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10 TOEFL Reading Question Types

James Liu July 25th, 2018

Reading can be a tricky skill for English-language learners to master, and TOEFL reading passages can be especially challenging.  To do well on the TOEFL reading section, you need to have a quick reading comprehension speed. This requires a great understanding of complex grammatical structures and knowing a lot of high-level vocabulary words. On top of that, you need to answer a lot of questions in a short period of time. No wonder many TOEFL test takers feel intimidated by the Reading section. However, TOEFL Reading is actually one of the more straightforward sections of the TOEFL test. Knowing what to expect will make it a lot easier to do well on this section on test day. One of the things you need to know is 10 TOEFL reading question types. 

This article will look at 10 types of questions that appear in the TOEFL reading test. Once you know these question types, you will be much better prepared to get a high score. Here is a quick run-down of each question type you will encounter.

Inference Question

 

In an "Inference" question, you will see the question phrased something like the following: In paragraph 5, what does the author imply about ….? or What can be inferred from paragraph 5? In this type of question, the answer is not directly stated in the reading passage. It requires you to draw conclusions based on information that is given in the passage. You need to find out the correct conclusion from the choices. Here is an example.

[5] Ir has not been common at Earth’s surface since the very beginning of the planet’s history. Because it usually exists in a metallic state, it was preferentially incorporated in Earth’s core as the planet cooled and consolidated. Ir is found in high concentrations in some meteorites, in which the solar system’s original chemical composition is preserved. Even today, microscopic meteorites continually bombard Earth, falling on both land and sea. By measuring how many of these meteorites fall to Earth over a given period of time, scientists can estimate how long it might have taken to deposit the observed amount of Ir in the boundary clay. These calculations suggest that a period of about one million years would have been required. However, other reliable evidence suggests that the deposition of the boundary clay could not have taken one million years. So the unusually high concentration of Ir seems to require a special explanation.

Question: Paragraph 5 implies that a special explanation of the Ir in the boundary clay is needed because

  1. the Ir in microscopic meteorites reaching Earth during the Cretaceous period would have been incorporated into Earth’s core
  2. the Ir in the boundary clay was deposited much more than a million years ago
  3. the concentration of Ir in the boundary clay is higher than in microscopic meteorites
  4. the amount of Ir in the boundary clay is too great to have come from microscopic meteorites during the time the boundary clay was deposited

Answer: D

Vocabulary Question

 

In a reading "Vocabulary question", you are asked what a word or phrase is closest in meaning to and are given 4 answer options. You need to be able to understand the meaning of the word as it is used in the passage. Here is an example:

The Native American Trade is the trade between Europeans, their North American descendants, and the indigenous people of North America who are now known as Native Americans in the United States, First Nations in Canada, whom were formerly known as Indians. Indian Trade is the term used to describe the people involved in the trade, which began in the 1500s, and had various products in different regions and eras. In most of Canada the term is synonymous with the fur trade such as beaver fur which, from the European point of view, was the most valuable product of the trade.

Question: The word "indigenous" in paragraph 1 is closest in meaning to

  1. Intelligent
  2. Foreign
  3. Native
  4. Friendly

Answer: C

Reference Question

In a "Reference" question, you are asked what the highlighted word refers to. If it's a pronoun then you need to identify what word the pronoun is replacing. Here is an example.

[1] Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution is known as one of the most important and controversial scientific theories ever published. Natural selection contributes to the basis of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. One of the core tenets of Darwin's theory is that more offspring are always produced for a species than can possibly survive. Yet, no two offspring are perfectly alike. As a result, through random mutation and genetic drift, over time offspring develop new traits and characteristics. Over time beneficial traits and characteristics that promote survival will be kept in the gene pool while those that harm survival will be selected against. Therefore, this natural selection ensures that a species gradually improves itself over an extended duration of time. On the other hand, as a species continues to 'improve' itself, it branches out to create entirely new species that are no longer capable of reproducing together.

Question: The word 'those' in paragraph 1 refers to:

  1. gene pool
  2. survival
  3. natural selection
  4. traits characteristics

Answer: D

Purpose Question

This type of question requires you to understand why the author has included pieces of information. The answer is not directly stated in the reading passage. To solve this type of question, you need to understand the main point of the paragraph and how the referenced information is related to the main point of the paragraph. You will see the question phrased something like the following: Why does the author mention XXX in paragraph 2? Here is an example.

[4] Darwin's theory is that 'selective breeding' occurs in nature as 'natural selection' is the engine behind evolution. Thus, the theory provides an excellent basis for understanding how organisms change over time. Nevertheless, it is just a theory and elusively difficult to prove. One of the major holes in Darwin's theory revolves around “irreducibly complex systems.” An irreducibly complex system is known as a system where many different parts must all operate together. As a result, in the absence of one, the system as a whole collapses. Consequently, as modern technology improves, science can identify these “irreducibly complex systems” even at microscopic levels. These complex systems, if so inter-reliant, would be resistant to Darwin's supposition of how evolution occurs. As Darwin himself admitted, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus for different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I free confess, absurd in the highest degree.

Question: In paragraph 4, what was the author's purpose of including a quote that the belief that the complexity of the human eye could have been formed by natural selection seems highly unlikely?

  1. To provide evidence that irreducibly complex systems exist
  2. The proof that the natural selection contradicts the basis of Darwin
  3. The support that the natural selection contributes to the basis of Darwin
  4. The support the claim that natural selection is just a theory and difficult to prove

Answer: D

Detail (Factual Information) Question

Detail questions ask you about information that’s specifically stated in a small part of the passage. They generally focus on the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” as explained by the author. Here is an example.

[3] The first eye fossils date back to 540 million years ago. Prior to this time, organisms may have had use for light sensitivity, but not for fast locomotion and navigation by vision. However, it remains difficult to evaluate the rate of eye evolution because the fossil record of this period is weak. The development of the circular patch of photoreceptor cells into a fully functional vertebrate eye has been estimated on the rates of mutation, relative benefit to the organism and natural selection. Based on these estimations, it is suggested that it would take less than 364,000 years for the complete evolution of the eye.

Question: According to paragraph 3, how has the development of a fully functional vertebrate eye been estimated?

  1. It has been estimated on mutation rates, relative advantages to the organism and natural selection.
  2. It has been estimated on studies of the fossil record of this period.
  3. It has been estimated on natural selection only.
  4. It has been estimated based on the first eye fossils, dating back to 540 million years ago.

Answer: A

Negative Factual Information Question

 

You can recognize a negative factual information question by either the word “NOT” or “EXCEPT” in the question. The question can appear like the following: According to the passage, which of the following is NOT true of X?. Here is an example.

[4] Darwin's theory is that 'selective breeding' occurs in nature as 'natural selection' is the engine behind evolution. Thus, the theory provides an excellent basis for understanding how organisms change over time. Nevertheless, it is just a theory and elusively difficult to prove. One of the major holes in Darwin's theory revolves around “irreducibly complex systems.” An irreducibly complex system is known as a system where many different parts must all operate together. As a result, in the absence of one, the system as a whole collapses. Consequently, as modern technology improves, science can identify these “irreducibly complex systems” even at microscopic levels. These complex systems, if so inter-reliant, would be resistant to Darwin's supposition of how evolution occurs. As Darwin himself admitted, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus for different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I free confess, absurd in the highest degree.

Question: All of the following are mentioned in paragraph 4 as a viewpoint to state the natural selection is difficult to prove EXCEPT

  1. The belief that the complexity of the human eye could have been formed by natural selection seems highly unlikely
  2. The presence of irreducibly complex system contradicts how evolution occurs
  3. Modern microbiology proves that irreducibly complex systems exist
  4. Selective breeding is the major hole in the theory of natural selection

Answer: D

Essential Information (Sentence Simplification) Question

 

In an “Essential Information question”, you will see the question you see an entire sentence highlighted in the reading passage. The question will ask you to choose which of the 4 answer option sentences is equal to the highlighted sentence. The correct sentence will be paragraphed so it is different than the highlighted one, but still convey all the important information. Incorrect sentences will represent a detail or concept inaccurately, leave out an important detail, change the original meaning of the sentence. Here is an example.

[4] Dissatisfaction with conventional explanations for dinosaur extinctions led to a surprising observation that, in turn, has suggested a new hypothesis. Many plants and animals disappear abruptly from the fossil record as one moves from layers of rock documenting the end of the Cretaceous up into rocks representing the beginning of the Cenozoic (the era after the Mesozoic). Between the last layer of Cretaceous rock and the first layer of Cenozoic rock, there is often a thin layer of clay. Scientists felt that they could get an idea of how long the extinctions took by determining how long it took to deposit this one centimeter of clay and they thought they could determine the time it took to deposit the clay by determining the amount of the element iridium (Ir) it contained.

Question: Which of the sentences below best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence in paragraph 4? Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.

  1. The fossil record suggests that there was an abrupt extinction of many plants and animals at the end of the Mesozoic era.
  2. Few fossils of the Mesozoic era have survived in the rocks that mark the end of the Cretaceous.
  3. Fossils from the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic up to the beginning of the Cenozoic era have been removed from the layers of rock that surrounded them.
  4. Plants and animals from the Mesozoic era were unable to survive in the Cenozoic era.

Answer: A

Sentence Insertion (Insert Text) Question

 

In an "Insert a Sentence" question, you will be asked to decide where a new sentence best fits into the reading passage. This question type tests your understanding of the logic in the passage. It also tests your ability to understand the grammatical connections from one sentence to another. Here is an example.

[5] Trade was difficult for the early Europeans trading with Native Americans during the first trades.

█ [A] Economic contact between Native Americans and Europeans can be traced back to the English and French fishermen off the coast of Canada in the 1500s. They traded guns and other weapons for beaver fur. █ [B] The first explorers to trade with the Native Americans were Giovanni da Verrazano and Jacques Cartier in the 1520s and 1530s. █ [C]In Verrazano's book he notes, "If we wanted to trade with them for some of their things, they would come to the seashore on some rocks where the breakers were most violent while we remained on the little boat █ [D]and they sent us what they wanted to give on a rope, continually shouting to us not to approach the land.

Question: In paragraph 5 of the passage, there is a missing sentence. The paragraph shows four letters (A, B, C, and D) that indicate where the following sentence could be added.

Choose the place where the sentence fits best.

Answer: B

Complete the Summary (Prose Summary) Question

 

In a ‘Complete the Summary’ question, you are given a summary statement of the reading passage and 6 answer options. You need to drag and drop 3 answers that represent major ideas or contain important information from the passage. You need to drag and drop them from the bottom area of your computer screen into a blank area above with 3 positions marked off. The 3 correct options will NOT have the exact wording of any sentence in the passage. The other 3 will have errors in detail, or state an unimportant concept. This question always has a value of 2 points. You will get 1 point if you get 2 out of 3 correct. Here is an example.

[1] Paleontologists have argued for a long time that the demise of the dinosaurs was caused by climatic alterations associated with slow changes in the positions of continents and seas resulting from plate tectonics. Off and on throughout the Cretaceous (the last period of the Mesozoic era, during which dinosaurs flourished), large shallow seas covered extensive areas of the continents. Data from diverse sources, including geochemical evidence preserved in seafloor sediments, indicate that the Late Cretaceous climate was milder than today’s. The days were not too hot, nor the nights too cold. The summers were not too warm, nor the winters too frigid. The shallow seas on the continents probably buffered the temperature of the nearby air, keeping it relatively constant.

[2] At the end of the Cretaceous, the geological record shows that these seaways retreated from the continents back into the major ocean basins. No one knows why. Over a period of about 100,000 years, while the seas pulled back, climates around the world became dramatically more extreme: warmer days, cooler nights; hotter summers, colder winters. Perhaps dinosaurs could not tolerate these extreme temperature changes and became extinct.

[3] If true, though, why did cold-blooded animals such as snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodiles survive the freezing winters and torrid summers? These animals are at the mercy of the climate to maintain a livable body temperature. It’s hard to understand why they would not be affected, whereas dinosaurs were left too crippled to cope, especially if, as some scientists believe, dinosaurs were warm-blooded. Critics also point out that the shallow seaways had retreated from and advanced on the continents numerous times during the Mesozoic, so why did the dinosaurs survive the climatic changes associated with the earlier fluctuations but not with this one? Although initially appealing, the hypothesis of a simple climatic change related to sea levels is insufficient to explain all the data.

[4] Dissatisfaction with conventional explanations for dinosaur extinctions led to a surprising observation that, in turn, has suggested a new hypothesis. Many plants and animals disappear abruptly from the fossil record as one moves from layers of rock documenting the end of the Cretaceous up into rocks representing the beginning of the Cenozoic (the era after the Mesozoic). Between the last layer of Cretaceous rock and the first layer of Cenozoic rock, there is often a thin layer of clay. Scientists felt that they could get an idea of how long the extinctions took by determining how long it took to deposit this one centimeter of clay and they thought they could determine the time it took to deposit the clay by determining the amount of the element iridium (Ir) it contained.

[5] Ir has not been common at Earth’s surface since the very beginning of the planet’s history. Because it usually exists in a metallic state, it was preferentially incorporated in Earth’s core as the planet cooled and consolidated. Ir is found in high concentrations in some meteorites, in which the solar system’s original chemical composition is preserved. Even today, microscopic meteorites continually bombard Earth, falling on both land and sea. By measuring how many of these meteorites fall to Earth over a given period of time, scientists can estimate how long it might have taken to deposit the observed amount of Ir in the boundary clay. (A) These calculations suggest that a period of about one million years would have been required. (B) However, other reliable evidence suggests that the deposition of the boundary clay could not have taken one million years. (C) So the unusually high concentration of Ir seems to require a special explanation. (D)

[6] In view of these facts, scientists hypothesized that a single large asteroid, about 10 to 15 kilometers across, collided with Earth, and the resulting fallout created the boundary clay. Their calculations show that the impact kicked up a dust cloud that cut off sunlight for several months, inhibiting photosynthesis in plants; decreased surface temperatures on continents to below freezing; caused extreme episodes of acid rain; and significantly raised long-term global temperatures through the greenhouse effect. This disruption of food chain and climate would have eradicated the dinosaurs and other organisms in less than fifty years.
14. Directions: An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below. Complete the summary by selecting the THREE answer choices that express the most important ideas in the passage. Some sentences do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not presented in the passage or are minor ideas in the passage. This question is worth 2 points.

Drag your answer choices to the spaces where they belong. To remove an answer choice, drag it back.
 
For a long time scientists have argued that the extinction of the dinosaurs was related to climate change.
  1. Extreme changes in daily and seasonal climates preceded the retreat of the seas back into the major ocean basins.
  2. A simple climate change does not explain some important data related to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.
  3. The retreat of the seaways at the end of the Cretaceous has not been fully explained.
  4. The abruptness of extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous and the high concentration of Ir found in clay deposited at that time have fueled the development of a new hypothesis.
  5. Some scientists hypothesize that the extinction of the dinosaurs resulted from the effects of an asteroid collision with Earth.
  6. Boundary clay layers like the one between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic are used by scientists to determine the rate at which an extinct species declined.

Answer: b,d,e

Complete the Table (Fill in a Table) Question

In a “Complete a table” question, you will see 2 or 3 categories in an empty table. From the options provided, you must select which ones correctly belong to each category. There will also be 2 options that won't be used. There will either be 5 or 7 correct options depending on the question. 

This question has a value of 3 or 4 points. Questions with 5 correct options are worth 3 points, and ones with 7 are worth 4 points. You get 1 point if you get 3/5 or 4/7 correct. You get 2 points if get 4/5 or 5/7 correct. You get 3 points if you get 5/5 or 6/7 correct 

This question tests your ability to organize major ideas of the reading passage and important information. It also tests your understandings of cause-effect relationships and compare and contrast relationships. Here is an example.

[1] The method of Radiocarbon dating was invented in the late 1940s by Willard Libby. It is a method to determine the age of an object by using radiocarbon properties. Radiocarbon is created in the atmosphere through the interaction of nitrogen and cosmic rays. When combined with oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced. CO2 enters plants through photosynthesis; animals and humans incorporate carbon when they eat plants. After the death of a plant or animal, the rate of carbon begins to decline – this is called the radioactive decay of carbon. When analysts measure the amount of carbon in this decayed object, they can calculate when it died. The furthest date that has been reliably measured back to is around 50,000 years.

[2] Research into the proportion of carbon in the atmosphere has been going on for more than five decades. Due to the increase in the burning of fossil fuels and nuclear testing in the 20th century, there was a significant increase in the level of carbon in our atmosphere, so this adds to the complication of carbon calculation. Originally, scientists used samples of solid carbon for testing. However, they realized that converting the samples to liquid or gas offered more precise results. Accelerator mass spectrometry is the current method of analysis. All carbon atoms in the sample are counted; its results are fast and very accurate.

[3] Archaeology has been profoundly affected by progress in radiocarbon dating. Faunal analysis has also been impacted by progress in this area. Faunal analysis is the study of the remains of animals with the aim to help us understand human activities in the past.

[4] At the end of the Pleistocene Era, there were many rapid extinction of megafauna, particularly in the Americas. There is a notable report by Vartanyan et al. on the extinction of pygmy mammoths, dating them back to 3700 years before present using radiocarbon dating. Other scientists have used this method to calculate the age of the extinct species in the La Brea tar pits in California. In their faunal analysis, they employed a pre-treatment method that included the use of tar. They collected bones, divided them into small pieces and chips and crushed them. The bone fragments were treated with a variety of solvents, including benzene, to examine a species of Cuban Caribbean ground sloth and the Xenarthra armadillo. Carbon was then examined and radiocarbon dates were obtained from the organic material separated from the tar. Scientists were able to date the sloth remains to around 5400 before present. This information is important as it may show that the extinction of the sloth was caused by human arrival in Cuba.

[5] Much work is necessary to further investigate the abundant fossil materials found in Central and South American pits, including those of Talara, Peru, where there are a lot of remains of extinct megafauna and human artefacts. Ongoing studies of these sites can help to verify the theories of extinction and the impact on human behaviour.

[6] One notable achievement in radio carbon dating is Two Creeks Fossil Forest. During the 20th century, a goal of geologists was to establish the date of transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene era. The Pleistocene epoch began 2.6 million years ago and the current, Holocene period began 11,700 years ago. In Wisconsin, USA, a fossil forest called Two Creeks was discovered. Prior to radiocarbon dating, the trees in this forest had been dated back to around 24,000 years ago, the estimated date for the end of the Pleistocene period. This estimate had been made through correlation with sequences in Scandinavia. Libby and later scientists investigated Two Creeks and used radiocarbon dating to date the trees more accurately. Samples from the fossil forest were used in tests in over 70 labs, dating the trees back to 13,730 before present. This achievement is now considered a notable result in the development of our understanding of glaciation in North America and the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
14. Complete the table by matching the phrases below

Directions: Select the appropriate phrases from the answer choices and match them to the Radiocarbon Dating and Faunal Analysis to which they relate. Some of the answer choices will NOT be used. This question is worth 4 points.

Drag your answer choices to the spaces where they belong. To remove an answer choice, drag it back. To review the passage, click VIEW TEXT.
Faunal Analysis in Cuba and California Radiocarbon dating in Two Creeks Fossil Forest
 

 
 

 
  1. Tar and benzene are used in the analytical process.
  2. This analytical method has determined when the Pleistocene epoch ended.
  3. Initial estimates were made by comparing with similar occurrences in Scandinavia.
  4. Over 70 tests were done on fossil samples.
  5. Radiocarbon dating tracked the fossils to 13,370 years before present.
  6. Successful radiocarbon dating of the forest samples proves the end of glaciations in North America.

Answer: a|b,c,e

Final thoughts

There are over 10 different types of questions on the reading test and all of them require a different strategy. Doing them all in the same way will waste a lot of time and will probably result in you getting a lower score than you deserve. Instead of approaching each question the same way without thinking about the question type, you should have a strategy in place for each of the different question types. Our comprehensive lessons will tackle each of these question types in detail. To view them, create a free account and start your 7 day free trial.

 
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