What's Tested on the TOEFL Reading Section

Reading is the first section of the TOEFL iBT. In this section, reading passages appear on the right side of the divided computer screen, and questions appear on the left side. Because the passages are long, it is necessary to scroll up and down to read an entire passage. You can scroll up and down by using the arrows and tab next to the passage. This function is similar to the scroll option that comes with Microsoft Word.

When the Reading section begins, you will see the instructions right away, not the first question. You should have already studied the functionality of the Reading section, so you should skip the instructions by clicking the Next button. This button brings up the first reading passage. The first question for a passage appears with the passage. In the Reading section, you can move forward through questions by clicking the Next button at the top of the screen, and move back to previous questions by clicking the Back button at the top of the screen.

The TOEFL iBT Reading section includes a Review function. Clicking the Review button at the top of the screen takes you to a Review screen where you can see all the questions in the section and their status—answered, not answered, not yet seen. The Reading section also has a Glossary feature. A word highlighted in blue in a passage indicates that a definition is available for the word. Clicking on the word brings up this definition. A Help button in all sections takes you to a list of topics for which helpful explanations are available.

NEWS: TOEFL iBT® Enhancements Launching July 2023 

ETS has announced a series of TOEFL iBT enhancements debuting July 26, 2023. As of this date, the test will be shortened from three hours to less than two hours. 

Changes to the shortened TOEFL iBT exam include:

  • Streamlined instructions and navigation throughout the test
  • A new “Writing for an Academic Discussion” task, which will replace the previous Independent Writing task
  • A shorter Reading section
  • A shorter Listening Section
  • The removal of all unscored test questions

A simplified registration process for the TOEFL iBT will go into effect in July 2023, making it easier to register for a test date. Increased score transparency will also begin at this time, allowing test-takers to see their official score release date upon completion of the test as well as receive real-time notification of changes to their score status. 

The TOEFL score scale will remain the same despite these changes.

Reading Passages

This section measures the ability to read, understand, and analyze short passages similar in topic and style to those that North American college and university students encounter in their courses. It contains three to five reading passages.

Each passage is roughly 675 to 725 words in length. Passages generally follow the typical American English organizational structure—a one-paragraph introduction, which includes a thesis statement, body paragraphs that develop the most important points as expressed in the thesis statement, and a one-paragraph conclusion that summarizes. Some passages may vary from this structure, for example, by containing an introduction that spreads over more than one paragraph.

Reading Questions

There are 9 different types of TOEFL iBT Reading section questions. They can be divided into three general categories, according to what each is testing: (1) understanding of language use, (2) basic comprehension, and (3) the ability to read to learn.

Language-use questions test understanding of how language is used to express meanings and of how to determine these meanings while reading. For example, one type of language use question tests understanding of the meaning of a word. Basic comprehension questions test understanding of details presented in a passage, general understanding of the main idea of a passage, and the ability to make inferences based on information in a passage. Reading-to-learn questions test the ability to analyze and synthesize information while reading; in other words, they test the ability to learn while reading. For example, one of these questions tests the ability to summarize the most important points of a reading passage.

Following is an overview of the question types you will find in the Reading section of TOEFL iBT. The number of each question type per passage is a range since the exact number of each on the actual test may vary. Also, remember that the number of reading passages can vary from three to four per test.

Question CategoryQuestion Types and Number per Passage
Language Use: These questions generally come first for each passage, and they constitute about half of the total Reading section questions.Vocabulary: 3 to 7 per passage; Author’s Meaning: 0 to 3 per passage; Organization: 0 to 1 per passage
Basic Comprehension: These questions constitute roughly a third of the total Reading section questions.Detail: 3 to 6 per passage; NOT/EXCEPT (Negative facts): 0 to 2 per passage; Inference: 0 to 2 per passage
Reading to Learn: These questions generally fall at the end of the set for a passage. Drag ‘n Drop table completion: 0 to 1 per passage; Drag ‘n Drop summary: 0 to 1 per passage

Whenever a question refers to a specific word or sentence in the passage, the word or sentence is highlighted. You do not need to search for it. Also, many detail questions on the TOEFL iBT identify the particular paragraph in which the answer can be found, so you do not need to scan the passage in order to find the relevant information in the passage for a detail question.

All Reading section questions are four-option multiple-choice, with the exception of Drag ‘n Drop table completion and Drag ‘n Drop summary. As the names suggest, you must drag answer choices with your mouse and drop them into the appropriate place in a chart. These two question types are also different from the others because they are each worth more than one point; each question can be worth 2 or 4 points. A note appears with these questions telling you their point value. On the actual TOEFL, the multiple-choice answers are not letters (A), (B), (C), (D), as you may have seen on other exams. Beside each choice is an empty circle; you select an answer by clicking on the circle with your mouse and darkening the circle.