Teaching Students to Make Inferences
What is an inference?
An inference is an educated guess. A person uses what he or she knows or assumes to be true during the process of reasoning.
Avoiding a bad lunch
People make inferences each and every day that affect their lives. A student is standing in the cafeteria line planning to order pizza for lunch. He glances into the seating area and notices three kids making faces and throwing out their half-eaten slices. The student infers that other students don’t like the pizza so he orders the soup instead. Being able to engage in this kind of inferential thinking makes us better at everyday life. Correctly predicting what your boss wants, guessing why your girl friend is crying, or interpreting the underlying message of the newspaper article can improve your day immensely.
Sometimes inferential thinking is critical to survival. Making an inference can put the “critical” in the language catchphrase “critical literacy.” Imagine being at a crowded city cross-walk with cars, pedestrians, squeegee kids and hotdog vendors. You are about to step off the curb when you notice a vehicle approaching the intersection without slowing down. You infer that if you step onto the street you will likely be hit by the vehicle. You’ve “read” the situation correctly, you wait, the careless driver speeds past, and you live to see another day.
What makes inferential thinking so tricky to master while reading?
Readers go beyond the words in a text selection and make judgements about what is implied rather finding the answers directly in the text. Making an inference while reading is often called “reading between the lines,” because the reader interprets the text rather than putting his or her finger on the exact answer in the text. If a reader perceives a gap in his or her understanding, that gap must be filled in by the reader’s background knowledge or assumptions.
Using background knowledge and assumptions as support for an inference is tricky because what we know and what we think we know can be inaccurate. The most insightful readers have a flexibility of mind and are adept at entertaining new possibilities.
Making inferences and the Ontario Curriculum
The Ontario Curriculum stipulates that all elementary students need to be able to think inferentially. Being able to think inferentially while reading, writing, listening and speaking is an essential skill that demonstrates a person’s literacy and prepares him or her for a life of competency. Educators know from looking at provincial, board and school test results that most students need more practice mastering inferential thinking skills.
Can we really teach inferential thinking?
Teaching students how to infer is tough because the skill is such a complex thinking process. No one is completely sure how we do it and some educators question whether it can effectively be taught at all!
When you ask a student that has made an inference while reading how he or she came up with it, a typical response is, “It’s just a feeling I got when I was reading.” Articulating what a reader is doing while making an inference is illusive.
Although making an inference can seem to be an almost magical ability, teachers must be able to break down the process if we are going to help students who can’t make inferences. Although teachers can’t command students to make inferences, they can often guide students by asking them to re-read, unpack a key phrase, underline a critical piece of support, or define an important word.
Teaching inferential thinking by giving time to read and think
Providing students with the time to read good literature from a variety of genres is an excellent way to teach inferential thinking. This is the easiest teaching you’ll ever do because your only task is to give students the opportunity to think about ideas. Most students learn how to make inferences while reading because they naturally fill in gaps in their understanding with what they know and what they have just learned, and then reconcile the two with what they think the author was attempting to communicate.
Teaching inferential thinking by modelling and discussion
Readers benefit when their teachers model what inferential thinking looks like. What this modelling looks like varies from teacher to teacher, but most often takes the form of the teacher explaining how he or she came up with an inference and following up with discussion. “I’m inferring that the principal is going to have an issue with us going skating in light of what happened last time,” a teacher might begin. “I’m thinking that if we want to be able to go to the rink we have some convincing to do before she’ll let us go. Does anyone have any ideas?” This kind of an everyday discussion about inferential thinking involves discussion about past and future behaviour and its impact on others.
Teaching inferential thinking by using tools and strategies
What happens if you’ve given students time to read, reflect, and you’ve bent over backwards explaining how you make an inference, but some of your students still haven’t mastered the skill? Or, what if they do make inferences but the ones they make are superficial? Teachers must then turn to using tools and strategies which turn out to be quite imprecise and hard to measure. Despite this difficulty, teachers can try a variety of techniques and hope that with a comprehensive literacy program, inferential thinking skills will improve.
Visualizing: The cousin of inferring
People visualize, or make pictures in their mind, when they understand something. Getting students to visualize is often a great way to get them ready to make inferences, however, it is also easy to cause students to make errors through visualization because students use their own background knowledge that can be faulty. You might ask a student to visualize what it might be like to swim in the ocean because you are reading about a character that lives by the sea but a student might fear water and incorrectly suggest that the story character is afraid.
A way to help students visualize in a way that minimizes using suspect facts might be to ask them to “make a mental picture using details from the story or article.”
Teachers of primary students often use prediction as a reading comprehension strategy, however, prediction by itself isn’t that productive. Teachers need to circle back and discuss whether the prediction was true or false. Verifying or falsifying predictions helps students focus on evidence and supporting detail. This in turn helps set them up for success when they learn the skill of making inferences.
Try these prediction prompts:
“What made you think this would happen?”
“What fooled you?”
“Why did you think so?”
“What was it in the story that made you guess wrong?”
Teaching inferential thinking by using behavioural examples
Making an inference from watching someone’s behaviour is one of the first ways that children make predictions. A baby understands its mother’s smiling face as a sign that all is well. A toddler might understand that his or her mother’s tilted head and furrowed brow is clue that she is concerned.
Young children first understand simple inferences by watching behavioural examples. Ask students to figure out what you are doing by watching you. Do something simple like look off into the distance, check your watch and then look off into the distance again. Most students will be able to guess that you are waiting for someone. Explain that you didn’t tell them that you were waiting but they inferred it by what you did with your body. They also inferred that you were waiting because they have seen people do this before and their experience gives them background knowledge.
Here are some other examples you might model, or get students to try
Tired: yawning and rubbing eyes
Bored: looking around, whistling, twiddling fingers, tapping foot
Temper Tantrum: stamping foot, scrunching face
Frightened: holding hands in front of eyes and bowing head
Sneaking Up: tiptoeing and looking around furtively
Bad Smell: sniffing and making an unpleasant face
Smelling Something Good to Eat: sniffing the air, smiling and rubbing your stomach
Don’t understand: rubbing your temples, tilting your head, pursing your mouth, putting your pointer finger to your lips and saying, “Hummm?”
Looking for Someone: Glancing into the distance, scanning with your eyes
Embarrassed: Looking down, covering one’s eyes or mouth and shaking head, long blinks
Concentrating: tongue-showing behaviour, pressing temples, tapping lips with a pencil, squinting eyes and looking at a paper
Teaching inferential thinking by using manipulatives
Making a prediction about something physical that will happen in the near future is an excellent way to practice making an inference. Using manipulatives like dominoes can be very helpful for kinaesthetic learners. Get a student to set domino tiles up on end in a simple “Y” pattern. Ask the students to predict what will happen when the tile standing at the intersection of the “y” is tipped. Get a student to tip that tile and see if the prediction was right.
Other manipulatives to try:
Jenga tile tower
Marble tumble tower
Teaching inferential thinking by using media examples
Deconstructing movie clips, photographs, political cartoons, comic, ads, slogans, logos and all kinds of text features is a great way to engage students and for you to model inferential thinking. Many media examples can be shown in less than five minutes and explained in another five.
Writers Imply and Readers Infer
Writers give us incomplete pictures and information; they have biases, they can be unreliable with facts, they may intentionally obfuscate, and they may have hidden agendas. All writers, however, depend on a reader to complete their art. Without the reader there is no communication. A reader infers what is implied by the writer. A reader’s job is a dynamic process of thinking and reasoning.
Why is making an inference so critical to understanding?
Writing down our ideas is the best way to communicate our thoughts but this method is still imprecise. All writing is an approximation. If readers cannot infer meaning from text, then they are barely literate. Reading between the lines is an essential skill of any accomplished reader. Reading between the lines is hinting it’s what’s left unsaid; it’s going beyond the literal.
Inferential sentence starters and general questions:
What is an inference you can make about…
What do you think has been left unsaid?
What lesson might the author have been hinting at?
What can you conclude?
What can you generalize?
What lesson does this teach?
What is the problem?
Which of these is most likely true about…?
From the story/article you can probably guess…
What is probably true…?
How does the author feel about?
Which of these is also an appropriate title for…?
After reading this, what will probably happen next…?
Questions about characters actions, motives and feelings
This prompts me to think that…
I think that the author is saying…
I think I understood what the author was getting at when he/she wrote…
At first I thought….and now I think…
When I am reading the story, I can imagine that “x” looks like…
Based on the facts and what I know, I think in the future…
What other choices did…have?
What does the author want the reader to think?
Inferring from photographs
Show a photo of a person or people that would be appropriate for inferring. Pick a photo that tells a story. Model what you are inferring from clues in the photo. Ask a student to infer and ask that student to explain his or her clue.
Inferring from Wordless Books
Teacher: This is a book with no writing in it. The author chose to use only illustrations to tell his/her story. I’m going to tell you what I can infer from this picture. There is a lot going on and there are many clues that help me guess what the author was thinking. When I look at ____________I think…When I look at _________I say maybe… (Explain your clues) Who can tell me what’s going on in this next illustration? What can you infer from what you see?
Examples of wordless picture books you could use:
Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day
Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie DePaola
The Bad Book or Museum Trip by Barbara Lahman
Flotsam by David Wiesner
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Comic books or books with words with the words blocked out with sticky notes
Inferring from books with limited text
Draw one speech bubble and one thought bubble.
Tell the students that in the speech bubble you are going to write what the character says. You are going to write the words that the person actually speaks. In the thought bubble you are going to write what the character is thinking. Tell the students that this is what the character is thinking inside his/her head. It is that character’s inside voice. Tell the students that if they can guess what someone’s inside voice is saying, they are inferring.
Draw one of the characters from a story and then write their dialogue in the speech bubble. Write what the character is inferring in the thought bubble. Write down what the character’s inside voice is saying.
Some books with a limited amount of text that would be good for this lesson are:
Yo! Yes! and Ring! Yo! by Chris Raschka
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
Oink! by Karen Lammie
A Splendid Friend, Indeed by Suzanne Bloom
Mama by Jeannette Winter
Hug by Jez Alborough
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