You are on page 1of 3



2 Comprehension
Strong reading comprehension skills are essential for success on the
TOEFL exam and throughout your college career. In this chapter, you
will learn exactly what the reading comprehension section of the
TOEFL exam is like. You will also review and practice basic reading
comprehension skills so you can better understand what you read and
do well on the exam.

A S A COLLEGE student, you will spend a great deal of time reading. And because you will attend
an American university, the textbooks, articles, lecture notes, and websites you read for class
will be in English. Obviously, you will need to understand what you read to do well in your
classes. That’s why Section 3 of the TOEFL exam is devoted to reading comprehension skills; admissions offi-
cers want to be sure you will be able to understand all of your reading assignments.

 TOEFL Exam Reading Comprehension: What to Expect

In many ways, the TOEFL exam reading comprehension section is much like reading comprehension sections
on other standardized tests. You will be asked to read a short passage (usually no more than five to seven para-
graphs). Then you will be asked to answer several multiple-choice questions about that passage.
Reading passages on the TOEFL exam are typically factual and often academic in nature. The passages
are, in fact, quite similar to the kind of texts you will read in the college classroom. For example, you might


read about the history of the French Revolution, the conventions of Greek tragedies, the cellular structure of
plants, or the trickle-down theory of economics. TOEFL exam reading passages are usually one to five para-
graphs long, though a few may run as long as seven or eight.

Computer-Based Test vs. Paper-Based Test

THERE are a few differences between the new computer-based TOEFL and the old paper-based exam. Most of
those differences have to do with formatting (such as the number of questions), not the content. The type and
difficulty of the passages and questions remain the same.
The chart below compares the reading comprehension sections on the two tests:
Computer-Based TOEFL exam Supplemental Paper-Based TOEFL exam
70–90 minutes. 55 minutes.
44–55 questions. 50 questions.
3–6 reading passages. 5 reading passages.
6–10 questions per passage. Average of 10 questions per passage.
Questions may include pictures that refer to the passage. Questions do not include pictures.
Questions may have two correct answers. Questions have only one correct answer.

Source: Barron’s Passkey to the TOEFL, 4th ed., 2001.

Kinds of Reading Comprehension Passages

and Questions on the TOEFL Exam
With very few exceptions, most reading comprehension questions on the TOEFL exam will fall into one
of nine categories:

■ main idea
■ vocabulary
■ specific fact or detail
■ exceptions
■ location of information
■ inferences
■ references
■ paraphrased sentences (computer-based test only)
■ sentence insertion (computer-based test only)

Main Idea
These questions ask you to identify the main idea of the passage (or sometimes part of a passage, such as a
specific paragraph).


Sample Questions:
■ The main idea of this passage is best expressed in which sentence?

■ Which of the following would be the best title for this passage?

■ What is this passage mainly about?

■ What is the author’s main purpose in this passage?

There are two types of vocabulary questions. One kind asks you to determine the meaning of a word as it is
used in the passage. The other, which appears on the computer-based tests, asks you to identify a synonym
for the vocabulary word.

Sample Questions:
■ The word indelible in paragraph 3 most likely means:

■ The word protest in paragraph 5 is closest in meaning to:

■ The word remarkable in paragraph 2 could best be replaced by:

■ Look at the word charming in the passage. [highlighted word will be pointed out in the passage] Click

on another word in the bold text that is closest in meaning to charming .

Specific Fact or Detail

This kind of question asks you to identify a specific fact or detail mentioned in the passage.

Sample Questions:
■ What causes a lunar eclipse?

■ When did the last lunar eclipse occur?

■ What did many pagan cultures believe caused a lunar eclipse?

These questions ask you to identify which item was not specifically mentioned in the passage.

Sample Questions:
■ Which characteristic does NOT describe an endothermic reaction?

■ Which of the following was NOT identified as a cause of the stock market crash?

■ A person with bipolar disorder would NOT exhibit which symptom?

Location of Information
This kind of question asks you to identify the exact place in the passage where specific information is provided.

Sample Questions:
■ Where in the passage does the author define the term endothermic?

■ Click on the sentence in paragraph 2 in which the author mentions the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

■ Click on the paragraph that discusses the treatments for bipolar disorder.