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TOEFL Reading Tip: How to Read Faster By Breaking Down Long Sentences

Madison Oster July 25th, 2018

One of the points that many students struggle with on the TOEFL or IELTS is the tricky, complicated nature of the sentences found in the reading passage. Academic writings are denser and much longer, making them intimidating when you first see them. Sometimes, this intimidating factor of the passage makes students freeze and feel unable to answer the questions. But don’t worry! In this article, we’re going to show you how to read faster by breaking down long sentences.  

Part 1 - How to Pull Out Important Details From Long Sentences


There are a few general, overall points that you can use to simplify any long sentence. These three steps allow you to quickly and accurately pull out what’s most important from a passage while making the most of your time.

Recognizing Key Details

One of the keys to breaking down a long and tricky sentence is to be able to pull out the key details from the sentence and the passage. How do you recognize key details? Mostly, you can look for numbers and words that are capitalized. Dates, times, numbers, names, and locations are all likely to be important. Even if they aren’t asked about specifically, being able to pull out this information can provide context for the whole passage. If you’re able to understand the who, what, where of a sentence or passage you’re off to a great start.

What’s Important - What’s Not

Another key is separating the important information in the sentence and passage from the unimportant. The passages will contain a lot of information you’ll need to answer the questions and a lot that you will not. The way to figuring this out is to read the questions first. Pull the key details from the questions and you’ll be able to separate the information that you need from the information that’s not necessary for answering the questions. This is an effective strategy because it saves you time, and as you know, on this type of exam every minute counts!

Academic Wordiness

In academic and educational reading passages, they tend to use a lot of words to say very little. By focusing on the key details that you’ve already pulled out and the distinction between what’s important and what’s not, you can simplify the sentence and ignore those long, academic phrasings and just pull out what’s most necessary.

Part 2 - How to Turn Long Sentences Into Simple Ones


One method of solving long sentences is to make them simple. Simplify them to the shortest and easy point possible, and suddenly they don’t seem so hard. Here are two ways to do this.

1. Find the Verb

In any long sentence that you’re feeling uncomfortable with, find the verb first. Once you do this, you can easily determine the subject before it and the object after it. This gives you the main idea of the sentence and from there you can more easily determine the smaller details. Having the context of the main idea allows you to work through all of the other information more easily.

2. Find the Adjective Clauses

Adjective clauses are one of the main causes of turning a short sentence into a long and complicated one. An adjective clause basically just does the work of an adjective: modifying the noun or pronoun that precedes it. So if you take out that whole adjective clause, you can still determine the key point of the sentence. In case you’re unfamiliar with the grammar term, an adjective clause will either start with a relative adverb (where, when, why, how, whether) or a relative pronoun (that, who, whom, whose, or which). Here’s an example with the adjective clause underlined:

Omidyar brought in Meg Whitman, whose knowledge of business helped make eBay a success.

The main details of this sentence can be easily found if you ignore the adjective clause: the owner hired someone named Meg. And if you separate these two sections, they seem less tricky to understand and suddenly pretty simple.

Part 3 - Grammar Points


There are a few grammar points that may come up that you’re unfamiliar with. If you’ve never seen them before, they can lead you to misunderstand the passage or become frustrated. Here are two grammar points that are often used in academic passages to be aware of.

Omitting Relative Pronouns

Oftentimes in academic writings, relative pronouns such as who, which, or that, will be omitted if they are not the subject of the sentence. Here’s an example of this with the omitted pronoun underlined:

The American economic system, organized around a basically private-enterprise, is a market-oriented economy.

The phrase “which is” could have been placed before organized here and the meaning would still be the same. But for academic purposes, it has been omitted. This means that the underlined phrase is all describing the subject mentioned, which here is the American economic system.

Prepositional Phrases

Sometimes sentences will start with a prepositional phrase to give deeper details about the subject. Here’s an example of this with the prepositional phrase underlined:

Totally without light and subjected to intense pressures hundreds of times greater than at the Earth’s surface, the deep-ocean bottom is a hostile environment to humans, in some ways as forbidding and remote as the void of outer space.

In this example sentence, the whole phrase that is underlined is describing the deep-ocean bottom. So if you see a long sentence that begins with a prepositional phrase like this one, feel free to separate it and read what follows first so that you know what the main idea is and then look back to determine the finer details.

Most importantly, remember that you can do this! As long as you practice and prepare, you’re sure to succeed. If you have any further questions or are looking for more personalized assistance, please feel free to reach out to our friendly and knowledgeable instructors.


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