11 tips for improving your TOEFL® Reading score

The scoring on the TOEFL reading section is relatively cut and dry. Like the listening section, there is one correct answer. The computer doesn’t have to interpret how well you answered the question. Either you get it right, or you don’t. 

You may have already taken the test and want to improve your reading score, or you may have just taken a practice test and want to hone your skills before taking the actual test. You may even be looking for tips to help you as you begin to study. If any of these apply to you, this post is for you!

Before we get started, if you are interested in improving your scores in other areas, check out my posts on getting better listeningwriting, and speaking scores.


If you have read my other posts on how to improve your scores on the various sections, you will probably be tired of seeing me harp on this point. But, I repeat – it is the most important thing to consider when you are studying English, or learning anything new, for that matter. Let’s illustrate this with an example.

Imagine for a second that you have your dream car in your garage. It is the model you want, the color you want, and the keys are sitting in the ignition. You quickly get into the driver’s seat and turn the key while you feel your heart beating in anticipation, and… nothing happens—no sound whatsoever. You try again, but still nothing.

You reach underneath the steering wheel to locate the lever to open the hood (or “bonnet,” if you prefer UK English). You finally manage to find it and step out of the car. You walk round to the front and slide your fingers between the hood and the grill, and at last, you find the release catch.

What is your deepest “why”? Keep asking yourself “why” until your answer is “because that’s what gives me joy; that’s what I want!” 

After you have opened the hood, you immediately notice that something is very off. Then it hits you – there is no engine! You stand there just thinking how ironic the situation is: you have your dream car, but you will not be able to drive it.

Motivation is going to be your engine as you study. If you don’t have it, then you will not be able to learn effectively. The more you have, the more focused you will be. The more focused you are, the better you will do on the TOEFL and the better chance you have of getting the score you want.

The source of your motivation is your “why” for studying for the TOEFL. If your inspiration is deep and strong, you will keep studying, even when it gets difficult, or you would prefer to do something else.

If you can, go deeper than “I want to get into ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ or ‘Z’ university or college.” Try to ask yourself why you want to go to that university or college. What is it that you really want? What is your deepest “why”? Keep asking yourself “why” until your answer is “because that’s what gives me joy; that’s what I want!” 

If you can tap into your deepest motivations, it will help you push through the difficult moments. 

Know the structure of the test

While motivation is crucial, it is not everything. You will need to channel it into making sure that the time you spend studying is effective. The first step is to know what you will be dealing with on the test.

Knowing the structure is like having a set of tracks for your “study train.” If you make sure you stay on the tracks, you will get to your destination. 

The reading section has either 3 or 4 passages of about 700 words in length, and each passage has ten multiple-choice questions. These questions are a combination of single-select and multi-select questions. For single-select questions, you will be asked to choose one answer. For multi-select questions, you will be asked to select multiple answers, the combination of which forms the correct answer.

ETS® sometimes includes extra passages and questions on the test. These additional questions help ETS ensure that scores are comparable across testing sessions and see how those questions are answered under standard testing conditions. Don’t worry; these questions do not count towards your final score, and you will be allotted extra time for the extra questions.

The total time you will have for this portion of the test is 54 to 72 minutes (depends on the number of passages and questions). 

Recognize that reading is a skill

One of the books that has had the most significant impact on me recently is Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. You might think that it’s silly to think that someone would write a book about that. Still, he wrote it because he knew that reading a book from page 1 until the end is not the best way to read a book, even though we may have been reading like that all of our lives.

When we read the right way, we understand more of what we are reading. Then we are better positioned to remember what we have read and connect the key points in the book among themselves. 

Reading a book from page 1 until the end is not the best way to read a book, even though we may have been reading like that all of our lives.

Granted, we are not required to read an entire book on the TOEFL, but the advice still applies. Let’s have a look at a few ways that we can use to hone this skill. Put them into practice while reading this blog post, and you will see how well they work!

Reading technique #1: Use a “pointer”

How many times have you read something, only to ask yourself what on earth you had just read? We do this all the time because our mind tends to wander. Using a “pointer” is an effective way of helping us focus more when we are reading.

A pointer can be anything that helps us point at the text: a finger, a pencil, a pen. Our eyes will follow the pointer, and it will keep us focused on the text, and it will be easier to concentrate as we read. 

Reading technique #2: Identify what type of reading it is, what genre it is, and what it is about 

This technique helps us start at a high level and gradually put it into a box to know what we are dealing with. Our brain likes this because it is continually looking for clues to understand what is going on. 

The first thing we need to do when we start reading is to understand what type of passage we are reading. On the TOEFL, the readings are usually similar to an extract from an academic textbook, so you do not need to worry too much about this part.

Second, look for clues for what the text is about. Is there a title? Is it stated in the directions for the task? What is the broad-level subject matter? Science? Geography? Economics? This will help your brain place the text in some context from the beginning so that you will have mental “boundaries” for the text.

Reading technique #3: Skim and learn how to look for essential information

With your pointer in hand, skim the text for about one minute to get a general idea of its message. This, again, will help your brain get more information. Look for main ideas and jot them down on a piece of scratch paper so that you can refer to them later if you need to. 

Have you ever highlighted or underlined in a book and then seen how much you have highlighted? Sometimes, less stuff is not highlighted than what is, and this doesn’t help us! 

Typically, it would be a good idea to underline the main ideas when you are reading a book or a text, but since you won’t have that option on test day, writing them down is the next best thing.

But be careful! Have you ever highlighted or underlined in a book and then seen how much you have highlighted? Sometimes, less stuff is not highlighted than what is, and this doesn’t help us! 

It is essential to write down only the most important ideas from a text; otherwise, the exercise will be useless for finding the correct answers. It will take practice and discipline, but everything else will be a lot easier once you grasp the main points.

Reading technique #4: Re-read the text more carefully and learn how to connect information

This time, go through the text more carefully. You will have already identified some of the main points, but you may pick up some that you didn’t see while skimming. Jot down anything you missed. As you read, also look for elements that support the main ideas by explaining them in more detail.

After you have down the text’s central ideas, you have a skeleton containing the basic structure of the passage or text. This is a summary of sorts. With this, you will be able to connect information. You will be able to compare and contrast and see how the author makes her or his point and how the text flows.

Not only will this put you in a fantastic position to answer the questions, but you will also get the added benefit of seeing how to write better. So, this will have a positive effect on your TOEFL writing score as well.

Read a lot (and widely)

The more you read using the techniques above, the better a reader you will become, not only in English but in any language, including your own! You will remember more, understand more, and desire to read more! If you turn these simple techniques into a habit, you will become a much better reader. Yes, it takes a little more time, but it will be worth the effort.

As we said above, the type of texts you will see on the TOEFL on test day will be academic and will usually be taken from a textbook. The text will be introductory, so you don’t have to worry about having any special knowledge to understand what is happening in the passage. Understanding the written English will be enough to answer the questions.

To get some practice, go onto Google and search for a typical university subject, such as “macroeconomics.” Click on the “books” tab, and you will come across various textbooks. Google usually gives you a preview of the text, so you can practice by reading the introductions to these textbooks. Here is one that you can get started with.

Even though the test will have academic passages on it, I would also recommend reading things that aren’t academic. This has several benefits:

  • You will not get bored and frustrated reading the same types of things over and over.
  • Reading for comprehension and learning how to identify the main ideas is something that applies to all reading. 
  • As you read, you will become more familiar with the English language, and your repertoire of vocabulary will expand.

When things get difficult, use context to help you

As you read, and even as you take the reading portion of the TOEFL, you may come across obscure words or sentences. They can be challenging to understand. When this happens, don’t panic. You can follow a process:

  • What do you know in the sentence or paragraph? 
  • What don’t you know in the sentence or paragraph? 
  • Is there any way you can infer the meaning of what you don’t know from what you know?

Thankfully, when there is particularly challenging vocabulary in the reading section, there will be a glossary nearby with the meaning of those words. 

As you read, you will invariably come across words you do not know. As we said above, sometimes you can infer the meaning from context, but other times you will not.

For example, suppose you don’t know what the word “invariably” means in the previous sentence. In that case, with some knowledge of English, you may be able to infer that it means something like “definitely.”

If you cannot infer its meaning, write the word down on a flashcard, and then write the definition on the other side. This way, you can test yourself on the words you don’t know. By learning these words, you will recognize them in future texts, and you will have a more extensive range of words to use as you express yourself in English.

If you prefer to use your computer or smartphone to create flashcards, you can use services such as Quizlet or Brainscape. Anki is also a great choice, and it is free for Android.


Since grammar is a crucial building block of any language, refining your English grammar will help you immensely as you read in English. When I was in school, we used to “diagram” sentences to help us understand the various parts of a sentence.

If you are not familiar with diagramming, it looked something like this:

Credit: YourDictionary.com

Diagramming gives you some structure and helps you identify the various parts of a sentence and how things fit together. It shows you the “logic” of English. 

If you would like to practice a little bit, there is a great 2-minute video that explains how to diagram most sentences. Even if you diagram 4 or 5 sentences a day, it can help you a lot over time!

It will also be helpful to learn how to identify the various verb tenses you come across. To do this, take a pencil or pen, and underline the verb in each sentence you come across. What tense is it? What does that mean for the interpretation of the sentence?

If you don’t know the answer, make an educated guess

There are many standardized tests out there that penalize you for wrong answers. The nice thing about both the listening and reading sections on the TOEFL is that you are not penalized if you answer incorrectly. This is excellent news!

However, that doesn’t mean you should guess blindly. Increase your chances of getting the right answer by eliminating answers that you know or suspect are wrong. By excluding some choices, sometimes you can see the correct answer more clearly.

Other times, even though you have narrowed the choices down to two or three possible answers, you still might not have the clarity you need to know the right answer. However, you will have a higher chance of getting the points. 

Since the test is timed, try not to spend too much time on a question you don’t know, especially if you still have many questions left to answer. There is no use spending lots of time on one question and then having to guess the answers to the remaining questions because you have run out of time!

Keep in mind that you have about 18 minutes for each 700-word passage and the corresponding 10 questions, and you will need a bit more time for the multi-select questions, so use your time wisely.

I hope these tips have helped you! If you have any feedback, please send me an email at [email protected].

Happy studying!


Hey English Learners! I'm Ryan and I have over 4000 hours of English teaching experience. Even though I am now a management consultant in Ireland by day, I have created this blog because I am a teacher at heart and am passionate about the English language! Look forward to help you get your English Exam Passport. Cheers!

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