Ten Awesome TOEFL Reading Tips

The TOEFL Reading takes time, and it sometimes seems like the questions are trying to trick you.

Well, they often are!

The good news is that we have some TOEFL Reading tips and tricks for you so you can save time and improve your reading score.

But that’s not all!

You can also download TST Prep’s Complete Test #11 for free right here.

Sit tight.

Don’t run off and start practicing yet. We have some TOEFL tips designed to help you study smarter and read better so you can achieve the TOEFL score of your dreams.

Here is a quick rundown of our top ten TOEFL Reading tips:

  • Tip #1: Memorize the question types
  • Tip #2: Find keywords and focus on them
  • Tip #3: Practice reading with a timer
  • Tip #4: Beware of modifiers in answer choices
  • Tip #5: Store knowledge of academic vocabulary
  • Tip #6: Learn word parts and apply to unknown vocabulary
  • Tip #7: Be an active reader
  • Tip #8: Study the same test more than once
  • Tip #9: Explain why you were correct or incorrect
  • Tip #10: Practice with short passages.

By the end of this TOEFL article, you will not only know what to do on test day, but how to prepare in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Let’s jump right in!

Tip #1: Memorize the question types

The TOEFL Reading contains 10 different types of questions. Some appear more frequently than others and some take more time than others. Most are worth one point but some are worth two or three.

Instead of me rattling on and explaining the difference between each TOEFL Reading question type to you, it would be much better if I just put it a nice, friendly chart.

On the left hand column is the question type, in the second column gives an approximation of how often you will encounter each question, the third column identifies the value and the last column provides at least one example of how this type of question is usually worded.

If you want to see these questions in action, I recommend downloading TST Prep complete test #11.

Tip #2: Find keywords and focus on them

For many of the question types, you can rely on the keywords in both the question and answer choices to help you find the correct option.

Keywords are important words in the question that you can use to help you find answers quickly.

For example, below is a paraphrase question from our TOEFL Diagnostic Test, and you will notice that it is pretty wordy.

Which of the following best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence in paragraph 3? Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.
 

  1. Discoveries of ceratopsian remains suggest that they lived in groups
  2. Fossils of individual herds of ceratopsians have been discovered in bone beds
  3. The evidence shows ceratopsians of all ages and genders lived, ate, and slept in groups
  4. Numerous fossils support the idea that individual ceratopsians differed from each other

First of all, here is a little bonus tip, paraphrase questions are always worded the same. You don’t need to waste any time reading the question, you should see it and know immediately that it is a paraphrase question.

 

Let’s get back to the topic, keywords.

What are keywords?

I am going to teach you three ways to identify them. Here are the first two: 

  • Keywords are almost never prepositions (under/in) or articles (a/an/the)
  • Keywords are almost always verbs, nouns or adjectives

Let’s apply these two new rules to the four possible answers:

  1. Discoveries of ceratopsian remains suggest that they lived in groups
  2. Fossils of individual herds of ceratopsians have been discovered in bone beds
  3. The evidence shows ceratopsians of all ages and genders lived, ate, and slept in groups
  4. Numerous fossils support the idea that individual ceratopsians differed from each other

So far we have cut about 20% of the text we need to focus on for this particular TOEFL Reading question. Notice that I cut some other types of words like conjunctions (and).  I do NOT want you to get too caught up with the grammar terminology. In general, pay little attention to these extra little words that don’t carry too much information. They are sometimes referred to as function words, which implies that they are used as grammatical tools rather than to carry any valuable information.

Next up…

  • Keywords are almost never prepositions (under/in) or articles (a/an/the)
  • Keywords are almost always verbs, nouns or adjectives
  • Proper nouns are almost always keywords

Proper nouns are words that identify a specific person, place, or thing. For example, “city” is a common noun, but “New York City” is a proper noun. 

Pretty clear from all of the given choices that ceratopsian is a pretty important word.

  1. Discoveries of ceratopsian remains suggest that they lived in groups
  2. Fossils of individual herds of ceratopsians have been discovered in bone beds
  3. The evidence shows ceratopsians of all ages and genders lived, ate, and slept in groups
  4. Numerous fossils support the idea that individual ceratopsians differed from each other
Notice that I continued to eliminate other words that were not part of the three rules.

Think of the three keyword rules as a guide, and then use your own common sense to eliminate other words that are not necessary for you to focus on.

Tip #3: Practice reading with a timer

You will be given 60 minutes to complete the TOEFL Reading section, and that’s going to be a challenge.

After each reading passage, you will find 12-14 questions about the text. In other words, you have 60 minutes to read approximately 2100 words (700 words per passage) and answer 40 questions (12-14 questions per passage).

Reading 2100 words and answering 40 questions in 60 minutes is tough.

It’s a good exercise to time yourself while you do TOEFL Reading Practice questions. Simply set a timer on your computer or phone.
You can start by timing yourself to see how long it takes you to complete each question.

Some questions take longer to answer than others, for example, let’s compare a TOEFL Reading vocabulary question to a TOEFL reading negative detail question:

VOCABULARY QUESTION

The word extract in paragraph 3 is closest in meaning to…

  1. Allow
  2. Express
  3. Obtain
  4. Recover

NEGATIVE DETAIL QUESTION

Which of the following best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence in paragraph 3? Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.

  1. Discoveries of ceratopsian remains suggest that they lived in groups
  2. Fossils of individual herds of ceratopsians have been discovered in bone beds
  3. The evidence shows ceratopsians of all ages and genders lived, ate, and slept in groups
  4. Numerous fossils support the idea that individual ceratopsians differed from each other
Clearly, some question types will take longer to answer than others. Below is the list of TOEFL Reading question types along with the average amount of time you should take with each question (each time measurement represents the maximum amount of time you should take)

  1. Vocabulary – 60 seconds
  2. Detail – 60-120 seconds (ideally 90 seconds)
  3. Negative Detail – 120 seconds
  4. Paraphrasing – 120 seconds
  5. Sentence Insertion – 120 seconds
  6. Inference – 90 seconds
  7. Author’s Purpose – 90 seconds
  8. Pronoun Reference – 60 seconds
  9. Summary – 120 seconds
  10. Organization – 120 seconds

Of course, you probably won’t be able to answer the questions within these time frames right away. Practice this skill. Eliminate choices to improve your odds of getting the correct answer and don’t hesitate to take an educated guess. Sometimes, you will not be 100% certain if you are correct, but you have to move on and answer all of the questions before time runs out.

Tip #4: Beware of modifiers in answer choices

One way to eliminate wrong choices and select the correct one is to pay close attention to modifiers.

First of all, what’s a modifier?

A modifier is a word, usually an adjective or noun that changes the meaning of the head noun. The wrong modifier can change the significance of a statement. 

The best way to understand is to look at a few examples: 

  1. This event has had a tremendous impact
  2. This event has had some impact
  3. This event has had almost no impact

As you can see, modifiers are an easy way to make a possible choice incorrect. All you have to do is change a single word and it changes the entire meaning of the sentence. This is one of the more infamous trap answers on the TOEFL, so be sure not to fall for the modifier trap. There is a huge difference between “tremendous impact” and “almost no impact“.

Tip #5: Store knowledge of academic vocabulary

Since the passages on the TOEFL Reading are all academic texts, the vocabulary is also at the academic level.

So, why does this matter?

You probably already know that you should study academic vocabulary, but did you know that there is an actual Academic Word List? It was created by linguist Averil Coxhead in 2001 and it contains 570 of the most common academic words used in scholarly journals and texts.

You can get yourself a copy of the Ultimate TOEFL Vocabulary List.

Here’s a quick example of one of the academic vocabulary words and all of its variations:

  • Verb form(s) – acquire
  • Noun form(s) – acquisition, acquirement, acquirer
  • Adjective form(s) – acquisitive, acquirable 
  • Adverb form(s) – acquisitively 

Let me make something clear…

You do NOT have to know all the forms of a single word. The point is that if you know the simple verb form, (i.e. acquire), then you can probably figure out the meaning of the other forms of the same word. Don’t memorize every word in each word family, just focus on familiarizing yourself with the headword.

Understanding these words won’t guarantee that you will know every word you encounter in the TOEFL Reading but this is the most concise vocabulary list you can find. There are other sites that promote TOEFL Vocabulary Lists of thousands of words, but all you need for the TOEFL Reading section is to focus on these 570 words.

Tip #6: Learn word parts and apply to unknown vocabulary

In addition to learning academic vocabulary, it’s beneficial to learn the parts of words, i.e., the prefixes, suffixes, and roots of words.

Knowing that “ex-” means “out of or not“, or that “pro-” means “before or forward” will you give you the advantage of being able to dissect words that you do not completely understand.

Whether you like it or not, there will be words in the TOEFL Reading section that you simply do not know. This TOEFL Reading tip will not only help you with vocabulary questions but for any part of the text you do not fully comprehend.

The problem is that there are literally thousands of word parts and some are more useful than others. Her is a link to our Essential Word Parts List, which includes all 219 word parts that can help you discern the meaning of a word, even if you are unfamiliar with it.

Below is a list of our 54 most common prefixes. You can find the rest in our Essential Word Parts List.

Group 1 – Location and Movement

  1. ab away from, down – abandon, abstain, abnormal, absurd, abominable
  2. ad at, towards – admire, adapt, adjacent, admonish, adversary
  3. circum to go around, circle – circumvent, circumstance, circumstantial, circumference, circumcise
  4. con-/co-/com-/col together – collect, company, concentrate, converge, coexist
  5. dia through, across – dialogue, diachronic, diameter, diatribe, diagram
  6. equi equal – equidistant, equity, equilibrium, equinox, equivalent.
  7. ex out of, not – exposure, exaggerate, exonerate, exude, exclusion
  8. fore front, in advance – foreground, forearm, forecast, foreclose, foreshadow
  9. in in, on, not – inception, intone, insinuate, incorrect, inaccurate
  10. inter among, between – interaction, intercept, intermediate, interject, international
  11. para besides, irregular, beyond – paramedic, paranormal, paragraph, paraphrase, paranoid
  12. per thoroughly, through – perceive, persist, peruse, persevere
  13. peri about, around, near – periodical, periscope, perimeter, peripheral
  14. pro before, forward – procession, proficiency, prominent, prologue, prognosis
  15. sub under, below, slightly imperfect – subatomic, subconscious, subdivide, subjugate, submission
  16. syn-/sym with, together – sympathetic, synergy, synonym, symbiotic, symmetrical
  17. tele afar, at a distance – telecast, telecommunication, telephone, telescope, television
  18. trans through, across, beyond – transcript, transfer, transcendence, transport, transaction

Group 2 – Numbers

  1. bi-/du two – duplicate, dual, bisexual, biweekly, bipolar
  2. cent 100 – centenarian, century, centigrade, centimeter, centipede
  3. mill 1000 – millennium, milliliter, milligram, millennial, millipede
  4. mono one – monochrome, monotone, monogamy, monopolize, monotheism
  5. multi more than one – multicellular, multicultural, multimillionaire, multitask, multifaceted
  6. poly many – polyglot, polygamy, polyphonic, polytheism, polygon
  7. quad four – quad, quadriplegic, quadrangle, quadruplet, quadriceps
  8. tri three – tricycle, tripod, trio, trimester, triad
  9. uni one, together – unicorn, unicycle, unify, uniform, universal

Group 3 – Negatives

  1. anti against, opposite of – antidepressant, antitrust, antiwar, antidote, antisocial
  2. contraagainst, in opposition of – contraband, contraceptive, contrast, contrarian, contradiction
  3. dis away from, the reverse effect – disable, disadvantage, disarm, displace, disrupt
  4. il-/im-/in-/ir not, opposite of – illegal, imbecile, irregular, inability, inconsistent, illogical
  5. mal wrong, badly – malefic, malcontent, malpractice, malnourished, malevolent
  6. mis wrong, incorrect – misjudge, mislead, misprint, mistreat, misfortune
  7. non not – nonchalant, noncompliant, nonexistent, nonrenewable, nonfiction
  8. un negative, opposite force – unacceptable, uneasy, unhinged, unrealistic, unspeakable

Group 4 – Academics

  1. astro the stars, outer space – asteroid, astrology, astrolabe, astronaut, astrophysicist
  2. geo earth – geometry, geothermal, geography, geolocation, geometric
  3. hydro water – hydroelectric, hydrometer, hydrophobia, hydropathic, hydrodynamic
  4. neur nerves, nervous system – neuron, neurological, neuropathy, neurosis, neurosurgeon
  5. psych mind, spirit, that which breathes – psychedelic, psychic, psycho, psychosis, psychotic
  6. socio social, society – sociocultural, socioeconomic, sociolinguistic, sociopolitical, sociopath

Group 5 – More Prefixes

  1. ana back, again, upwards – anagram, analogy, anatomy, anachronism, analyze
  2. auto by oneself, itself – autobiography, autocracy, autograph, automatize, autonomy
  3. em, en to cause to be in, to confine – embark, embezzle, entourage, enjoin, encroach
  4. hyper over, exaggeration – hyperactive, hyperbolic, hyperlink, hypertension
  5. meta after, change, beyond – metamorphosis, metaphysical, metadata, metabolism, metaphor
  6. neo new – neologism, neolithic, neofascist, neon, neonate
  7. over more than usual, too much – overcooked, overachiever, overeducated, overdose, overslept
  8. pan all – pandemic, panorama, Pangea, pan, panacea
  9. post after – postmortem, postmodernism, posterity, postscript, postseason
  10. pre before – precaution, preconditioned, predestination preordain, preview
  11. re back, again – rebuild, recall, recede, reflect, reconsider
  12. super above, beyond – superimpose, superlative supernova, superstar, superrich
  13. ult last, beyond – ultraconservative, ultrasound, ultimatum, ultimate, ulterior

 

Remember, using word parts will not always work. The prefix “ab” may mean “away from or down” but the abs around your stomach have nothing to do with this prefix. These word parts are tools to help you on your TOEFL journey.

And don’t forget, this TOEFL Reading tip is incomplete. You can download the entire Essential Word Parts List exclusively from TST Prep right here.

Tip #7: Be an active reader

Let’s face it, TOEFL Reading passages are pretty dull.

Some people may be interested in the phases of the moon or the geopolitics of Ancient Rome, but most tend to nod off after the first paragraph.

Focus is an enormous part of your grade for the TOEFL Reading. If you can read the words, but don’t understand what they mean or how they connect with each other, you will not be able to answer the questions.

You can NOT read TOEFL passages the same way you read the newspaper or a novel, you have to read with certain goals in mind.

You must read actively.

Passive reading is when you read a newspaper and then pretty much forget everything you read besides some vague main idea. You might remember that you read about the war in Syria, but you will not be able to recall the first line of the third paragraph in that article.

Active reading will help you remember a lot more of what you read.

While most exams in college test your memory, the TOEFL tests your comprehension. They don’t want to see if you can remember the material, but if you can understand it. So, your goal is to understand what you read.

STEP 1 – Before you start reading any TOEFL paragraph, not TOEFL passage, just a paragraph within the Reading passage, imagine you are a teacher and ask yourself, “How am I going to explain this paragraph to a six-year-old?”

And that’s it.

That’s how we are going to read actively. That’s your goal when you read any TOEFL paragraph.

“I need to explain this to a 6-year-old”

So when you see a paragraph, before you start to answer the question, imagine you are going to have to teach about this stuff to a bunch of children. Focus on understanding the main idea of the paragraph in a clear and simple way before you start to answer the question. 

Let me show you a quick example from a paragraph from the reading text in our TOEFL Diagnostic test

“The ceratopsians, also known as ceratopsia or ceratopia, are among the most well-known and distinctive of all dinosaur species. The majority of ceratopsians were four-legged dinosaurs that ranged in length from one meter (three feet) to nine meters and in weight from 23 kilograms (50 pounds) to 5,400 kilograms. The earliest ceratopsians lived around 161 million years ago, and the last ones died out approximately 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. The first fossil remains of ceratopsians were discovered in the mid to late nineteenth century, and they were first classified as separate from other dinosaur species in 1890 by Othniel Charles Marsh, one of the preeminent paleontologists of the period.”

My own simple summary of this paragraph would be something like, “This paragraph acts as a general introduction to ceratopsian dinosaurs with details about how they lived and when their bones were later discovered.

I think a six-year-old would get that. 

Now you try. Download TST Prep’s Complete Test #11 and try to summarize each paragraph in the reading section in a way even a six-year-old would understand (after you finish reading this article of course). 

You will be shocked by how this small mental shift can totally change your reading comprehension. 

Tip #8: Study the same test more than once

The title sums this tip up fairly well, but it is a crucial aspect of studying that most students neglect.

I have seen countless TOEFL takers fall into the practice trap. They feel that the best way to improve their score is to keep doing TOEFL practice, but they never reflect n what they have learned.

This is why all of our private TOEFL students are taught a specific four-step-system for studying the TOEFL, called The PARA Framework.

P – Plan 

A – Act 

R – Reflect 

A – Adjust 

In this system, taking a practice step is just one step in the four-step process (act). They must also spend a significant amount of time planning, reflecting and adjusting.

It’s crucial for you to reflect on what you have done and adjust based on what you have learned through reflection. After you reflect and adjust, it’s time to plan. Plan on taking the same test 1-2 weeks after the first time you did it. Anticipate that you remember most of the answers visually, not necessarily through comprehension. However, your goal is not to comprehend more, but to remember what you have already learned and ensure you do not make the same mistake twice.

Tip #9: Explain why you were correct or incorrect

Reflecting on your answers and explaining why you were correct or incorrect is step 3 in the 4-step PARA Framework you just learned about: Plan, Act, Reflect, Adjust.

Each part of this 4-step-system is important, but you will experience the most growth through reflection. Reflection is where you will act as your own teacher. Of course, it is always better to work with a teacher and we have a team of TOEFL Teachers ready and waiting to help, but if you have to do it on your own, know that there are only three reasons why you might get a question wrong on the TOEFL Reading.

That’s right, only three.

  1. Misread the passage
  2. Misread the question
  3. Did not understand the vocabulary

It is hard to imagine, but the reason why you might get a question wrong in the TOEFL reading boils down to just these three possible reasons.

Now that you know how to identify what the problem was when you answered correctly, the next step is to adjust. When you adjust, you decide what you are going to differently next time to avoid making the same mistake again. Let me give you an example of each for an incorrect TOEFL Reading question so you can see it in action:

  1. Misread the passage“I have to pay better attention to keywords in the question next time. I was looking at the wrong place in the passage for the answer.” 
  2. Misread the question“I always make the same mistake with negative detail questions, I choose a correct answer rather than an incorrect one. From now on, I will pay special attention to each question and keep a sharp eye out for the words “not” or “except”.
  3. Did not understand the vocabulary“I didn’t understand the word ‘acquire’. I am going to look up some examples with the word and then practice writing a few sentences on my own. If I have a teacher, I will ask her to correct my grammatical mistakes.” 

This is a tough habit to start because it takes time and thought, two of our most precious resources.

If you are serious about improving your TOEFL Reading abilities, I suggest starting a journal, reflecting on your answers and making plans on how you intend to adjust your approach based on your scores.

Tip #10: Practice with short passages

You are still here?

Amazing.

You have made it to the end, and since you have invested your time into reading an article about TOEFL Reading tips, I know you are serious about your TOEFL score.

Here is a link to our free PDF of 100 TOEFL Reading short questions.

The average TOEFL Reading passage is 700 words, followed by about 14 questions, but these short passages are between 100-250 words and followed by just one or two questions.

Why?

So you can focus on understanding what you read and mastering each question type. Not only will practicing short passages help you understand why you got a certain question wrong but it will also allow you to narrow your focus on your reading strengths and weaknesses.

But that is it, your top ten TOEFL Reading tips.

I know it was a lot to digest, but if you want to know more, check out our TOEFL Mastery Course that goes even more in-depth on not just the reading section, but every aspect of the TOEFL. It includes over 20 hours of video lessons, hundreds of pages of strategy guides, three complete TOEFL tests and up to 200 reading and listening practice questions. Enroll in the TOEFL Mastery Course and walk in on test day without any regrets.

Did we miss anything? (or just want to say thanks!) 

Let us know in the comments section below. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know if you have any questions at [email protected] 

Happy studies!

 

19 Comments

  1. Obaid Hamdard

    Thanks josh, This is so awesome.

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      No problem Obaid. Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      Reply
      • Michelle Serrano

        It took me all day to read this article but, of course, I was taking breaks every 2 hours. I can say this is probably the best web site I have seen in preparation for the TOEFL it is so much information that I don’t have time to look at other web pages. I am very so amazed at how detail and how much time and effort you have dedicated to making your web site. I just of curiosity you talk about a lot you did before you start teaching the TOEFL. What is the name of the book you wrote….?
        I am one of your students looking forward to taking the test at the end of September 30.
        Best regards,
        Michelle

        Reply
        • Josh MacPherson

          Ha, thank you for the compliment Michelle! The book I ‘wrote” was never published, however, my TOEFL Speaking book is still available at this link here – https://toeflspeakingteacher.com/products-and-services/ebook-toefl-speaking-success/.

          I’m happy to hear you found this information helpful, and thank you for taking so much time to read it! I hope it wasn’t too difficult to understand. Let me know if there is anything I should write about in the future.

          Reply
  2. Dyana Lima

    You are the best! Thanks a lot! I can realize a real improvement 🙂

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      That’s always great to hear Dyana. Keep it up!

      Reply
  3. Md Mahmud Hasan

    Thank you Josh for your effective and step by step analytical tips for us, which definitely will help us to get better score in TOEFL exam.

    Reply
  4. Prossy

    Amazing, am sure you guys are the best… i can fail to appreciate….you have made my studies easy

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Wow, what kind words Prossy. Thanks for the compliment! We’re new so please spread the word 🙂

      Reply
  5. Begaiym

    Thank you very much for making easier to study TOEFL.

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thanks for the comment Begaiym. Let me know if there’s any other way we can make it even easier for you 😉

      Reply
  6. Islam N

    Thank you for the quality content.

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thank you for the quality comment 😉 – I really do appreciate you taking the time to read. Glad you found it helpful!

      Reply
  7. rana

    Thanks, really helpful

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thank you Rana! Let me know if there are any other topics we should go over in the future.

      Reply
      • Atanga Ghislain

        Good evening sir.
        I am a TOEFL student of Cameroon.
        Please update me on any video or post on tips on the new TOEFL.
        Am dued to write on October 19

        Reply
        • Josh MacPherson

          Sure thing! I actually made a video last month about the new TOEFL, which you can find here – https://youtu.be/fD-oAVSth6U

          Reply
  8. Obaidullah

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Josh MacPherson

      Thank you for leaving a comment 🙂

      Reply

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