TOEFL Reading: Inference Questions

By John M.

a tribute o my frinds since grade school-Mar-30-2021-07-39-19-17-PMThe TOEFL Reading section involves several distinct types of questions. In preparing for your test, it is important to know: what kinds of questions there are, how to identify each kind of question, and how to answer each kind of question. This lesson will teach you how to identify and answer what the TOEFL calls Inference Questions.

1. How to identify inference questions

Inference questions ask about what is implied – but not explicitly stated – in the reading passage. You can identify these questions because they almost always include one of three words: infer, imply, or suggest. As soon as you see one of these three words in the question – infer, imply, or suggest – you can be pretty sure that it is an Inference Question. (And if you don’t see one of them, you can be pretty sure that it is not an Inference Question).

2. How to answer inference questions

Once you've identified a question as an Inference Question, you can begin to answer it. Since the answer to these questions is usually not explicitly in the reading or in the answers, do not begin by scanning the text or by looking at the answers. Instead, think for a moment about what the question is asking.

An inference question will almost always have a subject, which is given in the question. For example: 

Which of the following can be inferred about Melville's poetry?

Your first step should be to identify the subject of the question.  For example, the subject of the question above is simply Melville’s poetry.

Your second step should be to summarize in your own words what the passage says about the subject. You do not need to quote the passage. In fact, you shouldn't do that. Instead, think to yourself: what does this passage say about the subject?

Your third step should be to compare your summary to the answers. If you have formulated a good summary, then there will be exactly one answer that is pretty similar to your summary. That is the correct answer!

So, remember, there are three steps:

  • Identify the subject
  • Summarize what the passage says about the subject
  • Compare your summary to the answers

Let's walk through those steps by looking in detail at an example.

3. A Sample Question

Your reading will typically consist of a text that is several paragraphs long. The question will typically display one of the paragraphs you read and then ask you a question about it. For example, your question might look like this:

Until the 1850's, Herman Melville primarily published novels, including Moby Dick, which would later become one of America's most famous and beloved novels. His novels, however, had extremely low sales, and Melville had to quit writing novels because no publisher would agree to print his books. In an effort to make more money from his writing, Melville chose to publish some poetry instead. Poetry was extremely popular and sold well in 19th-century America, so Melville expected to make a profit from his first book of poems. These poems, however, were as unpopular as his novels, and sold scarcely any copies.

Which of the following can be inferred about Melville's poetry?

A. It was not as well-written as Melville's novels.
B. It was written primarily in iambic pentameter.
C. It did not yield a significant profit for Melville.
D. It was Melville's only possible way of making money.

OK, let's go through our steps. 

Before we begin, let's confirm this is an Inference Question. Does the question include "infer," "imply," or "suggest"? It does. So this is almost certainly an inference question. So let's go through our three steps: identify, summarize, and compare.

First, identify. What's the subject of this question? Remember that the subject will be in the question, so, as noted above, the subject of this question is Melville's poetry.

Second, summarize. What does the passage say about Melville's poetry? Well, it says that Melville started writing novels, but these didn't make money, so he tried writing poetry instead, but his poems didn't sell many copies. So we might summarize in this way: Melville published poems in order to make money, but nobody bought his poems. Remember, our summary doesn't need to cover everything (in fact it shouldn't), and it doesn't have to be perfectly written (or written down at all). It should just summarize in our own words what the passage says about the subject. And our summary does that. 

Third, compare. Now we simply go through each of the answers. A and B aren’t close to our summary (can you see why?). Let’s look at C and D:

C. It did not yield a significant profit for Melville.

How does this compare to our summary? It's pretty close. If your poems don't sell, they don't make a significant profit. In fact, it implies that you don't make a significant profit. 

D. It was Melville's only possible way of making money.

How does this compare to our summary? Well, our summary does say that Melville was trying to make money by selling poems, but it doesn't say that it was his only possible way. So that word "only" makes this answer too strong, and we should reject it.

So C is the correct answer. It's the only answer that is appropriately similar to our summary, and in fact in this case it's pretty clearly implied by our summary.

5. Review.

What have we learned? We've learned a few things:

  • How to identify one kind of question on TOEFL Reading: Inference
  • How to answer these kinds of questions
  • How to find the answer to one specific sample questions

This method is a basic guide: it will not guarantee that you will get every Inference Question correct, but it will allow you to approach Inference Questions in a clear and efficient way, so that you can focus on reading and understanding academic English.

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