TOEFL Must-Know Words and Debates About Literature


10 literary words that you need to know for the TOEFL

The topics for the lectures, reading passage, and integrated essays can come from any discipline that you can find at the university level, so you will notice a mix of pieces from humanities as well as the hard sciences as you go through your preparation process.  Although you will not see any passages that are excerpts from classic pieces of literature like those you might find on the New SAT, you may encounter readings or lectures that are based on literature.  Some of these passages may take the form of biographies, providing a detailed account of the author, playwright, or poets life, career, and legacy.  However, more often than not, these literary-based discussions or articles will feature a position taken on a particular work of literature.  As with any form of art, literature leaves room for interpretation and as a result, these are particularly likely to show up as topics for a lecture with student interaction, perhaps a seminar style class, or an integrated essay.

While it would be impossible to be knowledgeable about every piece of literature that might be featured on test day, becoming familiar with some key literary terms will give you an advantage, no matter what piece of writing is being discussed.


Discussions that center on literature tend to focus on ambiguity, those moments that are unclear or intentionally confusing.  The author's motivation for doing something (otherwise known as his/her intent) is often a source of debate among literary scholars. This might take the discussion an interdisciplinary route, especially if the writer is supposedly critiquing the government or a trend happening at the time the work was penned. Similarly, a character's reason for taking (or failing to take) some sort of action might be cause for disagreement.  Is the character actually dynamic (one that changes over time) or has he/she remained the same?  This question is often asked of protagonists though minor characters or villains can draw some attention to.  These topics will likely connect back to important moments in the plot of the main conflict of the story.  Critics might also discuss the meaning of a particular symbol-- what something is supposed to represent in the work of literature-- or what genre the work can be best classified as.  Especially if the discussion is based on genre, expect to hear a list of criteria for putting it into a certain category (or not).

Regardless, when someone is supporting his/her position in this type of environment, they will use textual evidence to back up his/her opinion.  You might hear directly ask a student about this, which may turn into a listening detail question, so be sure to pay particular attention.  Look out for the phrase refer back to the text as well, as they mean the same thing.

Don't feel limited to using these words in a discussion of literature, though.  Although these words draw from that discipline, many of them can easily transcend the field of literature or even art and can be incorporated more broadly into your own writing and speech. Conflicts can be used for any sort of struggle or fight, internal or external, physical or verbal.  This word can be used when discussing countries, wars, and politics or in everyday situations like getting into an argument with one's brother.  Intent-- what you've meant to do-- is similarly useful for both conversational settings and for formal situations.

Although being widely read is a great way to expand your vocabulary, reading classic texts probably won't help you make much headway on test day; however, knowing the terms above and the topics of discussion that usually occur surrounding literature will help you better anticipate the main idea, regardless of which section of the test you find it in.

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