ETS recognizes ten different types of reading questions on the TOEFL. They divide these ten types into three broad categories according to the kind of skill the question is designed to test. Let’s take a look at each of these categories.
Basic Information Skills Questions
Basic information questions are probably pretty similar to what you’ve encountered in other English classes. They are designed to test your ability to understand the words on the page. These questions will almost always begin “In the first/second/third paragraph…” because the answer is always stated or strongly implied in the passage, usually in no more than a sentence or two. Don’t get fooled into thinking that these questions are easy. Even though the answer is on the page, you may have trouble finding it, or you may find that the question is designed to look easier than it actually is. Identifying wrong answers can be trickier than you might expect. Basic information skills include factual information questions, negative factual information questions, vocabulary questions, and reference questions.
Inference Skills Questions
Inference skills questions require you to use the information in the passage to answer questions that aren’t directly addressed in the passage. One common type of inference question in the reading section will imply a change over time, then ask you about the nature of that change. For instance, you may have the following:
“Methanol, or methyl alcohol, although related to ethanol, which is the type of alcohol found in wine, is far more harmful when swallowed, as it breaks down into poison in the body.”
Based on paragraph 1 (the sentence above), which of the following can be inferred about methanol and ethanol?
(A) Of the two types of alcohol, the type that occurs in wine is more widely abused and therefore toxic.
(B) Although only ethanol must be drunk carefully to prevent damage, both types occur naturally in wine.
(C) While methanol is unlike other alcohols, it resembles ethanol closely, except for some differences in toxicity.
(D) Methanol, as opposed to its relative ethanol, does not appear in significant volumes in wine.
The correct answer, although not said specifically in the sentence, is the fourth answer choice. Methanol must not be in wine—at least, if there is some, it must only be a small, insignificant amount—because it is poisonous. And we do know that wine is not poison.
Other inference questions will deal with the author’s implied intentions or opinions and vocabulary items that aren’t defined, but whose meanings are implied in the passage.
Reading to Learn Questions
Reading to learn questions test your ability to synthesize and reorganize information from a passage. Whereas the first two types of questions cover most of the skills you need for day-to-day student life and homework, this third type tests skills you’ll need for doing research and writing papers. You may need to add new information to an existing part of a passage, summarize the passage, or group statements in a new way.
If you haven’t already, make sure you check out our online TOEFL preparation course – it includes a lesson video for each of the 10 reading question types on the TOEFL! 🙂