TOEFL(R) BOOSTER / Summing up passages in iBT reading tasks

Lawrence J. Zwier / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

Last month, our TOEFL Booster mentioned two iBT reading tasks–the prose summary and the schematic table. We showed how these test your skills in reading to learn, that is, how well you can complete academic tasks based on your understanding of a whole passage.

Today, we’ll look at an example of one reading-to-learn task, the prose summary. First we’ll read part of an iBT-style reading passage. Then we’ll look at the kind of summary question that might follow it.

About half of all iBT reading sections have a prose summary question. (The other half has schematic table questions.) It is called a prose summary because it is written in full sentences. It is not just a bulleted list of ideas. It is a set of sentences that fit together well to express the main ideas of the reading passage. To see how this works, first read the following passage.



The effects of industrial pollution, global warming, and other adverse processes are magnified in the regions near the Earth’s North Pole. The evidence for this is clear and indisputable, requiring none of the speculation about past climate cycles that introduces uncertainty into climate models.

One example is the easily measured concentration of lead in air, soil, ice, and water. Although there are no industries in the Arctic that might introduce lead into the above-ground environment, concentrations have been high enough to create patterns of ill health among Inuit people living there. By studying the composition of lead-containing pollutants, scientists know that they come mostly from industries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Why would these pollutants concentrate in the far Arctic instead of near the offending factories further south? A process called global distillation provides an explanation. The lead compounds are released from factories in warmer regions, where they remain volatile (suspended in the air). If winds kept these pollutants in warm regions, they might stay suspended, but normal air currents carry them instead to colder regions near the North Pole. In the colder air, the compounds condense, precipitate out, and enter the terrestrial environment. Another easily measured effect is air temperature. Measurements over the past 50 years or so have left no doubt that global warming disproportionately affects the Arctic, where air temperatures have risen, on average, twice as much as in non-Arctic regions. There are numerous explanations for this magnified warming effect, but explaining them requires first that we mention another easily measured effect of global warming, the dramatic shrinkage in volume and coverage of Arctic ice. Measurements over the past 50 years have shown that the ice cap at and near the pole has lost about 22 percent of its volume through melting because of warmer winters.

The effects on air temperature and ice volume are both related to something called the albedo effect. Simply put, a light-colored surface like a white icecap absorbs less heat from the sun than does a dark surface like soil or even water. The ice has a high albedo, or reflectivity. As Earth’s whole blanket of air warms up it shrinks the edges of the ice cap, exposing darker-colored land or water, which absorbs dramatically more heat from the sun. In a fast-cascading sequence, the surfaces with a lower albedo transfer heat to nearby ice, melting it quickly and exposing even more land. Consequently, the warming in Arctic regions far outpaces warming in less-sensitive regions.

There are other mechanisms as well that make the Arctic especially vulnerable to global warming. These range from macro-conditions to localized phenomena. On the macro side… [End of quoted passages].

In an actual iBT, the reading would be longer, but this sample gives us enough to build a prose summary question. The question might look like this:



An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below. Complete the summary by selecting the THREE answer choices that express the most important ideas in the passage. Some sentences do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not in the passage or are minor ideas in the passage.

This reading passage discusses ways in which the Arctic is affected in especially strong ways by pollution, global warming, and other processes.

Answer choices (choose three)

a. The effects on the Arctic are clear and easily measured.

b. In most locations on Earth, the nature of climate cycles remains uncertain.

c. Dark-colored surfaces like soil and water have a lower albedo than light-colored surfaces like ice.

d. Pollution is high in the Arctic because chemicals from other places concentrate there.

e. Some companies and politicians claim there is no evidence of pollution and climate change.

f. Warming is greater in the Arctic because of processes like ice shrinkage caused by the albedo effect.

On the iBT, you would choose the three best sentences and drag them into the blanks to complete the summary. The three best ones to choose are “a,” “d,” and “f.” If you combine these with the introductory sentence, you get a nice paragraph that covers the main points of the passage. Choices “b” and “c” are not good because they are both minor points, not main ideas. You can find them in the passage, but they don’t really capture main ideas. Choice “e” is obviously not a good one. It states an idea that does not appear at all in the passage. By the way, the order of your choices doesn’t matter. The iBT does not require you to say which choice should be first, second, and third.

In our next TOEFL Booster, we’ll examine the other reading-to-learn task in iBT reading, the schematic table task.

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

(Jun. 18, 2012)
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