TOEFL reading tips

Read for Speed: 7 TOEFL Reading Tips and Test-taking Strategies for Total Success

If you are getting ready to take TOEFL, you are probably well aware that the four sections consist of Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing.

The Reading section is the first section of the test. It involves reading a long passage (six paragraphs minimum) on a specific topic. The topics are often highly technical and are always written in an academic style (scary!).

Since the TOEFL Reading section is the first section of the exam, how you perform will set the rhythm for the rest of the test.

So, if you want to give yourself the best chance of doing well in this section, here are some tips on how to prepare ahead of the TOEFL.



Tips for the TOEFL Reading Section

1. Improve Your Reading Speed

The Reading section of the TOEFL can have up to 56 questions for 3 or 4 passages, and the maximum time given for the section is 80 minutes. That means you will have only 5 minutes to read each text and about 1 minute to answer each question in the Reading section.

To succeed, you’ll need to start improving your reading speed.

Time yourself when you study for the test and note how long it takes you to go through a given passage. Everyone reads at a different pace. Your task is to make your reading pace slightly faster for the very specific test-taking situation, so you can switch gears and go into full-speed mode if you need to.

The TOEFL quirk of numbering every fifth line in the passage is meant to help you navigate to the words or sentences referred to in the questions. Practice locating specific lines by the numbers provided to improve your speed.

You can also do the reading section of a practice TOEFL test and time yourself. How long does it take you to finish the reading section?

2. Work on Your Comprehension Speed

The reading section will ask you to deduce meaning and infer information from words you do not understand. This is what the reading section is actually testing. Not your ability to memorize a thesaurus before the test, but your skill at dealing with vocabulary words that you do not know.

When you stumble across a word you do not understand, your first reaction might be to check Google Translate or consult a dictionary. However, you should try forcing yourself to skip that unknown word and continue reading. Often, you will find that the meaning of the whole text is easy to understand, even if you did not understand a few words.

Try to read for at least 20 minutes every single day during your preparation time using articles, books and stories. A variety (mix) of different materials is best, so here are some types of materials to try.

  • News articles — At least three times a week, read news articles in English. Breaking News English has some excellent articles for English learners.
  • Easy books — It’s a good idea to find a great book in English that you can understand. We recommend starting with this list of books. When you are reading a book like this, split it up into a few pages every day. Stop after each page and summarize what you’ve read.

3. Fill Your Free Time with Passive Reading

Fun magazines, comics, Facebook posts or blogs are great for passive reading. Passive reading is when you read something in English without a learning objective (goal) in mind.

And remember to read all this for fun. Don’t worry about summarizing or using your dictionary. The purpose of passive reading is to allow your brain to get used to thinking in English, which will help when it comes to the TOEFL.

4. Learn Specific Vocabulary

Even though you will encounter unknown words, developing a nice and wide vocabulary never hurt anyone.

Since you are practicing for the Reading section of the TOEFL, try to read every text completely without looking up any words. After you have read the whole text and tried to understand everything on your own, then you may look up words. This is very similar to the actual testing situation.

Make a list of unfamiliar words and translate them using an English-to-English dictionary. This is important! You must avoid the temptation to use a dictionary that translates words from English to your native language.

Here are a few tips to strengthen your vocabulary while studying for the TOEFL test.

  • Look up synonyms and antonymsSynonyms are words that have the same (or similar) meaning. For example, “large,” “huge” and “jumbo” are all synonyms of “big.” An antonym is the opposite of a word. For example, “tiny” and “little” are antonyms of “big.” You can use a thesaurus to find the synonyms and antonyms of each word.

You could also try using a language learning program such as FluentU to help with general vocabulary practice

FluentU has a curated library of authentic English videos with interactive subtitles that you can use to see how vocabulary works in context. You can add words from the videos you watch to custom flashcard decks, and improve your retention with personalized quizzes.

5. Keep Moving

Timing is everything in TOEFL. When it comes to the Reading section, remember that you will not have more than 4 minutes per passage, so do not get hung up on every passage. Try not to stop! Keep moving no matter what.

There are multiple passages on the test, and you are guaranteed to feel more comfortable with one or another. Some will seem harder and some will seem easier.

Skim the passage, note keywords in sentences, leave unfamiliar terms behind and keep in mind that TOEFL passages may contain words that even native speakers don’t typically know.

Also, keep in mind that the TOEFL is highly specific.

You may see a question like: “The word X on line Y is closest in meaning to…” with four choices of words following. Rest assured—most of the choices will sound similar or have very similar meanings, so you will need to read the text carefully to identify the correct answer.

6. Read for the Main Ideas

You may believe that you have to understand every single word in every passage you read. The good news is that you don’t. The most important thing is that you understand the main ideas.

At least three times a week, practice reading for the main idea—not the details. Scan the text for meaning, and look for keywords, action verbs, names, connective words and any other words that stand out. This is what you will have to do on the test.

During this type of practice (and on the test), if you don’t understand something, just move on. As you continue reading you will gain more clarity and will understand the main idea of the text.

Some of your readings, like the articles from Breaking News English for example, may include some questions at the end. If you don’t know the answer to a question, take your best guess. Eliminate the answers which are certainly wrong, and choose from the remaining options.

Once you review your answer, you can reread the text and check with your dictionary for more clarity. This will really help you prepare for the TOEFL, when you won’t have much time to think about your answers.

7. Work with a Teacher or Study Buddy

Working with a teacher or a study partner will make your study time less lonely. They can help clarify your questions, keep you motivated and quiz you.

You can find local study partners or teachers through MeetUp or Couchsurfing. If you don’t live in the same town, you can connect via Skype and email.

Here are a few more ideas about how to use teacher or study friend.

  • Book club — One way to use a study partner is to have a book club. Meet biweekly or monthly to discuss the story together as you read.  Select the same reading material as your study partner or teacher. Sit down and read it together, then ask each other questions, such as “Can you describe the main characters?” and “Who was your favorite character and why?”
  • Quiz each other — Test each other by creating small quizzes for one another, each based on a short reading. You can use multiple choice, fill in the blanks, true or false, and finish the sentence questions. After you each read your partner’s article and take their quiz, correct each other’s mistakes.


When starting your actual TOEFL, take a deep breath and do not let the Reading section tire you out.

You have practiced and studied enough, and it is now time to demonstrate your excellent English reading skills!


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