Monday, 5 February 2018

How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making


How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making
In my last blog post on inference-making (Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making) I provided lots of questions which might support inference-making, along with some suggested answer structures for teachers and children to use when answering inference questions. In this blog post we will look at how these questions can be used wisely in lessons so that children's inference-making skills are developed.

Anne Kispal, in her literature review entitled 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', writes: "Underpinning the research reviewed is the assumption that pupils must be explicitly taught the skills they need for comprehension. They cannot be left to pick them up through simple exposure to texts, or through the natural process of maturation." (page 24) It is clear that we should teach children the strategies they need in order to be able to understand what they read - the strategy we are concerned with explicitly teaching here is inference-making.

The questions I shared previously should be used carefully - they are not solely for use in a written comprehension activity which children complete independently. They should also be modelled, discussed, answered orally and asked about aurally-presented texts as well as read texts.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the why, I propose a sequence (flexible, of course) to help use inference questions in the most effective way:
  1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text
  2. Teacher allows children to the same part of the text
  3. Teacher provides a summary of the text
  4. Teacher models inference-making (which might include clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge)
  5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration
  6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text
  7. Children read next part of the text themselves
  8. Children summarise text
  9. Children answer inference questions (and any supporting vocabulary, retrieval and background knowledge questions, this could be a written task, or an oral one)
  10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred
  11. Teacher models answers and, if written, children edit their work to improve their answers
Now let's see a break down of why it might be a good idea to roughly follow this sequence when using the inference questions:

1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text

On the Reading Rockets website (a great and accessible online resource) Judith Gold and Akimi Gibson provide an excellent summary of the research on reading aloud:

"Reading aloud is the foundation for literacy development. It is the single most important activity for reading success (Bredekamp, Copple, & Neuman, 2000). It provides children with a demonstration of phrased, fluent reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). It reveals the rewards of reading, and develops the listener's interest in books and desire to be a reader (Mooney, 1990)."

Whether or not you have the children reading along with you is another matter; David Didau, in his blog post 'The Problem With 'Reading Along'', proposes that we don't because the act of listening and reading at the same time can overload the working memory and hinder comprehension of the text. If that is true, then the next step is an important replacement for children reading along.

Note: during this read-through it is best not to stop reading to ask too many questions. Although Kispal summarises that teachers should "practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts" she also provides these cautionary notes on questioning:
  • not to interrupt pupils by asking questions during reading time
  • not to launch into questioning too soon afterwards. The teacher must allow time for consolidation of what has been read as a mental representation
  • practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts

With the first bullet point above in mind Kispal also reports that "the only condition that was found [by Hannon and Daneman (1998)] to significantly encourage inferencing was that of integrating questions into the text combined with allowing longer reading time" (this was in a study of university students rather than young children).

2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text

An end goal of reading instruction is to ensure that children can independently decode and understand something. Once the reading has been modelled it is a good idea for children then to have a go themselves in preparation for times when they won't have an adult to read for them. Typically we might ask children to do this in silence, but this isn't the only way. Re-reading aloud to a partner or to themselves has added benefits.

The Key Stage 2 Literacy Guidance Report from the EEF mentions that one way to improve fluency is for children to read aloud the same text that they have just had read to them. It also summarises research that shows that "fluent reading style supports comprehension because pupils’ limited cognitive resources are freed from focusing on word recognition and can be redirected towards comprehending the text." (page 11)

If re-reading a text develops fluency and fluency supports comprehension of the text then that is definitely something we should be building in to our reading lessons. This time spent re-reading also allows children to consolidate what they have heard and read (see Kispal's cautionary notes above).

3. Teacher provides a summary of the text

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how mental models, or representations, are created by the reader:

"While reading, skilled readers normally develop a text-based model, which is a mental representation of the actual text discourse. The text-based model incorporates propositions extracted from the reading of successive sentences that are sometimes supplemented by inferences that are necessary to make the text more coherent."

I suggest that before a teacher models the inference-making that will lead to the creation of a more complex situation model (more on this in step 5) they should model a summary of the text to help children who have not developed a sufficient enough text-based model from which to begin to draw inferences. Providing summaries of the text for children is known to be a useful strategy to help EAL learners and so might they be for others learning reading comprehension strategies.

4. Teacher models inference-making

Kispal writes that "teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves... Teachers should attempt to find texts rich in inferencing possibilities and to have in mind which inferences they will elicit in discussion."
(page 30)

The literature review then goes on to suggest that to show inference-making in use teachers should "model inferencing by asking relevant questions aloud and answering them" and that they should "think thoughts aloud to show how teacher arrives at an inference." 
(page 51)

Inference-making relies on the reader having done other things with the text such as clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge so these processes may need to be modelled also. When considering the activation of prior knowledge Kispal's review of research makes the following suggestions to take into consideration when discussing questions:
  • pupils generate initial associations 
  • they discuss and clarify their collective knowledge 
  • they reformulate knowledge, clarifying what they now know as a result of discussion

According to Kispal's review of literature, whilst modelling and discussing inference-making teachers should ask "questions about relationships between characters, goals and motivations" and ask "questions that foster comprehension monitoring, such as Is there information that doesn’t agree with what I already know? Are there any ideas that don’t fit together (because of contradictions, ambiguous referents, misleading topic shifts)? Is there any information missing or not clearly explained?" Teachers should always be asking "‘How do you know?’ whenever an inference is generated in discussion of a text." Teachers can also "show examples of how all types of questions can be derived from a text" using the question words (i.e. who, ‘when, why).
(page 38)

Questions that can be used to support systematic and structured teaching of the wide variety of inferences can be downloaded here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/questions-to-support-inference-making-11825987

5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration

In point 3 we looked at how teachers might share a summary of the text for the purpose of aiding the development of a text-based model. Once a text-based model has been created, and further inferences have been made, a situation model can then be developed.

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how situation models (a kind of mental model or representation) are created by the reader:

"In contrast [to text-based models], situation models include elaborative inferences that integrate prior knowledge with text-based information.teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves.

"Thus, the construction of a situation model is a dynamic constructive process that is determined by the interaction of the reader, the text structures, and the semantic content. 

"In constructing a situation model the reader is required to search for coherence at the local and global levels and to infer meanings that are often implied by drawing from their existing background knowledge. While doing this, the reader actively constructs the situation model by using information within the text and also information from stored prior knowledge. Thus, the main difference between text-based and the situation model is assumed to be one of inference making, the text-based model is inferentially light while the situation model is inferentially dense." 

It seems important to reassess the mental models that are created after making new inferences from the text.

6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text

See point 1

7. Children read next part of the text themselves

See point 2

8. Children summarise text

See point 3. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their text-based mental model before they answer any inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

9. Children answer inference questions

This could be with support, without support, in pairs, independently, as a group, as a written task or as an oral task. Children may also need to understand the vocabulary used in the text, retrieve information from the text and link their background knowledge to the text - this could be done through discussion or by a structured sequence of questions (see my idea of scaffolding inference).

Kispal summarises that paired or group work allows pupils share the thought processes that led them to make inferences and that the younger the children, the more aural work they should undertake.
Kispal also writes that research on inference-making suggests that we should "train pupils to acquire the habit of asking themselves why-questions occasionally while they are reading, as these are most supportive of understanding". Another suggested strategy is to ask "pupils [to] generate questions using these question words [who, when, why etc] from a text and group members answer."
(page 38)

10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred

See point 5. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their mental situation model once they have answered the inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

Summary

Whilst structures like the one I've suggested can be useful, it is only there as a suggestion and will need to be adapted according to need. Having said that, this sequence takes into account many research-based practices which aid in the teaching of inference-making and therefore should be a good solid starting point for reading lessons that focus on inference-making (and probably other reading comprehension strategies). Use with discretion not because I said so!

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. In the teachers notes I have not included information about the text summaries but every other part of the sequence is detailed.

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