Description of Comprehension Passages

The Reading Comprehension passages have academic content and style and include topics from a variety of fields including arts, sciences, social sciences, etc. These passages are comparable to the texts found in freshman university textbooks in North America. You do not need to have specific knowledge of the topic to answer the comprehension questions. Geographical and historical references made in the test are generally related to the United States and Canada. In each test, there are 5 or 6 comprehension passages with 8-12 questions for each passage. The total number of questions for Reading Comprehension is 50.

Helpful Testing Hints

* More than 50% of the time, the main idea of a passage is stated in the first sentence of the paragraph. Sometimes the main idea or topic sentence comes at the end of the paragraph and, on occasion, anywhere in the paragraph. They may not be stated at all, but simply implied. Make a habit of reading the opening and closing statement of each paragraph. The most effective way to answer the main idea question is to ask yourself what the whole passage is about, not just a portion of it. The answers that cover specific details are either too narrow or too broad. The correct answer is usually a restatement of what is said in the whole passage; therefore, the options that have the same words from the reading are almost always incorrect.

Main Idea Questions

What is the main purpose of the passage?
What does the passage mainly discuss?
With what topic is the passage mainly concerned?
Which of the following does the passage mainly discuss?

* Pay attention to signal words and phrases. They help you understand the relationship between the ideas within a paragraph(s).

Cause-and-effect words -- as a result, therefore
Time words -- meanwhile, before
Contrast words -- in contrast, conversely
Addition words -- also, in addition
Emphasis words -- more important, remember

* Watch for questions that test your knowledge of the relationships between the topic and the supporting ideas. Understand definitions, recognize examples, understand explanations, find similar or unlike characteristics of two things or whatever, learn what produces a result and what its effects are.

* Go over the passages with familiar subjects. Then read the passages whose topics are less familiar.

Description of the types of questions tested in the comprehension passages

* Main idea questions test your understanding of the whole passage rather the individual parts.

* Specific detail questions are based on the supports presented in the reading. Scan the passage to spot the key words for the specific details. Some specific detail questions are negative and are singled by the words NOT, EXCEPT, MOST ,and LEAST.  If you cannot find the correct answer for negative specific details, eliminate the choices given in the reading and choose the choice that remains as the correct response.

* Inference questions ask you to draw a logical conclusion from what you read in the passage. The answers to these types of questions are not explicitly stated.

* Language expression questions include pronouns and vocabulary questions.

* Pronoun questions ask you to spot the correct antecedent or noun to which the pronoun refers to. To locate the correct answer to these types of questions,concentrate on the sentence(s) before and a few sentences after the pronoun appears.

* Vocabulary questions ask you the meaning of a word or phrase within the context of the passage.

* Questions about the organization of the passage, the author's point of view, analogy, or the following paragraph are not as common as the other types.


Sample Passage

1. The sugar maple is a hard maple tree. It can grow as tall as 100 feet and as wide as
2. 4 feet. The sugar maple is commercially valued for its sap, which is used in the
3. making of maple syrup. Two northeastern states, Vermont and New York,
4. rank as major producers of maple syrup. In Canada, Quebec's annual syrup
5. production surpasses 2.5 million gallons. To make pure maple syrup, holes are
6. made in the trunk of the tree at the end of the winter or in early spring. The water-
7. like sap seeps through the holes and runs through a plastic spout that is put into
8. the hole. Afterward, the collected sap is transferred into tubes that are hooked up
9. to a tank kept in the sugar house. Then the sap goes through the boiling process.
10. Boiling enhances the flavor as well as adding color to the sap. Once the sugar
11. content of the sap is about 65-66%, the sap is ready to be strained and marketed.
12. The maple syrup found in the supermarkets, however, is usually not pure and
13. has other additives. The color of pure maple may range from golden honey to
14. light brown. Between 35 to 50 gallons of sap are needed to produce 1 gallon of
15. maple syrup. Also popular for strength and finish of its wood, the sugar maple tree
16. has been put to use in furniture, interior woodwork, flooring, and crates.


1. What is the main purpose of the passage?

A. To examine the economic viability of a tree
B. To list a number of the major producers of maple syrup
C. To provide information on how maple syrup is made
D. To emphasize the use of the maple lumber in furniture and other products

This is a general inference question. Most of the passage explains the technique used for making maple syrup. The best answer is (C). The choice (A) is inaccurate. The choices (B) and (D) are both specific details but not the main idea of the passage.

2. For which of the following words does the author provide a definition?

A. The sugar maple (line 1)
B. A tank (line 9)
C. Additives (line 13)
D. Furniture (line 16)

This specific detail question tests your understanding of a definition. Only the sugar maple (line 1) is defined. The choices (B), (C), and (D), even though mentioned in the passage, are not defined.

3. According to the passage, which of the following periods is ideal for sapping?

A. Late January through April
B. May to late July
C. August to early October
D. Early November to late December

This is a specific detail question. Based on the information in the passage, sapping takes place at the end of the winter and in early spring. Therefore, (A) is the best answer.

4. Where in the passage does the author first mentions the consistency of the sap?

A. Lines 6-8
B. Line 9
C. Lines 10-11
D. Lines 14-15

This specific detail question directs you to the exact line and asks for the first occurrence of the word. These types of questions are relatively easy to locate. The correct response is (A). Pay attention that numbers are always in ascending order.

5. All of the following is true about boiling EXCEPT

A. It enhances the color.
B. It improves the flavor.
C. It increases the sugar content.
D. It reduces the shelf life of the syrup.

This specific detail question is negative. In order to answer it correctly, eliminate all the choices A, B, and C that are used in the paragraph; therefore, (D) is the correct choice.

6. What can be inferred about the production of maple syrup?

A. It is rather simple, but time-consuming.
B. It is labor intensive.
C. Its processing demands complicated equipment.
D. The higher the volume, the less predictable the quality is.

This question tests your inference ability. The answer to the question is not directly stated in the passage. (A) is the best answer. The production technique is quite straightforward, but it takes time. The producers have to depend on the natural flow of the sap.

7. In line 11, the phrase "to be strained" could best be replaced by

A. To be tried
B. To be purified
C. To be filtered
D. To be solidified

This is a language expression question. The question is based on the closest synonym for the phrase "to be strained." Even though all the choices are grammatically sound, (C) is the most logical choice according to the context.

8. In lines 13-14, what is the author's purpose in mentioning "golden honey to light brown"?

A. To provide a visual description
B. To make the reading more technical
C. To illustrate the difference in quality
D. To persuade the reader to buy the product

This inference question asks the author's purpose. The passage is non-technical; therefore, the choice (B) is inaccurate. The choice (C ) is incorrect because the difference in quality is not a concern of the passage. The choice (D) is incorrect considering the author is not persuading the reader to buy any specific product. Therefore, the best choice is (A).

9. The word "its" in line 15 refers to

(A) Sap
(B) Maple syrup
(C) Color
(D) The sugar maple tree

This is a language expression question as well. This type of question always gives you the line number, so it is easy to locate. The correct answer is based on the antecedent, the noun to which the pronoun refers. Reading the sentence, we notice that "its" is a possessive pronoun which refers to the noun phrase, the sugar maple tree; therefore, (D) is the correct choice.

10. The relationship between the wood and the maple tree is similar to the relationship between

(A) a vase and a bouquet of flowers
(B) a painter and a canvas
(C) a novel and a writer
(D) an inlet and a sea

This analogy question tests your understanding of the relationship between the ideas. These types of questions need attention. The analogy here is the relationship between a part and a whole. The choice (A) shows the relationship between cut flowers and a vase. The choice (B) shows the relationship between the performer and the tool. (C) is incorrect because it indicates the relationship between a creator (writer) and the work created (novel). (D) is the correct choice. The relationship between an inlet (a part) and a sea (a whole) is similar to the relationship between the wood (a part) and the maple tree (a whole).

11. Which of the following would best describe the organization of the passage?

(A) A persuasive argument in favor of the maple syrup industry is advanced.
(B) A comparison and contrast between pure and commercial maple syrup is made.
(C) A cause and effect analysis of the maple syrup production is presented.
(D) A step-by-step explanation of how maple syrup is made is given.

This question tests your understanding of how the author organizes the information in the passage. Most of the passage explains a step-by-step process of how maple syrup is made; thus, the correct choice is (D). The author does not attempt to convince the reader; consequently, the choice (A) is not true. The passage neither expresses the causes of the maple syrup production nor lists the similarities between pure and commercial maple syrup; therefore, the choices (B) and (C) are incorrect.

12. The following paragraph will probably discuss

(A) Ways to eradicate diseases attacking maple trees
(B) Other uses of the sugar maple tree
(C) Marketing plans for import distribution
(D) The diversity of the ecosystem

This is an inference question. Based on the conclusion we can draw from the passage, the correct choice is (B). Since the sugar maple tree's popularity for strength and finish of its wood is mentioned at the end of the passage, it makes sense to know something about its other uses. The choices (A), (C), and (D) can not be inferred from the passage.


The new test of TOEFL starting July 1995 will have:

* At least two or three vocabulary or phrase questions. These questions are based on the meaning of the vocabulary or the phrase within the context of the passage. Sometimes these questions test your understanding of the meaning of a complicated sentence or an important comment or idea expressed in a paragraph.

* More pronoun and antecedent questions.

* More detailed questions about the methods of development in the passage. These questions test your understanding of definitions and explanations presented for a term or a word in the passage. Sometimes the specific lines on which the definitions and explanations appear are mentioned.


Effective Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

* If you do not know the meaning of a given word, the prefix and suffix information can help you unlock its meaning. Study the common prefix list to increase your knowledge of a word. To illustrate, "nourished" means having proper nourishment. "Malnourished " means improper nourishment. The prefix "mal" means bad or improper.  In addition, learning common suffixes can be an extremely helpful tool for the acquisition of new words. For instance, suffixes can help you with the understanding of different parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. If you add the suffix "ment" to the verb develop, the new word development is a noun. Further, if you decide to add the suffix "al" to the noun development, the new word developmental is an adjective.

* The best way to increase your vocabulary is to study 15-20 new words a day. Write the new word and its pronunciation on the front of a three by five inch index card; on the back, write the definition of the word and the sentence in which you saw the word.   Keep reviewing your index card pile and adding new vocabulary. Before long, you will have a rich assortment of words.

How to Tackle the Vocabulary

* Be careful with word choice that has the prefix clue, which can be a distractor rather than the correct response. The prefix "ex" means "out," but the word "extension " is not a synonym for "exterior."

The exterior of modern churches lacks typical Gothic architectural features.

(A) Appearance
(B) Outside
(C) Extension
(D) Facade

The correct choice is (B).

* Do not study unusual or technical words related to specific fields of study such as chemistry, biology, geology, and physics. The vocabulary in the Reading Comprehension section includes only general words that have synonyms. Definitions of minerals, animals, planets, chemicals, plants, etc. are not tested. Other types of words labeled as Slang, Informal, Nonstandard, Rare, Vulgar, Poetic, and Archaic are not tested.

Helpful Testing Hints

* Use context clue to guess the meaning of the words or phrases tested in the reading comprehension passages.

* From the four answer choices given, choose the word or the phrase that is closest in meaning, or is a synonym, to the vocabulary or the phrase. Some of the choices might have similar meanings, but only one will be the most appropriate meaning within the context.

* The vocabulary items vary in degree of difficulty. While some may be easy, others may be semi-difficult or difficult. Study all three types of vocabulary.

* Nouns and adjectives as well as verbs and adverbs are tested in the vocabulary section. The ratio varies from test to test. Some vocabulary items are two-or three-word phrasal (for example, get into , look over , count on ).

* The words tested on TOEFL are similar to those used in college-level textbooks.

* If you do not know the meaning of a word or a phrase, read the entire sentence because the sentence may provide additional clues. The sentences used before or after the sentence in which the word or phrase appears often supply clues to the meaning of the word or phrase. The following example shows this point.

Although mint hybrids are infertile, true mints can be propagated from seeds.

(A) Reproduced
(B) Selected
(C) Planted
(D) Derived

Pay attention to the context clue and construction of this sentence. The information in the dependent clause is in contrast with the information in the independent clause. The word infertile means barren, something that can not reproduce, while the word propagate means reproduce; therefore, the correct response is (A).

* DO NOT be tricked into choosing the correct answer on the basis of its grammatical form.  All the possible answers have the same grammatical form. For instance, if the vocabulary is a phrasal, all the answers will be phrasal, but the correct answer does not necessarily have the same preposition. Look at the example.

Coral, a gem stone, is related to living plants.

(A) Compatible with
(B) Partial to
(C) Accompanied by
(D) Associated with

The correct response is (D). Even though (B) has the same preposition, it is not the correct answer. Associated with is the appropriate synonym for related to.

* If you do not know the answer, guess. You will not lose any points for guessing.


A prefix by definition is a word part that comes at the beginning of a word and changes its meaning. For instance, if the prefix dis is added to agree, the new word is disagree, which is the opposite of agree. Most prefixes are of Greek or Latin origin. Since almost 50 percent of the vocabulary items tested on TOEFL have Latin origin, it is important to know the prefixes and their meanings to help you understand the meaning of unfamiliar words.


Prefix Meaning Example
a-, an- without, not asexual, anonymous
ad- toward admission
ambi- both ambiguous
amphi- both amphibian
ann- year anniversary
ante before antecedent
anti- before, opposite anticipate, antipathy
auto- self autograph
bene- good benefactor
bi- two bicentennial
bio- life biodegradable
cent- hundred century
circum- around circumvent
com-, col- with, together complex, collaborate
con-, cor- with, together contract, correspond
contra- against contradiction
counter- opposite direction counteract
de- down, away decompose
dec- ten decade
di-, dif- away, apart diverge, differ
dis- not disapprove
e- out emerge
es-, ex- out escape, exterior
eu- good, well euthanasia
extra- beyond extraordinary
extro- outward, beyond extrovert
hyper beyond, over hypertension
il-, ir- not illiterate, irreversible
in into, not incline, incorrect
inter- between, among international
im- into, in import
pan- all panoramic
per- through permeate
phil- love philanthropist
post- behind postscript, posterior
pre- before precede
pro- forward, in favor of promotion, prolife
macro- large macrobiotic
micro- small microcomputer
mis- wrong, bad misplace
multi- many multicolored
non- not, without nonstop
re- again, back review, recall
semi- half semimonthly
sub- under subside
syn-, sym- with, together syntax, sympathy
tele- far televise
trans- across transparent
tri- three triangle
ultra- beyond, over ultramodern
un- reverse, not unload, unable
uni- one, single union, unisex