TOEFL Reading Tasks | Common Question Types Answered

Don’t be intimidated by the TOEFL reading tasks! They’re straight forward if you know what you’re doing. 

This article will prepare you for the most common TOEFL reading question types, including Summarizing Information and Make Inferences.

TOEFL reading
TOEFL reading requires comprehension and understanding of what is being tested of you. Build your skills around the common TOEFL reading question types.

Introduction to TOEFL reading

In the TOEFL reading section, you’ll get three to four reading passages, each with 12-14 questions.

They’re extracts from university textbooks or academic articles on a wide range of topics. These will be similar to the types of texts you’d find in college.

Although you don’t need to be familiar with the topics, the more you read during your preparation, the more you will understand.

You’ll have 20 minutes to read each passage, and answer its associated questions. Depending on how many passages you get, the reading section will last between 60-80 minutes.

TOEFL reading question types

There are 10 different question types you might encounter, each requiring a different skill. These are:

  • Summarize Information in a passage
  • Guess vocabulary from context
  • Make Inferences about what the author means
  • Identify a reference
  • Identify a fact
  • Understand rhetorical Purpose – why the writer included particular information
  • Identify a negative fact (a fact that was NOT included in the passage)
  • Insert a word or sentence into the appropriate place in a paragraph
  • Simplify information by identifying the correct paraphrase
  • Complete a table by dragging and dropping sentences

Common TOEFL reading question types

Below are some tips for how you can build specific skills for some of the most common question types. It’s very important to build up these skills.

To do so, you’ll need to read daily, especially university level books and articles covering a wide range of topics related to the arts, humanities, nature or social science.

TOEFL reading
Topical newspaper articles are an excellent way to practice your reading comprehension.
Summarizing Information

This type of question requires you to complete a summary of a reading passage by choosing three out of six sentences provided.

You’ll need to drag and drop the correct three sentences into boxes provided on the screen and identify main ideas (which belong in a summary) from details (which don’t).

To build this skill, read an article a day and write a short summary by paraphrasing important ideas from the article.

Take notice of main ideas – these are general, and details – which are specific. A summary should only include main ideas.

Guess Vocabulary from Context

For this question, a word in the passage will be highlighted. The question asks you which word from a list of four best matches the meaning of the highlighted word. Here, context will help you, and so will a wide vocabulary.

To develop your vocabulary, you need to read. Reading is the best way to see how words are used in context. You don’t have to read complicated books.

The best way is to make reading fun by reading things that interest you: Food, gardening, fashion, celebrity news, economics, science, politics, etc.

As you read, you will discover new words in context. Try to get the meaning of an unknown word by understanding the whole sentence.

Then, look up the word on or on to see if your guess was correct. This skill will help you with the guess vocabulary from context question.

Also, try to learn a word a day.

Check the English Learner’s Dictionary word of the day for a new word each day with the definition, pronunciation, word form and example sentences.

Make Inferences

Inference is about understanding what the author is trying to say, without actually saying it.

TOEFL reading
Making an inference is liked making an educated guess: you have drawn an idea or conclusion from evidence, reasoning and experience.

You’ll be asked something like “what does the author mean by…”.

With this kind of question, you won’t find the answer directly in the text. It will be implied, so you’ll need to infer the meaning.

To do that, you need to go beyond the text which means using higher-level thinking skills.

A good way to develop this is to do riddles. There are plenty of inference riddles that you can find online that will help you practice making inferences.

Making inferences relies on what it says in the text plus your background knowledge and ability to connect information to draw conclusions.

Another way to build this skill is, as you read, ask yourself questions about the meaning behind what is written and make guesses.

Find connecting points and bring them together to draw a conclusion. Make predictions about the information provided.

Identify a Reference

This question type is all about understanding what a word or words in a sentence refers to.

For example, “I watched Star Wars yesterday. It was a great movie”. Here the word “it” refers to “Star Wars”.

Of course, this type of question will be a bit more challenging in the actual TOEFL reading. So, you need to build up your knowledge of grammar and sentence structure.

As you read different articles, highlight any reference words like it, they, they, which, whose, who, etc. Then ask yourself, what does that word refer to?

To answer that question, you’ll need to identify the subject of the previous sentence. This is an exercise you should keep in mind when doing your daily reading practice.

It will help prepare you for this very common TOEFL reading question.

Identify a Fact
TOEFL reading
Facts are snippets of concrete evidence drawn from your reading.

In the TOEFL reading, you might be asked to find a fact from the passage.

Facts are the supporting information that tell more about the main idea. Facts often tell about the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the main idea.

The fact question is based upon information which is actually stated in the passage.  You must find the part of the passage which deals with what is being asked.

The best way to build this skill is to practice reading and answering comprehension questions.

Rhetorical Purpose

This kind of question asks you why the author mentioned something. Authors say things for different purposes.

For example:

  • To persuade the reader of something
  • To describe something
  • To make a suggestion
  • To illustrate a point
  • To prove a theory

Like the inference question, the answer will not be stated in the passage. You will need to infer.

A good way to build this skill in preparation for this type of question, is to read critically. That means, as you read, ask yourself:

  • Why did the author mention that?
  • What was the purpose of including that information?  
Simplify Information

This question type asks you to pick the best paraphrase of a sentence from a passage. You’ll be given four options to choose from.

Paraphrasing is all about expressing the same idea in a simpler way. To build this skill, read an article and pick a paragraph to paraphrase.

Write a couple of sentences using your own words to capture the same idea that the paragraph expresses.  Then read your paraphrase and compare it to the original paragraph.

Keep refining your paraphrasing skills by doing this each time you read an article.

Jump onto Youtube to watch free E2Language TOEFL videos and start learning TOEFL reading methods today! 

Start planning your TOEFL preparation time by following the link to this blog post here!

Follow a list of of link to quality TOEFL learning material right here!

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Written by Jamal Abilmona

TOEFL Reading Section: Expert TOEFL Reading Preparation Tips

This article from E2Language will outline some TOEFL reading tips you can use to practice for the TOEFL reading section.

At first glance, the TOEFL reading section appears easily misleading! 20 minutes may seem like loads of time to read a page-length text and answer 12-14 questions. You’ve read heaps of academic texts, learned tons of new vocabulary, and tried a bunch of practice questions, so you think this will be a breeze, right?

TOEFL reading section
All your studying and test preparation will pay off if you can approach each TOEFL section strategically!

Fast forward ten minutes and you’re still stuck trying to figure out what “—-” really means.

Don’t worry friends, it happens to the best of us! That is why you should not only spend your study time familiarizing yourself with the question types and a wealth of TOEFL reading material, but also focus on becoming a more efficient reader.

So what do I mean by ‘becoming a more efficient reader’? Basically, don’t do more work than you have to, dear test-takers!

Understanding every word of every sentence isn’t necessary to succeed on the TOEFL reading section, so reading the entire text first before you look at the questions will only waste your precious time! Instead, work on developing the following TOEFL reading skills.

TOEFL Reading Tips #1: Practice Skimming

To get the main idea of the text, you’ll want to employ a method called skimming. This is where you essentially read at a high speed; reading for overall meaning rather than detail. On the TOEFL test, you can usually get the main idea by looking through the first lines of each paragraph and the conclusion.

To practice at home on the TOEFL reading section, start with some TOEFL Reading material and set a timer for 30 seconds (see our TOEFL preparation blog article for useful insights into how long you need to prepare for the TOEFL).

Look through the text quickly, focusing on the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Once the timer is up, stop reading and write down as many vocabulary words as you can remember, as well as the main idea of the passage in your own words.

You can also try an online reading speed test. Building an element of pressure into your study will help you prepare for the real conditions of the test.

TOEFL Reading Tips #2: Scanning

Another skill that will help you succeed in the TOEFL reading section is scanning. This is where you move your eyes quickly down the text, looking for specific information.

On the test, read through the question and make a mental note of a few key words (important objects, titles, dates, etc) and then try to locate them in the text. If you already know what you’re looking for, you can find the information quickly and search within the same area for the answer.     

TOEFL reading section
Scanning a document is like fast-forwarding on the television remote, which allows you to target and capture the most important scenes or information you need.

Try these resources for more skimming and scanning practice!

TOEFL Reading Section: Practice Links

TOEFL Reading Tip #3: Do the easy questions first!

On the TOEFL iBT you’ll encounter a mixture of question types some significantly harder than others. Remember that you have 20 minutes for each text. Ideally, when answering each question type, you should also leave yourself a couple minutes to navigate back through the questions and double check your answers (this is where your skimming and scanning practice will pay off!).

Another TOEFL reading tip is to change the order in which you complete the questions. Look through the questions that say “According to Paragraph 2” or “In Line 5…” first. These questions should be relatively quick as you have the location of the answer given to you, and once you’re done these, you can spend another minute or two on those harder inference questions!

Just remember to check the “Review” button to see if you’ve completed every question before you move on from the section.

A word of caution: you won’t become a faster reader overnight. Make sure you give yourself sufficient time to practice the strategies above, be consistent and you’re sure to see results!

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Written by Meaghan. 


TOEFL Reading Tips from an IELTS Expert

Yes, you read the title correctly! I am a seasoned IELTS teacher who took the TOEFL recently, and I have some TOEFL reading tips to share with you based on my experience.

Two weeks ago, my colleague Colin and I took the TOEFL. Although it had been many years since I had sat a formal test, I was looking forward to the challenge! That’s my competitive streak. Sitting the test was like a competition against myself that I wanted to win. So I waited with anticipation for my scores and when I finally received them 10 days later, I was relieved at my speaking, writing and listening (30, 29 and 29 respectively), but surprised at my reading. I scored 23/30! Although this is still considered “high”, I was disappointed. I have been reading in English all my life, and have gone through three university degrees reading academic texts. I was expecting a 28 or 29.

TOEFL Reading Tips

You might be thinking, if a native speaker scored a 23 in TOEFL reading, how can I get a high score? What I learned from this is that it comes down to more than just language ability. It is about understanding the questions and knowing what to look for to help you answer them. Being an IELTS teacher, I was not familiar with the TOEFL format or question types, so this was a learning experience. I had not really prepared, and that was my weakness. So here I am going to share with you some examples of reading questions and some methods and tips that can help you get the score you expect. But first I want to tell you about how the reading is scored.

According to the TOEFL report card, in order to get a “high” score, you need to:

  • have a very good command of academic vocabulary and grammatical structures
  • understand and connect information, make inferences and synthesise ideas
  • recognise the organisation of a text
  • abstract major ideas

when the text is conceptually dense and linguistically complex.

TOEFL reading tips

What does this mean?

It means when reading an academic text with complex concepts and language you:

  • need to understand how vocabulary and grammar work to give meaning to a sentence
  • have to use critical thinking skills to connect information, infer meaning and bring different ideas together to create meaning
  • have to understand how to use the organisation of a text or paragraph to help you find the answer
  • have to take the meaning of a word, sentence or paragraph from the information given

How do you do this?

Well let’s look a few of the question types that I found in the reading test.

  • Guess the meaning of a word from context
  • Understand reference
  • Identify purpose

Here’s an example of each of the above and some TOEFL reading tips to help you answer them.

TOEFL Reading Tips: Guess the meaning of a word from context

Here you are given a word or a term from the text and asked to choose a synonym from a list of four options. The word is highlighted in the text to make it easy for you to find it. For example,

“Benjamin Franklin was the only person to sign all four key documents of American history”.

  1. The term key could best be replaced by
  • successful
  • mandatory
  • fundamental
  • opening

If you don’t know the meaning of the word, read the sentence in the text and try to guess from context. Re-read the sentence again, each time replacing it with a word from the list. The one that sounds the most correct in that context should be the correct answer. You may not be sure, but often you know if something ‘sounds’ right. In this case, go with your intuition. Chances are you have heard it somewhere before and that’s why it feels right. Can you guess the answer? It is C.

TOEFL Reading Tips: Understand reference

Here you are given a pronoun and asked what it refers to. For example,

“A presumably secure beach can undergo such severe and dramatic erosion that eggs laid on it are lost.”

  1. The word “it” refers to

(A) beach erosion

(B) shoreline protection

(C) wind and wave direction

(D) a secure beach

Here you need to read the sentence and find the subject of the sentence. This is what “it” will refer to. What is the subject of this sentence? “A secure beach”. So the answer is D.

TOEFL Reading Tips: Identify purpose

Here you are asked why the author has mentioned specific information. You need to use some critical thinking for this one. Let’s take a look at an example.

“As late as the fourteenth century, scholars needed to remember what was read. Reading to remember requires a very different technique than speed reading. Until recently, people read only a few books intensely over and over again”.

  1. Why does the author mention “speed reading?

(A) to discuss a fourth century technique

(B) to illustrate why people read a few books intensively

(C) to explain the copies of the texts fourteenth century scholars needed to recall

(D) to contrast the type of reading done nowadays with that of earlier times

When reading the passage, we can see that it begins by talking about a time in the past (the fourteenth century) and ends by talking about recent times. Therefore, the sentence about speed reading was included to contrast the type of reading done today to that done in the past. So the answer is D.

These are examples of only a few reading question types. It is important to familiarise yourself with all of them and to practice so that you are prepared. Succeeding in the TOEFL reading test is about more than just understanding what you are reading. It’s about using skills such as critical thinking, knowledge of grammar, and also a bit of intuition.

Check out our TOEFL course for practice questions and all the TOEFL reading tips you’ll need to succeed on the TOEFL iBT!


Written by Jamal Abilmona