TOEFL iBT Reading Guide

I am currently preparing for TOEFL iBT and I’m putting this guide together, to sum up, everything I know about TOEFL reading in one place. The main source for this is Cracking TOEFL iBT – Princeton review.

General info about the reading

TOEFL is supposed to simulate reading that you might find in an academic environment but in reality, this isn’t exactly true. In each TOEFL test, there are 3-4 reading passages each of which is about 700 words long. A passage can discuss academic topics, it can include challenging vocabulary and the topic might be something you aren’t even remotely interested in.

Tactics and approach

In an academic setting, you might apply something called close reading. This means that you pay attention to how the text is structured, what words are used and are the facts accurate. This is what you don’t use on TOEFL. On the TOEFL test if you want to answer every question that you have 90sec for each without reading the passage. This is why you use the active reading approach. This focuses on moving through the text rapidly and getting only the big picture and none of the details. It is an effective approach to TOEFL.

Active reading

You have 3 major task to accomplish to be successful in active reading:

  1. State the main idea: Figuring out what the passage is about
  2. Understand the structure: Mapping the passage to find key information
  3. Finding the purpose: Figuring out why the author wrote the piece

Task 1: Stating the Main Idea

You must find the answer to the following question: What is the author writing about? In order to complete this task, you should read the

  • first two sentences in the first paragraph
  • first sentence in each of the body paragraphs
  • first and last sentence of the last-conclusion-paragraph

The last sentence will give you the final point of the author, this is especially important if the topic hasn’t become clear earlier.

You should be mindful of direction markers. Direction markers are words like although, in fact, however, etc. These direction markers can be same-direction or opposite-direction. Opposite-Direction markers can indicate that the passage discusses the opposite of that it introduced. Direction markers can be hard to spot so I don’t recommend putting too much effort into this, just know that they may exist. Same-Direction markers: and, because, even, therefore, another, for example, one reason, due to, also Opposite-Direction markers: although, however, yet, despite, but, in contrast to, on the other hand, rather, even tough

Task 2: Understanding the structure

This is important because if you are familiar with the structure of the reading then you can find answers to the questions quickly and efficiently.

Reading passages in TOEFL follow a very similar structure: 1. Introduction paragraph: Includes the basic topic This section usually only contains the topic, the main idea. 2. Body paragraphs 4-5pcs: provide information about the topic In these sections, the first sentence gives a statement, fact or connection about the topic. The rest discusses this. 3. Conclusion: final statement This section is similar to the body paragraph plus a final statement.

Task 3: Finding the purpose

The first paragraph is the most important to the purpose, it should give pretty good information about what the writer intended. For each paragraph, you should ask yourself 2 questions: What? and What about it?. It is very important that you do not pay attention to the details, only the facts. No matter how many adjectives are used and what explanations are given in the sentence, get rid of them. This process is called trimming the fat. This can also help if you don’t understand some words, they probably aren’t even important.


If you want to read about this in more detail or practice what you learned today I’d recommend the Cracking TOEFL iBT book. It has practice passages on which you can try out yourself and the answers and walkthrough can also be found for each passage.

Leave your ideas, suggestions and comments below.

Kristof Kocsis Written by:

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