Reading Section of the TOEFL iBT

Brief Description of the TOEFL iBT Reading Section

All administrations of the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT) include a reading section that consists of three or four reading passages, each with 12-14 questions. Total section timing is from 60 to 80 minutes, and scaled sectional scoring is reported from 0 to 30. In order to receive high scores on the TOEFL iBT reading section, test-takers must be able to master several different types of reading passages and questions.

Types of Reading Passages

The TOEFL iBT reading section is meant to assess students' ability to comprehend the textbooks that they will likely encounter in their college courses. Reading passages for the iBT section are therefore drawn from introductory college textbooks in a variety of subjects. Though the passages may be altered slightly in order to make sense independently, editing is generally kept to a minimum. Each reading passage is about 700 words, although individual excerpts can be a bit longer or shorter. Educational Testing Service (ETS) has classified all iBT reading section passages as either expository (a writing that explains a topic), argumentative (a text that advances a particular point of view, using supporting evidence), or historical (an excerpt based on past events). Organizational schemes for these passages can include classification, compare/contrast, cause/effect, or problem/solution. Students taking the iBT can safely assume that all of the information necessary to answer the questions will be included in the reading passages, and test-takers will not need to possess detailed knowledge of the reading passage subjects.

Overview of iBT Reading Section Question Types

The TOEFL iBT reading section includes various forms of multiple choice questions only, but there are a total of ten question types. These ten types are grouped by ETS into two broad categories, discussed in greater detail below: basic information and inferencing questions, and reading to learn questions. The overwhelming majority of reading section questions fall into the former category.

Basic Information and Inferencing Questions

In the category of basic information and inferencing, there are eight types of questions. The two most common are factual information questions (3-6 per reading passage) and vocabulary questions (3-5 per passage). Factual information questions require students to be able to recognize explicitly stated facts, while vocabulary questions require choosing an appropriate definition for words and phrases while considering the context of the passage. All reading passages will also include inference questions (1-3 each), rhetorical purpose questions (1-2 each), and insert text questions (1 each). Inference questions ask about implicit arguments or ideas, and rhetorical purpose questions ask why reading passage authors use organization, quotations, or facts in specific ways. Insert text questions require test-takers to choose the most favorable placement in a reading passage for a given new sentence. Some reading passages will also include negative factual information questions (0-2 each), reference questions (0-2 each), and sentence simplification questions (0-1 each). In negative factual information questions, students must choose the only answer option that is not true according to the passage. Reference questions ask about relationships between words in the context of conventional grammar. Sentence simplification questions involve choosing the answer option that most effectively revises and simplifies a highlighted sentence in the reading passage.

Reading to Learn Questions

The TOEFL iBT reading section includes only two types of reading to learn questions: prose summary and fill in a table. Reading to learn questions are a small minority of reading section content, and all TOEFL iBT administrations include only one question in this category per reading passage (this question can be either prose summary or fill in a table, but test-takers will never see both types associated with a single reading passage). Prose summary questions evaluate recognition of important ideas and the ability to rank those ideas by degree of importance. Fill in a table questions require students to organize and contextualize ideas from different portions of a reading passage.

Using Reading Section Question Keywords and Phrases to Understand Question Types

On the iBT reading section, question types are usually delineated by the text of the questions themselves, and determining the type of a given question is often a simple matter of recognizing important words or phrases. For example, factual information questions will almost always include the phrase "according to," and inference questions usually feature a synonym such as "imply" or "suggest." Students preparing for the TOEFL iBT are strongly encouraged to review many examples of each of these question types. This strategy will reveal helpful patterns of question structure and facilitate more rapid elimination of implausible answer choices.