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Synonyms in the TOEFL Reading Section

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

The TOEFL reading section requires several skills from you, but possibly the most important is your knowledge of synonyms. This might sound strange, but there’s a good reason for it.

Finding the answer in the text

That reason is that every question about the text is answered in the text. None of the questions ask about outside information. You do not need any prior knowledge in order to get a perfect score. So that means it should be easy to answer each question, right? You read the question, then look back at the text. In the text, you find the answer. Then you go back to the answer choices, and you choose the option that provides the same information.

Imagine if there were no synonyms in English. In that fantasy world, you would find the exact same words in the text as in the correct answer. You wouldn’t even need to know the meaning! You would see a statement in the passage like this: “More powerful earthquakes can destroy large portions of cities.” Then an answer choice like this one would probably be correct, because it would include so many of the same words: “Large portions of cities can face destruction during powerful earthquakes.”

Wouldn’t that be nice? But sadly, that’s not how the TOEFL works.

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Not (always) the same words

In the example above, the actual correct answer in a TOEFL question might look more like this: “Strong seismic activity are capable of leveling vast metropolitan areas.” Notice that there are no words in common between the original text and the answer.

But if you know the meanings of those words in both sentences, you will see that they refer to the same ideas:

  • strong = powerful
  • seismic activity = earthquakes
  • capable of = can
  • level = destroy
  • vast = large
  • portions of cities = metropolitan areas

Well, the equal signs above might be misleading. “Vast” is not the exact same thing as “large”; synonyms often have different usages. but they do refer to the same basic ideas. And if you know that, then it becomes much easier to answer the question.

The TOEFL is even trickier than that, though. Sometimes, the words in the text do appear in the answers. They might appear in the correct answer, or they might appear in the incorrect answer. Synonyms also might appear in either correct or incorrect answers. You cannot simply find a couple of words in common between the text and an answer choice and so decide that the answer choice is correct. You also have to look at the sentence structure. That, combined with the meaning, will lead you to a correct answer.

But none of that is possible if you don’t know the synonyms. That means A) you should be improving your vocabulary and B) look for synonyms between the text and the answer choice, then consider whether the sentences actually carry the same meaning, depending on the structure and any new words that don’t seem clearly related to the passage.

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2 Responses to Synonyms in the TOEFL Reading Section

  1. Ayman August 11, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    Hi , can I ask you about source which I can use to study synonyms for toefl test

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 13, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

      I’d recommend using a few different resources together. Get yourself a good TOEFL vocabulary word list (such as the free TOEFL vocabulary PDF from this blog), and then check the words in an online thesaurus (such as the Wesbter’s Thesaurus). A thesaurus, in case you aren’t familiar with the term, is similar to a dictionary, except that it lists synonyms and antonyms for words instead of giving definitions for words.

      From there, check the different synonyms in an online English learning dictionary such as or Wordnik. These websites include comments on the connotation of a word– a word’s emotional sense beyond its literal definition. Connotation is very important with synonyms, because two synonyms with different connotation can sometimes lead to very different sentence meanings.

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