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OET Reading: guide to inferring


Healthcare professionals are expected to keep their knowledge of work-related developments current through attending regular training sessions (often organised in and by their workplace) and by reading professional texts such as journal articles.

To understand these texts often requires an ability to infer the writer’s meaning.

To help you, we’ve put together an informative guide to inferring that you can use in Reading Part C. You will learn:

  • What inferring is
  • Why inferring is important
  • How to infer


What is inferring?

Inferring is also known as reading between the lines. In academic styles of writing, writers often do not present their opinions explicitly using obvious language such as ‘I think, I believe, in my opinion’ etc. Instead, writers guide the reader towards the opinions they hold in the language they use to present the information and the facts that they choose to include.

Inferring is something everyone does very regularly and not just when reading. For example by watching someone’s body language and facial expressions while talking to them:

You tell a patient that they can be discharged later today. Instead of smiling and saying something like ‘oh that’s good news’, the patient looks down at their feet and starts twisting a section of hair around their fingers. [From this you could infer that the patient has some concerns about being discharged]

You ask a patient how they have been finding the new medication you prescribed for them last month. The patient replies ‘it seems to be doing the job’. [From this you could infer that the patient is satisfied that the medication is working as anticipated/ relieving their symptoms.]


Why inferring is important

Writers often want to persuade their readers to accept a particular opinion about a topic and to do this they make choices about the language they use. Readers like to feel they are forming their own opinions and so writers accommodate this by not explicitly stating their views, but by selecting particular vocabulary that supports the position and opinions they hold.

It’s important to understand that phrases and sentences have literal meanings e.g. a text message from a friend that reads ‘pack your umbrella for the weekend’ is a recommendation to bring your umbrella with you, but they also have inferred meanings e.g. the text message suggests your friend has seen the weather forecast for your trip and rain is likely.

Asking yourself ‘what opinion does the writer want me to have on this topic?’ is a good way to start thinking more critically, and less literally, about what you are reading.


How do I infer?

Inferring allows you to understand the writer’s opinions and attitudes towards the topic. To do this, you will need to consider the meaning the writer is creating across sentences and paragraphs and not just the literal meaning of the words.


Take a look at the steps below to help you infer effectively:

1. Know what you’re reading

You are likely to need to infer when reading texts that present one or more opinions about a topic, or describe new approaches or developments in healthcare. Instructional texts such as policy documents or manuals will not need inferring. They are factual, by design, and do not require any interpretation from the reader.


2/ Identify the writer’s language choices

The adjectives and adverbs a writer uses often reveal their opinion towards a topic and how they are trying to persuade you to think about the topic too. Even if you are unfamiliar with the meaning of some of the words the writer uses, you can often tell from the surrounding words whether it has a positive, negative or neutral meaning. Knowing how the writer feels about the topic is a good first step to understanding the meaning they are trying to communicate.


For example:

Many hard-working and gifted students may feel aggrieved by his approach, but it is refreshing to see public acknowledgement that recruitment strategies must assess more than just academic ability.


In this sentence there are a number of adjectives to help us understand the writer’s opinion. In the first part of the sentence, we have positive adjectives ‘hard-working and gifted’ to describe the students that may feel ‘aggrieved’ by the approach. If you’re unfamiliar with the word aggrieved, you can use language clues to help you. We know it’s a feeling towards an approach. Does the word look similar to any other words you do know? Perhaps you know grieved or grief? Looking at the words following ‘aggrieved’, we can see ‘but it is refreshing’. You should know the meaning of refreshing and that it has a positive meaning and that the use of ‘but’ is providing a contrast to refreshing, so aggrieved + our knowledge of grieved/grief tells us this is a negative way of feeling.


3. Consider the meaning built up ‘between the lines’

Once you have read the words in one sentence and noticed the language choices that show how the writer feels about the topic, think about the overall meaning the writer has built up. What is the message he or she is trying to give you?

For example, from the same sentence we analysed above, we can that the writer thinks students may feel negatively towards the approach, but the writer thinks it’s a positive (refreshing) step for recruitment.

Once you have thought about the meaning the writer is guiding you towards in an individual sentence, you can continue to confirm or amend your thinking about the message the writer is giving you across the other sentences within the same paragraph.


Inferring in Reading Part C

The focus of Reading Part C is to test your ability to understand longer texts and how meaning is developed by a writer to build a viewpoint or attitude towards the topic. Compared to Reading Part A and Part B, which are factual texts, you will need to think more critically about the contents and not rely on matching the meaning between words in the questions and words in the text, which might in fact be there as distractors.


The question will often tell you when you need to infer from the text. Words including: suggest, point, highlight, illustrate are useful indicators that you will need to read between the lines of what is written.


Here’s an example:


What is the writer’s reaction to Professor Winston’s strategy?

A. He approves of the idea behind it.
B. He is surprised by the theory it is based on.
C. He worries about the implications it may have.
D. He is disappointed by the narrowness of its focus.

The esteemed clinician-scientist Professor Robert Winston sparked debate recently. He avoids hiring graduates who have achieved high first-class degrees to work in his laboratories, he said, because experience has taught him that they are less likely to be well-rounded and good team players. Many hard-working and gifted students may feel aggrieved by his approach, but it is refreshing to see public acknowledgement that recruitment strategies must assess more than just academic ability. A similar debate has also resurfaced about medical school admissions, with senior clinicians and medical educators reiterating the need for a holistic application system to identify the most promising future doctors.

The question is asking for the writer’s reaction, or in other words what he or she thinks about Professor Winston’s strategy.

The first sentence of the paragraph sets the context of the text. The second sentence seems to provide Professor Winston’s strategy – avoids hiring graduates who have achieved high first-class degrees because experience has taught him that they are less likely to be well-rounded and good team players.

What does the writer think of this? In sentence 3, the writer says ‘hard-working and gifted students may feel aggrieved (frustrated and disappointed), but it is refreshing to see public acknowledgement that recruitment strategies must assess more than just academic ability’. The balance of these 2 adjectives aggrieved/refreshing suggest the reader feels quite positively to the strategy (approach). The last sentence recounts a similar debate with senior clinicians and medical educators, reiterating the need for a holistic application system.


Having thought about the meaning across the paragraph, can you now answer the question? Check the answer below, and watch how to answer this question here: Guided practice - Question 7.


For more information about OET Reading, make sure you check out the OET Blog. You will find the information tips, strategies and guides that can help you get the results you need.



Answer: A