TOEFL Reading Question Types & Strategies

November 28, 2019 - Beck Piper

Interested in improving your TOEFL Reading skills?

This post will help you to understand the question types you will encounter and the strategies you should use to ace this section of the test!


The TOEFL Reading section consists of 30 multiple choice questions to be answered within a time limit of 54 minutes. You can take the computer-based or paper-based TOEFL Test.

The Reading section evaluates your skills in understanding tertiary-level academic texts. The reading passages are taken from university course books on a variety of subjects.

Three passages are used, with ten questions per passage. There are three main types of questions you will encounter.

The first is multiple choice with four options and a single correct answer.

The second is “insert a sentence” into one of four places in a text. There is only one correct placement.

The final question type is “reading to learn” questions, where you have to choose from more than four options and there will be more than one correct answer.

You can find out more about the TOEFL test format by watching this TOEFL webinar recording.

Now let’s look at question types and strategies…

Question Types and Strategies

Let’s talk about general strategies and skills. As this is a test of your ability to understand university level texts, you need to have a wide academic vocabulary. You should prioritise learning words from the academic wordlist, as the better your vocabulary is, the easier you will find it to do well in the test. This academic language will not only help you in the reading section, but also for Listening and Writing.

Be aware that the phrasing of the key words in the question and answer options may be different to the words used in the reading passage. This is testing your ability to identify the same ideas that are expressed through synonym and paraphrase.

In addition, you should watch out for distractors, answers that appear to be correct but in fact are not. It is also important to only use evidence that you read in the passages, and not from imagination or previous knowledge. Another skill that is essential to learn is to deduce meaning from context. It is likely that you will encounter words that are unfamiliar, so it’s important to be able to make an educated guess as to the meaning of the unknown word.

Reading techniques such as skimming, scanning and intensive reading are invaluable in the Reading section. Skimming is intentional speed reading, moving quickly over the text to understand the main point of a paragraph and to notice changes in direction or argument. Scanning is the ability to locate specific information, and intensive reading is careful reading to understand the detail of a sentence or passage.

Elimination of incorrect answers is also a technique that can be used to find the correct answer. If you know that answer options A and D are incorrect, that will leave you with two choices. You can then concentrate on which one is more likely by looking at the evidence within the passage.

List of question types in more detail:

Vocabulary: In Context

You will see a short passage with a word selected. You must choose from four options the one that is closest in meaning.

Tip: Try to understand the context (the situation) and deduce the meaning of the selected word if you are not familiar with it. Then choose the most likely answer from the options.

Vocabulary: Referent

Reference questions focus on a word (usually a pronoun) within a short passage of text. You need to choose from four options what the word is referring to. For example, we might use the pronoun “it” or “them” or “this” to replace a noun or a noun phrase. This tests your ability to follow an idea through a short passage.


Look at the grammar of the word – is it singular or plural? If it’s singular you will be looking for a single concept or a person, if it’s plural the original idea must also be plural. Look in the previous sentences – you may need to look all the way back to the first line of the passage. Remember: a single concept might be contained within a lengthy noun phrase.


This question type asks you to identify explicitly stated specific information in a short passage. This question type will not ask about general themes but rather facts which are included in the passage. You have four possible answers and must select one.

Tip: Identify key words in the question to enable you to locate the correct part of the text to find the answer.

Detail - “Not”/”Except”

This question type includes the word “except” or “not” in the stem. The task is to select which of the four answer options is not mentioned in the text.

Tip: when looking through the answer options, which one do you not recall reading information on?

Author’s Meaning - Paraphrasing

If you encounter this question type, you will see an entire sentence highlighted in the short passage of text. You must choose from the four answer options the one that is closest in meaning to the highlighted sentence.

Tip: Your ability to identify similar ideas will be useful here, and the wider your vocabulary, the better you will be able to tackle this question type.

Author’s Meaning - Function

In this question type, you are asked to identify the purpose of a writer in including a detail, concept or argument in a text. There are four answer options, from which you must choose one.

Tip: Try to eliminate options which you are sure are incorrect, then choose the correct answer from the remaining choices.

Get started on some TOEFL Reading practice now, and take our free TOEFL practice test


The definition of “inference” is a conclusion which is based on evidence and reasoning. An inference question does not ask you to locate specific information, but rather to deduce what the writer is suggesting in a short passage of text. Inference questions will always have the verb “infer”, “suggest” or “imply” in the question stem.

Tip: Identify the topic of the question. Locate information in the passage based on that topic. Eliminate any clearly incorrect answers and only select an answer if you find evidence.


In this question type you will be presented with a short text and one additional sentence. Within the text there will be four possible insertion points for the additional sentence. You must choose where it would fit best. This tests your understanding of coherence and cohesion and how a paragraph is structured.

Tip: Identify the most logical place for the sentence to go. Is it an example, or a definition? Does it give the result of something that was mentioned before? Eliminate options that you know are incorrect, and then choose the most likely answer.

Main Idea

For this question type you will be shown a sentence summarising a reading passage. You will have six potential answer options of which you must choose three. The task is to identify which three options paraphrase key ideas in the passage. The three incorrect options will contain inaccuracies or be minor points from the text.

This question is testing your ability to be able to identify similar ideas through knowledge of synonyms and paraphrase, and to identify key ideas in a passage.

The full passage can be viewed by clicking the View Text button at the top of the screen and the question is answered by dragging and dropping selected options from the bottom of the screen onto a section below the summarising sentence. The maximum score for this question type is two points, with a score of one being awarded for two out of three correct answers.

Tip: Read the introductory sentence and the answer options carefully. Scan the reading passage for similar ideas. Reject any answer options that are inaccurate or are minor details. Confirm your remaining choices are all key points in the text.

Table Completion

As the name suggests, this question type asks you to complete a detailed summary of a reading passage. You will see an empty table with two or three section headings. You must drag and drop appropriate choices from the answer options into the relevant place in the table. There will be either five or seven correct options and two options that are not required. A table with five correct answers is worth three points and a table of seven correct options is worth four points. The number of points awarded decreases with incorrect answers, and you would need to answer 60% correctly in order to score one point.

To do well on this question type, you must be able to identify the key ideas under each section heading from the full reading text. It tests your ability to differentiate between main concepts and minor details, and to identify cause-effect and contrasting relationships between points.

Tip: Study the section headings carefully. Scan in the text for synonyms or paraphrases of each section heading. When you reach the relevant part, read carefully and check back against the answer options. Reject any that are not relevant or not key points. Choose the correct answers based on the key points you find in the text. Remember the language used might not be the same but it will convey the same idea.

Hope this helps you to take on the TOEFL Reading section with confidence! Best of luck!