Advice on tackling inferential questions


In Singapore, there has been a change in the O Level syllabus for the English Language paper.

One of the most significant changes is that of the format of comprehension questions. There seems to be a shift in emphasis from literal to inferential questions. Parents of students have approached me to enquire about effective techniques on how to handle the latter.

Some students have found this change to be challenging, since inferential questions are harder to answer well and accurately when compared with literal questions as the former tests both the vocabulary understanding and in-depth knowledge of the students that go beyond the passage.

It is not easy for students to pick up the skills to answer inferential questions since most of the required skills require a combination of extensive critical reading and acute observations of their everyday life, both of which I will elaborate below.

Some ways to tackle inferential questions include:

1. Read and analyse more non-fiction books (yes, novels would be great! I strong recommend Jodi Picoult)

This seems like common sense. After all, aren’t most students avid readers of books?  And for those who are not, they will most likely chance upon newspapers and magazine articles for their reading pleasure (or their teachers would probably make them read). So, isn’t this stating the obvious?

Actually, no.

The key word here is “analyse”.

Previously, students are just reading novels for the sake of reading the story. That will help them in answering literal questions but probably not inferential ones. Now students would have to read and analyse a novel like a literature text.  No, they will not need to read the story more than once (but it would be great should they choose to) . They just need to observe the actions of the characters and the inner mechanics of the various scenes that make up the plots and seek the answers to the following:

Why are the characters speaking and/or behaving this way?

Why did the writer develop the story in this way? Is there any other ways that the story is able to develop?

Now, reading just gets more interesting.

2.Improving one’s observation skills

What has observation skills have to do with answering inferential questions? One may ask.

Actually, loads.

Consider this simple inferential question:

John prefers travelling by private transport because he always bump his his head  whenever he enters buses and train. Name one characteristic about John. 

See what I mean?

If one does not observe, one does not learn.

Inferential questions are about prior knowledge (knowledge that one possesses up till this point in time, but which is accumulative). And prior knowledge is learnt through reading, listening (audio books are great, coupled with one’s imagination) and more significantly, observing.

We are visual beings, after all.

3. Asking “why” and finding the answers

But some passages are non-fiction, some may argue.

Well, yes.

That’s why students should be encouraged to ask “why” with regard to things happening around them.

And more than that, they should take the initiative to seek out the answers – and to act on them if necessary. After all, what is the use of asking about the low temperature of the room if they do not seek out the cause? They will freeze anyway.

This builds up their general knowledge and understanding of everything around them, from history to geography to literature to adventuring.

And when students proactively seek out the answers, that’s when they learn.

Answering inferential questions well involves reading between the lines, and that takes curiosity and inquisitiveness, isn’t it?

So, taking the initiative to pique one’s curiosity and seeking the answer IS the answer to handling inferential questions.

In a nutshell, students are now required to learn things that transcend the teachings in the classroom.

Now, isn’t that interesting?


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