienceNews.

If a very technical term is used in an article, a short definition may be provided as a footnote.

TOEFL Reading – About the Questions

Each article is followed by nine multiple choice questions (one point each) and one longer question with a table or chart (two or three points). In very rare cases, you might get eight multiple choice questions after an article. In that case, the table or chart will be worth three points.

You can answer each multiple choice question by examining a single paragraph, which will be indicated along with the question. The table or chart question will involve details from the entire article.

There are eight different types of multiple choice questions, one type of table and one type of chart. The sample questions below are taken from my practice article.  Check there for answers.

Multiple Choice Questions

1. Factual Information Questions

These questions require you to find specific details or information that is stated in the article. You will be given four answer choices and one or two will be correct. If there are two correct answer choices, you must select both of them to get a point. They look something like this:

  • According to the paragraph, why did X…
  • The author’s description of X mentions which of the following?

To answer these questions, look specifically for the requested information.  Don’t select an answer just because it includes a word that appears in the article.  Incorrect answer choices often include details that appear in the article, but are not connected to information requested in the question.

This is the most frequent question type in the reading section.  Expect to get between 1 and 3 factual information questions per article.

Here’s a sample:

The city’s growth as an important population center was also a result of its ability to establish and maintain economic links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the  Gulf Coast  to the south. This was achieved through the trade of such exotic items as copper,  chert, and seashells.  Chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Recent research on chert tools discovered at the Silvernail settlement site near modern day Minnesota found that the raw materials used to construct some of them originated near Cahokia.

According to paragraph 5, what has recent research on chert tools found at the Silvernail settlement site revealed?

A. Chert tools were started to be used after Cahokia became an important city.

B. The residents of Cahokia were the only producers of farming tools in the area.

C. Some of the tools used by people at the Silvernail settlement were made of materials from the area near Cahokia.

D. Agricultural tools were exchanged with people at the Silvernail settlement for copper and seashells.

 

2.  Negative Factual Information Questions

These questions require you to identify specific information or details that are not mentioned in the article.  They usually look like this:

  • According to the passage, which of the following is NOT true of X?
  • The author’s description of X mentions all of the following EXCEPT…
  • In paragraph X, each of the following is mentioned about Y, EXCEPT…

These questions are very time-consuming, since you will need to read the entire paragraph very carefully. Give yourself more time to solve this question than most other question types.

This is a fairly common question type.  Expect to get about 1 or 2 per article.

Here’s a sample:

The ancient city of Cahokia was located at a site very close to modern St. Louis in the United States. At its apex from A.D. 1100 to 1200, Cahokia covered about 16 square kilometers and probably had a population that peaked at around 15,000. Excavations of the city have revealed that it contained a large number of public plazas that were separated by at least 120 man made earthen mounds, the largest of which was topped by a major temple. Remains have also been found of an elaborate copper workshop that produced sophisticated metal goods likely traded with both nearby and distant settlements.  Moreover, the city is noted for its significant economic and spiritual contacts with other communities in the Mississippi area. Although the inhabitants left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shells, wood and  stone, the remains of this elaborately planned community suggest that it was home to a complex society that had great influence over a large geographic area.

In paragraph 1, each of the following is mentioned as a feature of the city of Cahokia between A.D 1100 to 1200 EXCEPT:

A. Man-made mounds

B. Several large temples 

C. A manufacturing workshop

D. Many public plazas

 

3. Inference Questions

To answer inference questions, you must make logical connections between details in the article and claims which are not mentioned in the article. These questions often look like:

  • What can be inferred from paragraph X about Y?
  • The author of the article implies that X…

Once again, you should try to avoid picking answer choices just because they contain words which appear in the article. Look for details in the article that express cause and effect relationships, or sequences of events.

This is an uncommon question type.  Expect to get between 0 and 1 per article.

Here’s a sample:

The importance of the last factor is a matter of some debate. Cahokia’s peak in 1100 coincided with the emergence in the region of new methods of agricultural production.  These included the “three sisters” method of farming first discovered centuries earlier in Mesoamerica.  However, even though the city was ringed by farming communities, due to rapid population growth they were unable to feed the whole population. A related problem was the challenge of waste disposal in such a dense community, and people in Cahokia likely became sick from polluted waterways. Because it was such an unhealthy place to live, modern historians believe that the town had to rely on social and political attractions to bring in a steady supply of new immigrants. Without their arrival, this problem would have caused the city to be abandoned much earlier than it eventually was.

What can be inferred from paragraph 3 about agricultural methods used in Cahokia in 1100?

A. They were not as advanced as those used in Mesoamerica.

B. They were sometimes unable to supply enough food for the city.

C. They were carried out by newly arrived immigrants.

D. They were seriously affected by environmental pollution.

 

 

3. Rhetorical Purpose Questions

These are questions about why the author of the article mentions a specific detail. They often look like:

  • Why does the author of the article mention X?
  • In paragraph X, why does the author mention Y?

To answer these questions, look for sentences that use supporting examples. The articles often use such examples to illustrate a concept, to show how two things are similar, or to contrast two things.

These are fairly common questions.  Expect to see between 0 and 2 per article.

Here’s a sample:

The population of Cahokia began to decline during the 13th century. Scholars have not determined why this happened, but have proposed theories involving environmental factors such as overhunting, deforestation, and flooding, as explanations for the abandonment of the site. Another possible cause is invasion by outside peoples, though the position of the only defensive structures in the city (a wooden stockade and watchtowers) in the main ceremonial precinct, away from the heavily populated areas of the city, suggests that the civilian population of the city faced no threat of invasion from outside forces. There is no other evidence for warfare, so the stockade may have been more for ritual or formal separation than for military purposes. In any case, by 1300 this once thriving city was almost entirely abandoned.

In paragraph 6, why does the author mention the location of the city’s defensive structures?

A. To suggest that the city was not abandoned due to warfare.

B. To explain why diseases spread so quickly in heavily populated areas.

C. To explain why the city was easily invaded by outside forces.

D. To present an example of why large cities often decline over time.

 

4. Vocabulary Questions

These questions test your vocabulary level. A single word or phrase is highlighted and you must pick the best synonym from four possible choices. Vocabulary questions usually look like:

  • The word X in the paragraph is closest in meaning to…

The key to mastering this question type is to pick an answer quickly.  Don’t spend too much time thinking about the answer. In most cases you will either know the answer or will not know the answer. You probably won’t find too many clues in the rest of the paragraph. If you don’t know the answer right away, just make a guess and move on.

This is one of the most common question types.  Expect to get 1-3 per article.

Here’s a sample:

What accounts for the tremendous population growth of the city and its influence on the surrounding region?  Among the main factors currently cited are the city’s location on a natural trade route near the confluence of three major rivers (the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois), its attractiveness as a religious pilgrimage site for inhabitants of other settlements, and the economic value of chert that could be collected in nearby streams. The influence of other possible factors is much less clear – for example the ingenuity and foresightedness of the city’s leadership, the construction of advanced defensive structures, and the emergence of new and more productive agricultural techniques first practiced in Mesoamerica.

The word “ingenuity” in paragraph 2 is closest in meaning to:

A. ambition

B.  sincerity

C.  faith

D.  cleverness

 

 

5. Reference Questions

These questions require you to make connections between words. Generally, you will be asked to identify what words like “it” or “this” refer to.  They look like this:

  • The word “it” in paragraph X refers to…

Try replacing the given word with each of the answer choices. If the sentence still makes sense in the context of the paragraph, the answer choice may be correct.

Note that this is the rarest question type, and you probably won’t see it on the entire test.

 

6. Sentence Simplification Questions

These questions test your ability to understand the meaning of a sentence and how to paraphrase it. They usually look like this:

  • Which of the following best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence? Incorrect answer choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.

To determine the meaning of the highlighted sentence, focus on words that provide additional details, rather than words which just serve a grammatical purpose. Correct answer choices often retain many of the same details, but alter words which are merely for grammar.

This is a rare question type.  Expect to get between 0 and 1 per article.

 

7. Sentence Insertion Questions

In this question type, you will be given a new sentence, and you must determine where it fits best in the paragraph. The question usually looks like this:

  • Where would the following sentence best fit?

Pay attention to the purpose of the given paragraph, and how it is presenting information. Try to determine if it is depicting a sequence of events.  Or if it is becoming more specific as it continues. Or if it is describing a cause and effect relationship. If you know the flow of the paragraph, you will have an easier time determining where the sentence fits.  This is one of the most time-consuming questions. Give yourself extra time to complete it.

Every article has just one insert sentence question, and it is always the final multiple choice question.

Here is a sample: 

In paragraph 1 of the passage, there is a missing sentence. The paragraph is repeated below and shows four letters (A, B, C, and D) that indicate places the following sentence could be added. Where would the following sentence best fit?

“In fact, artifacts and tools from Cahokia have been discovered in sites as far away as the shores of Lake Superior to the north, and Appalachia to the south.”

The ancient city of Cahokia was located at a site very close to modern St. Louis in the United States. At its apex from A.D. 1100 to 1200, Cahokia covered about 16 square kilometers and probably had a population that peaked at about 15,000, the largest in the surrounding region. [A] During this period the landscape of the city was dominated by the presence of a large number of public plazas separated by at least 120 man-made mounds, the largest of which was topped by a major temple. [B] Remains have also been found of an elaborate copper workshop that produced sophisticated metal goods traded with both nearby and distant settlements.  Moreover, the city is noted for its significant economic and spiritual contacts with other settlements in the Mississippi area. [C] Although the inhabitants left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shells, wood, and stone, the remains of the elaborately planned community reveal a complex society. [D]

A: A

B: B

C: C

D: D

Summary/Table Questions

1. Summary Questions

This is almost always the final question of every article. You will see a list of six sentences. Most of them will express an idea from the article. A few may express an idea not stated in the article. You must identify which three sentences express the main ideas of the article. You must click and drag these sentences into the boxes on the screen. The order you place them in doesn’t matter.

To solve this question, first eliminate sentences that express ideas not stated in the article. Next, eliminate sentences that express supporting ideas or evidence. You will earn two points for picking all three correct sentences, one point for picking two correct sentences and no points for picking one or zero correct sentences.

There is a sample at the end of this practice article.

 

2. Table Questions

This is a rare question type, but it occasionally appears. If it does appear, it will be the last question following an article, and you will not get a summary question for that article.

You will see a table divided into two or three categories. You will also see a list of words or short sentences that reflect ideas or things from the article. There will usually be about seven of them.

For instance, following a zoology article the categories might be “vertebrates” and “invertebrates,” while the given sentences could be various features of animals. In this case, you should drag the statements into the right part of the table. 

Some of the sentences will not be stated in the reading and should not be placed in the table. For example, if you see seven sentences, there will be room for only five of them in the chart.

This question is worth two or three points. Partial points are awarded based on the number of sentences properly categorized.