Making inferences is a comprehension strategy used by proficient readers to “read between the lines,” make connections, and draw conclusions about the text’s meaning and purpose.
You already make inferences all of the time. For example, imagine you go over to a friend’s house and they point at the sofa and say, “Don’t sit there, Cindy came over with her baby again.” What could you logically conclude?
First, you know there must be a reason not to sit where your friend is pointing. Next, the reason not to sit there is related to the fact that Cindy just visited with her baby. You don’t know what exactly happened, but you can make an inference and don’t need to ask any more questions to know that you do not want to sit there.
Practice making inferences
Imagine you witness the following unrelated situations—what can you infer about each one?
- You see a woman pushing a baby stroller down the street.
- You are at a corner and see two parked cars at an intersection, and the driver in back starts honking his horn.
- You are walking down the street, and suddenly a dog comes running out of an opened door with its tail between its legs.
For the first, you probably came up with something simple, such as there was a baby in the stroller.
For the second, you might have inferred that the first car should have started moving, or was waiting too long at the corner and holding up the second car.
For the third, you could reasonably guess that the dog had done something wrong and was afraid to get punished.
You do not know for 100% certainty that these inferences are true. If you checked 100 strollers, 99 times you would find a baby, but maybe one time you would find something else, like groceries.
Making inferences as you read
To make inferences from reading, take two or more details from the reading and see if you can draw a conclusion. Remember, making an inference is not just making a wild guess. You need to make a judgment that can be supported, just as you could reasonably infer there is a baby in a stroller, but not reasonably infer that there are groceries, even though both would technically be a “guess.”
When you are asked an inference question, go back over the reading and look for hints within the text, such as words that are directly related to the question you may be asked (such as for a multiple choice test) or words that indicate opinion.
Here is an example:
Hybrid cars are good for the environment, but they may not perform as well as cars that run only on gasoline. The Toyota Prius gets great gas mileage and has low emissions making it a good “green” option. However, many people think that it is unattractive. The Prius also cannot accelerate as quickly as other models, and cannot hold as many passengers as larger gas-fueled SUVs and vans. Compared to similar gas-fueled options, hybrid cars also cost more money up front. A new hybrid car costs almost $3,500 more than the same car configured to run just on gasoline.
Which of the following can you infer from the passage?
- hybrid cars are more dangerous than other options
- Toyota is making a lot of money from the Prius
- cars that use gasoline are going to destroy the environment
- hybrid cars may not be the best choice for everyone
All four answers are about hybrid cars in some way, but none of the answers can be found directly from the text. Read through and see what hints you can find from the text.
You will notice right away that there is nothing about car safety in the passage at all, so you can eliminate choice 1.
Choice 2 is implied: if the car cost $3,500 more than other cars, then Toyota would be making a lot of money by selling the car. But is it the most reasonable conclusion? To be sure, you need to go through all of the answers—don’t just stop when you find one that looks okay.
You may think that choice 3 is true. After all, people want to make hybrid cars because they believe that emissions are contributing to environmental damage, but this is not mentioned in the paragraph. Even if you think it is true, the answer has to be supported by the text to be the correct answer to the problem.
Choice 4 could be inferred from the text. If a person had a large family, was short on money, or needed a car that could accelerate quickly, then a hybrid might not be the best choice for them.
Now compare choice d with the other possible answer, choice 2. Now you are thinking choice 2 might not be as good an answer because you don’t know how much it costs Toyota to make the cars, and you don’t know how many they sell, so you can’t reasonably infer that they are making a lot of money!
Choice 4 has to be the correct answer.
Attribution: Adapted from “Inference (Robbie Pock, Portland Community College),” by Amy Hofer and Robbie Pock (2016). License: CC BY.
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Attribution: “Inferences Chart” by Juanita But. License: CC BY-NC.