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Learning to Make Inferences

By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association

June 2001

It seemed that the pitch had barely left the southpaw’s 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 make inferences.

The strategy
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 neighbor’s 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 reader’s 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 reader’s 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

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