One of the first reading skills I address each year is making inferences. It’s the cornerstone of using context clues, identifying character traits and motivation, analyzing plot, theme, and more. In addition to its obvious necessity for reading comprehension, students will make inferences for science, history, and other subjects.
Now, most students are already able to make inferences. They can read a friend’s body language, for example, and identify whether that friend is excited or distressed. What many need to be explicitly taught, though, is the components used to make inferences—background knowledge (or schema) and evidence—and how to search for that evidence.
A graphic organizer like this one, created for my standard sixth grade class, encourages metacognition and helps students know what to look for when an idea is merely implied, but not readily apparent to them. Believe it or not, the most difficult part of this assignment is usually teaching them to identify their own background knowledge. That skill must be modeled. It may also be necessary to prod their thinking with probing questions, like “How did you know? What background knowledge do you have on this topic that help you make an informed inference?”
It is often also necessary to stress that an inference reflects the “most likely” scenario, and not just something that is remotely possible. For instance, if I read a text in which a fully dressed character stands dripping in a doorway, looking at the rain outside, and ask students to infer why the character is wet, inevitably, someone wants to suggest that “they fell in a lake” or “they went swimming in their clothes.” (Sixth-graders are notorious for playing the “what if” game and love to let their imaginations run wild on this one.) While I praise their creativity, I point out that since the most likely reason is that the character just came in out of the rain, other responses—no matter how creative—are not accurate inferences. So, in addition to teaching them how to draw a conclusion using evidence and schema, I also stress the need to weigh all the possibilities, choosing the one that is most likely.
In a previous post, I wrote about how I use pictures to introduce inferences to my students. I also use several free online resources including this virtual pen pal activity. I can also recommend this YouTube video by MrSato411. Younger students might appreciate these interactives: Riddle Game or the PBS Detective Game. UPDATE: I created these multi-task cards for my literacy centers to give students a chance to practice inferences and context clues.
So, start the year strong with a review of this critical reading skill, or use these resources to review inferences with students who are struggling to “read between the lines.”