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.
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.