Recently during a test, a puzzled student carried his test booklet over to where his teacher sat, pointed to a word he didn't know, and asked her, "Inference—what does that mean?" Unable to assist because it was a state exam, the teacher suggested that he make an educated guess. Later, we teachers chuckled together, saying that this particular teacher's advice was that the boy infer the meaning of the word inference. We also made a mental note to strengthen our teaching of inferences.
What Are Inferences in Reading?
Making inferences is like drawing conclusions: discovering information in the text, adding it to our own knowledge, and forming an educated guess based on the combined evidence. Reading between the lines, filling in the blanks, and enhancing the meaning of the words—all of these skills are part of one overarching strategy: inferring, or making an inference while reading.
Examples of Making Inferences to Aid Reading Comprehension
Comics and cartoons are ideal tools for students to use when practicing how to make inferences. One of my favorites pictures a snowman under a starry night sky surrounded by rabbits. The snowman is looking worried and thinking, “Uh-oh.” I ask my students to look over the cartoon and then infer what might be bothering the snowman. A conversation might sound like this:
Student: "He's melting."
Teacher: "Does he look hot?"
"No. Not really."
"What else do you see?"
"You're right. I see a lot of rabbits surrounding the snowman. I wonder why?"
"Rabbits might be surrounding the snowman because of his nose! His carrot nose! They want his nose!"
By guiding the student to his own discovery, the excitement remains the child's, not mine. Reading can work the same way. I can only imagine how students might react when faced with a famous snowman sneaking into the produce department of a supermarket to "pick" his nose.
Learning Coaches can model the inference process when reading aloud. In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, the narrator, Peter, shows his new pet turtle to his two-year-old brother, Fudge. He firmly tells Fudge to stay away from the turtle. Fudge responds by echoing, "No touch," and then laughs like crazy as only a toddler can. Using personal experience or recollections of other books, readers can predict what little Fudge might do to Peter's pet turtle. No spoilers here; you'll have to read the book yourself to find the answer. It is, however, safe to say that the turtle may not be safe in a home with an inquisitive tot.
Inferential thinking combines key reading-comprehension strategies such as self-questioning and activating background knowledge. However, making an inference doesn't have to be complicated. My favorite example came from the first grader who told her teacher, "When my dog hears the garage door open, he can infer that my dad is home from work." If a dog can infer, then it will be a snap for you and your student to infer—so be sure to add valuable reading tips to your learning tool kit!