If you struggle with TOEFL Summary questions in the reading section, you’re not alone.

They come at the end of almost every passage and unlike other TOEFL question types, you have to find three correct answers, not just one.

In this article, we’ll walk you through how to answer TOEFL Reading summary questions step-by-step. We’ll show you how to recognize a summary question, how to manage your time, and how to eliminate incorrect choices.

We’ll also reveal how to find the correct answers without even reading the passage! 

To do all this we need to look at some examples of actual TOEFL Reading summary questions.

Be sure to download the PDF version of one of our many complete TOEFL tests. This one is TST Prep Test #11.

We are going to take a look at the summary question from the third passage, entitled Speciation.

In just ten short minutes, you will have a step-by-step process that will reduce confusion and keep you focused so you can answer any TOEFL Reading summary question.

Here’s an overview of the process:

  • Step 1 – Identify it as a summary question
  • Step 2 – Read the topic sentence and figure out the main idea
  • Step 3 – Eliminate choices that are not directly related to the topic sentence
  • Step 4 – Eliminate choices that seem like details
  • Step 5 – Go back to the text (especially topic sentences)

Let’s do this!

TOEFL Summary Questions… Summary

We are going to get in to the step-by-step system in one minute. First, let’s make sure we are on the same page.

Here is a quick rundown of the most important points to consider when thinking about answering summary questions:

  • Expect 2-3 TOEFL Reading summary questions on test day
  • Located at the end of all questions for a given text
  • Worth two points (most other questions are worth only one)
  • Allocate between 2-3 minutes to answer each (more about this in our Time Management article)

Now that you know a little about the question itself, let’s practice answering one together.

Step 1 – Identify it as a summary question

One way to help you save time when answering TOEFL Reading summary questions is to skip the directions.

Really!

The instructions are always the same. Summary questions are always worded like this:

“An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below. Complete the summary by selecting the THREE answer choices that express the most important ideas in the passage. Some sentences do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not presented in the passage or are minor ideas in the passage. This question is worth 2 points.”

Take the time to read and understand these directions carefully, so you can skip them on test day. You want to conserve your time and direct your focus to the actual question.

Step 2 – Read the Topic Sentence and Figure Out the Main Idea

Now you know how to identify TOEFL Reading summary questions. Besides the fact that they are the very last question of a given reading passage, they also always have the same directions.

Let’s look at an example from the passage Speciation, which is text #3 in the TOEFL Reading section of TST Prep Test #11.

Since the directions are always the same, let’s cut them out and concentrate on the question.

Here comes the fun part!

We are going to start eliminating choices without even reading the passage.

Instead of reading the passage, we are going to focus on the topic sentence and figure out the main idea.

Topic sentence: Since at least Darwin’s time, biologists have been trying to understand and define the mechanisms for speciation. 

Try to simplify that sentence in a way that even a ten-year-old would understand.

Identifying keywords can help a lot.

Keywords are the most important words in a given sentence. They are usually either nouns or verbs. You can learn all about keywords in our TOEFL Mastery Course.

Anyways…

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

This is the most important part of the entire step-by-step process of answering TOEFL Reading summary questions. Proper identification of the main idea of the topic sentence is going to guide you to the correct answers.

More on this in step three.

Let’s go through each possible choice together. When analyzing an option, ask yourself: Does this directly relate to the topic sentence?

Again, we are only focusing on the topic sentence, not the passage itself. We are going to use it to guide what options we choose and what we eliminate.

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

a. The definition of species is a group of organisms that do or could interbreed

I am immediately suspicious of this choice because it is a definition of species, and has nothing to do with speciation.

I eliminate a.

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

b. Biologists have organized the mechanisms for speciation into two categories, allopatric and sympatric. 

That choice looks pretty good. It is directly related to speciation and elaborates on it without getting into too much detail.

I keep b. (Note that I am not making any final decisions at this stage, only eliminating choices I suspect are incorrect.)

 

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

c. In his On the Origin of Species, Darwin theorized that the speciation process was a branching event.  

I’m not sure about this one. Speciation is mentioned, but it is also referring to Darwin’s book.

I keep c.

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

d. An example of an event that leads to allopatric speciation is the formation of a new branch of a river. 

While this sentence is about speciation, it seems to be a bit too detailed for a summary response.

I keep d…for now. 

In step four I will have a chance to review these options again.

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

e. Certain species, like flying species, can carry-on multiple gene pools as they travel between populations. 

This choice is a specific example of a species and how it transfers genes. This does not appear to be connected to the topic sentence.

I eliminate e.  

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

f. The second category of speciation mechanisms states that speciation can occur when individuals live and breed in the same location. 

This option looks good. It is connected to the topic sentence and doesn’t include too many details.

I keep f.

Note that there will be times when you look at a topic sentence and can’t eliminate a single possible choice. That’s OK. This doesn’t work 100% of the time. This is a strategy designed to help you focus on the topic sentence and use it to select options that are connected to it.

Step 4 – Eliminate Choices That Seem Like Details

Summary questions are asking you to summarize the passage. With that in mind, be sure to eliminate options that are too specific.

For example, if there was a reading passage about my university, the subtopics might be something like: 

  • the university’s general history 
  • the university’s current student population 
  • the university’s degree programs

A summary would not contain specific details about each of these categories, for example:

  • the university was founded in 1867
  • there are currently 2,367 undergraduates
  • the Creative Writing degree program includes a Creative Writing 101 Course taught by Professor Elliot on Tuesdays

Notice the difference?

Let’s go back to our question. We have already eliminated a and e.

Let’s look at b, c, d, and f to see if any sounds too much like a detail. 

Simple Topic Sentence: Biologists have been trying to understand speciation for awhile.

b. Biologists have organized the mechanisms for speciation into two categories, allopatric and sympatric. 

c. In his On the Origin of Species, Darwin theorized that the speciation process was a branching event.  

d. An example of an event that leads to allopatric speciation is the formation of a new branch of a river. 

f. The second category of speciation mechanisms states that speciation can occur when individuals live and breed in the same location. 

I feel like d is a bit too detailed. I could be wrong (remember, this is a strategy and much of it is based on previous knowledge and intuition), but it sounds like a detail that would follow a paragraph about allopatric speciation, rather than an introduction to the topic.

But like I said, I could be wrong, so I leave it for now.

I still have another step to go.

Step 5 – Go Back to the Text (especially topic sentences)

Hey, remember how this question is supposed to be a summary of a reading passage?

We haven’t even looked at the passage yet and we have already eliminated two choices.

Below is an image of the text from Speciation from our free and complete TOEFL test,  TST Prep Test #11.

One enormous advantage you will have on test day is that by the time you reach the summary question, you will have read the entire passage! 

The sentences highlighted in yellow are the introductory sentences to each body paragraph. They are designed to introduce a subtopic that will be elaborated on further with details in the given paragraph. The first sentence of most body paragraphs doesn’t include detailed information, which is what makes them ideal as possible summary answers.

For example, I see choice d including some of the text from the introductory sentence of the third body paragraph.

d. An example of an event that leads to allopatric speciation is the formation of a new branch of a river.

However, this doesn’t mean d is correct, only that it is more likely to be important.

All of these steps are part of a strategy. A strategy does not always lead to victory, it is only an intelligent way to get there.

In summary (pun intended!)

So what on earth is the correct answer to this TOEFL Reading summary question on Speciation?

In the end, I had to go with b, c, and f.

b. Biologists have organized the mechanisms for speciation into two categories, allopatric and sympatric. 

c. In his On the Origin of Species, Darwin theorized that the speciation process was a branching event.  

f. The second category of speciation mechanisms states that speciation can occur when individuals live and breed in the same location. 

Even though d was part of an introductory paragraph, it still got cut because the other three choices were a better summary of the main idea of the topic sentence.

Most of the time, you will eliminate two choice and be left with four plausible answers. You have to pick the three you believe best summarize the passage and topic sentence.

Don’t forget these steps when answering TOEFL Reading summary questions:z

 

  • Step 1 – Identify it as a summary question
  • Step 2 – Read the topic sentence and figure out the main idea
  • Step 3 – Eliminate choices that are not directly related to the topic sentence
  • Step 4 – Eliminate choices that seem like details
  • Step 5 – Go back to the text (especially topic sentences)

Now that you know how to answer TOEFL Reading summary questions, it’s time to practice.

Practicing will help solidify this new information into your memory so you can actually apply it on test day.

So go ahead and download our free and complete TOEFL Practice test.

Or, if you feel like you want to learn more cool TOEFL Reading tips and tricks like this, check out our TOEFL Mastery Course.

 

I know this TOEFL stuff can get a bit frustrating sometimes. So don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know if you have any questions or concerns: [email protected]

Did I miss anything? Or do you have a comment?

Please add your ideas in the comments section below.

I promise to respond to every single one!

12 Comments

  1. Sadiq

    Thank you Sir for sharing such invaluble things with us. I was wondering if it would be possible to provide us with more tips and instruction on Paraphrasing ( simplyfying the Topic Sentence and getting the Main Idea).
    This would result in better understanding of correct answer choices.

    Reply
  2. Ali

    Thanks a lot for sharing this point

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thanks for taking the time to read Ali. Happy to hear you found it helpful.

      Reply
  3. lorena

    Thank you so much. I was having a difficult time with this type of questions, even after practicing.
    I could not find information on how to approach them anywhere else!

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      That’s great news Lorena and happy we can help. Don’t hesitate to let us know if there are any TOEFL topics we should write about in the future.

      Reply
  4. Santosh

    Amazing! I love it

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thank you Santosh! Happy to help 🙂

      Reply
  5. Nouran

    Thank you so much for this resource
    I have a question though
    While I was doing some of your practice packets one of the summery questions topic sentence was :Various elements have been grouped in a table based on their physical properties and periodic relationship thanks to a few chemists.

    Well I put one of my answers as:The names of two of the most prominent chemists for their work on the periodic table are Dimitri
    Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer
    because this supports the statement made in the topic sentence when it talks about “few chemists”
    I still don’t understand why this is wrong even after reading the explanation

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      thanks for the comment Nouran, but I’m not sure which question you are referring to. If you could send me the link with the comment to [email protected] I can take a deeper look at this issue.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

      Reply
  6. Sandra

    Thank you so much for the article. I always struggle with the summary questions and I feel more confident now after reading the strategies.

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      That’s great news Sandra. We get a lot of questions about summary questions so I figured it would be a good idea to write an article about it.

      Good to hear you found it helpful! Let me know if there’s anything we should cover in the future.

      Reply

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