Learning to Make Inferences
By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association
It seemed that the pitch had barely left the southpaws
hand when the ballpark resounded with a loud thwack. Morgan dropped his
head in dejection as Ramirez began to trot the bases.
What just happened here? Some readers will respond that
the above passage is obviously a familiar baseball scenario a misguided
pitch that has been hit into a home run. But how do we know this? How
can we tell that the passage is about baseball and that the event that
has just transpired is the belting of a home run?
This short two-sentence passage is deceptively complex
for readers. The author implies a number of things without directly stating
them. In addition to picking up clues that refer to baseball, a reader
must also figure out the identities of the pitcher and the batter. Finally,
the reader must recognize the hint about how the pitcher felt about serving
up the home run.
Readers able to comprehend the opening sentences employed
a commonplace yet sophisticated strategy to make sense of it. First, they
actively made connections to their personal trove of background experiences
and knowledge to determine if the author was referring to something familiar
to them. Simultaneously, they examined the text for clues that could guide
them toward making meaningful connections. In short, proficient readers
Inferencing is, of course, a natural part of daily life. If a friend is
curt with us, we infer that maybe she is upset. If there is a freshly
dug hole in the garden, we infer that the neighbors dog has been
roaming back yards again. We are comfortable searching for matches between
our experiences and the clues we encounter around us.
Yet making inferences, the cornerstone of comprehension,
is difficult for many students. National assessments constantly show us
that our students are quite adept at reading to identify specific information,
but that they struggle with inferential thinking about what they read.
Because we take inferencing for granted in so many situations,
as teachers we may be unaware of student confusion as to what they need
to do to successfully make inferences when they read. Students are encouraged
to read between the lines, but for many of them, this directive
is too vague. Therefore, teacher modeling of the thinking that underlies
inferencing can make this process more tangible.
Step 1: Introduce inferencing practice with short
scenarios that require students to add up the text clues and evaluate
them based on their own experiences. For example, the following short
passage is perfect for inferencing:
You notice that the people next door, who enjoy
camping, are carefully loading their car with camping gear. You overhear
one of them mentioning that they had better not forget to cancel their
newspaper for a month.
Ask students some questions that assume inferencing,
such as: What are these people preparing to do? Then challenge
students to justify their responses. They will likely observe that it
is obvious that the people are going camping and that they will be gone
a month. Point out that the text never expressly says this, but
based on our experiences, we can safely infer that our conclusions are
correct. Other inferences may also be elicited, as students may note that
if the newspapers are not canceled, they will pile up in front of the
house, which may make it a target for theft.
Summarize this process by noting inferences combine
our experiences with text clues, and that good inferences are both supported
by the text and consistent with our experiences.
Step 2: Next, select a short piece of text that
leaves key understandings unstated and implied. Either read the text aloud
to the class, or display it on an overhead transparency. As you collaborate
to develop inferences about possible meanings, note two problems that
can occur if a reader is not careful (Tovani, 2000):
- The reader can be preoccupied with only the literal message on the
page and become frustrated that the text does not really make much
sense. In this case, the reader is too text bound.
- The reader can over-rely on personal knowledge and experience and
overlook helpful information in the text. As a result, the readers
inferences are outlandish, or in other words not supported
by the text.
Tovani (2000) describes the problem of outlandish responses by noting
that students will sometimes argue, when pressed about their inference,
that this is my opinion, as if to say that all conclusions
about a piece of text can be equally legitimate.
Therefore, as you discuss making inferences about text, emphasize the
balance that must occur between a readers prior knowledge and what
the author provides in a text. Disrupting this balance will lead to either
a superficial reading or perhaps erroneous conclusion.
Step 3: Outline four concrete steps for making inferences:
First, pose I wonder questions as you read. I wonder
why she declined the invitation when she really wanted to go. I
wonder if the fresh water from the river makes the bay less salty.
This crucial phase recognizes that authors do not explicitly say everything
they wish to communicate, and as a result, involve readers in the process
of creating meaning.
Second, examine the text for important clues about what the author is
leaving unsaid. Initiate inferential thinking by searching for textual
evidence that relates to one of your I wonder questions.
Third, consider what you already know that connects to information in
the text. What makes sense to you, based on your personal knowledge and
experiences? Emphasize that this step could be the main stumbling block
for an inference: Readers may sometimes possess inadequate prior knowledge.
Fourth, return to your I wonder question and see if you can
now generate some possible answers. You are now positing an inference.
Posted June 5, 2001