Effective Teaching of Inference Strategies: Part One
The ability to make inferences about a text is vital in order for a child to truly comprehend what they are reading. Inferences can be as simple as inferring that a character is female if they are referred to as ‘she’, or as complex as understanding implicit messages conveyed through particular vocabulary, which can only be fully understood by drawing on the reader’s own knowledge of the world. Inference skills allow you to ‘read between the lines’, to pick out the hidden meaning within a text which enriches the overall understanding of the text. However, inference also goes beyond this. As teachers, there are other skills which we want to teach our pupils to allow them to become skilled readers. Skills such as being able to understand the effects of particular vocabulary and understand why such vocabulary has been used by an author, or to understand what the author is trying to achieve through a text and what impact this has on the reader. All of these skills use different levels of inference.
Effective teaching of inference is a huge topic and can be broken down into different steps. This blog post will focus on the preconditions for inference. These preconditions for inference help to explain why some learners infer much more readily than others; these are the learners that have met these preconditions for inference. While the learners who struggle to make inferences still require these preconditions to be met before they can begin to infer independently.
Being an active reader is a major precondition for inferencing. When an author writes a text they view the reader as someone who wants to actively engage in the search for meaning and will put effort into this search. As inferring is such a taxing activity being engaged in the text is indispensable. Cain and Oakhill (1998) suggested that the reason why poorer readers struggle to make accurate inferences is that they do not see reading as active. Only when they are told their answer is incorrect is their inadequate understanding of the text brought to their attention. Only when their lack of understanding is explicitly highlighted do they search for more information and understanding within a text. Whereas active readers actively engage with a text and continually search for information and understand while they read.
Zero tolerance on inconsistency
Part of being an active reader is constantly checking your own understanding of the text you are reading. Skilled, active readers do not normally let inconsistencies pass them by and will fill any gaps in their understanding as they arise without consciously thinking about it. Cain et al (2001) stated that skilled readers regularly generate more inferences as they monitor their own comprehension and see the need to make inferences to fill in the missing details. Research from Cain and Oakhill (2004) used ‘inconsistency detection tasks’ and found that poor comprehenders were less able to detect nonsense words, atypical phrases or contradictory sentences. It is likely that this is due to the fact that less able readers process a text at a phrase level, this level of processing does not allow for consistency checks. However, good comprehenders process a text on a deeper level and therefore spent more time reading inconsistent parts of a text and were more likely to look back on a text to try and figure out the inconsistencies.
The role of background knowledge in inference is substantial. Long et al (1996) stated that ‘studies demonstrate that access to world knowledge can be obligatory in the sense that a text cannot be completely understood without it’. Background knowledge includes information about the real world, objects within it and their properties and the situation being described. Given the importance of background knowledge in making inferences it would be easy to say that less able readers make fewer inferences because they lack general knowledge. However, studies have shown that this is not always the case. Several studies found that less able readers still make fewer inferences even when the real world information was made available to them. Cain and Oakhill (1998) stated that is it not primarily the availability of the background knowledge that was crucial to accurate inferences but the accessibility of it. The way in which a reader’s knowledge is remembered and organised affects the likelihood of it being used to help make inferences. Information which is quicker to access is twice as likely to be used in inferencing as more slowly accessed knowledge.
Another important point on background knowledge is that learners need to be aware that is it permissible and often necessary to relate a text to your own personal experiences in order to make accurate inferences. Pupils often have the misconception that they should not look outside of the text for answers and therefore they should not use their own background knowledge to make inferences.
Being on the same wavelength
The importance of background knowledge when inferencing has already been discussed but research has also suggested that the reader and writer of a text must share the same background knowledge for successful inferences to be made. Studies have shown that when reader and writer are from different cultures, they do not share the same background knowledge which can lead to errors in inferencing. Narvaez (2002) conducted research into this area and found that cultural beliefs and ideological background can influence inferences drawn from a text. However, she stated that using texts from the pupil’s own culture is not the solution to this problem, instead she suggests having discussions with pupils before reading a text from a differing culture in order to equip learners with the socio-cultural knowledge they will need to form accurate inferences.
From all of the research into the preconditions for inferencing, a general consensus can be drawn. This consensus is that less able readers are less aware. They are less aware:
- that reading is an active process
- that a text should make sense
- that they should be monitoring their own understanding of a text
- of the strategies to adopt when inconsistencies are encountered
- that they need to make inferences at all
- of the information needed to be able to make relevant inferences
Pupils who are less able readers have not yet met these preconditions for inferencing. These pupils need teaching different skills and processes which will allow them to make accurate inferences.
What can I do in my classroom to make sure my pupils are ready to make accurate inferences?
Make pupils aware.
- Model active reading and show the process of engaging with a text.
- Model how to monitor inconsistencies, how to go back and check the text if you find inconsistencies within the text.
- Show pupils how to form inferences as they read a text.
- Make sure pupils are aware that they need to use their own knowledge and experiences to form accurate inferences.
- Discuss relevant topics with your pupils before reading a text so they have the background knowledge which they need to be able to form accurate inferences.
The next blog post in this series will be entitled Effective Teaching of Inference Strategies: Part Two and will focus on how to teach inference skills.
Kispal, A. (2008). Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading. National Foundation for Educational Research .