TOEFL BOOSTER / Divining the details in TOEFL reading questions

Lawrence J. Zwier / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

In most of your reading classes–probably in all of them–you have practiced understanding details. Of course, you learn to catch the overall main idea of the reading and to find the main ideas of paragraphs within it. However, your teachers usually also ask you to find specific facts that relate to these main ideas and that support them.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), maker of the Internet-based TOEFL (iBT), recognizes the importance of details to understanding a text. Questions about details are included in the set of questions after every reading on the test.

Between 33 percent and 50 percent of the questions after each reading are about specific details. Remember that during the reading portion of the iBT you can see the reading passage AND the questions on your computer screen at the same time. This means that you can hunt for the correct answer in the reading as you look at the question and the multiple-choice options.

Here is an example of a detail question:


Why did Gutzon Borglum choose to locate his sculpture project in the Black Hills of South Dakota?

a) He was born and raised in that area.

b) Someone from that area persuaded him.

c) The government told him to put it there.

d) It was the only place with suitable rocks.

You don’t have the reading yet, so you probably don’t know the answer. That’s OK. I’ll give you the answer later. However, you know from the question some words and phrases to look for in the reading. Which do you think are the best?

Of course, Gutzon Borglum, Black Hills, and South Dakota are important to the concept, and the answer has to relate to those proper nouns. However, when you see the reading below, you’ll realize that the whole passage is about Gutzon Borglum, and most of it is also about the Black Hills in South Dakota. Those key words won’t help guide you to the specific detail in this reading.

Instead, the most useful key word is locate. It–and other related words–indicate the place in the reading where you are most likely to find the answer.


The famous 60-foot facial likenesses of four U.S. presidents at Mt. Rushmore are among the most-visited National Park Service properties. Approximately 2 million people every year visit this National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was carved between 1927 and 1941 by a team assembled by the famed sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was already well known for large-scale outdoor sculpture. Notably he was celebrated for the first memorial to Confederate soldiers on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia. (Borglum’s work was later destroyed and replaced by another sculptor’s.)

The site for Borglum’s next mammoth work was suggested by the state historian of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, who wanted an artistic marvel to draw tourists to his state. Actually, Robinson originally suggested a different site in the Black Hills, called “The Needles,” but Borglum said the rock formations there were too weak to withstand the sculpting. At first, Borglum intended to carve only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but he was persuaded by officials of the federal government, which funded the project, to include Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt as well.

Mt. Rushmore is composed of granite, a hard stone derived from hot magma and flecked with bits of other minerals, most notably sandstone, mica, and other sedimentary or metamorphic rocks. Borglum liked it as a sculpting material because it is solid but can be worked by using power drills and strategically placed charges of dynamite. Amazingly, despite the dangerous drilling and blasting, not a single member of Borglum’s team was killed, although there were numerous injuries. Borglum also liked the fact that the type of granite at Mt. Rushmore erodes very slowly in rain and wind, only about an inch every 10,000 years, so the monument is likely to be recognizable for a very long time.

After reading this passage, do you know the answer to Sample Question 1? It is “b”–someone from the area persuaded Borglum to make the monument. The key word in the reading is site (near the beginning of Paragraph 2). This is closely related to the word locate in the question.

Here are some other detail questions similar to those that might be on an iBT form. Use your scanning skills to find the relevant information in the reading. Then read the material near that point so you understand how it fits into the reading as a whole.


What was Gutzon Borglum’s original plan for a monument in South Dakota?

a) To represent only two presidents

b) To carve it at The Needles

c) To replace another sculptor’s work

d) To make a memorial to Confederate soldiers

The correct answer is “a.” Notice that every option contains words that are actually in the reading. Finding words in the passage is not enough. You have to understand the content associated with the words. Even the word originally in the question could mislead you. It does occur, but in connection with Robinson, not Borglum. The combination that can lead you to the correct answer is “At first, Borglum intended…”

Let’s look at one more sample question:


Why did Borglum like working with the granite of Mt. Rushmore?

a) It contains pieces of other rocks.

b) Dynamite cannot break it up.

c) It is soft and easy to sculpt.

d) The weather wears it away only very slowly.

The correct answer is “d.” The best clues are that two vocabulary items in option “d”–weather and wears away are synonyms for the words wind and rain and erodes.

Next month we’ll say more about details.


Zwier teaches in the English Language Center at Michigan State University. He has written numerous books about the iBT.

(Oct. 12, 2011)

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