How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

how-to-answer-inference-questions

How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

Questions that ask you what information can be inferred (or what author suggests) from one or several lines comprise about 15% of ACT Reading questions. In order to be learn how to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading correctly, you must understand what is written in the text and then make a logical step forward.

In this article we are going to describe how the inference questions are asked on ACT Reading. We will also talk about what strategies you can use to answer inference questions.

What Are Inference Questions?

How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

Inference questions on ACT Reading ask you to infer (or interpret) the author’s meaning of a phrase, line, or a set of lines. These types of questions are the exact opposite of detail questions. The Detail questions ask about details directly stated in the text while inference questions ask about details NOT directly stated in the text. You can easily identify inference questions on ACT Reading because they use phrases such as “can be reasonably inferred” or “the author suggests that.” The #1 Rule of ACT is that each question has only one unambiguously correct answer. This applies to inference questions where the answers cannot be subjective but must be supported by the text.

Inference questions ACT Reading are of three different types: deduction, speculation, and examination. Let’s talk about each in more detail.

Type 1: Deduction

How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

Deduction questions are the easiest type of inference questions on ACT Reading. These questions are similar to detail questions because they ask you to fill in missing information. The only difference between these types of questions and detail questions on the ACT Reading is that in order to answer inference questions, you have to make a logical deduction. Let’s look at an example of a deduction question from a real ACT test:

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The first thing you have to do is to find this information in the passage. This step is what makes inference questions on ACT Reading difficult. For the sake of illustrating this example, I will provide the relevant lines.

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My Deduction Process

The woman “never dreams” and is “intensely miserable” because of that. Why is she miserable? Because “she thinks that by not dreaming she is unaware of things about herself.” The logical step is that if she could dream she would be aware “of things about herself,” i.e. self-aware. Looking at the answer choices, I choose the correct answer B.

These questions are different from your high school Literature class where you are encouraged to make any interpretation you can as long as you can reasonably back it up with analysis – where you are essentially analyzing things that are explicitly stated in the passage.

The Deduction type of Inference questions on the ACT Reading can come in multiple forms. Here are some examples from real published ACT exams:

Type 2: Speculation

Speculation type of inference questions ask you to speculate about the meaning of something in the passage – a phrase, a description, a feeling, etc. These questions are similar to function questions but require different skills to answer the questions.

Here is an example of a speculation type inference question from the real ACT exam:

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Let’s look at lines 34-35:

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The easiest way to answer this question is to eliminate the three wrong answers.

  • Answer choice G – Gomes’s workshop “isn’t doing enough to stop unnecessary deforestation in the Amazon.” There is no mention of Amazon, so we can eliminate choice G.
  • Answer choice H says that Gomes’s workshop “has little chance of pleasing both musicians and environmentalists.” Although the referenced lines do mention guitars and the excerpt mentions that trees are close to extinction (which is an environmental problem), there is no mention of displeasing of two different groups (musicians and environmentalists). We can eliminate choice H.
  • Answer choice J states that Gomes’s workshop “uses only traditional woods in making its guitars.” This could be true but we don’t know if “certified wood” is the same as “traditional wood” and we cannot make an assumption that they are. Because of this, we can eliminate choice J.
  • We are left with the correct answer F which states that Gomes’s workshop “uses environmentally sustainable (not close to extinction) woods in its guitars.

If this question were turned into a function question, it would ask:

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

The answer to this question would be something like “demonstrate that there is accountability at each level of guitar making process.”

Speculation type of inference questions on ACT Reading come in a variety of forms. Here are some examples from real ACT tests:

Type 3: Examination

How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

The wording of examination type of inference questions is very similar to that of deduction questions in that both usually start with “it can be inferred that …” However, while deduction questions ask about specific facts, examination inference questions ask about internal thoughts, feelings, or motivation of the narrator, the author, or someone mentioned in the passage. Every examination question can be summarized to ask “what would [this person] think about [this event or thing].”

Examination questions are the most difficult type of inference questions because they ask you to understand what someone else is thinking or feeling. These questions frequently appear in paired passages and ask how would author of passage 1 react to a statement made by the author of passage 2 (or vice versa).

Here are some examples of examination type of inference questions from a real ACT exam:

5 Strategies to Answer ACT Reading Inference Questions

Now that we’ve defined what inference questions on ACT Reading are and the three types of inferences questions, let’s talk about strategies that can help you answer them accurately and quickly.

Strategy 1: Look for Context

How to Answer Inference Questions on ACT Reading

One thing that ACT Reading section does (and SAT does not do) is ask you to make inferences from the passage without giving you a clue to where in the passage the information could be located. Personally, I think this approach is useless because instead of focusing on the actual inference, you’re scrambling to find supporting information in the passage.

You might have noticed that, sometimes, even if you found the place in the passage that has the phrase mentioned in an inference question, that place might not have all of the information needed to actually answer the inference question.

Strategy 1: Look for Context (cont’d)

If you are struggling with a question because you need more context to make a reasonable inference, start by looking at the sentence immediately before and immediately after the word, phrase, or sentence stated in the question. If, after doing that, you still need more context (e.g. you need to know the bigger picture / the author’s intent or perspective / the main point) then you should circle the question (or mark it in some other reliable way) and come back to it after you’ve answered the big picture questions related to the same area of the passage that you are stuck on. Doing that should give you a better understanding of the context and help you answer each question.

Strategy 2: Answer in Your Own Words

Some of the answer choices can be confusing just because they are too wordy. If you are rushing through the test you might not notice a key word that makes an answer choice correct or incorrect. This is why I believe that the most useful strategy for answering ACT Reading inference questions is to answer them in your own words from your understanding of what you’ve read before looking at the answer choices. When you answer questions in your own words you are very likely to only include relevant (and accurate) information. By employing this strategy, you are much more likely to avoid the traps the ACT Reading sets out for you.

Wrong answer choices often contain irrelevant information, information that is too broad for the question, or information that could be true but is not supported with evidence from the passage. This is counterintuitive for many students because high school classes train you to analyze a piece of writing from all possible angles. This in-school training is what leads many students to pick an answer choice that COULD be correct. Do not fall for this trap! The #1 rule of ACT Reading is that there is one and only one correct answer choice to every question and it must be supported by the information from the passage – this applies to both directly stated as well as inference questions. If you start by answering each question in your own words, it will be a lot easier to pick the correct answer choice and not fall for a trick.

Strategy 3: Make Sure You Are Confident at Answering Other Types of ACT Reading Questions

Most students consider inference questions to be the trickiest. This is because in order to answer them successfully, you need to master several other Reading skills.

For example, consider this question:

how-to-answer-inference-questions

To answer this question correctly, you need:

  • Small Picture Skills – to determine where in the passage the narrator is thinking about her hometown and how it has changed.
  • Big Picture Skills – to determine the narrator’s attitude. If you can figure out the general tone (positive or negative) of the passage, you might be able to use that to eliminate some of the answer choices. For example, answer choices F (improved significantly) and J (has a chance of being rebuilt) are both positive, while answer choices G (made little progress) and H (remained the same) are on the negative / neutral side. If the author’s attitude is positive, then the correct answer will most likely be F or J.

Strategy 4: Answer ACT Reading Questions in the Order That Works for You

There is absolutely no rule that says that you have to answer each question in the order presented on ACT Reading. Answering questions out of order do carry a risk that you might accidentally skip one, but it also has a potential time saving benefit by answering the more straightforward questions first and getting enough context to help you answer the trickier questions later. There are three different strategies that can be employed depending on your approach to the passage.

If you read the passage in full before answering questions
  • I recommend that you answer big picture questions first and then move on to small picture and inference questions. The advantage of reading the passage first is that you can answer questions about larger amounts of text while they’re still fresh in your mind. This way you’re not getting overwhelmed with details of little picture or vocabulary in context questions.
If you read the questions and then go back to the passage as needed
  • I recommend the complete opposite: focus on the small picture details and vocabulary in context questions first. Your answers to those types of questions will provide you with information about the topic of the passage and well as context which will be useful for answering big picture and inference questions.
If you skim the passage, then answer what questions you can and then go back to the passage
  • I recommend answering both big and small picture questions first before moving on to inference questions. Unless an inference question specifically references a line, a set of lines, or a paragraph that you happened to read while skimming, it is very unlikely that you will be able to answer these questions directly, but you will have enough information to answer small picture and big picture questions because (if you skim effectively) you would get a general idea of the construction of the passage.

Strategy 5: Eliminate Answers

As we mentioned earlier in this article as well as in an entire separate article on this topic, the #1 rule to answering every ACT Reading question is that there is only one correct answer that must be supported by the information in the text. This means that you must eliminate three wrong answers. While answering each question in your own words might make eliminating the three wrong choices easier (because you would be looking for an answer choice that matches your reasoning), it is not always the case with inference questions.

So what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where you answer the question in your own words and your answer doesn’t match any of the answer choices? You have to consider all of the available answer choices and eliminate the wrong ones. Going through this process can seem disheartening (because each answer choice usually presents a different view), but actually complicated answers are easier to eliminate, because if any part of an answer choice is false, you can get rid of it. For example,

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Let’s take answer choice A.

  • Is there antagonism between the narrator and his grandfather? No. ELIMINATE
  • If there was antagonism, it is increasing? No. ELIMINATE
  • Do the 3 described projects show that the antagonism is increasing? No. ELIMINATE

As you can see from this example, there are many chances for elimination. For this question, the correct answer is C – the three described projects involved incidents that did “set the stage for the Bryant family traits to emerge.”

Real ACT Example:

Before we conclude this article, I wanted to walk you through an ACT Reading inference question. The explanations below are probably way more specific and in depth than any kind of reasoning you would do on the test, so please don’t get intimidated by the detail.

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Here’s the last paragraph referenced in the question:

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Step 1: Look for context.

This question provides us with the reference to the text so we don’t have to hunt all over the passage to find the relevant information.

Step 2: Answer in Your Own Words.

The question can be rephrased from “why does the author leave the hospital” to “what is the main or important thing that leaving the hospital allows the author to do?”

The author leaves the hospital to visit his patients because this gives him an opportunity to “explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world” and makes him feel “like a naturalist, examining rare forms of life; in part like an anthropologist, a neuro-anthropologist, in the field – but most of all like a physician.”

Step 3: Can I eliminate any of the choices based on the answer in my own words?

A. feel more like a patient than a physician

No, because he says he feels “like a physician.” I can eliminate this answer choice right away.

B. become a more important part of the real world

Something about the real world is mentioned in the paragraph. Can’t eliminate it just yet.

C. understand his patients’ illnesses better

Passage mentions that he took off his “white coat … to explore [his] subjects’ lives as they live in the real world.” Maybe this is related to understanding illnesses. Can’t eliminate this choice.

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

The passage says “feeling like a naturalist,” and “most of all like a physician.” These quotes seem to compare naturalist to physician. I should examine this option more closely.

Let’s go back to the text again:

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The first sentence starts with “with this in mind…” What is “this” referring to? It’s an unclear antecedent. I must figure out what is “this” that he’s keeping in his mind. To get more context we go to a previous paragraph.

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Ok, from this paragraph, we can understand that the author feels that it is impossible to understand patients’ illnesses from the “observation of behavior,” so he decided to “explore subjects’ lives as they live in the real world” by visiting the patients at home.

With this understanding in mind, we can infer that the answer to “what is the main or important thing that visiting patients at home allow the author to do” is that it allows him to “explore subjects’ lives as they live in the real world” because their illnesses cannot be understood entirely “from observation of behavior, from the outside.”

Let’s look at the remaining answer choices again.

B. become a more important part of the real world

This is too broad. We’ve already made an inference that the author wants to study his patients’ illnesses in the patients’ lives “as they live in the real world” instead of observing their behaviors from the outside. The author is talking about his patients’ illnesses, not being an important part of the world.  Tentatively ELIMINATE.

C . understand his patients’ illnesses better

Yes, the exact reason the author takes off his white coat and decides to observe patients’ illnesses “in the real world” is because he wants to understand those illnesses better. KEEP this answer choice.

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

No. There is nothing in the passage that mentions that the author wants to be a naturalist. It’s a trick! ELIMINATE.

The correct answer is C.

Summary

  • Inference questions will ask you about the meaning of a line, a series of lines, a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph in a passage.
  • To answer inference questions – look for context
  • Answer each question in your own words and then look for the answer choice that matches your reasoning
  • Make sure you have a solid grasp of other ACT Reading skills such as Big Picture and Small Picture questions.
  • Answer questions in the order that makes sense to you. This may depend on what your reading strategy is.
  • Eliminate 3 wrong answers

Next Steps

Want to improve your performance on ACT Reading? Take a look at our ACT Reading skills articles dealing with specific topics such as small picture, big picture, function and development, and paired passage questions.

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Find out the best way to practice for ACT Reading and what is actually tested on ACT Reading.

Do you worry about the time crunch on the ACT? Take a look at our ACT Reading skills article on how to stop running out of time.

Want to watch me talk about this topic on YouTube? Check out this video!

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