The Reading section is meant to test your abilities in reading and absorbing university-level academic texts. The texts themselves are on many topics, but unfamiliarity with the subject need not bother you because the questions are based entirely on the passage.
The purpose of academic reading is three-fold:
- reading for information;
- reading for comprehension, and
- reading to learn.
Each of these abilities is tested in the Reading section. The Reading section normally contains between three and five passages, of approximately 700 words. Each passage is followed by 12-14 questions. The time allocated for the section varies between 60-100 minutes.
In this article, we will begin by learning how to identify the various types of passages and questions that may be asked based on them. Then we will apply this knowledge to develop a reading strategy that will ensure a high mark in the Reading section.
Types of Passages
The Reading section will test you with different types of passages. To succeed, you must be able to understand the relationships between the different parts of the text, and the role they play in presenting the author ’s ideas. While some complex passages may include many points of view and lines of arguments, most of them stick to one of the following types:
- Classification: This passage usually defines a category or an object and its main characteristics or functions. It may then go on to show this category to have many subcategories, each with its features. Sometimes, these will be defined by examples.
- Comparison/Contrast: Such articles describe the characteristics of the object and place them alongside those of another. They will go on to show relations of similarities and differences between the two. They usually do this by showing the advantages or disadvantages of one over the other.
- Cause/effect: These passages will discuss the consequences of an action or the reasons for a particular action. The articles sometimes describe a process of some kind. In such cases, the idea of cause and effect is often used to connect various stages in the process.
- Problem/Solution: In such passages, a problem of some sort is first defined. Then reasons are given for the problems and finally a suggestion is made on how to rectify it. In this category, common topics are guns violence and social conflicts.
Types of Questions
The questions that follow the reading passage usually fall under some categories. In this section we will look at the various kinds of questions you can expect to be asked, and a few hints on how to identify them.
1. Factual Information Questions
Factual questions ask for specific information that is usually found in one or two sentences within the passage. This is usually clear statements of fact that deal with names, dates, definitions, etc.
They can be of two kinds: factual and negative factual questions. Factual questions are usually of the sort “which of the following are true?” or “according to the paragraph, X did Y because…” Negative factual questions can be identified almost immediately because they have the word “not” or “except” in them. You can expect between three and eight questions on such details of facts and negative facts.
2. Questions based on Inference
There are usually between one and three inference-based questions per passage. In these, you will be asked questions about something in the article that is not directly stated, but only indirectly hinted at.
For these questions, you need to be able to follow the logic of the author ’s argument. They are usually framed as “the author of the passage implies that…” or “which of the following can be inferred from the paragraph…”
3. Rhetorical Purpose Questions
These are questions where you will be asked why the author has chosen to say something the way he/she has. You may be asked why the author has chosen to quote a particular author or referred to a particular source.
Or you may be asked to explain the relationship between two paragraphs/ideas/lines in the passage. There are normally, at least, one or two rhetorical purpose questions after every passage.
4. Vocabulary Questions
These are questions that will test your knowledge of the words, phrases or expressions used in the passage. You may be asked synonyms, antonyms, or words “closest in meaning” to a particular word.
These questions usually test unfamiliar or technical words that are nevertheless critical to the meaning of the passage. Expect between three to five vocabulary-based questions for every passage.
5. Reference Questions
These are questions that will test your grammar skills, particularly on the rules of reference. For instance, you may be required to identify the relation between a pronoun and the noun that it refers to. There may be up to two such questions in a set.
6. Sentence Simplification Questions
This type of question does not appear very frequently. In sentence simplification, you will need to select one out of the given options that contain the meaning of the quoted sentence. For example, “which of the following best expresses the information in the highlighted sentence?”
7. Text Insertion Questions
The passage usually contains one “insert text” type question. As you read the text, you will see black squares at some places within the passage. The question will provide you with a sentence, and will ask you to insert it in place of one of the four black squares in the passage.
Text insertion questions test your language skills at two levels:
- in understanding the content of the paragraph in question; and
- in understanding the grammatical structure of the sentence itself.
8. Prose Summary Questions
These questions test your grasp of the passage as a whole, and the organization of ideas within it. These questions will ask you to differentiate between major and minor points presented in the passage.
Usually, you are presented with six statements about the passage. While each of them is true in itself, you will need to judge their relative importance in the author ’s argument and accordingly choose the three main points made in the passage.
9. Table-based Questions
This is another type of question that tests your ability to summarize and absorb the information in the passage. You must be able to judge the difference between essential and nonessential aspects of the argument presented by the author.
This is a variation on the prose summary questions. The skills tested are the same, but here there are a lot more options that need to be placed correctly under the different subheads provided. Each passage contains one of either prose summary or table-based questions.
How to Read
The reading skills for a test like TOEFL are different from those that we use in our daily lives. The strict time limitations in this section—five passages in 60-100 minutes—mean that it is impossible to do a close word-by-word reading of the text passages. In fact, the examiners don’t expect you to read the whole passage!
Success in the Reading section depends on your mastery of the skills of “skimming” and “scanning” through a given text.
Skimming is a fast-reading technique in which you read only the first and last sentences of the opening paragraph, and then the first sentence of each paragraph after that. The aim is to do an initial quick reading that will give you a gist of what it contains, not the details. As you skim, identify what type of passage it is. Also, you will get a good idea of what is contained in each of the paragraphs, and how each is linked to the other.
Skimming is important for two reasons: –
- it helps you grasp the whole passage, and
- it provides a guide to quickly locating the possible answers for the questions.
Scanning is a slower method in which you read from the beginning of the passage to find a specific answer you are looking for, and then stop when you find it. Then repeat for each question. As you go through more questions, you will get to know more about the details of the passage, so that by the end you will have a good idea of the structure as well as the details of the passage.
You can achieve the best results by combining skimming and scanning. First, do a quick skimming reading. In your notes, make an outline of the passage structure, with just a line of each paragraph given. For now, focus on the connections between paragraphs.
After this, read through all the questions once, identifying their types. Now begin with the first question and use the scanning method to find the answer in the text. Do this with each question. All the time keep adding key information to the outline. Now you can use these notes to answer the more complex “reading to learn” questions and tables at the end.
Some Tips for Practice
While the skimming and scanning skills are most important in the Reading section, there are other aspects of your reading abilities that you also need to pay attention to:
- Vocabulary: Having a strong vocabulary is essential to both understanding and speaking any language. Use Smartphone apps to improve your knowledge of words. Also, carry around a small notebook in which you write down new words to add to your word list. Read as widely as you can.
- Try “guess the meaning”. Pick up any reading material and look for words you do not understand. Now, instead of checking in a dictionary, try to guess the meaning from the lines before and after it (context). Doing this improves your vocabulary as well as skills of inference.
- Connect the pronouns. Take any sample reading passage and underline all the pronouns that occur in it. Now try to connect each pronoun used to the noun that it is referring to.
- Doing this will improve your skills in grammar and sentence construction. Practice paraphrasing. Take a passage from a magazine or textbook and skim through it, making notes along the way. Take 20 seconds to think about the article as a whole and then quickly try to capture the gist of the passage in seven or eight sentences. Practice this as frequently as possible and on all sorts of reading material.
You may also read:
- Schedule Planning in TOEFL – A Brief Guide
- Tips for Success in your TOEFL Writing Exam
- Tips for Success in your TOEFL Speaking Exam
- Tips for Success in your TOEFL Listening Exam
- Tips for Success in your TOEFL Reading Exam
- Top 6 TOEFL Exam Preparation Tips: Key To Success
- Getting Started To Learn IELTS or TOEFL