How To Read Biographical Passages on the TOEFL

Reading passages on the TOEFL are designed to mimic those found in textbooks, and texts across many disciplines feature short biographies of leaders in that field.  For that reason, biographies come up frequently on the TOEFL. This is advantageous to you as the test-taker because biographical passages tend to follow a specific pattern in terms of structure and word choice. By familiarizing yourself with these repeated conventions and vocabulary and by regularly reading biographical articles you come across on the internet, you can maximize your points on this type of passage while minimizing the amount of time you spend with this section, leaving you for more time for passages that may be more challenging.

You can often tell that you will be reading a biography before you've even read the introduction paragraph.  You can easily identify the biographical passages because typically the title is just a name or a name and profession.  Make sure to grab the free printable Biographies At A Glance, which comes with a list of some of those common occupations that are featured in TOEFL biographies, giving you a leg up.  

Even without knowing the particulars of that person's life or occupation, however, recognizing that the passage is biographical allows you to predict the general set up of the passage.  Typically biographies follow two basic forms.  Most likely, the passage will be set up chronologically.  This means that it will go in order of  the person's life, starting from when they were a child (occasionally that happens after a brief explanation of what that person would go on to do), followed by a description of their formal education (if any), their career (often divided into early, mid and late), and finally their death and legacy.  Often it looks something like this

                                  Person's Name: What He/She Did

Brief introduction/family background/birth and early life

Education.  Mention of important teachers and influences

Early career/beginning of work in his/her field.  Mention of his/her mentor(s)

Mid-career accomplishments.  Mention of his/her relationship to colleagues

End of formal career and any work done after official retirement. Potential mention of how he/she died

Legacy (what this person is remembered for to this day).  This is usually positive but if there are any controversies over what he/she did while alive or how historians think of this person now, this may also be covered at this point)

 

Use the structure of the passage to your advantage.  By knowing where the information usually falls, you will be able to skim the passage more quickly and anticipate what questions will be asked of you.  Although not everyone passage follows this structure perfectly, for example, some might be a long list of achievements or cover in greater detail a person's complicated legacy, looking at the topic sentences will help you quickly ascertain what the focus of each paragraph is and you can skim for just information on that topic. 

In addition to having a pattern in terms of organization, biographies tend to recycle the same type of language.  Biographies always bring up topics like when this person started working on what they would later become famous for and what, if any, obstacles this person faced in order to achieve greatness.  As a result, words like prodigy, expert, and phenom are important nouns to know.  Look for synonyms for ways to say that someone is talented (like he/she is gifted).  Make sure you recognize multiple ways to say that he/she is naturally good at something with phrases like endowed with, having a propensity for, a knack for, or a talent for.  Part of what makes biographies so compelling is that the person typically overcame some large hurdle, so make sure to scan for this in the passage by knowing all the synonyms for the word obstacle.  But perhaps most importantly, those who have their biographies written are usually the first to do something; as a result, it is essential that you know pioneer, trailblazer, and innovator.  Knowing all the synonyms for these important words will make it much easier to find the right answer for detail questions as right answers almost always use synonyms rather than the same word from the passage.  If you want to be sure that you know all these terms so you are TOEFL-ready, make sure to download the Biographies at a Glance printable.

Now that you know what you need to know, put this information into practice by regularly reading short biographies online.  Some of my favorite places to find high-quality biographies are History.com, Biography.com (they also frequently have videos of various lengths), and Newsela.com (a personal favorite because you can pick the difficulty of the reading passage, so it automatically adjusts the level of vocabulary and sentence structure to fit your needs).  Don't let locating these passages stand in your way of doing your practice; instead, just follow me on Twitter @GetTestObsessed.  I regularly link to biographical passages to honor the anniversary of that particular person's achievement or his/her birthday.  Because you are reading on a computer screen, you will be replicating test conditions, so be sure to take notes actively, just like you would on test day.  Also, be sure to time yourself; biographical passages are easy to skim, so you can pick up some much needed time to devote to other passages on the reading section.

Keep reading, and keep improving your score.  As a bonus, biographies are inspirational.  Let them motivate you to keep making progress towards your goal score!

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