How to Tackle TOEFL Reading Comprehension Questions

Paraphrase Internally

As you are reading the introduction and body paragraphs, try to mentally recap each main point in very simple language. Some people find it helpful to ask themselves after every sentence "What was the point of saying that?" In this kind of writing, where a case is being constructed and argued, every sentence should "carry some water". If you find it effective, jot down a few key words.

The purpose of this technique is to make sure you are grasping the essential information and messages being imparted, instead of being diverted or confused by florid language or unfamiliar constructions. Imagine that you must explain the paragraph succinctly to a child.

Do not be over-concerned with technical language

TOEFL does not test domain expertise. Instead, it is testing your ability to see patterns of information. For particularly esoteric material - for instance biochemistry - you may find it helpful to substitute generic labels such as "item A" for complex terminology, in order to better resolve the relationships and linkages that lie underneath the confusing surface camouflage.

Consider answers to the generic question types

While reading, make it your second nature to come up with answers for generic questions such as main idea, topic, purpose, structure, tone and conclusions. These questions do recur often in the Reading section. In the meantime, knowing those answers while reading through does help you deepen your understanding very effectively. That way you can save more time for content-specific questions (which often start "according to the passage. . . ") to go back to check the source. The following shows how to deal with two typical questions.

Think of a suitable title for the passage

This will help you determine the "boundaries" or scope of the subject matter under discussion. When asked about the author's scope, main point, or area of interest, choose an answer that encompasses as much of the passage as possible, rather than a subsidiary point that may have been addressed in one or two paragraphs.

Determine the author's attitude

A common question concerns the author's attitude to the matters he is describing. As with the TOEFL as a whole, strongly worded text is not favored, so be cautious of extreme words (e.g. "disgusted"). Observing convention, there should be even less emotional content in science and engineering passages.

Determine the author's likely conclusion

You may also be asked to identify which statement that the author would be most likely to agree. Remember that you are being asked to put yourself in the author's shoes, and that he might draw a broad general conclusion from the restricted and specific subject matter of his analysis.

Effective note-taking

You do not need to memorize every single detail. The goal is to be able to pinpoint the location where specific information is to be found later, not to retain the information in your memory. You may stop after each paragraph and briefly note on your scrap paper how it fits into the context of the passage, thus building up a list of a few key words that will allow you to rapidly find a particular reference in the passage.

Use the Process of Elimination

Process of Elimination is useful for the Reading questions. Answer choices can often be rapidly weeded out for being: too specific, too broad, too extreme, contradictory of the passage, or off-topic.

Process of Elimination is a technique you can use to compare answer choices and cross off the wrong ones. Often the Process of Elimination will leave you with two possible answers so you can greatly improve your chance of choosing the correct answer.

Recognizing the Wrong Answers

Irrelevant Answers

· The answer includes new information which is not mentioned in the passage.

· The answer includes information that does not relate to the question.

Extreme Answers

· The answer includes words like always, never, only, every, none, impossible, everything, nothing, or all. The passages usually do not contain enough information to support these extreme statements.

Opposite Meaning Answers

· The answer includes ideas which are the opposite of the ideas of the passage.

Trick Answers

· Some answers directly repeat words from the passage along with new ideas or ideas which are opposite in meaning from the passage.

Using Process of Elimination to Find the Correct Answer

· As always, read the question first.

· Find the key words.

· Go back to the passage and search for the key words.

· Make a guess before you look at the answer choices.

· Then look at the answer choices to find one that matches your guess.

· If no answer choices match your guess, you can use Process of Elimination.

Specific Process of Elimination Strategies


· You should learn the phrases that usually introduce definitions, such as: "means," "is/are," "which," and "that."

· Cross off answers that include examples. Examples are not definitions.

· Cross off prepositional phrases. Prepositions are directional and relational words like "in," "on," "according to," and "before."


· Find the phrase in the passage.

· Cross off answer choices which occur after the phrase in the passage.


· Find the key words in the question.

· Locate these words in the passage.

· Cross off answer choices that occur in a very distant part of the passage.


· Look at the answer choices first.

· Scan the passage for each answer choice. If you find a statement with the same meaning in the passage, cross off that answer choice.


· Cross off answers which include new information.

· Cross off answers which are not logically connected to the passage.


· Cross off answers with extreme words.

· Cross off answers which are not directly supported by the passage. Even if the answer could be true, this is not enough. The correct answer must be true according to the ideas in the passage.


· Cross off answers which include new information.

· Cross off answers which are too detailed.

Look up the information asked

When you answer a question, always refer to the text. You are asked for specific details from the text and are often presented with intentionally misleading answers that ostensibly fit, so you must go back to the source. Do not rely on your recollection of the passage, which will begin to drift immediately after you have finished reading. Get into the habit of tying your answers back to specific wording in the passage, justifying each word in an answer choice.

After reading the part of the passage which is necessary for the question, make a guess before looking back at the answer choices. The answer choices contain tricks which try to mislead or confuse you, so it is better to have your own guess first. Then choose.

Watch out for Negation questions

One of the most common mistakes made by test-takers is that they overlook Negation questions, which is surprisingly easy to do under the stress of the exam. Negation questions look for an answer which is unsupported or contradicted by the passage. A good way of spotting that you may have fallen into a Negation trap is if you find that more than one answer appears to be correct. In a Negation question, three of the answers will be supported by the passage, and you should be looking for the "odd man out".

Be objective & draw your conclusions based on the provided text. Stay within the confines of the passage; do not be tempted to incorporate your judgment, opinions or external knowledge. You are being tested on your abilities as an analyst, and so should restrict yourself to a literal interpretation of the words in the passage.