TOEFL Reading – Reference Questions

One of the seemingly easier questions in the TOEFL Reading section is the reference questions.  Yet, students often underestimate the difficulties involved, and make mistakes on questions that they should be able to answer correctly and relatively quickly.  So, let’s start by taking a look at an example:

…The Industrial Revolution was fueled by North America’s abundance of wood, as iron makers relied on charcoal, or charred wood, to fire their furnaces. Hardwoods such as oak produced the best charcoal, which charcoal burners made by slowly burning logs in kilns until they were reduced to concentrated carbon…

The word they in paragraph 3 refers to:

a) furnaces          b) logs         c) kilns          d) oak

The first and obvious piece of advice is to note that the target word «they» is plural so you can immediately eliminate option d) oak as it is a singular noun.  Unfortunately, most of the time the test won’t make things so easy for you.  So, on to the second point which is equally obvious:

Read back from the target word to see what most logically fits.  When I say logically, what I am speciafically referring to in this question is which word fits best with «…were reduced to concentrated carbons».  By «plugging in» each of the remaining options into the spot occupied by they , it should become clear that some answers don’t make sense with the idea of being reduced to concentrated carbon.  This is clearly the case with option a) furnaces , a type of industrial oven.

More problematic is option c) kilns as it is a word that most likely is unknown by many students.  Although I can’t give this as a 100% rule, it is often true that many incorrect answers appear in prepositional phrases directly before the reference word.  This is the case here with option c) kilns which appears before they and as part of the prepositional phrase «in kilns», leaving us with the correct answer of b) logs.

So, always check the verb phrase (were reduced) that comes after the reference word and make sure that your answer choice makes sense with that verb phrase.