TOEFL iBT’s “deadly” reading section

Jaime Miller TOEFL: Advice for Studying 0 Comments

The challenge:

“Jaime,” my student said to me. “I didn’t have time to answer the last reading passage. I only had 10 minutes, so I just guessed.”

Another student wrote to me after her exam and said: “The reading section was something. Everyone said that it was terrible! All 3 passages contained huge amount of long and specific words meaning of which is still unknown to me. I’ve never seen that difficult passages.”

Yes my friends, this is the TOEFL reading section. In November 2011, ETS changed the TOEFL reading section so that test-takers (you!) have one, big chunk of time. In 60 minutes you have to answer questions for 3 separate reading passages; or in 80 minutes you have to answer questions for 4 passages.

So in theory, you have 20 minutes per reading passage, right? Right but… only if you can keep watching the clock to manage your own time and get through everything.

The new difficulty is that YOU decide when to move to the next passage. On the old TOEFL (pre-November 2011), 20 minutes ended and then you had to start the next passage’s questions. But now, you can spend 25 or 30 minutes on one reading passage. You can agonize [which means “think endlessly”] about what the word “desertification” means. And if you’re like my student, this means that you have less time for the last passage.

The solution:

To get more comfortable and fast with academic (TOEFL!) English, you need to do daily DIGITAL reading practice. Now, I’m not talking about magazine English or watching fun videos on YouTube with English subtitles. I’m talking about some focused topics with new words, complex sentence structure and comprehension questions.

These topics are generally pretty boring. Let’s face it, most of the TOEFL passages are about the weather or animals or solar systems or water — things that are probably NOT your hobby. Unfortunately, to score well on the TOEFL reading section, you need to decide that even if a passage is boring, you still have to read it so that you can get your high score.

Don’t think about being bored by the reading. Think about how you want to get that professional license, or study in another country, or get a promotion at work — these are the reasons you are taking TOEFL, and these are the reasons that you need to remember so that you focus on the reading.

J’s recommendations:

There are a number of ways to get TOEFL reading practice. Here are some of my favorites:

For everyone:

  • I have lots of digital reading practice in my Online TOEFL Workshop — and I discuss reading strategies with my students. Click to learn more about private online TOEFL lessons with me.

For intermediate students:

  • Developing Skills for the TOEFL iBT by Paul Edmunds and Nancy McKinnon. Although the reading practice is pretty good, do NOT buy this book (or the CDs) for the listening practice. The accents in the recording are not authentic and even I have a difficult time understanding the speakers.

For upper-intermediate/advanced students:

  • ETS has an official guide to TOEFL that has 6 pretty challenging reading passages and 2 practice tests. You can find more information on their website. However, they do not discuss reading strategies at all.