Master the Inference Questions on the TOEFL iBT Reading

Hi everyone! I'm Kathy and I'm a tutor here on Verbling. Today we are going to cover inference questions on the TOEFL iBT Reading section.

What is an inference?

An inference is a conclusion you draw based on evidence. It's not a blind guess—it's using what you read to come to a logical conclusion.

For example, if you read: "The boy used sign language to talk to his teachers," you can infer that the boy is deaf.

How do I answer inference questions?

The first step is to identify the question type. Inference questions look like the following:

  • What can be inferred about (x)?
  • What does the author of the passage imply about (x)?
  • Which of the following can be inferred about (x)?
  • The author implies that (x)...
  • It can be inferred that (x) affects (y) by...

To correctly answer the question, first you must read the question carefully. Then, you must find the key word in the sentence, before finding it in the paragraph. Read the sentence that contains the key word, and also read the sentences immediately before and after the key words. However, in this type of question, do NOT try to guess the answer before you look at the answer choices. Your guess may be way off. You need to look at the four answer choices before you choose. These questions will take a little bit longer than some other types of questions. The answer may actually be a clever paraphrasing of something you saw in the reading passage.

Be careful of these TOEFL traps!

The following types of answers are INCORRECT:

  • The answer is beyond the scope of the information in the passage. This means that it goes too far. You can't really make this inference based only on the passage. You must be able to show a friend where you found your answer. For instance, in the example from earlier, you can infer the boy is deaf, but you can't infer all his teachers are deaf.
  • The answer could be true. This is similar to the first point above. It means the answer gives you something that is possible, but you can't infer it from the information in the passage alone. For instance, we can't infer the boy in the example goes to a special school for deaf children.
  • The answer only repeats words from the passage but doesn't answer the question. These answers look appealing because they contain technical words that you saw in the passage. But, if you read them carefully, they aren't correct!
  • The answer contains extreme language. Some words such as always, forever, never, all, totally, completely, etc. are used as traps. Also, be careful of extreme phrases such as "this is the only (x)," or "this is the limit of (y)," and so on. These answers are sometimes correct but only if the passage supports them.

Inference question example

Here is a short, simple example of a passage and an inference question:

Sample passage

"In 1914, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to produce automobiles. An assembly line is a manufacturing process in which parts are added as the semi-finished product moves from workstation to workstation, where parts are added in sequence until the project is complete. The assembly line had a revolutionary impact on society. It allowed for a fast and continuous flow of work that cut production time for an entire automobile from 12 hours to 93 minutes. This change allowed Ford to increase his profit margin and lower the cost of the vehicle to consumers. The cost of the Model T, Ford's innovative automobile, would eventually drop to $260, the equivalent of approximately $3,500 today. Suddenly, owning an automobile went from being a luxury of the rich to being affordable for the average family."

Sample inference question

It can be inferred from the passage that before 1914:
  • Nobody owned an automobile
  • Henry Ford had not yet thought of the assembly line
  • Automobiles were mostly owned by the wealthy
  • The assembly line was introduced as a process with workstations to speed up production

In this example, I have given you some of the TOEFL traps you need to look out for.

You will notice how important it is to read the question carefully—I hope you caught the word "before" in the question!

The first answer is too extreme. We don't know from this passage that nobody owned an automobile. The second answer could be true. But, we can't say for certain that Henry Ford had not thought of the assembly line. It's possible he thought of the idea before 1914. The last answer looks appealing. It repeats information from the passage. However, it's not correct because this happened in 1914, not before 1914.

Therefore, the third answer is correct. We can infer this because the passage says: "Suddenly, owning an automobile went from being a luxury of the rich to being affordable for the average family."


Okay everyone, I hope you see how you can get the correct answers on inference questions on the TOEFL iBT Reading section! Good luck on your TOEFL! If you need more help, book a session with me on Verbling.



About the author:

Kathy has been teaching TOEFL since 2010. She has been trained by the ETS in TOEFL techniques and scoring. She is the author of one TOEFL book and is currently working on her second. She has helped thousands of students get their goal score on TOEFL. Kathy has a Bachelor of Arts and a teaching certification in ESL. She currently works as a TOEFL teacher in a language school and as a tutor on Verbling.
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