Are you familiar with the phrase “reading between the lines”?
Drawing inferences from the text is like reading between the lines – it’s looking for the meaning that isn’t written down word-by-word.
Inferring is a key part of building reading comprehension, and it’s a foundational skill in today’s education landscape — drawing inferences is a prerequisite for higher-order thinking and 21st century skills (Marzano, 2010).
So how can we help students learn it?
Looking for clues in the text
“If readers don’t infer, they will not grasp the deeper essence of the texts they read.”
(Harvey and Goudvis, 2007)
Authors show, rather than tell, and they carefully choose their words to leave clues for readers to infer from. Readers can then piece together the clues in the text with their own background knowledge, like a jigsaw puzzle, and figure out the author’s full meaning.
By learning to draw inferences, readers boost their comprehension and actively engage with the text. It helps them to look for a deeper understanding “behind” the text, and find what the author is trying to say.
Take the following line:
“The pumpkin sat on the fence, grinning, as the witches and ghosts skipped past.”
In this sentence, the author doesn’t specifically say what is happening, but by putting together …
- Clues (grinning pumpkin, witches and ghosts, walking by houses)
- Background knowledge (at Halloween people decorate using carved pumpkins, and children dress up to go trick or treating)
… We can infer that it is Halloween.
The role of questioning
We often encourage students to draw inferences by asking them to make predictions about the text, but how we ask questions can open up inferring, too.
Closed or factual questions can close inferences down because they look for black-and-white answers. For example, “What did the character do?”
But by asking high-level, open-ended questions, we can open the way for students to give thoughtful answers where they must use the text to support their thinking. We can ask, for example, “Using information from the text, do you have an opinion about whether this (event or interaction) is ok or not?”
Inferring demands engagement
One of the things we love about teaching inferring is that it’s a brilliant way to encourage engagement throughout the reading process. It demands students really think about what they’re reading (by having to find clues) in order to make predictions and draw meaning. In jargon terms, it’s metacognitive.
Inferring is a process that draws from these assumptions:
- When we’re reading, we need to find clues to get some answers
- We need to connect those clues to what we already know or have read
- What we already know is evidence that supports our inference
- There can be more than one right answer.
How to teach inferring with your whole class
- Predictions are a type of inference – and can be a way to introduce students to the concept of drawing an informed inference. During reading, pause and ask “What might happen next?” Once students have made a prediction, then ask “What was it in the text that made you predict that?”
- When students lose comprehension, encourage them to try and draw an inference. This allows them to engage with the text and look more closely at the “clues” the author is giving.
- Model an inference for your students to help them see the process. Discuss what you are thinking at each point as you make an inference and how you are using text clues to inform your ideas.
- Practice going both ways – practice first finding clues in the text and then drawing inferences, and then practice working backwards to find which text clues prompted readers have an idea about the text.
- As some inferences might happen automatically, help students become familiar with the strategy by asking “why?”, discussing their thought process, and which clues they used from the text.
- Remember that students will sometimes draw different inferences based upon their background knowledge and prior experience. When this happens, discuss any differing interpretations as a group and talk about how each student used their unique experiences to arrive at their ideas.
Check out our free drawing inferences lesson and anchor chart to introduce this reading strategy to your students.
Want a comprehension strategies resource for your whole class?
Try CSI Literacy Kits and CSI Chapters for mainstream classes, or Enhance Literacy for targeted teaching and intervention classes. These resources are complete with texts, lesson plans, collaborative learning, graphic organisers, and digital resources. Download sample texts from our resources.