In TOEFL Reading, should you read the whole passage first, and then answer the questions? The short answer to this question is “probably not.” Reading the entire passage carefully and fully before you even get to the questions makes for bad pacing. The more time you spend reading, the less time you have to answer the questions accurately and completely.
So I don’t recommend reading an entire TOEFL Reading passage before you get to the questions. Instead, I recommend two possible strategies that have worked well for many of my students.
The paragraph-by paragraph approach
In TOEFL Reading, nearly all of the questions match the sequence of the reading passage. You will be asked about content in the order that it appears in the passage, for the most part. And the questions almost always focus on the meaning of an entire paragraph. Even when the focus is a word, phrase or sentence, this smaller segment of language is looked at in the context of the paragraph it’s in. So reading a paragraph and then answering the questions related to the paragraph can be a smooth, comfortable way to approach a reading passage. Bear in mind, of course, that the last two questions will review an earlier part of the passage, or will review the passage as a whole. But by the time you get to those questions, you will have already fully read each paragraph, making review easier.
The skim, answer, and review approach
In this approach, you look at the entire passage before you begin answering any questions. But you don’t read everything in the passage in detail. Instead, the only thing you should read completely in each paragraph is the first sentence. In TOEFL Reading, the first sentence of a paragraph always contains the main idea. After you read each paragraph’s main idea sentence, quickly skim the paragraph for the key ideas that support the main idea. Scan for relevant words and phrases—you don’t need to read every last word in each supporting sentence.
After quickly reading the key parts of each paragraph in this way, look at the questions. Often, you’ll know the answers to the questions just form your quick scan of the passage. At other times, you may not be sure about the answer. In that case, go back and briefly skim the passage again to find the information you’re missing. This approach saves a lot of time. And it can help with accuracy, because you’re focusing on the most important ideas, and the connections between the questions and the text.
The questions first approach
Many of my students do best when they read the questions before they even really look at the passage. This approach is completely question focused. Instead of looking to the passage as a guide for answering questions, you look to the questions as a study guide for the reading. The subject matter of the questions will tells you what key points to pay attention to in the passage itself. Read each question, then skim the passage for the correct answer. And don’t just skim anywhere in the passage, or try to skim the whole passage. Remember, the order of the questions is the same as the order of information in the reading. With this message, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where to look for each answer, even without reading any part of the passage beforehand.
Choosing the best approach for you
Of the three methods above, skim/answer/review seems to work the best for most of my students. But there are also quite a few students who do better with the paragraph-by-paragraph or questions-first techniques. Paragraph-by-paragraph is especially helpful for students of mine who are a little bit weak in reading, compared to other TOEFL skills. And questions-first can be especially good for you if reading is your greatest strength; with this message you can build on reading strength to get a topnotch score. If you’re not sure which method you should choose, experiment with all three methods in practice, and see which one gets you the best results.