Common TOEFL Reading Difficulties

In this post, I’ll deal with some of the problems people often have when taking the Reading Section of the TOEFL.

Time management

For each reading passage, you have exactly 18 minutes, which for a lot of people is just barely enough to finish the test and maybe check their answers. For other people, thirteen or fourteen minutes might be enough. If you’re in the latter group, then stop cheating yourself and start using that extra time to double- and triple-check your answers. My #1 advice for people who have trouble with time management is to do lots and lots of timed reading practice before test day. Finishing a section in the right amount of time is a learned skill, so practice it. Try to spend no more than 14-15 minutes reading each passage and answering its questions so that you have time to go back over your answers before when you’re near the end.

If you’re great at reading and your only flaw in it is time management, you may want to try looking at the questions before you read the text. That means reading the first question, then starting to read the passage, stopping when you know the answer to the question. Then, you’ll read the second question, and continue through the text, looking for that answer. Sometimes this can save you time, but only do it if you’re very confident that you can navigate the text successfully in this way. Don’t try this tactic for the first time on the actual test! Practice it multiple times to be sure that it’s a useful strategy for you personally.

Missing key words

As you go through the test, you may start to rush and make unnecessary mistakes.  For instance, on every practice test I give, someone gets a negative factual question but overlooks the word “NOT” or “EXCEPT” and answers it as if it were a positive factual question. Similarly, people overlook the transition words that are essential to correctly answering a sentence insertion or purpose question. Read carefully, and always reread the question before choosing your final answer.

Unfamiliar vocabulary

Inevitably you’ll encounter unfamiliar words on the test. When you do, there are a few steps you can take:

1. Check to see if it is underlined and defined (you can click on some words if they’re very rare).
2. Read the sentence to check if you can make a reasonable guess.
3. Look at the surrounding paragraph for context. Even if you can’t guess the meaning of the specific word, you may be able to guess the meaning of the whole sentence based on its surroundings. This strategy is very important. Do not get stuck on a single word or phrase—use what you do know to infer the total meaning if possible!

Getting caught up in details

Just like getting stuck on the meaning of a single word, many students get stuck looking at small details: a particular phrase the author chose, or a specific fact from the article. Don’t get so focused on these details that you forget the main idea of the passage. If you’re doing OK on time, take a minute after reading the passage to summarize it to yourself. If you ever start to mark an answer that contradicts the main idea of the passage or paragraph, look again—it’s probably not the correct answer.


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63 Responses to Common TOEFL Reading Difficulties

  1. Michelle June 27, 2014 at 3:30 am #

    Hi, I have a question about the reading section of the test. I understand each reading section is 20 minutes and you can have 3 or 4 reading sections depending if you receive and experimental reading section. My question is, say you have 3 reading sections, is the total time for all 3 60 minutes cumulative? So, say you only take 15 minutes on the first two (use 30 minutes instead of 40), would you then have an extra 10 minutes to use towards the 3rd reading section?

    Thank you,

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin June 27, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

      Hi, Michelle– That’s a great question. You can advance through the reading section at your own pace, so if you take less time for the first passages, it leaves you more time at the end. That’s why it’s so important to manage your time well so you don’t have to rush through the last reading sample. Does that answer your question? Thanks for writing!

  2. Rasa December 2, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    I have a question about the reading section of the TOEFL.
    Let’s say, I finish all passages in 50 min, and I have an extra 10 min left. Can I go back to every passage to review some questions/answers, I had difficulty, or only the last passage questions/answers?

    Thank you,

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 2, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

      That’s a good question, Rasa! You can review the questions from all 3-4 passages on the test. It can be a little difficult to navigate, but if you have the extra time, that’s a good way to use it!

  3. Akshay January 5, 2015 at 7:10 pm #

    i am not able to complete the reading comprehension in time. I cant grasp the passage in time, its too difficuilt for me. Please give me some advices

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 6, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

      Did you try the piece of advice in the first section of the blog post? Go to the questions first, and try reading while answering the questions. Focus on finding the answer to each question as you go through, one by one. Otherwise, simply keep practicing your reading! The more English reading experience you have, the better. Read every day—the recommendations in this blog post might help. 🙂

      • Akshay January 6, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

        Thanks a lott for the precious help

        • Lucas Fink
          Lucas January 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

          You’re welcome. 🙂

  4. Sonja January 11, 2015 at 7:00 am #

    Hey there,
    my main concern is the question on if it will be possible to see the text while having the questions on the screen in order to be able to reread etc. I read that the screen after first showing the text and going on to questions will be two-split (so e. g. I can skip the first text screen and only start reading already along the questions) … Can I count on that?

    Thanks in advance for answering,

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 12, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

      Yes, that’s exactly right! You can skip the text at the beginning and go straight to the questions. When the questions start, the screen will be split: you will see the question on one side, and the relevant paragraph(s) of text on the other side. 🙂 You can also skip forward and backward to review questions and change answers until the total time is finished (60 or 80 minutes), but only in the reading section! That’s not true in the listening.

  5. nik February 5, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    hi I am preparing for toefl ibt and I have an question.

    do I have to read first entire passage instead read first paragraph and answer the questions. what is the benefit of reading entire passage?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 10, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

      That’s a good question! The best way to know is to try both strategies yourself, because the better method depends partly on you and your strengths or weaknesses. Reading the whole passage first helps some students to focus, but it takes more time. Going straight to the first question, then reading to find the answer is much faster for most students, but if you are at a relatively low level, it can be too confusing. For most students, I recommend going straight to the questions. The time saved can be a huge benefit!

  6. ankit February 11, 2015 at 9:19 am #

    Hi, I have a query. I am very fast in reading, I finish all three passages in 35-40minutes with 90-95% accuracy. Can i continue ahead and use this time to start my speaking section ahead of everyone? You know why I am asking this.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 19, 2015 at 10:36 am #

      That’s awesome! It’s not easy to get through the reading section so quickly. Just make sure you’re not sacrificing accuracy for speed. But if you are really certain about all your answers and have time remaining, you can move on to listening, and therefore get to the speaking section sooner. But because the test administrators sit people down at the beginning of the test one by one, everybody starts at a slightly different time. So if you are last to sit down, you might still be starting the speaking section at the same time as several other students, even if you finish reading early.

  7. rana July 7, 2015 at 6:18 am #

    i have a question please, if i read the text and want to answer the questions, while i am answering the questions can i go back to the text and see some informations. and second can i read the questions before reading the text . thank you in advance

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink July 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

      That’s an important question, so thanks for asking it. Yes, you have full freedom to navigate around the reading section. You can go back to the whole passage, you can skip the passage and go straight to questions, and you can come back to questions that you’ve already answered and change your answers. And that’s a good thing!

  8. Muhammad December 15, 2015 at 4:29 am #

    I just only have one little question:

    If I have 3 passages in TOEFL reading section and I have 60 minutes for it. But, why 20 minutes per passages? Is the time divided 20 minutes per passage or I have a overall 60 minutes time for it so that I can spend 18 minutes for one passage, 23 minutes for next passage and 19 minutes for the next passage. Can anyone please tell me??

    Thanks in advance….

    • David Recine December 18, 2015 at 7:36 am #

      Your second guess is exactly correct, Muhammad! 🙂 You get a total of 60 minutes for the Reading section, but you can take more than 20 minutes or less than 20 minutes for any individual passage/question set. If you want to get a pretty good idea of what the Reading section looks like and feels like, in terms of timing, the way the screen looks, etc, I highly recommend using the Official TOEFL Guide, which comes with software that simulates real exam conditions. Lucas describes the OG in detail here;

      • Nate December 28, 2016 at 6:55 am #

        I have tried the simulator of the TOEFL test and the thing is that they do not let me come back to the previous passage. Are you sure I can review my answers in the all three-four passages?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 1, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

          I’m sure yes. In fact, in the most up-to-date TOEFL simulation software that comes with Official TOEFL iBT Tests Vol. 2, you can go back to any previous passage, provided you haven’t exited the entire TOEFL Reading section.

          Which simulator did you try, Nate? If it’s an unofficial/older TOEFL test simulation, that might explain why your experience was different.

          • Phil January 11, 2017 at 10:17 am #

            I am also using the official ETS Simulator (the latest version offered on the ETS Website, the TOEFL Sampler) and it is not possible to go back to the previous passages. This is a key element to consider when developing a strategy for the reading section. In Addition, the opinions on this Topic seem to be contradictory depending on the forum. Is there any authoritative source of Information for this? Thanks! Phil

          • David Recine
            David Recine January 17, 2017 at 9:32 am #

            Hi Phil,

            Great questions. First, the TOEFL Sampler doesn’t duplicate the real TOEFL software completely. It has some limitations and doesn’t have every feature found on the actual test. For TOEFL Reading, there is an authoritative source of information for how the software works. You get a look at perfectly simulated TOEFL Reading software with any of the current editions of the official TOEFL Books. Those books are The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Vol. 1 (2nd Edition), and Official TOEFL iBT Tests Vol. 2. You can also get perfectly simulated software through TOEFL Practice Online, although Magoosh doesn’t recommend TPO as much as we recommend getting at least one of the official books. (See Lucas’s review of TOEFL Practice Online for details.)

  9. iMona February 17, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi there!
    Writing because I am very very worried about the questions in which I have to put the sentence missing in the paragraph…
    I have tried several from many different mock tests but still I cannot get the strategy to make this work
    Do you have any suggestions to save my Toefl prep?
    Thanks in advance

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 19, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

      Hi iMona,

      Sorry to hear that you’re struggling on the sentence insertion task– this really can be a challenge. Have you tried checking the explanations for the answers, in addition to looking at the answer key? Both Magoosh TOEFL Premium and official ETS practice materials ( have answer explanations. Often a thorough reading of the explanations can help you figure out how this tricky “reading-to-learn” question type works.

  10. toeflknowledge March 28, 2016 at 5:36 am #

    Can we get back to a previous answer and change /correct it?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 30, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

      Yes, you can. On the exam, you can go back and correct any previous question as long as you’re still within the time limit for the Reading Section. Of course, once you exit the section you can’t go back. So if you finish with time to spare, be sure to double check your answers before exiting.

  11. toeflknowledge April 1, 2016 at 5:03 am #

    Thank you so much… 🙂

  12. toeflknowledge April 3, 2016 at 6:12 am #

    This is probably a confusing question that I am going to ask.
    What if I do not understand the question of the writing task 2- the independent essay. For example if they ask me to talk about “old and historical buildings” and I do not understand if they are talking about famous historical monuments or just the old buildings, what do I do? Can I mention in the beginning of the essay that I am assuming that they are just old buildings and not monuments? CAN I CLARIFY WHAT I ASSUME AND THEN PROCEED WITH THE ESSAY?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 4, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

      Not a confusing question at all! And a very good question. 🙂 You are correct that directly clarifying your assumption is one way to deal with this. You could say something like “Assuming the question is referring to old buildings and not monuments, I think…”

      You could also make your clarification more subtle, saying something such as “When I think of old and historical buildings, I don’t necessarily think of monuments…”

  13. toeflknowledge April 5, 2016 at 3:51 am #

    Wow great…. Thank you so much… 🙂

  14. toeflknowledge April 7, 2016 at 8:12 am #

    Hello again, I have another doubt. It’s about the format. In the listening section, when I am answering the questions, do I have to click on “next” after I answer each question? Or does the next question automatically appear after a certain time.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 11, 2016 at 8:42 am #

      In Listening (and in Reading, Speaking and Writing), you need to click “next” to get to the next question. There’s no automatic moving forward, although the clock will keep ticking down even if you stay on one questions.

  15. Shan May 8, 2016 at 4:38 am #

    Hi Magoosh,

    Got a question about the reading section.

    I belive method of reading the question first and reading the passage to find the answer is faster. However, I run in to bit of a trouble answering the following questions usually found in the latter part of the reading, since they would require overall understanding of the passage.

    1. Question on the understanding of the overall passage (usually starts with According to passage..)
    2. Summary and categorization questions

    Appreciate if you can let me know, how I should approach the above question if reading the passage only to find answers?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 9, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      Those broader questions really can be tricky, Shan. But believe it or not, scanning for general information can be as easy– or easier– than scanning for a small detail. When answering questions that require you to summarize the big ideas in the test, you want to skim the opening sentence of each paragraph— that’s where the main ideas are. This should allow you to identify the passage’s basic arguments and ideas, and it should allow you to summarize and categorize the major topics in the reading.

  16. Jimmy May 26, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    I’m confused about last question’s grading criteria in reading- Matching and Summary- do you get partial credit for partial correct answer? For example, 2 correct answer for summary question instead of 3. Usually, those questions are worth more than 2 points. can someone please explain me?

    P.S. Lucas Fink, you reading tips are awesome. Thank you!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 27, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

      I can take this one, Lucas. 🙂 And Jimmy— so glad you’re enjoying Lucas’s reading tips. They really are great!

      You’re right to think you can get partial credit for summary questions. Summary questions are worth a total of two points. If you get one of the answers wrong, you get one point If you get more than one answer wrong, you get 0 points, even if you still have at least one correct answer. And if you get all of the answers right in a summary question, you get the full two points.

      • Teresita November 2, 2016 at 10:45 am #


        I’m doing some model tests, and the last question of a section – typically the most difficult ones – is worthy 2 to 4 points, instead of just ones. But how does it actually count, in the final score? I mean, if I do it right and it is a 4 points question, I should add 4 points to my total instead of one?

        That means that even missing a pair of questions I can still get the maximum? For example, in a classical 39 score, I had 6 wrong answers but with the 2 and 4 points questions I get to the maximum score!

        So, do I have the maximum score or How can I score that to have the REAL score?


        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 8, 2016 at 10:44 am #

          What you’re asking about is partial grading for questions that are worth multiple points. What happens here is that you lose one point for any wrong answer you choose. So if a question is worth– for instance– 4 points and has 7 correct answers, if you get 6 answers right, you get three points. If you get 5 answers right, you get 2 points. And so on. (Lucas describes this in detail in his post and video lesson about TOEFL partial grading.)

          As for the maximum score versus the real score, on the real TOEFL, you shouldn’t get the maximum score if you’ve missed six answers. Has this been happening to you on mock tests from ETS, or third-party mock exams form another source?

  17. Siddhesh June 26, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    I am really facing problem with the inference questions. To be precise even when the answer is in front of my eyes, I spend my time thinking a lot on the paragraph and end up messing things.
    Please help me out with same!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 29, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

      That’s a great question. It’s very important not to overthink inference sin TOEFL reading. The correct answer is the one that is most directly supported by the text. Wrong answers will be too much of a stretch, or will contradict something in the passage.

      If you have trouble recognizing the right answer and understanding how inferences are made, it can help to go through some practice TOEFL reading inference questions “backwards.” By this, I mean you should find the right answer in the answer key first… And then go back to the passage and try to figure out why that specific answer is correct. By doing this, you’ll learn what to look for, and you’ll get more familiar with the logic behind correct inferences in TOEFL reading. Eventually, you should be able to guess the correct answers more easily, before you even look at the answer key. At that point, you can start going through the questions “forward” once more.

      It can also help to read answer explanations for practice questions. Magoosh offers helpful explanations for all of its practice TOEFL Reading quesitons, both on the blog and on our Premium TOEFL service. Kate’s TOEFL Reading Inference Question post is a good place to start.

  18. Hou July 6, 2016 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi, I would like to know if the screen will be split in 2 windows also for the last question of the reading section. I’m using The Official Guide to the TOEFL test and the screen is not split for it…It takes a lot of time to go back and forth between the question and the passage.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 7, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

      There is no split screen on the final Reading question on the test screen either. It really is a hassle! 🙁

  19. Abdinoor September 3, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    Help please. How am I going to tackle the last quiz ~summerizig~ since I have not read all the passage incase I opted for the strategy of reading the question and finding the answer from the specific paragraph that has it?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 5, 2016 at 9:25 am #

      I’m glad you asked that question, because a lot of students wonder about this.

      You should still be able to do a summary with minimal difficulty, even if you just read the questions and looked into the passage for the answers. This is because before you get to the prose summary question, the earlier questions covert he text in the order it was written. When you went through the questions and checked the text for answers, you moved froward in the passage, paragraph by paragraph. By the time you get to the summary, you’ve already read quite of bit of the text in the process of checking for answers. You’ll probably already know some or all of the summary answers, although it’s good to quickly re-skim the passage to check your summary answer choices.

  20. Hasib September 18, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    Can I go back to any passage? I mean if I start 3rd passage, can I go back to 1st or second ?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 23, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      Yes, the real exam does let you go back to earlier question sets and passages.

  21. She September 24, 2016 at 2:18 am #

    Hi! What if I’m still reviewing my answers with my spare time, and didnt notice that time is approaching the limit. Will it give me a notice that time is up? Or an exit prompt to be clicked will appear? Thanks a lot!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 1, 2016 at 9:04 am #

      You don’t get any kind of special notice that time is running low, other than the timer itself indicating that time is running low. But you do get an exit prompt once the time is actually up.

  22. LINH NGUYEN November 5, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    Hi, to my experience, practising reading on papers is easier than on PC as I can underline main ideas, key workds… I found myself struggling with Toefl ibt’ reading section as I can not underline important facts. Could someone give me advices on this matter?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 8, 2016 at 10:08 am #

      This is a tough thing for people who are used to reading on paper. It’s important to practice a lot of web-based reading.I recommend reading Internet website content a lot, especially content on academic and educational websites.

      I also recommend yourself to taking notes– both mental and on scrap paper– rather than marking the page. You can try to practice this “no marking” approach with either print materials or web ones. But again, web-based reading will give you the most truly TOEFL_like experience.

  23. upriser November 27, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    Hi, have a small doubt regarding the scoring criteria for reading section. Do they consider best 2 out of 3 passages?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 29, 2016 at 10:15 am #

      No, your answers for all three question sets contribute equally to your score.

  24. Sindura January 5, 2017 at 6:46 am #


    I am really worried about organizing answers in fill in the table – reading section questions.
    In what order are we supposed to organize the answers?Is it in the order options are given or in the order they appear in the text.I always go wrong with organizing. Please help!!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

      Hi Sindura,

      The order of the answer choices doesn’t matter, as long as you put the correct answers into the correct box, it doesn’t matter how you order them. If A and D go into one box, you can order them A/D or D/A and the question will be marked correct! These blog posts might be helpful: Categorization and Prose Summary Questions.

  25. Nora April 5, 2017 at 9:07 am #

    I have one question please. Will the time appear on the screen so I know how to distribute the time? Or should I bring a watch?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 5, 2017 at 12:43 pm #

      Hi Nora,

      Yes, there will be a timer on the exam screen! However, please note that it’s your job to manage your time. Good luck! 😀

      • Leo July 14, 2018 at 5:31 am #

        I dragged 3 answers for my last question of TOEFL reading section. However, before hitting the next button, the timer went off. Will my answer be saved or I lost my crucial 2 points after spending 2 minutes to solve this question?

        • David Recine
          David Recine July 18, 2018 at 7:47 am #

          Your answer will be saved. The “next” button is only needed to move to the next question. You don’t need to press “next” to save an answer. Instead, answers are automatically saved as soon as you enter them. 🙂

  26. Tenzin October 13, 2017 at 2:09 am #

    Hello, I’m about to give my toefl ibt test. In the reading section, will the question be presented along the passage as done in the practice test?

    • David Recine
      David Recine October 17, 2017 at 10:19 am #

      Yes. Those practice test and real test conditions are the same.

  27. Aneri February 26, 2018 at 6:23 am #

    Hello ! I’ve a difficulty. When I first started preparing for TOEFL about 10-12 days back , I had zero difficulties in the reading section and I scored a 30 in almost all of the tests that I used to take , without encountering the issue of time management. But now, I don’t know what changed but I end up scoring a 24-25. I know this is really vague but any ideas to help me out will be really appreciated. I have my exam on march 10 !

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 26, 2018 at 11:55 am #

      Hi Aneri,

      I’m sorry to hear about this difficulty! I recommend that you think about what might have changed between then and now to see what might be going on here. Here are a few questions to help you think about it:
      1. Are you using different test prep resources? There are a wide variety of TOEFL resources, and some are better than others. You may have been using a lower quality resource, or a resource that doesn’t have good practice questions. You can see our book reviews here. It’s also important to note that the best indicator of your current level is through official materials from ETS. I recommend that you try to complete some practice tests from them (they are first in the list of book reviews above) so that you have authentic material to practice from.
      2. Are you trying to learn a new strategy or method? Sometimes, your score might drop as you are learning a new technique, and then rise again once you have mastered it. If you learned something new that you are trying to put into practice, you may have to adjust your strategy or keep practicing!
      3. Do you feel stressed or anxious? Anxiety can have a huge negative effect on your score, and you should be aware of some ways to alleviate test stress and anxiety. to prevent similar issues.

      Ultimately, it’s hard to say what might have caused this drop, I hope that these questions help you to think through it! I also recommend that you consider your target score and personal goals. While it’s nice to get a perfect score on the reading test, it’s not necessary for many programs. A 25 is a good score for most programs, and this might take some of the pressure off from your performance, which can further reduce stress and allow you to score higher 🙂

  28. Leo July 14, 2018 at 5:28 am #

    I dragged 3 answers for my last question of TOEFL reading section. However, before hitting the next button, the timer went off. Will my answer be saved or I lost my crucial 2 points after spending 2 minutes to solve this question?

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