Ohio Resource Center
Strategies:  Browse Reading Strategies

Making Inferences

by Sue Misiak
  What is making inferences?
Inferring—making inferences—is often described as making a logical guess or "reading between the lines." Making an inference is a lot like the chemical process of forming a chemical compound—when two elements combine and form a new substance. Readers make inferences when they are able to take their own experiences and combine them with information they gather from what they read. The result is that they create new meaning or draw a conclusion that isn't explicitly stated in the reading (Zweirs, 2005).

return to top

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

This strategy is present throughout the Ohio Academic Content Standards for Reading Process and Reading Applications.
Standard: Acquisition of Vocabulary
Grades 4–7
  Benchmark A. Use text features and graphics to organize, analyze and draw inferences from content and to gain additional information.
Standard: Informational, Technical and Persuasive Text
Grades 8–10
  Benchmark B. Examine the relationships of analogical statements to infer word meanings.

Social Studies

Making inferences is implied as a strategy throughout the various benchmarks for history, people in societies, geography, government, and social studies.
Standard: People in Societies
Grades 6–8
  Benchmark A. Compare cultural practices, products and perspectives of past civilizations in order to understand the commonality and diversity of cultures.
Standard: Geography
Grades 11–12
  Benchmark A. Explain how the character and meaning of a place reflect a society's economics, politics, social values, ideology and culture.

return to top

  How does making inferences support reading comprehension?
If readers use no other resources than their own background knowledge to create meaning, their comprehension of a subject is limited. On the other hand, using only text disallows the validity of their personal point of view, no connection is made, and only literal comprehension may result. When readers infer, they are personally engaged with the text, are more aware of the author's purpose, and are processing to deeper meaning (Zweirs, 2005).

return to top

  What do skilled readers do when they are making inferences?
Kelly Gallagher (2004) says that "good readers infer when they read; that is, they see and consider things that are not literally on the printed page" (p. 80). When reading text, many students find that making inferences is difficult. In When Kids Can't Read (2003), Kylene Beers (2003) suggests specific types of inferences skilled readers make as they read. To help less skilled readers learn to make the same types of inferences, Beers suggests that teachers use short passages to show students how to do the following:
  1. Recognize the antecedents for pronouns
  2. Figure out the meaning of unknown words from context clues
  3. Figure out the grammatical function of an unknown word
  4. Understand intonation of characters' words
  5. Identify characters' beliefs, personalities, and motivations
  6. Understand characters' relationships to one another
  7. Provide details about the setting
  8. Provide explanations for events or ideas that are presented in the text
  9. Offer details for events or their own explanations of the events
  10. Understand the author's view of the world
  11. Recognize the author's biases
  12. Relate what is happening in the text to their own knowledge of the world
  13. Offer conclusions from facts presented in the text
[From Beers, 2003, p. 65. Reprinted by permission.]

return to top

  What activities support students in making inferences?

Often, inferring is introduced to students by using familiar symbols, activities, and environments from which they automatically draw inferences or make predictions (an inference about the future).

For example, suppose you are about to begin a unit on the Great Depression. You might have students view a picture of the exterior of a mansion and then of a soup line or a Hooverville. Then, through questioning, students focus on details, making inferences about the people who live in both places, their socioeconomic status, the kinds of food they eat, the kinds of activities they pursue.

From Question-to-Inference Chart
A number of graphic organizers are very helpful to students who struggle to make inferences, because the organizers help the students focus on textual details, bring into play their own thoughts about the topic or information, and then create meaning—make an inference. Because inferences are deeper meanings not stated directly in the text, it's important for teachers to "walk through" each organizer—to fill it out together with the students—as a way to model the process.

The chart below (based on Beers's "It Says, I Say, and So" chart, 2003, p. 166) is a good example of a graphic organizer that allows students to visualize the steps in making an inference. Initially, students respond to a question that can only be answered by inference, even though the question is about a particular reading or text. First the students have to find out what the reading says. Then they add, in their own words, their thoughts about what the reading says. Finally, the students combine what the reading says and their thoughts to answer the question and thus create new meaning—the inference.

As an example, in introducing this organizer, you might ask students to read "Purchase," by Naomi Madgett (2001). Hand out the organizer and have students answer the questions based on facts and details found in the reading (in this case, a poem). Explain to students that although they may add several comments for each of the two middle boxes, those comments should lead to only one inference that builds their comprehension of the speaker's character. Before the students begin, you might want to fill out an organizer with the class to model the process.

What kind of "purchase" does the speaker really make?
What the reading says

"I like the smell of new clothes"

"This dress has no past/ Linked with regretful memories"

"I prefer the new scent/ Of a garment unworn,/ Untainted"
What I think

I like it too when I get new jeans or sneakers.

She must have some old clothes that remind her of bad times.

She wants new clothes, ones that are fresh and unused.
My answer to the question—what I infer

She wants her life to feel like the way you feel when you buy new clothes, fresh and unused.

A template for the graphic organizer is available for your use.


Other Graphic Organizers
For a variation on the above organizer, you might use a circular graphic organizer like the one entitled "Inference Notes," found at the Greece Central School District site at http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-12/Tools/inferencenotes.pdf. In this organizer, students place literal information in the inside wedges of the circle and inferences in the outer wedges of the circle.

"Text & Subtext," another graphic organizer on the Greece Central School District site (http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-12/Tools/
), is designed to help students analyze the textual, or literal, level of meaning and the subtext, or implied, meaning for a specific quotation.

Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (2000) also provide several graphic organizers that elicit inferential responses in a variety of ways. These are especially useful with younger children.


From the ORC Collection
For a during-reading lesson that hones the skill of inferring, have a look at "Tenement Life: Mapping Texts and Making Models," part of the ORC collection. The description in the ORC record (Record #3821) reads:
In this lesson, students explore issues related to mass immigration in the United States. Students identify hardships and injustices of tenement life and visit websites that provide virtual tours through tenement apartments of the Lower East Side of New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Using primary source documents and online resources, students gather facts, make inferences, generate questions, and evaluate bias and purpose. As a final project, students use information gathered and work in small groups to construct tenement apartment models. This lesson works well as an interdisciplinary project and may be woven into a broader study of immigration. (author/ncl)

You can access the record, which includes a link to the resource along with information such as standards alignment, at http://www.ohiorc.org/record/?id=3821 or go straight to the article at http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=302.

Making inferences after reading is valuable when students are continuing their exploration or seeking to build their comprehension. Jeff Zwiers (2005) explains that text-to-text inferences "allow us to connect one part of a text to another. For a particular section of text, comprehension depends . . . on text information that preceded it" (p. 82).

From the ORC Collection
For an after-reading lesson on inferring, "Censorship in the Classroom: Understanding Controversial Issues" serves as a useful model. The commentary in the ORC record (Record #2771) notes:

This lesson helps students to understand the ways in which bias and stereotyping are used by the media to influence popular opinion. Students examine propaganda and media bias and explore a variety of banned and challenged books, researching the reasons these books have been censored. Following this research, students choose a side of the censorship issue and support their position through the development of an advertising campaign. Because this lesson uses resources and texts that may be viewed as controversial, it is recommended that parental notification occur prior to teaching. (author/ncl)
You can access the record at http://www.ohiorc.org/record/?id=3821 or go straight to the article at http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=203 .

return to top

  How can making inferences be used to teach vocabulary?
Making predictions about the future is a kind of inference. Kelly Gallagher (2004, p. 204) helps students with unfamiliar vocabulary by asking them to make vocabulary "predictions." Before reading, the students are asked to make a logical guess about the meanings of five unfamiliar words. He then instructs them to take note of the words as they read to see if the context supports their predicted definition. After several readings with the teacher and collaborating with others, students can revise their vocabulary predictions.

return to top

  Where can I go for additional resources pertaining to making inferences?
Beers, Kylene. (2003). When kids can't read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Burke, Jim. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gallagher, Kelly. (2004). Deeper reading: Comprehending challenging texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Inferential reading. (n.d.). Greece Central School District, New York, http://web001.greece.k12.ny.us/academics.cfm?subpage=941.

Madgett, Naomi. (2001). Purchase. African American literature (p. 282). New York: Glencoe.

Zwiers, Jeff. (2005). Building reading comprehension habits in grades 6–12. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

return to top


Beers, Kylene. (2003). When kids can't read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gallagher, Kelly. (2004). Deeper reading: Comprehending challenging texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work (pp. 277–281). York, ME: Stenhouse.
Inference notes. (n.d.). Greece Central School District, New York. Retrieved May 31, 2006, from http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-12/Tools/inferencenotes.pdf.
Text & subtext. (n.d.). Greece Central School District, New York. Retrieved May 31, 2006, from http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-12/Tools/inferencetextandsubtext.pdf.
Zwiers, Jeff. (2005). Building reading comprehension habits in grades 6–12. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Sue Misiak is a former teacher for the Columbus Public Schools, where she taught English, speech, and drama and served in the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow program and the Kenyon Academic Partnership. Her experience includes facilitating State Institute for Reading Instruction and English Language Arts Academy sessions. She is currently co-facilitator of the High School Language Arts Network, sponsored by the Central Ohio Regional School Improvement Team.

return to top