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TOEFL Reading Question Type – Vocabulary in Context

Vocabulary questions are multiple-choice and always have a single correct answer.  In the original excerpt, all of the words that you’ll have to define later are highlighted. This helps you find the words quickly and see the context easily.

The wording of vocabulary questions is almost always “The word ‘_____’ in the passage is closest in meaning to” followed by four answer choices. The word or phrase in the questions might be a word you’re familiar with already, or it might be something you’ve never seen or heard before. If you know the word, then you should go straight to the answer choices—you may be able to identify the correct answer without looking at the text, which can save time. You should still check the text, but if you already have an answer choice in mind (again, because you already know the definition of the tested word), then checking is pretty fast.

If you don’t know the tested word, then it’s important to pay attention to the context the word is used in, as this may impact your answer. Here’s how to answer in that situation:

1. Read the passage from beginning to end.

2. When you get to the vocabulary question, put your finger over the highlighted word and read the sentence again. Try to substitute in a word that makes sense.

3. Think about the possible meaning of the word in question. Do you know any related words? Do you know other words that look like it? Any memory of the word or association will help. Be sure to do that before looking at the answer choices.

4. Look at your answer choices and see if any of them match the meaning you expect. If so, that’s probably the correct answer. Double-check it and mark it on the test.

5. If not, eliminate fluff answers and try plugging in the remaining answer choices. Choose the option that makes the most sense to you logically.

By using this approach, you’ll be able to answer most of vocabulary in context questions correctly – even when you’re working with a vocabulary word that you’ve never seen before. The best way to get used to this approach is to do lots of practice! Let’s start by doing an example question.


Read the following passage and answer the question.


A) natural
B) specialized
C) old
D) foreign

When I went back and re-read the sentence, I replaced “technical” with “rare.” If I go through my answer choices, I see that none of them really has the same meaning as “rare,” but B and D are sort of close. “Natural” doesn’t make any sense at all; that’s my fluff answer. “Old” could make sense if you’re not familiar with words from older English, but that’s inferring some extra meaning. We can imagine that “technical” (with the same root as “technology”) doesn’t mean “old.” So now I’m pretty sure that either B or D will be the correct answer. D makes some sense logically, but it’s simply not related to “technical.” Whereas “technical” describes how the word is used, “foreign” describes how well the reader knows the word. B, “specialized,” is about how the word is used, so that makes more sense. Again, the root “tech-” can help us greatly.

Saving Time

Because vocabulary questions are about the definitions of single words, and not really about the passage as a whole, if you are running out of time on the final text of your reading section, it’s a good idea to answer all of the vocabulary questions first without reading. If you know the definitions of the words, you can usually find the correct answers without reading (although not always).



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