5 TOEFL Reading Tips and Test-taking Strategies for Total Success

The TOEFL test has four sections—and each section can make you beyond frustrated.

But there is no need for frustration anymore!

We are going to give you the best TOEFL study tips to make sure you succeed (and keep your sanity).

If you are getting ready to take TOEFL, you are probably well aware that these four sections consist of Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. They all test your ability to communicate in English effectively.

The Reading section is the first section on 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!).

The Reading section has a total of three or four passages like this, each of which is followed by its own set of twelve multiple choice questions. These questions may test vocabulary knowledge, general comprehension of the passage along with sentence- or word-specific comprehension. The ability to infer and summarize information presented in the text is also vital to the Reading portion.

Even though it sounds complex, I bet Reading is not the section you are most worried about, despite its difficulty. There are three other sections of the TOEFL to study for, after all. It is easy to be lured into a false sense of security when it comes to reading. All the information is right in front of you—you can go back to the passage, read it over and over again.

Listening and Speaking, on the other hand, sound much more intimidating. The Writing section sounds even scarier because you will have to take your ideas and put them down on paper. Make up an essay on the spot? Whaaat?

How hard can reading be?

Well, truth be told, the reading section of the TOEFL has some of the trickiest questions you will ever see on a test. You will not pass the section with flying colors (an outstanding score) if you do not prepare well for it.

The Reading section is worth just as many points as the other sections (30 points, to be exact). If you find yourself struggling with writing or listening, you should use Reading as an opportunity to score a very high grade and make your exam results even better.

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. If you are sweating and stressing out right at the very beginning, it will be difficult to regroup and refocus to do better on other sections.

5 TOEFL Reading Tips and Test-taking Strategies for Total Success

“Okay,” you may say, “I get it, I get it! Studying for the reading section of TOEFL is vital. But how does one do it?”

Glad you asked!

There are multiple study strategies and areas of improvement that you may consider to get a higher score on the reading section of the test.

5 TOEFL Reading Tips and Test-taking Strategies for Total Success
5 TOEFL Reading Tips and Test-taking Strategies for Total Success

1. Improve Your Reading Speed

Time is of the essence when it comes to the TOEFL. In fact, all other things being equal, good timing and the ability to pace yourself can make or break your TOEFL score.

In other sections, time is specifically called out. For example, when you are speaking, you will have 15 seconds to prepare an answer and 45 seconds to record it. In the Listening section, you can only hear the dialogue when it is played out to you.

The Reading section is where a sense of time and pace will need to come from you and you alone. You need to judge how much time you have left to complete the readings and give your answers.

This is trickier than it seems, because you will be faced by not one difficult-to-understand text, but several (three or four).

The Reading section 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.

If you want to have more time to answer the questions, you will need read each passage in just 3 or 4 minutes—and you’re probably going to want to read each passage more than once. That’s tough!

To succeed, you’ll need 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. You will likely notice that you slow down when your level of comprehension drops down, and that’s normal! When you understand less, you need to slow down and read more carefully.

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.

Apart from studying TOEFL-style academic passages, be sure to read other English language material as well. Read English literature, newspapers and magazines—reading a variety of English writing styles will help improve your reading speed.

2. Work on Your Comprehension Speed

Once you have worked on your reading speed and are comfortable gulping down a complex English passage in less time (in under 4 minutes, to be precise), you are ready for the next step.

Now you need to teach yourself to remain calm and avoid stressing out when you encounter an unfamiliar word. The reading section will be full of challenging words you have not seen before. They put in challenging words that you probably do not know on purpose. 

The reading section will ask you to deduce meaning and infer informationfrom 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. Not knowing a word is not only normal, but it is expected from speakers of English as a foreign language.

When you stumble across a word you do not understand, your first reaction might be to check Google Translate or consult a dictionary. When these tools are not available, you may panic and get hung up on trying to understand the word, wasting time that is extremely valuable for you during the TOEFL.

Well, relax.

Force 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. Cool, right?

3. Learn Specific Vocabulary

Even though you will encounter unknown words, developing a nice and wide vocabulary never hurt anyone. When you study for the Reading section of the TOEFL, whether you are at home or in class, go ahead and look up words you don’t understand!

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 which translates words from English to your native language. Don’t give in!

The English-to-English dictionary will be very helpful to you. Not only will you read a clear English explanation for the word you do not understand, you will also familiarize yourself with synonyms (similar words) and antonyms (opposite words). Hint, hint! This is hugely useful and very much applicable to TOEFL.

Your vocabulary will grow and so will your confidence. By the time you get to your test day, you will have a much larger English vocabulary to help you out.

4. 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 key words in sentences, leave unfamiliar terms behind and keep in mind that TOEFL passages may contain words that even native speakers don’t typically know.

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.

5. Use the Line Numbering

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—you might be surprised by how much time you can actually waste looking for line 29 or 47!

That being said, 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!