1. Information about Rhetorical Purpose Questions

TOEFL Reading Rhetorical Purpose questions ask the test taker to explain the motivation of the author of a passage. They ask why an idea, detail, or argument was included in the reading passage. Everything included in a passage has a reason to be there if the writing is effective.

Rhetorical Purpose questions may ask about logical connections between certain sentences or paragraphs. They are often easy to spot because they will contain the word “why”, but that isn’t always the case. Common ways to write such questions are as follows:

  • Why does the author mention X in paragraph 1?
  • The author begins paragraph 2 with X in order to …
  • The author uses X as an example of …
  • In paragraph 2, the author’s primary purpose is to …

2. TOEFL Reading Rhetorical Purpose Question Example

Here is an excerpt from a passage and its Negative Factual Information question:

“Both chemicals and drugs can cause sudden and dramatic changes in gene expression, but the two most influential factors in most cases are diet and stress. The amount of calories that a person consumes and the quality of the nutrition that their food contains have significant and obvious effects on that person’s development and health, but they can also affect future generations. In 1944, the Netherlands experienced a serious famine due to ongoing war that affected around 4.5 million people. People who were accustomed to a normal and healthy intake of around 2,000 calories per day were limited to one quarter that amount. Women who were pregnant during the famine unsurprisingly had babies who had  much lower than average birth weights. Those children enjoyed a normal diet, but when women from that generation had their own children, their babies also had abnormally low birth weights. In addition, women born during the famine had double the average incidence of schizophrenia.”

  1. Why does the author mention “the Netherlands” in paragraph 3?

(A) To illustrate how regional diets can affect people’s development

(B) To introduce theories about the importance of diet for epigenetics

(C) To provide an example of epigenetic changes caused by diet

(D) To show where an experiment involving diet was carried out


The correct answer is (C). The point of the passage is to explain how stressors like diet can cause epigenetic changes. (A) is incorrect because the author is not discussing regional diets, rather, he is talking about a famine. (B) is wrong because the author does not discuss any theories in the paragraph. (D) is wrong because the paragraph does not describe an experiment.

3. Notes from the Test Developer

Rhetorical Purpose questions are common and there is usually 1 or 2 per passage. These questions are similar to inference questions because they ask for information that was not directly stated in the passage. However, one must use the information that is presented in order to choose the correct answer. The distractors will include details from the passage, but they will incorrectly describe them or cite incorrect motivation to include that information. They may also make illogical claims about the information.

I try to make all of the claims sound plausible so test takers have to carefully examine each answer choice in order to answer the question. I avoid using too much information that is not presented in the passage to make the wrong answers less obvious. In the example, all of the choices mention “diet,” which is the focus of the paragraph, but only one correctly connects that detail to “the Netherlands.”

4. Advice to Test Takers

I would advise test takers to do a few things when they need to solve a Rhetorical Purpose question. First, keep in mind that you are being asked why the author included information in the passage. While it is possible that the author had multiple reasons to include that information, only one answer choice will be correct. Second, all of the answer choices may contain correct details from the passage, but the distractors will make false connections about the information that they contain.

You should read the passage and each answer choice carefully to see whether the assertions that they make are true or false. Finally, you have limited time, and the distractors are meant to seem plausible, 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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