25 Feb 2017

TOEFL Reading In-Depth

TOEFL Reading Questions and Answering

A few weeks back, I wrote a reading overview. This week, I’m going to go a little more in depth into a specific type of question and how to answer it. Why? Because you don’t get any points for reading, you get points for answering (correctly).


To begin with, every passage contains about 4 Vocabulary in context questions. These are great questions for two reasons. The first reason is the TOEFL doesn’t really play around with secondary or tertiary meanings (non-dictionary definitions); they will ask you what a word means and if you know the definition, you know the answer. The exception to this guideline is if the highlighted word is super short (one or two syllables); if the word is short, the TOEFL may be using an alternate definition. On the other hand, if you don’t know the meaning of the word, you don’t have to spend a bunch of time comprehending the passage, you just have to spend time breaking down a sentence, looking for descriptions and transition words. If you’re unlucky and there aren’t any hints in the sentence itself, you’ll have to look at the sentence before and possibly the sentence after in order to piece together the meaning of the word. Still better than reading the whole thing.

Let’s look at a sample sentence:

Rivers that had meandered across the plateau began to run more swiftly and cut deeper courses.

Here is the sample question:

The word meandered in the passage is closest in meaning to

(A) disappeared (B) moved slowly (C) were absorbed (D) were created

So, how do you answer this? If you know the meaning of “meander,” you would know approximately what to look for and would be able to answer this question without reading the sentence. On the other hand, the vast majority of people haven’t encountered the word, so we’ll work through this step by step.

The first step is to mentally cross out the word:

Rivers that had meandered across the plateau began to run more swiftly and cut deeper courses.

The second step is to think about what the topic of the sentence is: Rivers. Thirdly, look at the other verbs in the sentence: run more swiftly, cut deeper courses. So we can look at the sentence and say that rivers run swiftly and cut deeper courses. Fourth, look for transition words: In this sentence, we can see BEGAN. If something or someone begins to do something, it must not have been doing that thing before. So if they began to run more swiftly and cut deeper, before they must not have been swift or deep previously. Fifth, now that we have an idea of what it must be related to, we want to think of a word for not swift or deep. Slow and Shallow? Now that we have an answer in mind, the sixth step is go to the answer choices and look for which one is closest to Slow and Shallow: Answer Choice B! It’s like magic! Except really stupid magic, not a great card trick to impress your friends.

Let’s try another one:

These waterways allowed pioneers to explore the continent and to tap its great wealth.

The word tap in the passage is closest in meaning to :

(A) make contact (B) evaluate (C) use (D) contribute to

1: These waterways allowed pioneers to explore the continent and to tap its great wealth.

2: Topic: Pioneers, waterways, continent

3: Verbs: allow, explore

4: Transition: AND its great wealth

5: (This one’s a little tricky, in that we have to think of what verb we can use with wealth). It’s got to match “explore” and it has to refer to wealth. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I’ve got an idea.

6:Look at the answers:

A) Make contact? They are already exploring, so they’ve already made contact

B) Evaluate? That’s a neutral word, and not something that really fits with explore

C) Use? Maybe. Using wealth is a good thing, it matches with explore…

D) Contribute to? Nope, no explorer wants to contribute to wealth, they want to get wealthy.

So, our best answer for this is C. Funnily enough, to “tap” can mean to touch softly (make contact with) or to make use of (tap into).