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TOEFL Reading Test

Common TOEFL® Reading Difficulties

Each section can pose different problems for test takers. Here are a few common difficulties students often encounter in the Reading section.


Time management

For each reading passage, including the time to read and answer all the questions associated with the passage, you will only have 20 minutes. For a small group of people, this is enough time to answer all questions, but if you are not like most of us, you will either barely finish answering the questions within the time limit or you’ll run out of time.

If you are in the small group that has spare time after completing all questions, don't cheat yourself out of the extra time. You should use that time in a more useful way instead. Use the extra time to double and triple check your answers. It never hurts to be extra careful with your answers. However, if you are struggling between two answers and you are unsure, go with your first choice. In my experience, your first choice is more often than not the correct answer.  

If you are in the group that can barely finish the passage within the limited time or cannot finish in time, there is not much you can do but practice and do a lot of timed reading. To practice finishing a section in the allotted time is a learned skill, so the best way is to keep practicing until you reach your goal. Try to spend no more than 16 to 17 minutes in reading the passage and answering the questions so you can have a few extra minutes to go over your answers before the time is up. You can use our TOEFL Reading Practice Questions or our TOEFL Reading Simulated Test to improve your reading and answering speed.

Missing keywords

The time constraint to read and answer all questions puts you under pressure and this can cause you to miss out on little details. One of the most common mistakes test takers make is mistaking a negative factual question for a factual question. That means they overlooked the word 'NOT' or 'EXCEPT' in the question and therefore were looking for the wrong answer.

In addition, when reading the passage, people often overlook transition words such as 'however', 'though', and 'despite'. They may also overlook those words when answering a sentence insertion or purpose question.

Even though you are under a time constraint and are under pressure, it’s vital to slow down and carefully read each question. Lastly, it could be helpful to re-read the question after you have selected your answer to make doubly sure you are answering the question correctly.

Unfamiliar vocabulary

Unfamiliar vocabulary is one of the biggest problems almost all test takers encounter during their TOEFL exam. It’s almost unavoidable especially during the reading section. When you do encounter unfamiliar words, here are a few steps you can take to try solving the issue:

  1. You don’t have to understand every word in a passage. Check to see if the word is important in understanding the passage. If it isn’t then move on because it’s going to take time and making sure you complete the reading section is more important than understanding every word. If the unfamiliar word contributes much to the overall understanding of the passage, then follow the next step.
  2. Check to see if the word is underlined and defined. There are not many of them throughout the test, but sometimes there are. And you can click on them and a definition provided by the test will pop up. It's always worth a try.
  3. Read the sentence to see if you can make a reasonable guess. Native English speakers don’t understand all words, but based on the context of where and how the word was used in the sentence/passage, they are able to make an educated guess of its meaning. Guess as much as you can, as its part of speech whether it has positive or negative meaning.
  4. Look at the surrounding paragraph for context for easier guessing. Sometimes, when you cannot guess the word, you can guess the whole sentence based on its surroundings. If that is the best you can do, then take it and move on. It is very important to not get stuck on a single word or phrase. You only have 20 minutes so use that time wisely.


Caught up in ideas

Similar to getting caught up in a word, students can also get stuck at a small detail, a particular phrase, or a specific fact from the article. This detail is often one that can help a student answer one of the questions, so they do not only get stuck at one idea but also at a single question for a long time.

Small details are important but not as important as the overall idea of the passage. If you are doing fine with time, spend a minute or so to briefly summarize the main idea of the passage in your head. This will help you later in spotting out the wrong answer quickly. When you see a sentence that is contracting the main idea of the passage, you immediately know it is a wrong one.