Here’s a good SAT vocabulary word for you: infer. If you don’t already know what it means, go look it up. I’ll wait here. There’s a decent chance that it’ll show up on your SAT, and not even in a sentence completion. It might show up in a SAT Reading Comprehension question about a passage.
Questions that ask you to infer things about the reading look a bit like this, most of the time.
The author suggests that the “earlier settlers” (line 50) were
- unable to find an adequate source of fuel for cooking
- divided according to their religious beliefs
- initially displeased with the geography of their landing site
We don’t need to worry about (D) and (E) here, although you’d of course see them on your SAT.
The structure and frequency
There’s one key word in that question that tells you you’re supposed to read between the lines, and that word is “suggests.” There are also a number of other words and phrases which would do the same thing, including “imply,” “would most likely agree,” and “can be inferred.”
Although there are a number of different ways this type of SAT question might be worded, there’s one thing for sure—you’re going to see a lot of them on your SAT. Some readings might include three or four questions that ask you to infer something.
How to answer inference questions
Reading between the lines in real life is different than on the SAT. On the test, you really don’t have to make very big assumptions. If fact, you shouldn’t assume anything at all. Instead, you’ll need to simply link a couple pieces of information. Either you’ll draw details from two sentences in the passage (at least one of them will be in the question) and combine them to get a pretty obvious result or you’ll take an understanding of an author’s general attitude and apply it to a given detail.
Let’s say that the example question at the beginning of this post refers this excerpt from a passage.
“Given the lack of food stores left and the absence of fishing gear on their ships, the explorers found that they needed badly to land in order to find food. After miles of coastline that wasn’t suited to landing, they came ashore in an area of meadowland with few trees and, hence, little wood. Without the time or seeds to begin farming, they relied on game, of which there was plenty, but they were often forced to eat the meat raw, which left many ill. Within a few months, those earlier settler set out once again to find a more suitable residence.”
There are two possible answer choices from what we had earlier, (A) or (C). Most likely, (B) refers to some information given earlier in the reading that’s irrelevant here.
If you try too hard, you may end up selecting (C) as your answer, but that’s not correct. Yes, it’s true that the settlers ended up leaving. And yes, it’s true that they had trouble finding a place to land their ships in the first place. But do we really know that when they got onto the land, they said, “Man, this sucks”? You might imagine it, but it’s just not in the passage.
The leaps that we make when answering inference questions about SAT passages should be very small ones. We know that there were few trees. We know that they ate raw meat, and we know that they weren’t happy doing so. To say that we have to read between the lines is really an exaggeration. We just have to understand something that’s not written out in a perfectly explicit sentence. That they didn’t have enough wood for their fires is an easy assumption to make. Follow this simple SAT Critical Reading tip and don’t make these kinds of questions harder than they have to be.
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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