TOEFL Reading Section

Basics

The TOEFL Reading Section is designed to measure the ability to read and understand academic texts. This section requires test takers to find the main idea of passages; identify inferences that are implied in passages; recognize the organizational structure of a passage; and organize information into categories.

This section contains three, four or five reading comprehension passages that are approximately 700 words each. The passages are on a variety of subjects, and they may be informational or argumentative in nature. The passages are often selected from university-level textbooks. Test takers must read through (or scroll through) to the end of the passage before receiving the questions.

There are usually 12 to 14 questions after each passage. Once the questions are received, the screen splits with the questions on the left side of the screen and the reading passage on the right. In some cases, test takers can receive definitions of difficult or unusual vocabulary words. When test takers click on an underlined vocabulary word, a definition will appear at the bottom of the screen.

Question Formats

There are three question formats in the TOEFL iBT Reading Section: traditional multiple choice questions with four possible choices; insert-a-sentence multiple choice questions with four possible choices; and "Reading to Learn" questions, which often require test takers to perform tasks such as placing facts in categories. Each question format is described below. 

  • Reading Section Multiple Choice

    Many Reading Section questions are standard multiple choice questions with four possible choices. This question format is used for several types of questions. Some common TOEFL iBT questions that come in the multiple choice format include questions that ask test takers to find the main idea; questions that ask test takers to identify an inference; and sentence simplification questions that ask test takers to select which choice most accurately summarizes what a sentence is saying.

    In addition, many multiple choice questions in this section focus on understanding individual words. Often a multiple choice question will present an unusual vocabulary word, or a phrase that could have two meanings and ask test takers to choose the correct definition based on the context. Other times, multiple choice questions might ask test takers to identify the noun or subject that a pronoun is substituting. For example, a question might ask, "The word 'they' in the second paragraph refers to: ...".

  • Insert a Sentence Questions

    In the insert-a-sentence questions, the test takers are given a completely new sentence and asked to place it where it would best fit in the passage. There are four spots in the passage each marked by a black square. The squares might all be in the same paragraph or they might be spread throughout the passage. When the test taker clicks on one of the squares, the sentence is automatically pasted into the passage at that point. Test takers can test all four squares – if the sentence is placed at the first square and it doesn't look right, the test taker can click one of the other squares and the new sentence will be removed from the first location and placed in the new one.

    Not every passage has an insert-a-sentence question following it, and there is never more than one of these types of questions per reading passage.

  • Reading to Learn Questions

    The "Reading to Learn" questions are the newest question types in the TOEFL iBT, and they are completely different from multiple choice questions. There are two types of Reading to Learn questions: summary questions and category chart questions. The summary questions begin with an introductory sentence for a paragraph that will summarize the reading passage that was just read. Six possible sentence choices are provided. The test takers have to select three of the six choices that best express the most important points in the passage, and drag them to a summary box to complete the summary. Some of the choices might contain information that was never in the passage or information that is not very significant. Summary questions are worth two points, and there is partial credit given for them.

    Category chart questions contain several sentence choices and two categories based on the passage. The categories are usually two subjects described in detail in the passage – for example, they could be two types of animals or two scientific methods. The test taker has to choose which sentence falls into which category, and drag the sentence to the appropriate place. To make it more complicated, there are some sentences that don't fit into either category. For example, a question might have two categories, one with space for four answers, and one with space for three, and there might be nine sentences to choose from, meaning two will be left over. If there are seven spaces for sentences, as just described, the question is worth four points. If there are five spaces, the question is worth three points. Partial credit is awarded on these questions.