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TOEFL Reading: Synonyms and Paraphrase Questions

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Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.
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This is my latest post on the skill that is the backbone of TOEFL Reading success: the ability to recognize and understand synonyms. Last time, in TOEFL Reading: Synonyms and Inference Questions, we used synonyms to find the answer to a sample inference question. Today, we’ll look at synonyms to answer a TOEFL Reading paraphrase question.

The paraphrase question comes from the reading task on pages 10 to 14 of . Click on the link, and after you’ve read the passage, do question 24 (on page 12). Then we’ll go through the answer choices together.

Remember, synonyms can appear in both right and wrong answers. Still, it’s hard to write a good paraphrase without any synonyms. If an answer to a paraphrase question doesn’t contain synonyms for the original words, there’s a good chance the paraphrase is incorrect.

Answer (A) does not really contain any synonyms. It is tempting to think “reopened” is a synonym of “opened” from the original sentence. However, “reopened” is simply a different form of the original word “opened,” not a true synonym. “Reopened” also changes the meaning of the passage, implying that the Strait of Gibraltar had been opened before. This idea is nowhere in the original sentence. From “reopened” alone, you can know this answer is probably not right. (There are other reasons this answer is wrong, too. Can you find them?)

Answer (B) does contain synonyms. “Dramatically” is a synonym for “spectacularly.” “Refilled” is a synonym for “cascaded… back into.” Thus, the phrase “dramatically refilled by water” is a paraphrase of “water cascaded spectacularly back into.” “Are joined” is synonymous with “now connects.” Both phrases describe the linking of the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. All the information in (B) can also be found in the original sentence. No extra information is added to (B). This could be the correct answer. But does it really best express the key information from the highlighted sentence? Let’s look at (C) and (D) to find out.

Like (A), (C) and (D) lack synonyms. All of the key words in these answers are copied or only slightly changed from the original sentence. This means (C) and (D) might be wrong. But in the TOEFL, even in a Reading Paraphrase question, there are no guarantees. We need to take a closer look at these answers to see if they are truly wrong.

(C) is wrong because it says that the flow of water into the Mediterranean wasn’t as “spectacular” as the adjustments and changes to the Earth’s crust. Nowhere in the original sentence is the spectacular nature of the flow of water compared to the quality of the changes to the Earth’s crust. In fact, the changes to the earth’s crust are not described as “spectacular” at all. Furthermore, the “crustal adjustments” caused the Strait of Gibraltar to link the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The adjustments didn’t happen when Gibraltar was already connecting the two bodies of water. To say nothing of the fact that the article talks about an ocean and a sea, not two “seas.”

(D) is similarly incorrect, saying the Atlantic and the Mediterranean became “a single sea” rather than a connected ocean and sea. You can spot this incorrect fact as you check for similes. “Single” is an important informational word that doesn’t appear in the original sentence. It is not a synonym for anything in the original sentence either. So you know the word probably changes the meaning of the sentence.

As you can see, synonym awareness is key to answering this question correctly. To understand a paraphrase, you need to know which words are synonyms and which aren’t. From there, you need to look for words that match the ones in the original sentence. If you find matching words, and make sure they’re being used in the same way. You also need to look for words that don’t match the original wording and are not synonyms. These words likely change the meaning or add information.

 

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