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Building TOEFL Reading Skills: Beatrix Potter’s Scientific Work, Part 1

Right now my colleague Rachel Kapelke-Dale is doing a very valuable series of practice materials with the 10 different TOEFL Reading question types. As Rachel demonstrates in her answer explanations, TOEFL Reading success takes more than just knowing the question types. To truly do well with TOEFL Reading questions, you need to also develop certain approaches to reading.

One important mental habit relates to vocabulary. Whenever you go through a TOEFL Reading passage, you’re likely to come across at least a few words that you haven’t seen before. And you’ll also sometimes see words that you have studied, but the words will be used in a different sense that’s unfamiliar to you. To understand new vocabulary and unfamiliar word use, you need to learn to read critically, with attention to context and whole passage meaning.

Below, I’ve provided a TOEFL-like reading passage. In keeping with Rachel K-D’s “biography” theme in two of her recent reading passages, this passage looks at the the life and times of British scientist, artist, and author Beatrix Potter. Be sure to also check out Rachel’s biographical reading passages on Edmund Wilson and Paul Revere too.

As you read this passage, do the following to build your vocabulary-related TOEFL Reading skills:

  1. Write down any words that are completely new to you.
  2. Write down any words you already know that are being used in a different sense or form than you normally see.
  3. Try to guess that unfamiliar words and unfamiliar definitions of words, based on context. Make note of the context clues that help you understand the new words. You may want to print out the passage and underline the context clues.
  4. Check your guesses in a dictionary. Correct any wrong guesses.
  5. Now, slightly rewrite the whole passage. Rewrite your newly-learned words, replacing them with language that is more familiar to you, and possibly simpler. (Paraphrasing new vocabulary is key to learning it, and paraphrasing is also a common feature in TOEFL Reading vocabulary questions.)


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Beatrix Potter’s Scientific Work

Born in 1866 in London, Beatrix Potter is best remembered as a children’s author. However she also made significant contributions to the field of science. In her younger years, Potter was an accomplished mycologist, a specialist in the study of fungi. She eventually abandoned her scientific work with mushrooms and lichens in favor of a career writing and illustrating picture books.

Early on, Beatrix Potter developed an enthusiasm for woodland biology that went hand-in-hand with her love of art and illustration. In her teenage years and her early twenties, she would collect mushroom specimens between her visits to London’s many art museums. This dual interest in art and the study of fungi led her to make her scientific drawings and diagrams of the mushrooms she found.

As Beatrix Potter closely studied various types of mushrooms, she began to observe her specimens in increasingly scientific ways. She carefully recorded small differences in the form, shape, and color of different fungal species. She even began to study mushroom tissue and spores under a microscope. She examined living mushrooms as well, closely observing fungi reproductive processes and recording her findings in a personal scientific journal that she kept.

In her early work as a scientist, Potter made no effort to share her research publicly. Although her own family was supportive of her scientific work, women nineteenth-century British society were discouraged from participating in higher education or entering England’s scientific community. However, after words of encouragement from male mycologists she corresponded with, she decided to seek out formal academic recognition of her mycological fieldwork.

Potter was especially eager to find a scientific audience for her research on lichens. At the time, there had been some scientific speculation that lichens were not a true fungus, but a symbiotic combination of fungal spores and algae growing together in a colony. Potter had collected lichen specimens from rocks and the sides of trees and studied them under a microscope. Through her lab work, she had discovered both fungi spores and algae cells within lichen samples and had even observed evidence of the fungi and algae working together in symbiosis.

As a woman, Beatrix Potter faced significant obstacles in presenting her work to the scientific community. The most important group of mycologists and botanists in London was the Linnean Society, a male-only research group that barred women from attending their meetings. With help from her uncle, an administrator at the University of London, and George Massey, a mycologist who had been reviewing her research, Potter convinced Linnean Society to consider her findings. In 1897, the Linnean Society met and reviewed Beatrix Potter’s paper on lichens, although Potter herself could not be present at the gathering. The reaction of the scientists at the meeting was dismissive; the paper was not accepted for publication, and no notes on Potter’s findings were added to the Society Archives.

In spite of her inability to gain the attention of London’s male-dominated scientific community, Potter remained confident in her work. She told friends, family and colleagues that her findings on lichens would be accepted as fact in time. However, she abandoned her career in mycology very shortly after her research was dismissed by the Linnean Society. During Potter’s years as a scientist she had also been working as an illustrator, and in 1902 a major publishing company offered her full time work creating the storybooks she became famous for.

Potter’s predictions about her eventual success as a scientist ultimately came true. By her death in 1943, the symbiosis theory about lichens was gaining more acceptance. Today, the symbiotic nature of lichens is accepted as science fact, and Potter is remembered as one of the first scientists to find evidence for lichen symbiosis. In modern bookstores, her scientific writings and illustrations, published decades after her death in 1943, often appear on the shelves alongside her still-popular children’s books.


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