Saturday, 27 January 2018

Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making

The EEF KS2 Literacy Guidance document states that "reading comprehension can be improved by teaching pupils specific strategies that they can apply both to monitor and overcome barriers to comprehension". It goes on to say "strategies should be modelled and practised to ensure they become embedded and fluent". It concludes that "The potential impact of these approaches is very high, but can be hard to achieve, since pupils are required to take greater responsibility for their own learning. This requires them to learn three things: what the strategy is, how the strategy is used, and why and when to use the strategy. Developing each of the strategies requires explicit instruction and extensive practice".

In order for children to make inferences independently the EEF's gradual release of responsibility model is useful. It describes how greater responsibility for using these strategies can be transferred to the pupil:

1. an explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used;
2. modelling of the strategy in action by teachers and/or pupils;
3. collaborative use of the strategy in action;
4. guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility; and
5. independent use of the strategy.

In my last blog post 'Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making' I concluded that children will probably benefit best from having the chance to practise specific inferences based on the different types of inference-making listed above. If teachers can provide questions that are of a similar structure, and provide structures for the answers too, then children who are at the learning stage of inference-making might have a better of chance of being able to make inferences whenever they are reading.

With this in mind, here are some inference question focuses that might help teachers to structure their lessons and questioning more carefully in a way that allows them to model particular skills which the children can then practise:

Making inferences about actions

Ask questions about:
  • how a character feels
  • why a character feels a particular way
  • why a character acts/behaves in a certain way (motives)
  • why a character says certain things (motives)
  • why a character says things in a certain way (motives)
  • why a character does things in a certain way (motives)
  • what a character thinks
  • why a character thinks/believes/expects (etc) certain things
Questions may be framed in many different ways. Here are some examples, given in an order that might allow gradual transfer of responsibility to children. I suggest this sequence of questions takes place over a series of lessons, rather than in just one lesson, especially where written answers are required:

<quote from text> This tells is that x feels... <multiple choice answers> 

Provide a quote from the text that children can infer information from, provide a description of what is felt/said/done and then give a choice of possible inferences for children to choose from. Questions like this might be used more often with younger children. As exemplified in the 2017 KS2 Reading SAT below:


Character feels x. How do you know? 

Possible answer structure: In the text it says ________________. This shows the character feels x because _______________________.

Give a description of what is felt and ask for children to locate information that supports this theory. Children will probably benefit from being asked several questions with the exact same question and answer structure in order to practise based on what the teacher has modelled, as exemplified here:



This type of question is also exemplified in the 2017 KS2 Reading SAT below, where the cat is the character and the lack of enjoyment is the feeling and the request for three ways in which the cat shows this is in place of the How do you know? question:


How does x feel? What does x think? Explain your reasons. 

Possible answer structure: X feels ________________. I know this because in the text it says ________________. This shows the character thinks x because _______________________.

This is more difficult than the previous questions as the child has to do more: they have to find their own word to describe what is felt/thought etc and they have to support it with evidence from the text. Ensure that children are presented with several opportunities within a lesson to answer questions at this difficulty level - keep the lesson focused on this one question type. As exemplified in the 2017 KS2 Reading SAT below where the question asks about thoughts of expectation:


Making inferences about events

Ask questions about:
  • what happened (where details are not given explicitly and retrieval skills can't be used)
  • why something happened
  • where something happened
  • when something happened
  • how something happened
  • why something happened in a certain way
  • what was unusual or different about what happened
  • how something has come to be
Questions may be framed in many different ways. Here are some examples, given in an order that might allow gradual transfer of responsibility to children:

Questions about what happened:

<quote from text> What do you think happened? <multiple choice answers> 

What evidence is there that x happened?

Possible answer structure: In the text it says ________________. This shows that x happened because _______________________.

In the paragraph beginning... what do you think happened? Find two pieces of evidence from the text to support your answer.

Possible answer structure: I think that _____________________ happened. I know this because in the text it says ________________. This shows that x happened because ______________________.

Questions about why something happened:

Read the story/paragraph beginning... Join each event to its cause. <provide a list of events next to a jumbled list of the causes for each event>

<quote from text> Why did x happen? <multiple choice answers> 

x happened. Why did this happen? Give evidence from the passage.

Possible answer structure: I think x happened because in the text it says ______________________. This suggests that __________________________________.

Questions about where something happened:

Read the story/paragraph beginning... Join each event to its location. <provide a list of events next to a jumbled list of the locations of each event>

Where did x take place? <multiple choice answers> 

Where was a when x happened? Explain how you know using evidence from the text.

Possible answer structure: I think a was _________________________. I think this because in the text it says ______________________. This suggests that __________________________________.

Making inferences about state

Ask questions about:
  • what something is
  • what a place or object is like
  • why a place or object is as it is
  • what we know about someone's character (what a person is like)
  • where something is (different to where something happened)
  • why something is where it is 
Questions may be framed in many different ways. Here are some examples, given in an order that might allow gradual transfer of responsibility to children:

Questions about what something is:

Tick two pieces of evidence from the text that tell us that the object is x. <provide several quotes from the text which may or may not provide evidence for the state of x>

The object is x. Find three pieces of evidence from the text that support this theory.

<provide an excerpt from the text> What does this suggest that x is? Give your reasons.


Possible answer structure: This suggests that x is ________________. I think this because in the text it says ____________________________.

What is x? How do you know?

Possible answer structure: x is _______________________. I think this because in the text it says ______________________.

Questions about what a place is like:

The place is x. Which of the options below could be used as evidence? <provide several quotes from the text which may or may not provide evidence for x>

The place is like x. Find supporting evidence in the text.

Possible answer structure: This suggests that x is ________________. I think this because in the text it says ____________________________.

What feeling does the character get of place x? What evidence is there in the text?

Possible answer structure: The character thinks the place is ______________________. I think this because in the text it says ____________________________.

Questions about what a person is like:

<quote from text> The character is made to seem...: <multiple choice answers> 

<quote from text> How is the character made to seem x? Explain two ways, giving evidence from the text to support your answer.

Possible answer structure: In the text it says _____________________ which suggests that the character is _________________________.

As exemplified in the 2017 KS2 Reading SAT below, where the character is the whale and the characteristic (mysterious) is given:

<provide an excerpt from the text> What impression does this give us of the character? Give your reasons.

Possible answer structure: In the text it says _____________________ which suggests that the character is _________________________. It also says that __________________________ which makes the character seem ______________________.

As exemplified in the 2017 KS2 Reading SAT below where the characteristic is not given and information to support the answer has to be found:

Read the whole text. Which aspects of the character's personality change? Use examples from the text.

Possible answer structure: At the beginning the character is _______________ but by the end they are ________________________. I know this because at the start the text says ________________________ and at the end it says __________________________.

This is an example of making a global inference based on understanding of the whole text. This can be more difficult than making local inferences about small parts of the text (as in the previous question examples).

A note on answer structures: the examples given are all full sentence answers - you may want to teach ways of being more concise in order to save time, particularly with timed-tests in mind. Bullet-pointing and more note-like answers are often good for this.

These questions and more can be downloaded as a simplified word document at TES resources.

I have by no means covered all the possible kinds of inferences in this blog post, nor have I exemplified them all. Hopefully what I have managed to convey is:
  • Inference-making can be modelled by the teacher and practised by the children
  • Teachers can ask specific kinds of questions to provide practise of inference-making
  • Children can practise specific kinds of inference-making
  • Children can be provided with structures to help them answer questions
  • There are a levels of question difficulty within each kind of inference questions
  • Children can be given multiple opportunities to practise each kind of question, especially where there is a written answer
For an example of how this might work with a real class novel, please see my planning for the first 10 chapters of 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond. 5 whole lessons are focused on making inferences about characters' motives and a further 5 lessons focus on making inferences about characters' feelings. The first lessons in each section feature multiple choice questions, moving onto questions which require increasingly more writing using an answer structure.

This blog post is the fourth in a series of four:


See also:

Scaffolding Inference - my blog post about how first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions can guide children towards answering inference questions.
How To Write Good Comprehension Questions - this blog post goes into more detail on what else to take into consideration when it comes to writing your own comprehension questions.

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