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TOEFL Tip #213: Inference Is King!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 26, 2013

An important key for doing well on the TOEFL exam is understanding how the exam is set up. TOEFL is NOT designed for test-takers to find information as if the exam were an Easter egg hunt with relevant information scattered throughout it. Instead, it’s designed for you to derive information through critical thinking skills.

We know there are fact questions and inference questions, and to the native speaker these are starkly different. Fact questions for a particular passage are similar to an Easter egg hunt. Like Easter eggs hidden in tall grass or behind a rock, the answers to fact questions are in the passage, but may be tricky to find. If you look carefully enough, however, you will be able to locate them. Inference questions require critical thinking skills. You have to put together pieces of information in the passage to infer something that the passage does not directly state. For example, if the passage states that the weather has been rainy for several weeks, and that it’s spring, you can infer that spring has rainy weather.

But sadly, only the most fluent of non-native English speakers will find FACT questions as simple as looking for a truth that is explicitly stated on the page. To be sure: the truth IS THERE, but it is buried under tricky vocabulary, confusing phrasal verbs, or advanced grammar. So it’s a fact question for a native Speaker, but ultimately it becomes an inference question for anyone who doesn’t know all of the vocabulary or who has never encountered the idiomatic expressions used.

Consequently, even though there may be only 1 or 2 questions per passage explicitly identified as INFERENCE questions (those are the ones that have the word “IMPLY” or “INFER” in the question), there might be 8-10 questions that require the same critical thinking skills as does a question explicitly identified as “inference.”

Therefore, studying critical thinking skills and lateral thinking skills will be very useful when preparing for the TOEFL. Our recent posts about absolute modifiers in general and modal verbs in particular demonstrate how critical thinking can help you to choose the correct answers. Similarly, this post on the limits of memorized answers points out the need to evaluate the information on the TOEFL exam, rather than attempting to memorize answers that you can plug into the prompts for the Speaking and Writing sections. This Wikipedia entry describes lateral thinking, and here are some exercises to challenge you!

TOEFL Tip #212: Avoiding Absolute Modifiers: Modal Verbs

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 21, 2013

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of avoiding absolute answers on the TOEFL exam. TOEFL wants to avoid making its answers too easy with choices such as ALWAYS or NEVER. Instead, TOEFL wants test-takers to have to think carefully about the question and evaluate which answer is the best choice.


In addition to adverbs like “always” and “never,” English grammar also uses modal verbs to indicate a suggested or required action. A “modal verb,” sometimes called a “helper verb,” is a word that adds further meaning to the primary verb in a sentence. The main group of modal verbs is can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will, would.


So how can you use modal verbs to avoid choosing absolute answers, and increase your chances of picking the correct answer?  Think about the modal verbs on a sliding scale, with suggestions at one end, and requirements at the other end.


On this scale, “can” and “could” are at the suggestion end of the scale, indicating that it is possible to take the action of the verb, but not indicating whether the subject will do it. Think of these as a 20% requirement. 

Other modal verbs on the sliding scale increase the necessity for the sentence’s subject to do what the verb says. “Might” indicates that subject has a choice about whether to do the verb’s action, perhaps a 40% requirement. “Should” and “ought” are very strong suggestions, with a sense of obligation to do what the verb says – 80% requirement. “Must” indicates a required action, one that the subject has no choice about; it’s a 100% requirement.


Here is a series of example, using illnesses: 

If you feel dizzy, you CAN lie down for a few minutes.

If you have a sinus infection, you MIGHT want to see a doctor.

If you have the flu, you SHOULD go to the doctor.

If you have cancer, you MUST go to the doctor.

 Since the TOEFL exam avoids answers that indicate 100%, definitely avoid answers that use “must.” Because “should” and “ought” are strong suggestions, you probably want to think carefully about choices with those words. “Should” and “ought” could be the correct answers if the issue in the question is serious enough. Use your judgment, but in general, “might” and “could” will be safe bets.



TOEFL Tip #211: TOEFL Avoids Absolute Modifiers Throughout The Test

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 12, 2013

A common strategy for multiple choice exams such as the TOEFL is to try to eliminate one or more answers per question before selecting the answer you think is correct. By avoiding obviously-wrong choices, you can improve your chances of answering the question correctly.

But, if you’re not confident that you know the answer, how can you figure out which answers are obviously wrong?

In general, it’s best to be suspicious of answer choices on the Reading and Listening that indicate absolute conditions, or 100% agreement/disagreement about a topic. Words like these 


are red flags.

WHY does the TOEFL exam use these words in answers that are probably wrong?

Remember that the TOEFL is a test of your skill in English. If the answers are too obvious, then it would be very easy to pick answer choices as right or wrong.

So, TOEFL wants to challenge the test-taker. It’s better to present content that is full of POSSIBILITIES so that the test-taker struggles to decide MAYBE the correct answer is THIS or MAYBE it’s THAT.  Words like the ones listed above reduce, rather than expand, possibilities in an answer, and that makes them more likely to be wrong answers on the TOEFL.

Is it fair for TOEFL to use tricks like this one?

YES! As Benjamin Franklin is often credited as saying, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If the real world is not 100%, then how can TOEFL be 100%?

We at Strictly English applaud TOEFL for basing their exam on this fundamental truth of life and of critical engagement! Think twice before choosing the easy, obvious answer!