Lucas Fink

TOEFL Tuesday: Vocabulary Questions


Our lesson today is about a specific type of question on the TOEFL Reading section: vocabulary questions. There are 3-5 of these on every TOEFL reading passage. Since you will see 3 or 4 passages on your test, you could see nearly 20 vocabulary questions like this on your test. That makes them very important.

They’re also important to do quickly. Simply knowing the meaning of the word is the fastest way to answer a question like this, so expanding your vocabulary is a good idea for improving on these questions. You don’t want to rely on reading the text every time.

Let’s look at the example:

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The primary purpose of the male cicada’s song is to attract a female with which to breed. Cicadas tend to be very well camouflaged, and can blend into their surrounding tree-based environments easily. The song of the cicada provides the clues through which the female cicada can find the nearest male.

The word camouflaged in paragraph 3 is closest in meaning to

  • hidden
  • buried
  • placed
  • heard

(Note that the text is only an excerpt. A full TOEFL text is 700+ words.)

If we know “camouflaged” means that something looks like the area around it, so the thing cannot be seen easily, then the answer to this question is clear: “hidden” is the best match in meaning. We don’t need to read the text to answer, which is good, because it’s fast!
But if you don’t know the meaning of the word “camouflaged,” the text can help a bit.

The description immediately after the word “camouflaged” gives us a clue. It says that cicadas “can blend into their surrounding tree-based environments easily.” But this depends on the phrasal verb “blend in.” The word “blend” means “mix,” in a way. If you blend red and yellow, you create orange, for example. The phrase “blend in” means that something it’s hard to see, because it looks like other nearby things. Animals often use this to be safe, because they’re hard to see. That is same as the meaning of “camouflage.”

There’s also another clue. If we consider this paragraph as a whole, we understand a few key points:

  1. Male cicadas sing so females will come.
  2. Females use the songs as clues.
  3. The song helps females find males.

So we can infer that the males are hard to find. Imagine if they were easy to find: the females would not need clues. So if they are hard to find, “hidden” makes sense as an answer.

But here’s the tricky part: “buried” and “placed” also make some sense. You can’t easily find something that’s buried, and “well placed” could mean that it’s hard to find, in a good location to hide from danger. The TOEFL likes to use words that make some sense as wrong answer. But they simply don’t match the meaning of the tested word. “Camouflaged” and “buried,” for example, have very different meanings. So knowing the meaning before reading the context is extremely important, especially because it can save you so much time.


  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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