The Reading Comprehension Section of the Paper-Based TOEFL
Reading comprehension is the third section of the TOEFL PBT. This section includes 50 multiple choice questions, which test-takers are given 55 minutes to finish. PBT reading comprehension includes 5-6 reading passages, each of which can have from 6-12 questions on information stated or implied in the passages and the meaning of specific words or phrases. Reading passage topics can be either academic or general interest, but the information necessary to answer all questions is included (students need not worry about having discipline-specific knowledge). The length of reading passages can be from 200-450 words, and the average is between 25 and 35 lines of text.
Reading comprehension questions will appear in one of two formats: questions that ask about passage content, and questions that ask about the meaning of specific words or phrases in the context of the passage. The text of the questions is generally easy to understand, and common formats include "the passage primarily discusses . . ." and "word x is closest in meaning to . . .". Some questions require students to specify the location of certain information by choosing the correct passage line number. All reading comprehension questions on the PBT include four answer choices and a single correct answer.
To successfully complete the reading comprehension section of the PBT, students must be able locate factual statements, infer author intent, and use context to discern meaning. College exams frequently require students to reproduce information from assigned readings, and students must also be able to deal with a variety of rhetorical strategies. The assessment of contextual skills is necessary because English words and phrases can have many different meanings, and university-level study demands the ability to understand specific usages. Because test-takers have an average of less than one minute per question, time management and speed are vital skills on PBT reading comprehension.
Students may work on reading comprehension questions in any order they wish, although they cannot work on other sections of the PBT during the timeframe assigned for reading comprehension. Test-takers should be aware that multiple forms of the PBT will be issued at any given administration, with the questions and answers in different orders (it is not a good idea to attempt to copy answers from another student). Students should not write in the test booklet, and filling in the circles for answer choices is the only permissible way to mark the answer sheet.
Very few institutions have any specific requirements with respect to the reading comprehension section of the PBT, but schools commonly list standards for the reading section of the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT). Scoring concordances between these two sections can give students taking the PBT some idea of the reading skills expected by undergraduate and graduate programs. The minimum iBT reading score for the PhD program at Emory University's Goizueta Business School is 26, which corresponds to a scaled PBT reading comprehension score of 59-60. Students opting for the PBT must remember that all three multiple-choice sections contribute almost equally to the total score, and poor reading comprehension performance will therefore harm their ability to meet total score requirements. Goizueta's minimum PBT total score is 600, and a scaled reading comprehension score of less than 44 would make it mathematically impossible to reach this level (even with perfect scores on the other sections). The average score range for PBT reading comprehension, according to ETS, is between 52 (the 48th percentile) and 54 (the 59th percentile), and this range is roughly equivalent to iBT reading scores of 17-20.
Some studies have found that reading from computer screens is substantially slower than reading from paper, although other researchers have found no significant differences between the two media. Many test-takers have expressed a preference for paper reading passages, citing computer issues such as eye strain and reduced levels of comprehension. Another important research question is the relationship between time spent on reading and reading comprehension. One study found that reading was most useful for students with higher levels of English proficiency. Beginning English students tended not to benefit as much from reading exercises because they had to devote too much of their short-term memory to understanding basic structures. This study suggests that the best approach is for students to develop strong abilities in basic grammar before working on reading passages at the level of the reading comprehension section of the PBT.