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The TOEFL Reading Section

Generally speaking, every question on the TOEFL falls into one of two broad categories: comprehension or critical thinking. Whereas the first category will simply ask you to recall information from the text or lecture, the second will ask you to interpret, extrapolate from, or reorganize the given information to answer questions that may not be directly addressed in the article. To do your best on test day, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these types of questions so that you can decide more quickly what information to look for and how to interpret it.

Let’s start with comprehension-type questions and the linguistic cues that characterize them.

TOEFL Reading Section – Comprehension-Type Questions

Within comprehension-type questions on the TOEFL Reading Section, there are various “sub-types”. I’ll break them down below.

Factual and Negative Factual Questions

Factual questions are the simplest question type, although this doesn’t necessarily make them the easiest. They ask you to confirm or complete information that is found directly in the passage. Most of these questions will involve the phrase “According to the paragraph X…”; usually the necessary information will be within one or two sentences—you will not be required to synthesize large quantities of information for this question type. Negative factual questions, on the other hand, ask you to decide which of the given choices is NOT expressly mentioned in the passage. It’s very important to read carefully so that you don’t confuse factual and negative factual questions. One good strategy for answering negative factual questions is to treat each answer choice as a potential positive factual question. Each answer choice should be contained in one or two sentences somewhere in the passage; the only choice for which this is not the case is the correct answer.

Vocabulary Questions

Vocabulary questions test your understanding of specific words or phrases in context. Note that it is not enough to simply memorize the definition of every word; you need to know how the word is used in context. It is very important to read carefully and always take a second look at the passage before answering a vocabulary-type question.

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Reference Questions

Reference questions are on the border between content-based questions and grammar-based questions, which sets them apart from any other question type you’re likely to encounter in the reading section. These questions will require you to find the relationship that connects a word, usually a pronoun or an abstract noun, to the more concrete noun that it replaces. These questions look very similar to vocabulary questions, but there is one major difference between them: whereas vocabulary questions require you to use clues from a given word’s surroundings to determine its meaning in context, reference questions generally have a very specific answer that will be expressly stated. These questions will often use phrases like “refers to” or “replaces.”

Remember that for comprehension-type questions, all the necessary information is contained in the article–your job is simply to find it. Look back at the text before answering each question to find the relevant phrase or sentence, and you should have no problem with this type of question.

TOEFL Reading Section – Critical Thinking-Type Questions

Now let’s discuss the other type of reading questions contained in the TOEFL. This type differs from the comprehension-type questions in that whereas the ones we discussed previously always had a clear answer in the text, this time you will have to interpret or somehow expand on the information given in the text to determine the correct answer.

Insert Text Questions

In these questions, you will be given a new sentence and asked where it best fits in the text; the answer choices will be marked in the text by a black square. Usually the sentence will have some kind of clue as to how it should relate to the sentence before it. This clue will most likely be some sort of transition: “On the other hand,” “Furthermore,” and “Finally” are all examples. From this, you can decide whether the sentence will contrast with, complement, or summarize the previous information. Then you just have choose the square whose location makes the most sense.

Sentence Simplification Questions

These questions will ask you to choose the sentence that has the same basic meaning as a sentence in the passage. They will frequently use the phrase “essential information” or “essential meaning.” Although a quick glance at the context may be helpful, you can usually save time on these questions by focusing on just the sentence you’re given.

Inference Questions

For these questions, you’ll have to use the information you’re given to make an assumption about an argument or idea that’s not actually mentioned in the excerpt. These questions often say “What can be inferred about…” or “The author of the passage implies that…”

Rhetorical Purpose

Here you’ll have to get inside an author’s head and decide why s/he included a particular idea or fact. These questions will often ask “Why does the author…” or “The author mentions X in order to…” Once the main idea of the text as a whole is clear, your best tactic for these questions is to look up the topic mentioned in the question and try to provide a rationale for its inclusion without looking at the answer choices. As with vocabulary questions, you can read the answer choices after you’ve made up your own answer. Hopefully you can simply pick the one answer choice that means the same as the answer you came up with.

Prose Summary Questions

Prose summary questions differ from sentence simplification questions in that in this case you’ll be dealing with the whole passage. These questions will have six choices; you should pick the three that contain the most important ideas from the passage. It’s important to be able to distinguish between major and minor ideas for this question type.

Fill-In Table

In some instances, the table questions are similar to the prose summary questions; the main difference is often the format. You will be given a table with two or three columns and as many rows. You will be given categories, and then you should choose from the answer choices the information that best fits each category. You can move the answer choices by dragging and dropping them. Remember that there will always be at least one incorrect answer. Your goal is not only to select the correct answers, but to put them under the appropriate headings on the table.

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17 Responses to The TOEFL Reading Section

  1. Dee December 17, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    Hi Kate,

    I am just getting started with my TOEFL prep and your posts are super helpful. Thanks to you and Magoosh.

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin December 17, 2013 at 8:13 am #

      We’re glad to hear it, Dee! Good luck in your preparations.

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin January 11, 2014 at 11:47 am #

      I’m so glad to hear it! Happy studying!

  2. Max January 4, 2014 at 2:47 am #

    Hi Kate,

    Please let me know if the correct answers need to be ordered correclty to earn a point for Prose Summary Questions or Fill-In Table questions.

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin January 6, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      Hi, Max– Order doesn’t matter on prose summary questions. On fill-in-the-table questions, you need to put each correct answer under the correct heading, but that’s all. If you select the correct answer choice but don’t put it under the correct heading, you may still get partial credit. Thanks for the questions!

  3. Max January 11, 2014 at 4:33 am #

    Hi Kate,

    I am confused by the following statement as mentioned in the ETS Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT, Third Edition

    Type 10: Fill in a Table Questions

    To earn points, you must not only select correct answer choices, but also organize them correctly in the table. You may receive partial credit, depending upon
    How many correct answers you choose.

    Is it just placing the correct answers under the correct columns ?

    Please advise

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin January 11, 2014 at 11:35 am #

      That’s a great question. Let’s look at an example to find what they mean.

      Here’s the chart we’ll be working with:


      Here are the answer choices:
      San Francisco
      Taj Mahal

      To get full credit on this chart, you would need to put Russia and Canada in the category of “Countries,” and London, Johannesburg, and San Francisco in the category of “Cities.” You would not select “squirrel” or “Taj Mahal,” as these are neither cities nor countries. Unless the chart says otherwise (by requiring the items in chronological order, for example), the order doesn’t matter WITHIN the category.

      If you selected “Canada” but accidentally put it under “Cities,” you would not get credit for that answer, but you might get credit for other answers in the table. In other words, answering one part of a table incorrectly doesn’t prevent you from earning any points at all in that table.

      Does that help? Thanks for the question!

      • Max January 12, 2014 at 8:55 am #

        Thanks for the explanation. I have understood the statement now.

  4. shobhit kaplay March 18, 2015 at 11:23 pm #

    hey Kate! I have given TOEFL test but I am confused in listening section. I just wanted to ask that is there any partial credit given in this section for more than 1 correct option? PLZ reply me

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas March 19, 2015 at 11:26 am #

      Good question, but I think it’s about a different post—this one is about the reading section! The answer, though, is that there is no partial credit in TOEFL listening questions. In order to get credit, you must answer the whole question correctly. If the question has a table that you must fill out with two or three answers, all two or three must be correct for credit.

    • Maria March 1, 2016 at 9:19 am #

      Sorry, Where I can find more reading test practice ??

  5. John Kim July 2, 2015 at 11:42 pm #

    Hi Kate,

    I noticed the reading practice magoosh provides does not include the schematic table type questions (and by schematic table I mean the one that you provided as an example above in the comment: Countries vs Cities). Did ETS eliminate schematic table type question or did magoosh simply not include that in the practice? Thanks in advance.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink July 6, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

      This is a great question, John! Since it’s about our premium material, you can always ask us at for a faster response. But I’ll answer this here. Categorization questions are pretty rare. Many times, there will be no categorization question on the TOEFL—only summary questions at the end of a reading exercise.

      At the moment, we don’t have any categorization questions (“schematic tables”) in Magoosh TOEFL because A) they are rare and B) our technical platform can’t handle them right now. We’re working on rewriting our code so we can include those question types, but in the meantime, they are much less important than the summary questions (which we do provide). Does that make sense? Let me know if you have any more questions about this!

  6. Konstantin August 4, 2015 at 3:21 pm #


    I have a question regarding the fill in the table question. What is the rule for selecting the correct location. Does it depend on the locations of the phrase in the text or on importance of the point.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink August 7, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

      Order doesn’t matter. 🙂 Any order is fine, as long as you choose the correct answers and put them in the right categories.

  7. Nadia October 1, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    Hi team,

    Thanks so much for this resource. I am helping students consider taking the TOEFL exam. My question is specifically in regards to referencing the passages:

    For example, in the Listening section, can the student READ the questions before the passage plays, so they know what to look for? Or, can they play the passage back? Or is it all simply from memory and notes?

    Same with the reading, how will the passage and the questions be set-up on the computer screen? Can the student again read the questions before reading? Can they open the reading in a separate window in order to skim the passage while answering the questions?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink October 12, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

      There are two questions there, so I’ll answer them separately. 🙂

      – On the listening section, test-takers hear the recording, then answer questions about the recording. They cannot listen again, and they cannot see the questions before listening. Memory and notes are key.
      – On the reading section, students first see the text, then can move forward to the questions. Each question has the relevant paragraph of text next to it, and it is possible to navigate backward and forward, looking at new questions and past questions. But you cannot open new windows at any time during the TOEFL. You can only navigate within the software—there are no windows and no desktop.

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