Share on

On the TOEFL IBT, there will be some questions asking you what a certain word means as used in the passage. The word will usually be highlighted in the passage and you will then be asked what that word refers to

Reference questions will test your ability to read English well. You will be given a question and four answer choices, three of which will be intended to trip you up. Be sure to read all of the answer choices first so you can make an informed decision on your final answer.

Test My Level For Free

Here is an example of a Reference question.

Let’s look at Paragraph 6 to help us find the answer.

TOEFL IBT - Reference Paragraph

As we can see, the phrase this change is in the last sentence of the paragraph: This change both spurred the Industrial Revolution in Britain and induced Southern planters in America to grow more cotton.

To know what this change is referring to, it would be best to read the rest of the paragraph beginning with the first line:

All these 18th-century machines needed vast supplies of cotton. In the 1790s, the first newly planted cotton came from American plantations manned by slaves. The raw cotton had to be cleaned before it could be used by the fast-moving equipment, but it was taking a full day for one person to remove the seeds from one pound of cotton. Eli Whitney, a New Englander, solved that problem with his cotton gin, which used a series of steel disks fitted with hooks to drag the cotton through slots in a grid, leaving the seeds behind. 

The last sentence of the above excerpt brings up the cotton gin, an invention created by Eli Whitney to facilitate the removal of seeds from the cotton plant. We can safely assume that this is the change referred to in this paragraph, so (C) would be the correct answer.

Let’s look at another Reference question.

TOEFL IBT - Reference question

Rather than asking about a pronoun, this question is asking about a certain vocabulary word. But don’t worry – even if you do not know the word itself, the meaning can usually be inferred from context clues, or words around the word in question.

Let’s look at Paragraph 2, as stated in the question.

TOEFL IBT - Paragraph 2

If we read the sentence with the word grazing, we can begin to eliminate certain choices. (B) does not seem to make any sense here. (C) seems strange, as the paragraph does not even talk about how sheep-raising changes over time. The damp climate is already mentioned in this sentence, so (D) seems to be incorrect. That leaves us with (A), which is the correct answer. The word grazing refers to the sheep’s eating habits, as the verb to graze means to feed on grass.


  • Know your pronouns! Sometimes the Reference question will ask you what a certain pronoun refers to.
  • The answer will usually be stated a sentence or two before the phrase or word in question.
  • Even if you do not know a certain vocabulary word, the meaning can usually be figured out with context clues.

Check here the other Tips and skills: