1. Information about Reference Questions

TOEFL Reading Reference questions are visually similar to Vocabulary questions because they ask you to identify the meaning of a single word or phrase that is highlighted in the passage. However, that word will always be a pronoun or words like this, that, who, or which. Instead of defining the word, the task is to find the word in the passage that the highlighted word refers to. If it is a pronoun, then the correct answer will be the word that the pronoun is replacing.

All four of the answer choices will be present in the text near the selected word. They are usually before it, but some may come after. These kinds of questions are less common than they used to be, and many passages do not include them. They are always written as follows:

The word “X” in the passage refers to …

2. TOEFL Reading Reference Question Example

Here is an excerpt from a passage and its Reference question:

“All environmental factors cause the body physical stress, but they also cause mental stress, which can be equally influential if not more so. Scientific studies with mice have shown that mental stress can cause hormone imbalances that result in epigenetic changes. In one experiment, mice were restrained, which raised their stress levels and triggered higher levels of  N6-methyladenine (6mA) in their brains, which resulted in  epigenetic changes. In another experiment, mice were given water with corticosterone, the mouse equivalent of the human stress hormone cortisol, for four weeks. This put them into a heightened state of stress and caused them to have fewer methyl groups on gene Fkbp5, which increased protein production. The different epigenetic markers lasted for weeks after they stopped receiving corticosterone, which suggests long-term change.”

  1. The word “This” in the passage refers to

(A) experiment

(B) corticosterone

(C) cortisol

(D) stress

Answer Explanation

The correct answer is (B) corticosterone. The sentence is describing the effect that the artificially administered hormone had on mice. The other answer choices all appear in the paragraph, but they are not what directly affected the mice.

3. Notes from the Test Developer

When writing Reference questions, all of the answer choices will be nouns that appeared near the pronoun in the same paragraph. As mentioned above, this type of question is used less often than it used to be. Years ago, most passages had one reference question, but recently they are much rarer.

Sometimes a test will not contain any Reference questions. I can only speculate as to why ETS has lost interest in this type of question, but there are two reasons why I personally do not prefer them. They are actually kind of difficult to write, and they are usually pretty simple to solve. When I do write them, I try to choose a pronoun that has many easily distinguishable nouns around it.

4. Advice to Test Takers

I would advise test takers to do a few things when they need to solve a Reference question.

First, keep in mind that all of the answer choices could be replaced with the pronoun, but the distractors are not connected to it.

Second, if you are unsure which answer is correct, use the process of elimination. Some answer choices may be more obviously wrong than others and easier to rule out. So, look for any answer choices clearly not connected to the question word and rule them out.

Finally, you have limited time, and the words will all appear close to the pronoun, so you may be unable to decide between two answer choices. In that case, guess. Remember that you do not get points deducted for wrong answers in TOEFL. This is true for all questions so if you don’t know the answer or if you don’t have time to actually solve the question, guess.

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