As most of you already know, the TOEFL Reading section consists of 3 – 4 passages with 10 questions for each passage. You are given 54 to 72 minutes to answer all the questions, which should be enough… as long as you don’t fall for these common mistakes!

The Reading section in the TOEFL exam causes a lot of headaches for a lot of people. As reading is supposed to be what people are most confident in, it can be frustrating when the test questions you face are much more difficult than expected.

To solve this I’ve written this guide on 3 most common TOEFL Reading mistakes that test takers make. To do this I collected the tips and tricks from our internal team of professional TOEFL educators to provide you the best information.

So let’s begin!

1. Reading the Entire Passage

The natural urge for most test takers is to read the entire passage first and then answer the questions one by one. While this seems the most logical, it is actually the wrong way to approach the Reading section because of two main reasons both related to time.

  • You don’t need to read the whole passage to answer the questions
  • You will have to come back and read the passage anyway to answer most of the questions

Most questions are related to only specific parts of the passage so you should never read the passage first but instead read the question first and then read only the related sentences. ETS will highlight the word or sentence in the passage for you in grey as shown above. The question will also say which paragraph it is talking about — for example, “in paragraph 5”. By doing this you should only have to read 1-5 sentences for each question. This will save you valuable time to actually spend thinking carefully about the answer instead of trying to understand the entire passage.

One thing to be careful of is reading only the specific sentence the question is asking about. Some questions require a bit more context to fully grasp the meaning of the sentence so it is necessary to read the previous and following sentences. This can also be helpful if you are not sure of some of the vocabulary in the sentences as it gives you more clues to figure out what some of those hard words mean.

2. Missing Keywords

When you are low on time or feeling nervous, it’s easy to miss some keywords in the question or the sentence. These few keywords can completely change the meaning of the sentence so they are very easy to miss but have big consequences.
Some common keywords that people miss are “negative” words such as NOT or EXCEPT. For example, you might find questions like these:

  • “According to the paragraph, all of the following qualify as migration EXCEPT.”
  • “According to the paragraph, which of the following is NOT mentioned.”

These questions can try to trick you by also including answers that would be correct without the negative words so you really need to be careful!

3. Misunderstanding the Passage

This is probably the biggest factor in determining the TOEFL Reading score that you get as the test is designed to test your ability to understand the passage. There are many reasons why misunderstandings can arise:

  • Not knowing or misunderstanding vocabulary words
  • Misunderstanding what the pronouns are referring to
  • Losing the meaning of the sentence in complex sentence structures

The best practice for avoiding these issues is to read as often as possible while looking up the meaning of the sentences when you are not sure. Regularly read books or news articles instead of getting most of your reading from social media (Facebook is full of mistakes). For this, dictionaries can help with vocabulary but I recommend using Google translate to make sure you get the idea of the sentence correct. This isn’t a perfect method as translations can be wrong or misleading but it will still help build up your understanding of sentences you may not be familiar with.

Even after you have memorized thousands of vocabulary words, you may still face an unknown word on the test. Don’t panic! Most of the time, you can understand the word using the sentence as context to give you hints on what it could mean. Native English speakers do this as well since they don’t always know the meaning of every word in the English language. It’s not a guaranteed solution but it’s better than simply stressing out during the test and wasting time.


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