TOEFL Reading – Vocabulary Questions

There is a tendency to be fatalistic about the vocabulary questions in the TOEFL Reading section: you either know the word or not, and if you don’t, play the TOEFL lottery and guess.  While I can symapthize with the frustration, there are a number of things students can do to maximize the possibiltiy of answering correctly when they don’t perfectly know the vocabulary words in the text or answers.  Let’s go over some of the key strategies.

1.  Easy Word?  The designers of the exam are not interested in your knowledge of a basic word in English such as «air».  If such a basic word appears on the exam, you can be sure it is not to check that you know what you are currently breathing.  Instead, they are testing a secondary meaning of the word with the primary meaning being one of the incorrect options.  Example:

The programs air at 7 and 10 pm.

2.  Context.  This classic piece of advice for attacking vocabulary question is fundamental in correctly figuring out words that we do not know.  You need to be aware of both the immediate context in which the word appears and the context of the paragraph as a whole.  Let’s look at an example from a reading about the American social reformer Jane Addams:

«…Addams was publicly vilified for her unpopular position against the war.  The negative  publicity affected her ability to raise money yet she continued to write, lecture and present her views on pacifism and on the need to improve social conditions and the role of women in society.  Despite the negative publicity her opinions sometimes aroused , she was regarded as a role model…»

After the target words «vilified for» we find the following: «unpopular», «negative» (2X) and «yet», clearly indicating opposition to Addams.  However, using context also involves an understanding of the purpose of the paragraph where the target vocabulary appears.  In my previous entry in this blog, I wrote about the utility of making a «map» of the reading by outlining the main topic of each paragraph.  What is revealed by such a outline in this particular reading is that the previous paragraph gives Adams achievements to be followed by the paragraph in which «vilified for» appears which begins with this sentence:

In spite of all the good work accomplished at Hull House, Jane Addams was not always viewed as a positive influence

Clearly we are beginning a paragraph about the criticism aimed at Addams and her work.  So, now answering the question becomes easy?  Well no.  So, let’s take a look at the next tip.

3.  Your «Native Language Glasses».  The term «false friend» refers to a term in your native language which has a tempting but incorrect translation to English.  Certainly, vocabulary questions on the TOEFL may contain false friends.  Yet, just like in real life, there are both false friends and real friends.  It is this last group that can help you in difficult situations and it wouldn’t be wise to let your fear of false friends prevent you from taking advantage of real ones.  Thus, the image I want to present is of your native language (if it shares a geneology with English) as a pair of glasses that you can put on as needed.  With this in mind let’s look at the possible answers to the question:

The phrase «vilified for» is closest in meaning to:

a) noticed as a result of

b) released from

c) maligned because of

d) cheered due to

We’ve already established the negative context in which the target vocabulary appears.  Now, from the point of view of a native Spanish speaker, we look at the answers and notice the word «maligned», a word we don’t know in English but which has clear negative connotations in Spanish (mal-, maligno).  It doesn’t matter that a direct translation of the word doesn’t work in this reading, only that there is a connection betwen what we know of the context and what our native language is telling us.

4.  Time.  After you have done the necessary work as explained above, answer the question quickly.  Extended consideration and mediatation on the 4 options does not increase the accuracy of the answer and uses valuable time that can be best spent in other areas.

Next week we will continue to look at question types from thr Reading section.  For more information about my preparation courses for the TOEFL exam in Seville, visit my website at