Jane Birkenhead, November 25 2022

TOEFL Reading: Are you Practicing the Right Way?

Many students claim that TOEFL reading passages have got more difficult. Students who took the exam even a couple of years ago say that reading passages were easier then. 

So what's going on? Why do so many students think that TOEFL reading is much harder now?

I think it's unlikely that the difficulty should have increased so much. TOEFL is an English proficiency exam and lots of research is done to ensure that the standard remains the same over the years. I think there could be other factors involved. One could be that even if the reading section isn't any harder, it may seem like it is, because the complexity of passages has increased and that denser language is being used. 

So how can you overcome these challenges for TOEFL reading and get your target scores? 

First, we need to understand what actually happens when you read.

Reading Uses a Combination of Skills 

Reading is a skill and, just like any skill, you need to practice to become proficient. Reading for TOEFL uses a combination of skills.

Think about something you're really good at. Perhaps you play a musical instrument or a sport, or maybe there's a complicated procedure you do at work. Now think about how many hours of practice it took for you to become that good. Remember the times when you got it wrong and began again, the number of repetitions, the frustration and the practice until you got it just right. Reading, and indeed any language skill, is just like that. You have to practice a lot to become good.

But, practice does NOT mean racing through hundreds of past questions and hoping that will lead to achieving your target score. It doesn't work like that. Being proficient in TOEFL reading requires a combination of skills. 

To do well in TOEFL reading, you need to be able to:

You need to practice these different skills separately BEFORE you start thinking about using reading strategies. Many resources focus on reading strategies for specific questions, but unless you understand the reading passage's content, then these strategies are useless.

It's much better to practice these different skills and improve your reading comprehension. If you have a good reading proficiency then the strategies will be more useful to you. If your comprehension is really good, you won't need strategies at all.

These are my recommendations to help you become better at TOEFL reading.

1. Practice Reading - Read Anything and Everything

If you only ever read instant messages or Instagram posts, and then you jump into reading long academic reading passages, it's like trying to run a 100m sprint without warming up first. You'll find it very difficult. It's important to practice and build up your stamina.

So, my first recommendation is to read. And I mean read anything and everything, not just TOEFL passages.

Find something you are interested in and read about that. Get used to reading as part of your daily routine. There are hundreds of ideas for things you can read, and you have the whole Internet at your disposal, so take advantage of it.

Read in your own language as well as in English. Both will help you to practice the different reading skills you need for TOEFL. As you read more, the following things will happen:

All these skills will help you to understand TOEFL reading passages better. And when your understanding improves, your ability to answer questions correctly will improve.

2. Understand Complex Grammar

Academic language (like the language used in TOEFL reading passages) is formal and uses complex grammatical structures. 

It's important that you are confident using these grammatical structures:

If you're not sure about any of these, or any other English grammar, then investigate. Don't try and carry on without fully understanding as that won't help you to improve.

3. Vocabulary

To really understand fully what you're reading, you need to understand between 95% and 98% of the total words in a passage. That's a lot so anything you can do to increase your vocabulary will help you in TOEFL reading.

Don't just concentrate on learning academic vocabulary. Modern standard English uses a high percentage of frequently occurring words in all communication - including academic reading passages. So make sure you're familiar with the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in English, at least.

Concentrate on really understanding function words like prepositions, determiners and conjunctions. These are like the glue that binds language together and if you have a good understanding of these, then you'll be able to understand subtle differences in meaning between sentences.

I regularly write about how to increase vocabulary for TOEFL, so check out my other posts on this subject if you need more ideas.

4. Timing

Timing in the TOEFL exam is severe, so once you've built up the other skills, you should practice reading passages with strict timing. 

In the exam, you have 54 minutes to read 3 passages and answer 30 questions. That works out at 18 minutes per passage. And the timing is automatic so as soon as the 54 minutes have finished, the exam moves on. When you’ve built up your skills and you’re getting most questions correct, you must practice with exam timing.

Don't do this until you are reaching your target scores WITHOUT a timing restriction. It's a mistake to limit the time until you completely understand what you're reading.

Here's how you can practice for exam timing:

By following these recommendations, you will build the skills you need for TOEFL reading, and be able to tackle any reading passage and confidently answer all the questions.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

Previous Improve your TOEFL and IELTS Vocabulary: Learn Parts of Words
Next 12 Quick Exercises to Kickstart TOEFL Studying