The Reading Section Overview- TOEFL-iBT® (1/4)

Estimated Reading time: 15 minutes

When preparing the outline for writing this post, it became clear right away, that this would not be short. Touching only on the reading section of the test involves plenty of details, which can be very important for test-takers.

Additionally, the updates of the TOEFL-iBT® for August 2019 had to be considered.

In order to make this overview more comprehensible, is is better to break it down into 4 distinct parts, where we will focus on very specific areas of The Reading Section.

Here is the breakdown of how this series will be divided:

General Overview
Everything to know about the Passage
Multiple-Choice Questions
Final Questions

This specific post will be divided in the following sub-categories:

General Overview

The Short Format

The Long Format

Types of Passages

Sample Passage

So without delaying any longer, here we go.

The General Overview.

As you may already know, this is the first section of the test, which makes it particularly important if you want to keep a good momentum. This section can be a bit heavy as a lot of reading will go through. However, if you have practiced enough, then you should be adapted and ready for it.

In short, the Reading Section measures your ability to comprehend University level texts and to be able to infer content from such passages. It consists of a series of passages that are followed by multiple-choice questions to measure your overall comprehension of the text.

I have mentioned the difference between the Short Format and the Long Format in other posts. But I will go through it again as it is necessary.

The Short Format

This section will normally last 54 minutes which will correspond with the Short Format. In this format you will be presented with 3 reading passages and each passage will be followed by 10 questions about that text.

What you will want to do is administer your time to complete each passage and its corresponding questions in no more than 18 minutes.

In total, you should get 30 questions in this format.

The Long Format

In the Long Format, you will receive one extra reading. In consequence, you will be given extra time to complete the section. in total, you will receive 72 minutes to complete the section and since you will get an extra reading, you will also get the extra questions, giving a total amount of 40 questions.

Right here, it is important for you to know that the difficulty of the section as a whole will only increase due to the number of tasks you must do. Yet, all the passages and questions that follow them will correspond to the same level of difficulty.

The Long Format is used as a way for ETS to gather some statistics from an experimental passage or questions, in consequence, your score will not be affected by this extra reading that you get.

  Short Format Long Format
Number of Passages 3 4
Number of Questions 30 40
Time (in minutes) 54 72

However, when in the test, you won’t know which of the passages you receive will be graded and which won’t, so you will always have to aim at doing your best in all passages.

Types of passages

The types of passages that you will find in The Reading Section will all be of Academic English, which is the same as saying that it will refer to the types of passages you will typically find when you study in the University.

The specific topics will usually be sciences related with about 70% of the passages referring to these categories.

By science, I mean Physics, Anthropology, Psychology, Biology, Chemistry, and more. The rest of the topics you will find are related to History, Art, Sociology and more.


You will not know which topic you will get till you open the door and see

From here you can deduce that increasing your vocabulary on these topics is a priority when preparing for the test. All passages will be around 700 words in length and will be divided into a series of paragraphs.

These paragraphs will be organized in academic style writing in most cases. What do I mean by Academic style writing? Well, what I mean is that we will normally find the Topic Sentence or the Main Idea of the paragraph within the first sentence of each paragraph.

The sentences that follow, will be supporting sentences that will give evidence and examples that will back the claim made by the Topic Sentence.

Here is a sample passage:

Sample passage

Renewable just isn’t enough.


For a few decades now, mankind has been claiming that in order to help counter the effects of global warming, a much larger portion of the resources must be allocated into renewable energy, specifically solar and wind power. Sunlight is inherently unreliable and as wind is the child of the sun, it too is deemed dubious as a steady source of energy. In addition, they create a significantly large carbon footprint due to all the material they require for construction, transportation, and maintenance. Adding the sheer cost of building solar and wind power plants is not only an overwhelming investment in the short term, but it has increased the prices of power in those countries who have already shifted towards these sources of energy. Many have looked at other alternatives in order to mitigate the negative effects.


Ever since humans have harvested the energy of the sun and wind, it was known that these methods could not be applied to all areas, as the amount of sunlight and wind that a given area received, varied widely as soon as you shifted the geographically. The equatorial part of our planet receives the most amount of constant sunlight, making this the optimal place for solar farms to be built, which in consequence leaves nearly 75% of the planet without the capacity to do the same as conditions won’t be as advantageous. The northern and southern hemispheres with only partial sunlight through the larger portion of the year cannot compete, so alternatives must be set out. Yet wind is no stranger to this phenomenon. There are few places on the planet where the wind can be harvested at its maximum leaving us with the same geographical problem.


In an ironic turn, the damage that these alternative sources of energy generate towards the environment is deterring many future projects. The energy output from a solar panel or a wind turbine takes years or even decades to erase the carbon footprint it leaves behind. It becomes clear once thinking that a standard wind turbine is over 300ft of height and can reach 250 tons in weight. Besides, many local communities have protested the construction of solar and wind farms due to the amount of space they require to function properly. Deforestation has taken place in parts of Europe and Brazil to make space for huge wind farms, devastating the local flora. Furthermore, the transportation of local fauna to new locations has led to tougher competition for their resources and many animals have not been able to adapt. Adding the amount of birdlife that has died by the heat produced by solar farms or by the blade of a turbine, it becomes clear that a larger degree of damage than what was expected is occurring.


The largest barrier for these sources of renewable energy has been the cost. An investigation in the energy investment sector showed that the money that was injected into these two sources of renewable energy is long from harvesting its profits. According to a national press investigation, more than $300 billion were invested each year between 2010 and 2016 in solar and wind energy. However, by 2016 the combined output of solar plants and wind turbines constituted close to 5,5% of the planet’s electricity where solar made up 1,3% and wind 3,9%. Although countries like Denmark have been able to increase their solar and wind energy to over 50% of its energy output, they are not the role model everyone wishes to follow, as they have become one of the countries with the most expensive costs of electricity for the end-user.


These findings have shifted the attention of many towards other forms of renewable energy, leaving one as the prize winner. The lack of consistent sunlight and wind have made France and Sweden a new beacon of hope when they proved themselves with some of the world’s lowest amount of carbon emissions per capita. Sweden has managed to make 95% of its electrical output from zero-carbon sources with 42 % of its electricity coming from Nuclear power plants and 41% from Hydroelectric power plants. Though Hydroelectric is a great and safe source, it has some immediate environmental effects and is limited to areas with sufficient water flow and specific geographical conditions. The greatest advantage of Nuclear is that it has very little restrictions with regards to geography and weather, in consequence, it can offer a constant output of electricity. Other countries like Costa Rica and Norway are following their steps working on a zero-emission plan through sources that will have far fewer negative effects on the planet.

We can see how the passage is organized as a whole into paragraphs. Once we read it, we will see how each paragraph tackles a specific argument. This is the Academic style.

On the next entry, we will go deeper into analyzing the passage above and explaining how it works and how the organization can help us find the main message faster.

To go to the next passage click here.


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