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How to Improve My Reading for the TOEFL Test

by Nadine Smith, studioD

The reading section of the TOEFL exam tests your ability to comprehend academic texts. They may take an objective or argumentative approach to their subject matter. The multiple-choice questions that follow ask the test-taker to identify the text's purpose or thesis, locate main points, paraphrase details, define vocabulary and insert missing sentences. In preparation for this section of the exam, the best way to improve your reading is to practice reading and engaging with relevant texts.

Read Relevant Texts

TOEFL practice tests show you exactly what to expect on the actual exam. The TOEFL website ETS.org/toefl contains practice reading questions, and the Educational Testing Service along with a host of other educational publishers -- such as Barron's, Kaplan, Cambridge, McGrawHill and the Princeton Review -- offer study guides to the TOEFL test that include practice tests for the reading section. Additionally, reading any kind of academic, scholarly or high-level vocabulary nonfiction texts including newspaper editorials, journal and magazine articles and textbook chapters all help improve your reading comprehension for the TOEFL test.

Skim for Main Ideas

Practicing locating the topic sentence or thesis and main points of each paragraph in an article greatly improves your reading comprehension. Without perusing the article for detail, you can still grasp its gist by identifying its main points. Because the TOEFL reading questions do not ask about every detail in every sentence of the reading prompt, you only need to understand the main ideas and then focus on those sentences or details the questions ask about. This greatly saves you precious time on the test and helps raise your reading confidence: you don't need to understand every single idea in a reading prompt to correctly answer most or even all of the questions.

Summarize Main Ideas

Locating the main ideas without understanding what they actually mean isn't enough, however. The reading section questions may refer to an idea from the text using different words and phrases. Don't expect the questions to copy sentences from the text word-for-word; they are testing you for your comprehension of the text. When studying, whenever you locate a main idea, paraphrase its meaning in your head using your own words. This ensures you actually understand the text and are not just locating ideas based on the structure of the text. Not every text will follow the same structure.

Find Context Clues

Chances are you will come across a word or phrase you don't understand on the TOEFL reading section. Rather than studying as many vocabulary words as possible in the hopes that you will encounter them on the test, practice estimating the meaning of an unknown vocabulary word by considering its context. This means looking at the words that come before and after the unfamiliar word to see if they offer any revealing clues. For example, consider the word "queried" in the sentence, "Surprisingly, the study showed that when children were queried about the pictures, they gave different answers as to the emotions the images provoked in them." When "queried," the children answer. Usually the precursor to an answer is a question, so "query" likely means "question." Thus we have correctly guessed the definition of an unfamiliar word through its context.

About the Author

Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.

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