How do we teach inference? Can a skill be “taught” and “transferred” to new texts? How deeply does inference depend on prior knowledge (of the world, of the text)?
Inference is heavily taught at primary. Yet, when my students come to secondary school their inferences appear to be underdeveloped. Students write with great pride in Year 7, “Coraline is brave because it says in the quote “I will be brave”. This shows that she is a brave girl.” Clearly we have a lot of work to do.
I’ve read on Twitter that inference is not a transferrable a skill. Instead, inferences are dependent on a solid foundation of knowledge which must be explicitly taught in order for students to access texts. This is a very secondary view of inference. But our primary colleagues know all to well that, in fact, “inference” is an umbrella term for a wide range of steps which students make when the read texts. Some of these do entirely depend on prior knowledge, but others are more transferrable.
What are the different types of inference?
- Text-connecting: when readers realises that pronouns link to characters, e.g. the “he” is Scrooge.
- Gap-filling inferences (requiring readers to bring their own knowledge): e.g. realising that a shivering girl might be cold.
- Casual inferences (linking actions to results/outcomes): e.g. Scrooge asks Bob to come to work during Christmas shows that he doesn’t celebrate the holiday.
- Prediction – using clues in the text to make a judgement about what will happen next.
- Global inferences – thinking about the text as a whole, e.g. identifying themes of Christmas, redemption, the supernatural, etc.
It would be fair to argue that some of these “inferences” do not require prior knowledge about the world, but rather simply require understanding of how texts work.
How do you teach students how to infer?
The snapshots below are strategies which I have found useful for teaching inference to my KS3 classes. None of this required explicitly teaching students new knowledge, but rather drew on their existing understanding of the world to piece together their interpretations of characters. I’m not suggesting this is perfect, or will work for everyone. This is simply an approach I have been trialling.
- Give students a step by step guide to how to infer:
Step 1) Use clues or hints from the text.
Step 2) Think about the connotations of words used in the text.
Step 3) Match something in the text to your own understanding, experience or knowledge.
Or for short: clue + you = meaning
2. Model. Model. Model.
Show students your thought processes. Explain to them how you come to inferences about a text (pretending that you have no prior knowledge about it). Make that hidden mental process explicit for students.
3. Use images and build up to longer pieces of text.
A gradual reveal of an image, or beginning with an image and then adding to it with facts or an extract from a text can be an interesting way to build students inferences. For example, having modelled and explained my inferences about a picture of Lord Asriel, students approached an extract describing him. They began to build up inferences about his threatening demeanour. I then revealed the significance of his “daemon” and relationship with Lyra, which added a further depth to the inferences they posed.
4. Use reciprocal reading to strengthen students comprehension skills.
Reciprocal reading makes explicit the strategies that experienced readers automatically use as they read. It helps students to improve their comprehension of texts and think-aloud about what they are reading. I’ve found this as a useful tool, so that students have a strong starting point upon which to build their inferences.
Example worksheet here (made for a cover lesson)
5. Raise your vocabulary expectations and give students the tools to put inferences into writing.
Whilst we don’t want students to use big words for the sake of it, a key difference between higher and lower prior attainers writing is their vocabulary. Connotations are useful here for helping students to expand their ideas, so we start with this. Then, we look step by step at how to put words onto paper. I found “extreme modelling” by @TLPMrsL useful for my lowest prior attainers, moving them beyond saying “suggests” repeatedly.
|because|| we see that……… |
it demonstrates that…
this is associated with….
|Additionally … |
6. Evaluate and rank model inferences:
Do you have a success checklist for inferences? How do students know their inferences are high quality? With my year 7 and 9 classes we ranked 5 inferences from best to worst and built a success checklist for what makes a good inference. As a result, students were able to self-check and monitor their own writing to evaluate how thoughtful and implicit their inferences were about the text.
7. Get metacognitive:
I’ve given students sample answers and asked them to identify which of the answers was an inference and how did they know? I’ve asked students to write letters to themselves on how to write inferences. Students have peer assessed their work. They also reflected on their learning, for example: what steps were most useful for inferring, what thought processes did you use, what should you do if you get stuck and run out of ideas?
So, I suppose, my key point is this: whilst prior knowledge is vital for perceptive inferences, so too is explicitly explaining to students the thought-processes we use as expert readers. When my KS3 students went on to see an unseen extract from A Wrinkle in Time, they were able to reapply the thought processes they had built in their inference unit. They were confident in analysing the relationships between characters and drew on their knowledge of other texts to expand their ideas. My lowest prior attaining students made the most progress of the lot, offering surprisingly perceptive ideas and some of their best written pieces this year.