Your Guide to Answering Reading Summary Questions for the TOEFL® Test

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.

The fastest and easiest way to your TOEFL score is through practice. Use this free Complete TOEFL Practice Test #13

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.

TOEFL Summary Questions… Summary

We are going to get into 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.

10. DIRECTIONS: 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.

For over a century, biologists have been trying to understand and define the mechanisms for speciation.

a. The definition of species is a group of organisms that have the capacity to interbreed.
b. Scientists 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. The formation of a new branch of a river is an example of an event that leads to allopatric speciation.
e. Certain species, like flying species, can carry-on multiple gene pools as they travel between populations.
f. The second category of speciation mechanisms states that speciation can occur when individuals live and breed in the same location.

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

For over a century, biologists have been trying to understand and define the mechanisms for speciation.

a. The definition of species is a group of organisms that have the capacity to interbreed.
b. Scientists 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. The formation of a new branch of a river is an example of an event that leads to allopatric speciation.
e. Certain species, like flying species, can carry-on multiple gene pools as they travel between populations.
f. The second category of speciation mechanisms states that speciation can occur when individuals live and breed in the same location.

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: For over a century, 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.

Anyway…

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 #13.

Speciation

The biological definition of species, which works for sexually reproducing organisms, is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding individuals. According to this definition, one species is distinguished from another by the possibility of matings between individuals from each species to produce fertile offspring. There are exceptions to this rule. Many species are similar enough that hybrid offspring are possible and may often occur in nature, but for the majority of species, this rule generally holds. In fact, the presence of hybrids between similar species suggests that they may have descended from a single interbreeding species and that the speciation process may not yet be completed.

Given the extraordinary diversity of life on the planet, there must be mechanisms for speciation: the formation of two species from one original species. Darwin envisioned this process as a branching event and diagrammed the process in the only illustration found in On the Origin of Species. For speciation to occur, two new populations must be formed from one original population, and they must evolve in such a way that it becomes impossible for individuals from the two new populations to interbreed. Biologists have proposed mechanisms by which this could occur that fall into two broad categories. Allopatric speciation, meaning speciation in “other homelands,” involves a geographic separation of populations from a parent species and subsequent evolution. Sympatric speciation, meaning speciation in the “same homeland,” involves speciation occurring within a parent species while remaining in one location.

A geographically continuous population has a gene pool that is relatively homogeneous. Gene flow, the movement of alleles across the range of the species, is relatively free because individuals can move and then mate with individuals in their new location. Thus, the frequency of an allele at one end of a distribution will be similar to the frequency of the allele at the other end. When populations become geographically discontinuous, that free-flow of alleles is prevented. When that separation lasts for a period of time, the two populations are able to evolve along different trajectories. Thus, their allele frequencies at numerous genetic loci gradually become more and more different as new alleles independently arise by mutation in each population. Typically, environmental conditions, such as climate, resources, predators, and competitors, for the two populations will differ causing natural selection to favor divergent adaptations in each group. Different histories of genetic drift, enhanced because the populations are smaller than the parent population, will also lead to divergence.

Isolation of populations leading to allopatric speciation can occur in a variety of ways: from a river forming a new branch, erosion forming a new valley, or a group of organisms traveling to a new location without the ability to return, such as seeds floating over the ocean to an island. The nature of the geographic separation necessary to isolate populations depends entirely on the biology of the organism and its potential for dispersal. If two flying insect populations took up residence in separate nearby valleys, chances are that individuals from each population would fly back and forth, continuing gene flow. However, if two rodent populations became divided by the formation of a new lake, continued gene flow would be unlikely; therefore, speciation would be more likely.

Can divergence occur if no physical barriers are in place to separate individuals who continue to live and reproduce in the same habitat? Sympatric speciation does also sometimes take place. For example, imagine a species of fish that lived in a lake. As the population grew, competition for food also grew. Under pressure to find food, suppose that a group of these fish had the genetic flexibility to discover and feed off another resource that was unused by the other fish. What if this new food source was found at a different depth of the lake? Over time, those feeding on the second food source would interact more with each other than the other fish; therefore they would breed together as well. Offspring of these fish would likely behave like their parents and feed and live in the same area, keeping them separate from the original population. If this group of fish continued to remain separate from the first population, eventually sympatric speciation might occur as more genetic differences accumulated between them.

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 choices 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:

 

  • 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.

Confused about the TOEFL? Answer explanations, sample essays, and speaking responses are all included in this free 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 Ten Awsome Tips for the Reading Section of the TOEFLTest

 

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!

54 Comments

  1. hamid

    HI,
    just wanted to ask you the order of the answers matter or not?

    Reply
    • Josh

      Good question. No, the order does not matter.

      Reply
  2. Sophie

    Hi Josh,
    first of all thank you for this great guidance! It was of great help though one thing remains unclear to me. Do I have to put the answers in the correct order as well?

    Thank you for your help in advance!

    Reply
    • Josh

      Hi Sophie and I should have mentioned this somewhere in the article since many students have the same question. No, the order does not matter.

      Reply
  3. Zahra

    Hi,
    If we choose two answers correctly, we would gain the summery score or not?

    Reply
    • Josh

      Great question! The Summary question in the TOEFL Reading is the only question worth 2 points, so if you got 2/3 correct you would still get 1 point. However, if you get 1/3 or 0/3 it is a 0. I hope that answers your question!

      Reply
  4. Heejin Jo

    wow awesome!!! Thank you sosoooooo much!!!

    Reply

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