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Making Inferences

by Jackie Wissman

What is making inferences?

To make an inference or infer is often described as "reading between the lines." This is clearly not an adequate definition for our primary readers. Making an inference involves using background knowledge combined with information from the text and illustrations to draw conclusions about what is implied but not directly stated (Pinnell & Scharer, 2003). In other words, sometimes an author does not come right out and tell something but uses words or illustrations to show readers so they can draw their own conclusions and make logical predictions.

In Reading Power, Adrienne Gear (2006) describes inferring as "filling in, in your head, what is not written on the page" (p. 82). She explains that she helps young readers understand the strategy of inferring by telling them a secret. The secret is that authors sometimes don't tell everything; they leave things out because they want readers to figure some things out for themselves. According to Harvey and Goudvis (2000), many readers' questions are not explicitly answered by the author but through inferences made by the readers. Harvey and Goudvis explain that proficient readers create meaning based on the implicit notions they infer and that readers would not be able to grasp the deeper meaning of texts without inferring.

Think about the well-known character of Goldilocks. The authors of the many versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears do not explicitly state that Goldilocks does not think of others' feelings before acting. We can infer this, however, from information in the text. For example, Goldilocks enters the bears' house uninvited, eats their food, breaks their things, and takes a nap in their beds. This does not sound like the actions of a little girl who thinks about the feelings of others. We are able to back up this inference with evidence from the text.



Where is making inferences discussed in the Ohio Academic Content Standards?

Making inferences is implied throughout the standards and is a prerequisite skill to meeting the intended learning expectations of the following standards:

Reading

  1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Writing

  1. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  2. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening

  1. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  2. Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Language

  1. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.



How can making inferences be taught so that it supports reading comprehension?

Inferring Feelings Charades
In Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding, Harvey and Goudvis (2000) describe an inferring game used with kindergarteners. This game is a good one to use to introduce the idea of inferring. In the game, one student has a feeling word taped on her (or his) back so that she cannot see it but the rest of the class can. Classmates then give clue statements to help the student infer what feeling is on her back. For example, if the feeling is "angry," student clues might include statements similar to the following:
My brother blamed me for something he did, and then I got in trouble!
I missed my recess for no good reason!
I was the only person who did not get the color of lollipop that I wanted!
After several clues are given, the student must infer what feeling word is on her back.

Variation of Inferring Feelings Charades
Role-play several different feelings and ask students to make inferences based on your actions. For example, pretend to walk in the door, slam it, slam your books down on the table, and sigh loudly. Point out to your students that you didn't tell them how you are feeling, but ask them what they can infer. They should support their inferences with specific actions from your role-play.

After role-playing several examples, break the class into small groups and allow the groups to plan their own examples. Allow 15 minutes for the groups to plan and practice. Be certain to move from group to group to monitor and support as needed.

During whole-group sharing, record inferences on a simple two-column inference-evidence chart that you created on the board or on a large piece of chart paper.

Inference-Evidence Chart
Inference Evidence















Think-Aloud
The think-aloud allows students to hear the kind of self-talk, problem solving, and thinking that effective readers use when inferring; it demonstrates thought processes the students can practice. During a think-aloud, allow the students to hear everything you are thinking while problem solving and using strategies.

Example
Read aloud the poem "If I Were in Charge of the World," by Judith Viorst, from If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries: Poems for Children and Their Parents. The poem can be found at http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/if-I-were-in-charge-of-the-world. After reading the poem and allowing students to discuss what they might do if they were in charge of the world, model, through a think-aloud, what it looks like to make an inference:

  In this first stanza, the speaker of the poem does not come right out and say that he (or she) does not like oatmeal, but I can infer this because he says he would cancel oatmeal. I can't imagine canceling anything that I like to eat, and so I am making the inference that the speaker of the poem does not like oatmeal.
  
  In the second stanza, the speaker says, "There'd be brighter night lights" if he were in charge of the world. From this, I make the inference that the speaker is afraid of the dark. When I was little and afraid of the dark, I always used a night-light. The speaker does not come right out and say that he is afraid of the dark, but the fact that he wants brighter night-lights makes me infer this.

Record your inferences and the phrases that led to those inferences on a simple two-column inference-evidence chart (the same chart shown in the section above) that you created on the board or on a large piece of chart paper.


Nonfiction and the Think-Aloud
Find a short nonfiction article that has text features such as photographs, diagrams, maps, or charts, and give each student a copy. Use the think-aloud to show how to gain information and make inferences from the text features. An example of success: After listening to a think-aloud that focused on text features, students in a third grade class were given an article about humpback whales. The author did not come right out and tell the readers that the whales migrate to warmer waters, but by studying a map in the article, the students were able to make this inference.


Think-Aloud Mini-Lesson
Present a whole-group mini-lesson that defines and models inferring for students. According to Gay Su Pinnell and Patricia Scharer (2003) in Teaching for Comprehension in Reading, Grades K–2, a mini-lesson has four components: introducing the strategy, explaining why the strategy is important to readers, demonstrating the strategy, and clearly stating what readers should do. This mini-lesson should be interactive and invite student engagement.

Example

Introducing the Strategy
Adrienne Gear (2006) introduces the strategy of inferring as the following secret:

I'm going to tell you a secret that will help you learn to infer. Are you ready? Here's the secret—not all authors tell you everything. But they didn't not tell you because they lost their pen or ran out of paper. They didn't tell you everything because they wanted you, the reader, to figure it out for yourself. (p. 82)

Clarify with a simple definition of inferring written on chart paper, such as:

Inferring means using what you already know plus what the author says or shows to figure things out on your own. You use inferring to figure things out when the author has not directly told you.

Explaining Why the Strategy Is Important to Readers
Explain to students that authors don't always come right out and tell us everything, and so it is important that readers infer so that they can better enjoy and understand what they are reading.

Demonstrating the Strategy
While reading aloud Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka, stop on pages 5 and 6 where the text reads, "You! Me?" and think aloud for the students your own inferring process. It may look similar to the following:

The author does not come right out and tell me anything specific about the little boy in green, but I can make the inference that he is shy because of the way he is standing in the first few pages (refer to his body language and facial expressions on the first few pages). When I feel shy, this is how I might look. The author also gives me some clues that the boy in green is shy with the size of print on the first page (look back at page 2). See how it is small—like he is talking very quietly. If you look at page 6, you can see he looks surprised that the other boy is talking to him. Even though the author does not come out and tell me the little boy in green is shy, I infer this because of all the clues or evidence in the words and pictures. Do you see how this works?

Clearly Stating What Readers Should Do
Remind students that good readers make inferences while reading. Ask them to help you chart language that shows a reader is inferring such as:

I think...
I bet...
Maybe it means...
I'm guessing that...
When the author says..., it makes me think...

Additional Mini-Lesson Topics Related to Making Inferences
Here are some other mini-lesson ideas about making inferences that you can explore with your students:
  • Previewing a book before reading can help us make predictions and inferences related to what we will be reading.
  • Sometimes we can make inferences about the theme of a book. We can infer what the bigger picture is, what message the author wants us to take from the book even if he or she does not directly state it.
  • Our inferences may change as we encounter new information.
  • Good readers support inferences with evidence.
  • Illustrations, charts, tables, diagrams, maps, and graphs can help us make inferences.
  • Using what we know about characters, we can infer how they might act in or respond to situations that are not actually in the text.

Familiar Stories
A familiar story has a "high inference value" by virtue of that familiarity. The students can focus on the inferences since they already know the story—and know what is not directly stated. You might have the students themselves recount the story. Then you can pose the inference you want the students to understand and support. As noted at the beginning of this reading strategy, most children are familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. After the students retell the story, ask them to suggest evidence for the inference that Goldilocks didn't think about the feelings of others before acting. Write the evidence on an inference-evidence chart. Below is a partially filled-out chart using the Goldilocks example:

Inference-Evidence Chart
Inference Evidence
Goldilocks does not think about the feelings of others before acting. Uninvited, Goldilocks enters the bears' house, eats their food, breaks their things, and sleeps in their beds.

Another graphic organizer that would prove useful here is a web. Since much inferring is done about the characters in texts, you could create an inference web that includes an inference about the character as well as evidence to support the inference. Here is the information about Goldilocks organized into a web.

Inference Web



From the ORC Website
The AdLIT reading strategy "Making Inferences" provides definitions and activities about inferring for adolescent readers. It would be especially helpful for third grade to fifth grade elementary teachers looking to extend the strategy.


Guided Practice
Immediately following a mini-lesson or think-aloud, provide guided practice in which students have an opportunity to practice inferring with the support of the teacher and peers. This is a promising tactic with both fiction and nonfiction.

Example of Guided Practice After Think-Aloud with Yo! Yes?
Select two to three other pausing points while reading aloud Yo! Yes? Allow students to talk to a partner or pair-share about the inferences they make about the characters. Allow several pairs to share with the whole group.

Example of Guided Practice After Mini-Lesson Using "If I Were in Charge of the World"
Reread the second stanza of "If I Were in Charge of the World," and allow students to discuss with a partner what inference they can make from the sentence in which the speaker wishes basketball baskets were forty-eight inches lower. Allow students to share responses with the whole group. Record responses on the class inference-evidence chart started during the mini-lesson.

Allow students to read the third stanza with their partner, make one to two inferences, and share them with the class. Record their inferences on the class inference-evidence chart.

Finally, hand out individual inference-evidence sheets, and ask students to read the last stanza independently and record one inference on the sheet. A template of an inference-evidence sheet is provided here for your convenience.

Instead of using an inference-evidence sheet, you might ask students to record their inferences and evidence in a double-sided journal.

Following Guided Practice: Nonfiction Example Using Facts from the Text
The next step is to let students try their wings—to practice what they have just learned. Give students, working in pairs, about 10 minutes to read an article or section of text and then discuss any inferences they can make. They can record their facts and inferences on a facts-inference sheet like the one below or share their facts and inferences with the whole class.

Facts-Inference Sheet
Facts from the Text Inference
Saber-tooth tigers have short legs and cannot run fast. They must sneak up on their prey.

A facts-inference sheet template is provided here for your convenience.

Following Guided Practice: Nonfiction Example Using Text Features
After you and your students have completed a guided practice that focused on text features, let the students try a similar reading on their own. Give students about 10 minutes to work with a partner to first study the photographs, diagrams, maps, charts, or other text features in a simple article and then discuss any inferences they are able to make. Ask the partners to share their inferences and evidence with the whole group.


Independent Practice/Marking Inferences in Independent Reading
Remind students that good readers are always inferring. Give them each two Post-it notes, and ask them to keep these with them during independent reading, buddy reading, and managed independent learning (center time). If they make an inference, they should mark the pertinent page in the book. Allow time for sharing daily as students practice inferring at the independent level.


Create a Reminder Book Mark
Review with students what it means to make an inference. Direct them back to any definitions or charts you have constructed together. On a sturdy book mark or page in their reading journal, ask them to make a quick sketch or write a few words or ideas that will help them remember the strategy of making inferences.


Discussion/Sharing
During whole-group discussion, allow individuals to share the inferences they made while reading independently or with buddies. Ask them not only to share their inference but to support their thinking with illustrations or text.



How can making inferences be used to teach vocabulary?

  • Readers often encounter words that are new and have unknown meanings. Sometimes the author defines vocabulary within the text, but sometimes we have to infer the meaning of unknown words using context clues provided in the text and illustrations. During shared reading, when all students can easily see the words and illustrations, think aloud how to infer the meaning of unknown words when reading continuous text.

  • In Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades, Debbie Miller (2002) includes a chart created during an interactive read-aloud in which students infer the meanings of unknown words. The chart includes the following useful headings: "Word," "What We Infer It Means," and "What Helped Us" (p. 109).

  • In "Text Talk: Julius, the Baby of the World" (ORC #1393), Session 2 focuses on helping kindergarteners infer the meaning of unknown words following the read-aloud of this popular Henkes book.



How can making inferences be practiced in a literacy center?

  • Have students create illustrations that show a feeling through body language, facial expressions, and the situation itself. You might first model the process by creating an example that shows a child sitting on a bench watching others play a game. The unhappy face and slouched body can help students infer that the child feels left out and sad. The feeling word can be written on the back of the drawing. During sharing, the rest of the students can try to make inferences about each illustration. Speech bubbles can also be introduced to add written clues.

  • Set out several picture books that allow students to easily make inferences based on the illustrations. Students should select one illustration to take a closer look at and should record any inferences they are able to make. Wordless picture books work well for this activity.

  • Bring in photos and objects from home that will help students get to know you better. Put all these items on display. Students should observe each item and discuss with a partner or small group what they can infer about you from studying the items. For example, a pacifier and board book might lead students to infer that you have a baby at home. After studying and discussing items with a partner or group, students should independently record one or two inferences on the inference-evidence sheet.
    During sharing, confirm or challenge students' inferences about you.
    Building on this activity, you could ask students to bring in some items from home and have students make inferences about one another on the basis of those items.

  • Select a book for the listening center that allows several opportunities for students to make inferences. Mark two to three stopping points with Post-it notes. Have students pause at these stopping points and discuss inferences they are able to make.

  • Set out three to five nonfiction books or articles (can be related to a science or social studies unit) at various levels that include a variety of text features such as charts and graphs. Highlight or mark with a Post-it note the features in which you feel students will be able to make inferences. Ask students to select one of the marked features to carefully study, and have them discuss their inferences with a partner or group. Students may record one to two inferences on an inference-evidence sheet.



How can instruction for making inferences be differentiated?

Whole Group
  • Reading aloud to students, rather than asking them to read independently, lets students at all levels focus on the strategy of making inferences without worrying about decoding words.

  • Asking students to respond in a pair-share, rather than calling on individual volunteers to talk while the majority of students simply listen, forces all students to be engaged.

  • Listening to students share their thinking with partners gives you the opportunity to informally assess student understanding. When students leave the whole-group setting to go to independent reading or centers, you can keep specific students back whose responses indicated they need more specific examples and support.
Small Group
  • In a small-group, guided-reading setting, choose texts at the instructional level of the group. This allows students to practice strategies at their specific level.

  • In a strategy group, work with a group of students who show evidence of struggling with the same strategy, such as making inferences. Provide additional think-alouds and examples to support learning and clear up misconceptions. Select texts that all students can read and that support the practice of the specific strategy being taught.
Literacy Centers
  • Practicing strategies at the listening center allows students to focus on a specific strategy without worrying about decoding words.

  • Centers in which the students are asked to read independently or with a buddy should include books and articles at various levels.

  • Responses will vary depending on a student's diverse strengths and areas of difficulty. Some students may draw pictures to complete graphic organizers and center work, while others may write lengthy, well-developed ideas.



How can assessment be integrated into teaching the strategy of making inferences?

  • Pause during a read-aloud, and ask students to record an inference and evidence that supports that inference on inference web sheets. These can be evaluated for understanding. A template of an inference web sheet is provided here for your convenience.

  • Listen to students discuss and respond in partner sharing, reading conferences, and small-group and whole-group settings. This will give you valuable information about student understanding.

  • Use work that students complete during and after reading and at centers to gather valuable assessment data.

  • Ask students to respond both orally and in writing to questions that are similar to ones found on the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) or other tests required by your district. For example, many inferential questions on the OAT ask the readers to make inferences about the characters' feelings. These inferences must be supported with one or two details from the text.

  • Ask students to write a journal entry in which they explain inferring and how it helps them as readers.



What are some additional resources pertaining to making inferences?

  • Gear, Adrienne. (2006). Reading power: Teaching students to think while they read. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers.

    Chapter 6 of this easy-to-read text provides several sequential lessons that use quality literature to help teach the strategy of inferring. A song to help students remember to infer opens the chapter.

  • Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. York, ME: Stenhouse.

    Chapter 8 provides many lessons, student work samples, and suggested literature titles that support visualizing and inferring.

  • Hoyt, Linda. (2005). Spotlight on comprehension: Building a literacy of thoughtfulness. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Chapter 16 describes several easy-to-follow mini-lessons on inferring.

  • Miller, Debbie. (2002). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

    Chapter 8 of this teacher-friendly text includes quality anchor lessons and student work samples related to inferring. There is also a tried-and-true book list for inferring. The chapter ends with a short section titled "Evidence for Understanding and Independence."



Key terms and definitions

Guided reading: In guided reading, the teacher works with a small group of students who have similar strengths and needs and who are at the same or a similar instructional level. The ultimate goal is comprehension. Texts are selected based on the specific level and needs of the group. The structure of a guided reading lesson is as follows: selecting the text, introducing the text, reading the text, revisiting and discussing the text, and teaching for processing strategies. Working with words and extending the meaning of the text through writing are optional components that the teacher includes or excludes based on student needs (Pinnell & Scharer, 2003, p. 42).

Guided practice: According to Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (2000, p. 13), guided practice involves a gradual release of responsibility to students. Immediately after a strategy has been modeled, the teacher and students practice together. The teacher scaffolds student attempts, provides feedback, and allows students to share with peers.

Making inferences: Readers go beyond the words in the text to draw conclusions about what is implied, not stated (Pinnell & Scharer, 2003, p. 18).

Mini-lesson: A short, often whole-group, lesson in which the teacher introduces a strategy, explains why the strategy is important, demonstrates the strategy, and invites readers to try it, and clearly states what good readers do (Pinnell & Scharer, 2003, p. 176). The mini-lesson is interactive and based on student needs.

Pair-share: Following a mini-lesson, think-aloud, or specific teacher prompt, a pair of students engage in a discussion, practice a strategy, or respond together as a way of making meaning and connecting to what has been learned (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000, p. 39).

Strategy group: Grouping students based on evidence of need with a specific strategy or skill, rather than instructional level. In strategy groups, texts are selected that support practice with the skill or strategy being taught (Szymusiak & Sibberson, 2001, p. 64).



References

Gear, Adrienne. (2006). Reading power: Teaching students to think while they read. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke.

Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Miller, Debbie. (2002). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Pinnell, Gay Su, & Scharer, Patricia, L. (2003). Teaching for comprehension in reading. Grades K–2: Strategies for helping children read with ease, confidence, and understanding. New York: Scholastic.

Raschka, Chris. (1993). Yo! Yes? New York: Orchard.

Szymusiak, Karen, & Sibberson, Franki. (2001). Beyond leveled books. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Viorst, Judith. (1984). If I were in charge of the world and other worries: Poems for children and their parents. New York: Aladdin.



Jackie Wissman worked at Indianola Elementary in Columbus Public Schools for ten years as both a classroom teacher and Literacy Collaborative Coordinator. She has her MA from Ohio State University with a focus on reading development. She works as a consultant to provide professional development focusing on supporting struggling adolescent readers.