Comprehension | Answering Inferential Questions

As we grow older, the children storybooks that we once read would seem simple. This is partly due to the language used and also because of the way the content is put across. Children start to have difficulty with books that are longer and find them more difficult sometimes as often, good writers describe what happens in a story instead of telling readers directly. Readers hence have to make sense of these descriptions to put a picture together. When we are drawing these conclusions from what we read that are not directly stated, we are making an inference. This is an important skill to have as it affects our comprehension or understanding of what we read. 

Let's take a look at this excerpt from "A Bad Road for Cat" by Cynthia Rylant:

"Louis! Louis! Where are you?"

The woman called it out again and again as she walked along Route 6. A bad road for cats. She prayed he hadn't wandered this far. But it had been nearly two weeks, and still Louis hadn't come home. 

Try answering these questions:
1. Who was Louis? 
2. How will you describe the woman's relationship with Louis? Why?

As you try to answer these questions, you will realise that the information given in the story do not directly state the answer. Which are the given clues/ facts that you have to pick up to answer them then?

1. Who was Louis?

Given clues/ facts:
- A bad road for cats.
- She prayed he hadn't wandered this far.

The two details above allow me to make the conclusion that the woman was looking for Louis along a bad road for cats although she prayed he had not wandered to that dangerous road.
Hence, it is likely that she was looking for Louis, her cat.
Answer: Louis was the woman's cat.

2. How will you describe the woman's relationship with Louis? Give a reason why you think so.

Given clues/ facts:
- The woman called it out again and again as she walked along Route 6, 
- She prayed he hadn't wandered this far.
- But it had been nearly two weeks...

Again, using the details above, I can tell that since the woman was looking for her cat so anxiously, praying that he had not wandered to the bad road for cats and was still looking for him after two weeks, she loved and cared for her cat. This means that she was close to her cat. 
Answer: The woman was close to Louis as she was worried and still looking for him after two weeks. 
 

For adults or seasoned readers, this meaning-making comes naturally, probably because our brains have done so much reading and we have had a lot more experiences that fill in the gaps for what we read. For some children, this becomes a major problem that is often reflected in their comprehension when such inferential questions are asked. With the new PSLE format in comprehension, these questions also often surface in True/False format. For example, children may be asked whether the statement, "The woman cared for Louis." is true or false followed by the their explanation which must be evidence from the passage. 

What can children do to answer such inferential questions more accurately? Here a few things your children can do and take note of to handle such question more accurately.

 

1. Start preparing for such questions during reading.

In my previous post on comprehension and making sense of what you read, I stated that the child should ask at least 1 "why" or "how" question for each paragraph. This helps the children to think deeper and draw out what is not directly stated. They may not be able to cover all the inferences that can be made but doing this helps to trigger the thinking process. Answering at least one inference question is better than answering none!

2. Recognise an inferential question

These questions may not be the easiest to recognise as they can come in many forms. However, here are some common forms which they can appear in:

- "why", "how", "give a reason", "explain"

- true/false questions in the form of a statement

This list is not exhaustive and whether or not a question is inferential depends on the way the passage is written too. This can be seen in the example of "Who was Louis?". It may seem like a right-there question but due to how the passage was written, it is actually an inferential question, you need to conclude from what is not directly said.

A direct answer in the passage would be along the lines of "The woman was looking for Louis. She had a close relationship with Louis, her cat and prayed that he had not wandered to route 6." With a passage like this, the answer is right there and directly stated. Hence, the question of "Who was Louis?" will no longer be an inferential question.

3. Stick close to the text for clues

All answers can be and must be found from the passage. Note that I did not say all answers can be copied from the passage but all answers should be from the passage. Our two questions above ("Who is Louis?" and "How will you describe the woman's relationship with Louis? Give a reason why you think so.") did not have answers that are directly given in the passage. However, children must bear in mind that they must still look for clues in the passage to begin thinking about their answers.  

Clues from the question > clues from the passage to support > your own conclusion 

If you are answering an inferential question purely based on your own thoughts and experience without any support from the passage, it is likely that the answer will be incorrect. Remember that the section is testing you on your comprehension of the passage! Answers must have come from the passage. Let me walk through my thought process to answer the first question above.

  • Recognise the keywords in a question

1. Who was Louis? 

For a start, recognise the keywords in your question. Keywords are unique to each question and points you to where you should search for your answer in a passage. The keywords here will probably be "who" which means I need to look at someone or something and also "Louis" with a definition of who he is in the passage. 

  • Stick close to the text and rely on given clues

Once you have identified the keywords in the passage, the answer will usually be hovering at the same line or in the lines above or below. Stick close to the text and rely on the facts given

1. Who was Louis? 

Given Clues/ facts:
- A bad road for cats
- She prayed he hadn't wandered this far.

  • What do I already know and so...?

After looking at the given clues or facts, you need to tap on what you already know.

The woman is looking for something on the bad road for cats and prayed that Louis was not there and so... it makes sense that she was looking for a cat. 

The two details above allow me to make the conclusion that the woman was looking for Louis along a bad road for cats although she prayed he had not wandered to that dangerous road. 
Hence, it is likely she was looking for Louis, her cat.
Answer: Louis was the woman's cat.

4.  Rephrase the question

If there are times when the question seems too hard to digest, try rephrasing it first. You may need to break down certain keywords to get a clearer idea of what the question is actually asking for. For instance, if a question appears in the true/false format: (I am not presenting this in a table but it should appear in a table during the examination!)

Text:               Puppies are not able to see until they turn two weeks old.
True/ False Q: Puppies are born blind.

If the word "blind" had not appeared in the passage at all, that is already a clue to you that you may need to rephrase this question. Take note of these words which have been replaced with a synonym (words of similar meanings) to make it trickier for you. Break them down to what you can find in the passage. "blind" will mean not being able to see. Hence, the statement is actually saying, "Puppies are not able to see when they are born". Is this true or false? The answer should be clearer now.

Answer: True | Puppies are born blind and they can only see when they turn two weeks old.

5. Craft the answer to answer the question

Always remember to answer the question instead of merely giving the facts for inferential question. With the given facts of "a bad road for cats", some children maybe tempted to write, "Louis was on a bad road for cats." This happens when children identify the clues but do not go on to answer "and so...". Another classic example maybe the question below:

Q: What did Megan eat for dinner?

A: Mother cooked spaghetti for dinner. 

This may get a partial mark but definitely not a full mark. If the child continues with "and so...", the child should be able to say "Mother cooked spaghetti for dinner and so Megan ate spaghetti for dinner."

Answer: Megan ate spaghetti for dinner.


Inferential questions are definitely not the easiest to handle but the most important thing to remember is that all the answers in the comprehension section must have come from the given passage. If you have no clue, remember the best thing to do is to stick close to the text to dig for the answers that are not directly given. Try your best and never leave a question blank without trying!

Lily Chew

An English tutor on a mission to educate children; a blogger with a passion to share and grow the love of English with the world.