We all have to take those standardized tests where you're presented with a large passage of text and you have to work your way through the multiple-choice problems that follow. Most of the time, you'll get questions asking you to find the main idea, determine the author's purpose, understand vocabulary in context, and, the topic at hand, make inferences. For many people, understanding how to make an inference is the toughest part of the reading passage, because an inference in real life requires a bit of guessing.
On a multiple-choice test, however, making an inference comes down to honing a few reading skills like these listed below. Read them, then practice your new skills with the inference practice problems listed below.
Step 1: Identify an Inference Question
First, you'll need to determine whether or not you're actually being asked to make an inference on a reading test. The most obvious questions will have the words "suggest," "imply" or "infer" right in the tag like these:
- "According to the passage, we can reasonably infer..."
- "Based on the passage, it could be suggested that..."
- "Which of the following statements is best supported by the passage?"
- "The passage suggests that this primary problem..."
- "The author seems to imply that…"
Some questions, however, will not come right out and ask you to infer. You'll have to actually infer that you need to make an inference about the passage. Sneaky, huh? Here are a few that require inferencing skills, but don't use those words exactly.
- "With which of the following statements would the author most likely agree?"
- "Which of the following sentences would the author most likely use to add additional support to paragraph three?"
Step 2: Trust the Passage
Now that you're certain you have an inference question on your hands, and you know exactly what an inference is, you'll need to let go of your prejudices and prior knowledge and use the passage to prove that the inference you select is the correct one. Inferences on a multiple-choice exam are different from those in real life. Out in the real world, if you make an educated guess, your inference could still be incorrect. But on a multiple-choice exam, your inference will be correct because you'll use the details in the passage to prove it. You have to trust that the passage offers you the truth in the setting of the test, and that one of the answer choices provided is correct without stepping too far outside the realm of the passage.
Step 3: Hunt for Clues
Your third step is to start hunting for clues – supporting details, vocabulary, character's actions, descriptions, dialogue, and more – to prove one of the inferences listed below the question. Take this question, for example:
Based on the information in the passage, it could be suggested that the narrator believes Elsa's prior marriages to be:
A. uncomfortable, but well-suited to Elsa
B. satisfactory and dull to Elsa
C. cold and damaging to Elsa
D. awful, but worth it to Elsa
The widow Elsa was as complete a contrast to her third bridegroom, in everything but age, as can be conceived. Compelled to relinquish her first marriage after her husband died in the war, she married a man twice her years to whom she became an exemplary wife despite their having nothing in common, and by whose death she was left in possession of a splendid fortune, though she gave it away to the church. Next, a southern gentleman, considerably younger than herself, succeeded to her hand, and carried her to Charleston, where, after many uncomfortable years, she found herself again a widow. It would have been remarkable if any feeling had survived through such a life as Elsa's; it could not but be crushed and killed by the early disappointment of her first groom's demise, the icy duty of her second marriage, and the unkindness of her third husband, which had inevitably driven her to connect the idea of his death with that of her comfort.
To find clues that point to the correct answer, look for descriptions that would support those first adjectives in the answer choices. Here are some of the descriptions of her marriages in the passage:
- "…she became an exemplary wife despite their having nothing in common…"
- "…after many uncomfortable years, she found herself again a widow."
- "…the icy duty of her second marriage and the unkindness of her third husband which had inevitably driven her to connect the idea of his death with that of her comfort."
Step 4: Narrow Down the Choices
The last step to making a correct inference on a multiple-choice test is to narrow down the answer choices. Using the clues from the passage, we can infer that nothing much was "satisfactory" to Elsa about her marriages, which gets rid of Choice B.
Choice A is also incorrect, because although the marriages certainly seem uncomfortable based on the clues, they were not well-suited to her as she had nothing in common with her second husband and wanted her third husband to die.
Choice D is also incorrect, because nothing is stated or implied in the passage to prove that Elsa believed her marriages to be worth it in some way; in fact, we can infer that it wasn't worth it to her at all because she gave away the money from her second husband.
So, we have to believe that Choice C is the best – the marriages were cold and damaging. The passage states explicitly that her marriage was an "icy duty" and her third husband was "unkind." We also know that they were damaging because her feelings had been "crushed and killed" by her marriages.
Step 5: Practice
To get really good at making inferences, you'll need to practice making your own inferences first, so start with these three:
Once you finish those, come back here and try your hand at a few multiple-choice inference questions similar to those you'll see on the reading portion of a standardized test.