TOEFL Reading: Prose Summary Questions

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Prose Summary and Fill-in-a-Table questions found at the end of the TOEFL Reading passages.  Answer them correctly and you have made significant progress in scoring high in the reading section.  Struggle with these questions and the road to your high score becomes much more difficult, requiring you to be close to perfect in all the other questions.  Given this importance, let’s start by looking at the Prose Summary Questions and to do our analysis, we’ll start at the very beginning:  with the instructions.

As always, the first step is to look carefully at the instructions.  Let’s take them in parts:

“An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below…”

Often this introductory sentence offers very little useful information to help you make your choices, especially with sentences like this

The Haymarket Riot was a milestone in the history of labor in the United States.

that offer no clear idea about what the major ideas might be.  However, there are introductory sentences like the following which can offer some guidance:

Several factors led to the developments that resulted in the Haymarket Riot

Here we need to make sure that every answer that we choose is a factor that led to the Haymarket Riot.  Any answer choice  that is not a factor, even though it may be true, should not be considered.  Another thing to keep in mind is that if a question asks you to choose the causes of some event or process, you need to make a clear distinction between causes and effects. Choosing an effect or consequence of an event or process when asked about a cause is a common error and should be avoided.

“Some answer choices do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not presented…”

On the face of it, nothing could be clearer.  If the idea is not included in the reading, do not choose it.  Of course, reality is always a little more difficult than clear instructions, so please keep in mind that things can become confusing if you have an answer that is 90% correct and meets the criteria of the answer, but contains one piece of false information.  In my course, we work with a reading about the Great Depression and in the summary question which asks for the causes of the economic collapse, there is an answer that talks about speculative investments leading to fluctuations in house prices as being a cause of the Depression. However, the reading is quite clear that a major cause was speculative investments that led to fluctations in stock prices.  Inattention to a detail like that can lead to incorrect answer choices.

“…or are minor in the passage…”

Here, in the distinction between major and minor ideas, lies one of the most difficult tasks in choosing the correct answers as both major and minor ideas are true and can be found in the text.  One of the most effective ways to make this distincion is to go back to one of the pieces of advice given in this blog about making an outline of the topics of each paragraph in the reading.  If the answer is an effective summary of one or more paragraphs in the text, then clearly we are dealing with a major idea that must be considered.  However, if the answer is an idea or detail that is not developed within the text, and is only briefly mentioned, it most likely is a minor idea despite the fact that it is true.  Typically minor ideas can be biographical or geographical details about a person or thing that do not explain their significance.

Another way to help make this distinction between major and minor ideas is to see if after the mention of an idea, there is a quick shift in focus as the idea is then dropped.  An example should clarify this idea:

Because of her focus on traditional styles, Smith first gained the attention of her professors.  However, it was her advances in modern design that led her to international recognition and success.

Now let us assume that her focus on traditional styles is never mentioned again in the text.  What we should then consider if offered an answer choice like “Smith began her studies focused on traditional styles” is that although the idea is true, it does not represent any type of summary of a paragraph or paragraphs, and that immediately after being mentioned in the text, there is no further development of the idea, and instead a shift to a focus on her success with modern design.  This analysis should eliminate this answer choice from consideration.

In future articles, we will look at the Fill-in-the-Table question and how best to answer it.