Saturday, 27 January 2018

Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?

In her literature review 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading' ( Anne Kispal asks are there different skills within inference? and goes on to define and exemplify the most frequently cited inference types:

Coherence inferences maintain textual integrity. For example, in the sentence 'Peter begged his mother to let him go to the party', the reader would have to realise that the pronouns ‘his’ and ‘him’ refer to Peter to fully understand the meaning.

Elaborative inferences enrich the mental representation of the text, e.g: 'Katy dropped the vase. She ran for the dustpan and brush to sweep up the pieces'. The reader would have to draw upon life experience and general knowledge to realise that the vase broke to supply the connection between these sentences.

Local inferences create a coherent representation at the local level of sentences and paragraphs. This class of inferences includes:

  1. coherence inferences (described above).
  2. “case structure role assignments”, e.g. Dan stood his bike against the tree. The reader needs to realise that the tree is assigned to a location role.
  3. some “antecedent causal” inferences, e.g. He rushed off, leaving his bike unchained. The reader would need to infer that Dan was in a hurry and left his bicycle vulnerable to theft.

Global inferences create a coherent representation covering the whole text. The reader needs to infer overarching ideas about the theme, main point or moral of a text by drawing on local pieces of information (thus supporting my theory that one must be able to make inferences before trying to summarise a piece of text).

In 'Constructing Inferences During Narrative Text Comprehension' Graesser, Singer and Trabasso identify 13 classes of inference:

In all but two (or three) of the inferences in the right-hand column it is interesting to note that each class of inference contains a verb, and therefore is concerned with something being so. We might assume that most inferences are about action, state or occurrence.

The two (or three) classes of inference which appear not be concerned with something being so (or are not about action, state or occurrence) is Class 1: Referential, Class 8: Instantiation of Noun Category and potentially Class 5: Thematic.

These thirteen classes can be linked to Kispal's summary of the most frequently cited inference types:

"The order in which the inference classes are listed in Table 1 is not altogether arbitrary. Inference classes 1, 2, and 3 are needed to establish local coherence, whereas inference classes 3 and 4 are critical for establishing explanations. Classes 4,5, and 6 are important for establishing global coherence. Classes 7 through 11 are elaborative inferences that are not needed for establishing coherent explanatory meaning representations. Classes 12 and 13 address the pragmatic communicative exchange between reader and author." (Graesser, Singer and Trabasso, 1994)

Whilst the authors state that "these classes do not exhaust all of the potential inferences during comprehension" they provide a very good starting point to thinking about teaching inference-making at a primary level.

So, by and large, when we make inferences we are thinking about why things are or are not so.

This blog post is the second in a series of three:

Part 2: Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making
Part 3: Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making

See also:

Scaffolding Inference - my blog post about how first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions can guide children towards answering inference questions.

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