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Inference Questions in ACT Reading: Strategies + Practice

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jul 22, 2015 5:34:14 PM

ACT Reading

 

feature_ponderingcat.jpg

Questions that ask you about what infomation can be inferred from a line or series of lines on ACT Reading comprise about 15% of ACT Reading questions (based on my analysis of 4 publicly available ACTs). In order to answer these inference questions correctly, you must be able to understand what is written in the text and take one tiny, logical step beyond what is directly stated.

But how are inference questions asked, and what ACT Reading strategies can you use to answer them? Keep reading to find out and prep for this important question type!

feature image credit: Stevie Nicks by Trish Hamme, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

What Are Inference Questions?

Inference questions on ACT reading ask you to interpret or infer the meaning (rather than function) of a phrase, line, or series of lines. Unlike with detail questions, this meaning asked about in inference questions will not be directly stated in the text, which is why inference questions use wordings like “can be reasonably inferred that” or “suggests that.” Since there can only be one correct answer, however, the answers to inference questions cannot be subjective or ambiguous.

On ACT Reading, there are three main subcategories of inference questions: deduction, speculation, and examination questions.

 

Type 1: Deduction

Deduction questions are the simplest type of inference questions, because they only ask you to fill in missing information. In some ways, they are very similar to detail questions, except the paraphrasing that you must do in order to answer them requires you to make a logical deduction. Here's an example of a deduction question:

It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that the woman most strongly desires to attain which of the following qualities from dreaming?

A. Relaxation
B. Self-awareness
C. Entertainment
D. Self-control

For this example, I’ll save you the work of having to go through the passage and find the relevant lines (although that’s part of what makes inference questions challenging on the ACT). Here is an excerpt from the opening of the passage with the information you need:

The woman never dreams and this makes her intensely miserable. She thinks that by not dreaming she is unaware of things about herself that dreams would surely give her. She doesn’t have the door of dreams that opens every night to question the certain- ties of the day. She stays at the threshold, and the door is always closed, refusing her entrance.

My thoughts:

So the woman “never dreams” which makes her “intensely miserable.” Why is she miserable? Because “she thinks that by not dreaming she is unaware of things about herself that dreams would surely give her.” So she’s unhappy about not dreaming because she thinks it’s stopping her from gaining awareness about herself (self-awareness). To take a step further, then, self-awareness is something that she wants to gain. The answer to this question is B.

There will be a more full walkthrough of an inference question later on in this article – the point of that was to show the itsy bitsy step you have to take beyond what is written to answer inference questions. This is not like high school English literature classes, where you’re encouraged to make any interpretation you can, as long as you can back it up with enough words/rambling; you are really only making a logical extension from things that are directly stated in the passage.

Some examples of how these questions have been asked on the ACT (modified for your entertainment):

  • “It can most reasonably be inferred that the narrator’s discovery that an error has been made in programming the Mars probe is for him a source of:”
  • “It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that before Harrison’s efforts, other individuals trying to solve the problem of space travel had failed to:”
  • “The passage suggests that Armstrong’s most important contribution to science was his:”

 

Type 2: Speculation

This second subtype of questions ask you to speculate (hence the name) about the meaning of a statement, description, or something else in the passage. Speculation questions can be worded similarly to function questions, but the answer choices and the skills needed to answer the questions differentiate them.

Example:

In the context of the passage, the statement “All the guitars are made from certified wood” (lines 34–35) most nearly suggests that Gomes’s workshop:

To turn this into a function question, the question would have to change to the following:

“In the context of the passage, what is the function of the statement ‘All guitars are made from certified wood (lines 34-35’)."

...to which the answer would be something like "demonstrate that there is accountability at every level of the instrument making process." Instead, the question as it is currently worded asks "what does [the description] say/what’s the implication or suggested meaning of this statement/what does this emphasize about that other thing?"

Here are a few more examples of how this sort of inference question is asked:

  • “The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:”
  • “The paradox mentioned in the second paragraph (lines 9–14) is best described by which of the following statements?"
  • “It can most reasonably be inferred from the passage that when the narrator says, “I didn’t see the red, yellow, and purple clusters that meant flowers to me” (lines 30–31), she is most nearly indicating that:”
  • “When the narrator says, “I began to think of the present more than of the future” (lines 80–81), she most likely means that meeting Eugene led her to:”
  • “It can most reasonably be inferred that for the narrator, the image of the diver bursting through the ocean’s sparkling membrane” (line 52) symbolizes her:”
  • “By her statements in lines 77–80, the narrator is most nearly asserting that:”

 

Type 3: Examination

The wording of examination questions is very close to that of deduction questions, often starting with the phrase "It can reasonably be inferred that..." Rather than asking about specific facts, however, examination questions ask about the internal thoughts, feelings, or motivations of the narrator, author, or someone mentioned in the passage. Every examination question can basically be boiled down to "What would [that person] think about [this thing]?"

Examination questions are the most complex type of inference question, because they ask you to get into the head of the author, narrator, character, or other person mentioned in the text. Furthermore, these types of questions often show up on paired passages, asking with the author of one passage would think about something the author of the other passage discussed. See below for some examples:

  • “It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that the narrator regards her initial discovery of the truth about the reason the Mars probe failed as:”
  • “It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that within the scientific community the year the passage was published, the small-comet theory was:”
  • “It can most reasonably be inferred from the passage that regarding NASA, the author feels:”
  • It can reasonably be inferred that after seeing the first man walk on the moon, compared to the narrator of Passage B, the narrator of Passage A felt:

 

As I believe I've said before, it’s a shame the answers to questions on the ACT cannot be cat pictures. Because that's probably the most concise description of how the narrator of Passage A felt.

 

5 Fabulous Strategies to Attack ACT Reading Inference Questions

Today, I have gathered together for you five top strategies here to help you with inference questions. Some of these strategies are more useful for certain passage approaches (for instance, if you read the pasage thoroughly, you probably don't need to look for context as much as students who skim or start with the question first). Some advice, however, is useful for everyone

 

Look For Context

One weird thing that the ACT Reading section likes to do (and the SAT Reading does NOT do) is to ask you to make inferences about things from the passage...without providing any location information. I personally think that this is a pointless exercise, because all it does is give you less time to think because you're scrambling through the passage to even find the information being asked about in the first place. Although I suppose that this is a skill that could come in handy in college/university if you haven't done the reading for the class and are unexpectedly called upon to answer a question about it.

In any case, even after you’ve found the thing being asked about in an inference question on ACT Reading (for instance, “the first woman to command a mission to the International Space Station”), you might find that that sentence may not contain all the information you need to answer the inference question. If you're struggling with an inference question because you need more context, the best places to look are at the sentences directly before and after the phrase, sentence, or lines you're given in the question. In those cases where you need even more context to answer inference questions, like knowing the bigger picture/main point/perspective of the text/author, I find the best strategy is to circle the question and come back to it after you’ve answered relevant big picture questions (such as questions about the paragraph/section the lines in question are in, or even questions about the whole passage).

 

Answer In Your Own Words

I believe that this is the most important strategy for answering inference questions correctly. If you can come up with the answer in your own words before you look at the answer choices, you will more easily be able to sidestep the traps the ACT has set for you. Why? Because if you answer the question using your own words, you're far more likely to only include relevant (and accurate) information. Your answer for “Garrison mentions the impact of a certain kind of meteor in order to illustrate…” will probably not be as elegant as the answer choices, but if you've done your job and only based your answer on the text, you will have a far easier time of picking the right answer (all you have to do is choose the answer choice that best matches your own).

Wrong answer choices often have irrelevant information, or contain interpretations that “seem like they could be true.” This is especially annoying because, as I stated earlier, high school classes train you to see a situation from as many points of view as possible, so your impulse may be to try and prove how each answer COULD be true. No! Don't listen to it! There is only one right answer on the ACT, and even inference questions will not require you to assume much beyond what is written. If you start with your own answer in your own words, it's a lot easier to choose the right answer choice (which has the correct answer, but in the ACT's own words).

 

Nail Down Other ACT Reading Skills

As I was completing my analysis of ACT Reading sections by question type, I had this realization: inference questions are often the trickiest type of questions because you need several of the other Reading skills in order to answer them successfully.

Take this question:

It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that the narrator thinks her hometown has:

F. improved significantly over the years.
G. made little genuine progress.
H. remained about the same as it was years ago.
J. a chance of being rebuilt as it used to be.

To answer this question correctly, you need...

  • Little Picture skills. You need to figure out where in the passage the narrator indicates she is thinking about her home town and how it has changed.
  • Big Picture skills. You need to be able to scan passage to get a sense of the attitude of the narrator. Even if all you're able to figure out is the general tone of the passage (is it positive or negative towards her hometown? Which answers are positive and which are negative?), you might be able to get rid of some answer choices.

 

body_hammerithome.jpghammer time by Seniju, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Let your will be as the hammer and the nails as the ACT Reading skills you will hammer into the surface of your brain. I don't know what your fingers are in this analogy, though.

 

Answer ACT Reading Questions In The Order That Works For You

Something that it can be hard to wrap you mind around is that you don't have to answer questions in the order of they appear on ACT Reading. Going out of order runs you the risk of accidentally skipping questions, but the time you may save from answering questions in a particular order could make up for it (since you could use that extra time to make sure you've answered all the questions and filled out the right answers). I've created three different scenarios of the order in which you could answer questions, depending on how you approach the passage.

If you are a quick and thorough reader, and read each passage in full before answering questions, I recommend that you start with big picture questions before moving on to inference and function questions. The advantage of being able to read quickly (and thoroughly) is that you can answer questions about larger amounts of text while they're still fresh, so it makes sense to start out with those questions, rather than getting bogged down in detail with little picture or vocab in context questions. If you read quickly enough to get through the passage and still have plenty of time to answer the questions, going in order is possible, but as someone who reads a book every couple of days (that is, I read quickly), I would still recommend starting with big picture questions and then moving on to inference questions.

If your approach to ACT Reading involves reading the questions, then going back to the passage as needed, my advice is the complete opposite: start with little picture and vocab in context questions before moving on to inference questions. The answers to those kinds of detail questions will provide more information about the author and topic being covered, which in turn will provide context that might be useful for answering inference questions. If it turns out that you need "big picture" information to answer a particular inference question, you can always mark that question and come back to it later.

If you start out ACT Reading by skimming the passage, then answering what questions you can before going back to the passage, I recommend getting both big and little picture questions out of the way before you move on to inference questions. Unless the phrase, sentence, or lines being asked about in an inference question was/were in the part of the text you read in your skim-through, it's unlikely you would be able to answer it right off the bat, whereas you might have the information you need to answer big picture questions and little picture questions (because you know where those details are likely to be) from skimming.

 

Eliminate Answers

The fundamental rule to answering every ACT Reading question is that you must eliminate three wrong answers. While answering the question in your own words first can make eliminating wrong answers easier (since you're looking for answer choices that match the answer you came up with), this is not always the case for inference questions. On occasion, I have found myself frustrated with inference questions because the inference I make from the text is correct, but it's not the information the ACT is looking for. As an example, for the question "It can most reasonably be inferred that the narrator’s discovery that the last of Boston's excessive snow melted on July 14th was to her a source of:" my initial instinct was that this fact was an endless source of jokes for the narrator, when in fact the question was asking about the narrator's feelings (and so none of the answer choices matched my inference, even though it was possibly also correct).

So if you are in a situation where you haven't been able to use context and answer the question in your own words in a way that matches up with the answer choices, what do you do? Going through each answer choice might seem daunting at first, since each answer is has multiple facets to it. In actuality, though, complicated answer choices are easier to eliminate, because if any part of the answer choice is false, you can cross it out. Here's an example:

Each of the three projects described in the passage reveals:

A. the increasing antagonism between the grandfather and grandson.
B. the errors the narrator makes and the disapproval they bring from others.
C. that such incidents set the stage for the Bryant family traits to emerge.
D. that the narrator is determined to avoid being ungrateful, hateful, or overly fastidious.

If you can eliminate any part of the answer choice, you can eliminate the whole thing. Take answer A. the increasing antagonism between the grandfather and grandson.

  • Is there antagonism between grandfather and grandson? If not, ELIMINATE (spoiler: there is not)
  • Is that antagonism increasing? If not, ELIMINATE
  • Do the projects show that the antagonism between the grandfather and grandson is increasing? If not, ELIMINATE

As you can see, there are many chances for elimination – it should be really hard for an answer to make the cut. For this question, the correct answer, C, passes this test: there are incidents (the three projects) and they do set the stage for Bryant family traits to emerge.

 

Inference Questions: A Walkthrough through Real Questions

Before giving you some practice inference questions to work on, I wanted to do a walkthrough of answering an inference question. I'll have way more in depth explanations in this walkthrough than you would have to justify to yourself on the test, because I want to make sure my reasoning is clear, so don't be intimidated by how detailed it gets. My internal thought process is presented in italics.

Here's the question:

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

A. feel more like a patient than a physician.
B. become a more important part of the real world.
C. understand his patients’ illnesses better.
D. see if being a naturalist is like being a physician.

Rephrase the question: change it from “why does the author leave the hospital” to “what’s the main thing that leaving the hospital let the author do?”

Here is that last paragraph:

With this in mind, I have taken off my white coat, deserted, by and large, the hospitals where I have spent the last twenty-five years, to explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world, feeling in part like a naturalist, examining rare forms of life; in part like an anthropologist, a neuroanthropologist, in the field—but most of all like a physician, called here and there to make house calls, house calls at the far borders of human experience.

 

Step one: Look for context

Luckily, this question gives specific location information (last paragraph), so I don’t have to hunt all through the passage for the information to answer the question.

 

body_peering.jpgmagellan by fPat Murray, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Monkey and binoculars: not necessary for finding the answers to inference questions, but still adorable.

 

 

Step two: Answer in my own words

So the main thing that leaving the hospital to visit his patients lets the author do is “explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world,” which involves “feeling in part like a naturalist, examining rare forms of life; in part like an anthropologist, a neuroanthropologist, in the field—but most of all like a physician”

 

Step three: Can I eliminate any answers based on my answer in my own words?

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

A. feel more like a patient than a physician.

No, because it says he feels “most of all like a physician.” I can eliminate this straight off the bat!

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

B. become a more important part of the real world.

Mentions something about the real world in the passage. not sure. Can’t eliminate it just yet.

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

C. understand his patients’ illnesses better.

Mentions exploring his patients’ lives…maybe related to understanding illnesses? Can’t eliminate just yet.

D. see if being a naturalist is like being a physician.

Does say something about “feeling in part like a naturalist,” and “but most of all like a physician,” which I guess could be comparing them? I don’t know. Need to examine the next more closely. Let’s go back to the text again:

With this in mind, I have taken off my white coat,

Wait, hold up. The first sentence of the paragraph begins, “With this in mind.” NO no no no this is not how we start paragraphs. Not with an unclear antecedent! But since the author made that choice, I GUESS I need to figure out what the “this” that he’s keeping in mind is. To the previous paragraph for more context!

The study of disease, for the physician, demands the study of identity, the inner worlds that patients, under the spur of illness, create. But the realities of patients, the ways in which they and their brains construct their own worlds, cannot be comprehended wholly from the observation of behavior, from the outside.

Aha! So the doctor decided to visit patients at home keeping in mind that “The study of disease…demands the study of identity…But the realities of patients…cannot be comprehended wholly…from the outside.”

Does the paragraph make more sense now?

With this in mind, I have taken off my white coat, deserted, by and large, the hospitals where I have spent the last twenty-five years, to explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world, feeling in part like a naturalist, examining rare forms of life; in part like an anthropologist, a neuroanthropologist, in the field—but most of all like a physician, called here and there to make house calls, house calls at the far borders of human experience.

Okay. So the answer to “what’s the main thing that visiting patients at home allows the author to do” is that it allows him to “explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world” because figuring out what’s wrong with them can’t be done just “from the outside”

Another look at the remaining answers:

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

B. become a more important part of the real world.

Seems broad. I’m already making the inference that the doctor wants to explore his patients’ lives from the inside to figure out what’s wrong with them because doing it from the outside isn’t enough – taking another leap to having him do it to “become a more important part of the real world” seems too iffy for the ACT. Tentatively cross this one out.

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

C. understand his patients’ illnesses better.

Oh. Well. Yes. That is the reason, except instead of “figure out what’s wrong with his patients” the ACT is way more elegant and went with “understand his patients’ illnesses better.” I guess I’ll check the last answer, just in case.

The last paragraph suggests that the author’s main reason for leaving the hospital to visit his patients is to allow him to:

D. see if being a naturalist is like being a physician.

Nope, he doesn’t care about being a naturalist! It’s a red herring!

The answer must be C.

 

body_redherring.jpgRed herring @ Lowestoft, Suffolk by Tim Parkinson, used under CC BY 2.0.

Don't be fooled by red herring answer choices!

 

ACT Reading Practice Questions on Inferences: Your Turn!

Now that you've made it through that walkthrough of an inference question, it's time for you to practice on your own! Click on the image below for a larger version of the passage.

body_ACTinference_1.jpg

1. It is reasonable to infer from the passage that the narrator looks back on the dinner-dances as a time when:

F. her parents were in conflict over her mother’s work.
G. the entire family was filled with excitement and anticipation.
H. she and her father had a much easier relationship with each other.
J. her mother and father had renewed hope for the future of the family.

 

2. When the narrator says, “I solemnly would nod—the honored recipient of this arcane cultural wisdom” (lines 53–54), she most likely means that:

A. she felt intimidated when her father was giving her information that she did not understand.
B. her father was honored to be able to share personal information with his daughter.
C. when her father put on his tie, she pretended to be honored, even though she thought his comment was silly.
D. the information her father was giving her seemed important and made her feel valued.

 

3. The sentence “Like an eagle, her words slipped regally down a great distance and struck with awful ease” (lines 75–76) indicates that the narrator:

F. was not sure what her mother expected of her.
G. recognized that her mother was being demeaned.
H. wanted to distance herself from her mother.
J. was ill at ease with her position in the family.

 

4. Based on the last two paragraphs (lines 78–92), which of the following statements indicates what the narrator’s father and mother have in common?

F. They both want control of the family finances.
G. They are both fighting for their self-respect.
H. They both want to teach a lesson to their children.
J. They are both angry at the woman who came for the fitting.

 

 

Answer key (scroll down when ready):

 

1. G 2. D 3. G 4. G

 

In Conclusion...

  • Inference questions ask you about the meaning of a phrase, sentence, or series of lines in a passage
  • Look for context to help you answer the question
  • Answer the question in your own words before looking at the ACT’s answer choices
  • Nail down other ACT Reading skills to help you answer inference questions
  • Attack questions in an order that makes sense, based on the way you read the passage/your own test-taking style
  • Eliminate 3 wrong answers

 

What’s Next?

Want to up your ACT Reading game? Check out more of our ACT Reading Skills articles, including articles on vocab in context, big picture, little picture, function and development, and paired passage questions. For a deeper look at paired passages, also be sure to read about why ACT Reading paired passages are so difficult.

Feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to read the passage? Find out the best way to practice ACT Reading and what's actually tested on ACT Reading.

Worried about running out of time on ACT Reading? You’re not alone. Read more about how to avoid a time-crunch here!

Do you find that breaking down questions by skill type and drilling them really works for you? Consider the signing up for the PrepScholar platform to jumpstart your test prep!

 

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



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