Saturday 27 January 2018

Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making

Following on from my blog post entitled 'Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?' this blog post provides practical advice about how inference-making might be taught in a structured and simple way. If you are interested in the research base for what I put forward in this blog post then do read 'Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?' first. 

Based on my reading of research, and on my analysis of my own experience of teaching inference-making, I put forward that when we make inferences we are thinking about why things are or are not so. To break that down I also suggest that:

  • Inference-making can revolve around actions such as what is (or is not) said, done, thought, felt, believed, perceived and so on. Inference-making is also about why, how, when and where these actions take place. These action-based inferences might pertain to actions in the past or the present, or to intended actions.
  • Inference-making might also involve events (or happenings, or occurrences) such as what happens or does not happen. Inference-making is also about why, how, when and where these occurrences take place. There are obvious crossovers here with how the actions of a story's characters, or a text's subject, influence events. Making inferences about events might focus more on things that happen with or without human influence e.g. as a result of natural processes or a sequence of other events.
  • Thirdly, inference-making might be about the state of things. These inferences might refer more to inert, insentient things such as places, buildings and objects and could focus on why things are as they are, what they are, how they came to be and where they are. In a way, Class 8: Instantiation of Noun (see my previous blog post) is actually an example of this. Using the same example, and posing is as a question that a reader might ask themselves: What is breakfast? It is bacon and eggs. In the same way Class 1: Referential is an example of making an inference about a thing's state: What is it? It is a fork.

If at least the majority of inferences that we make whilst reading revolve around a verb, including forms of the verb 'to be', then we have a sensible starting point to teaching inference-making. There may be disagreement about whether or not inference can be learned, but what is certain is that it can be modelled by teachers and practised by children in simple comprehension lessons where questions are posed and answered. Since much of reading instruction follows this process it would make sense to be a little more deliberate about teaching inference-making, especially as it is not always easy to do - the very nature of it means that information is not always explicit and takes more finding.

Reading lessons involving comprehension questions, I'd be willing to bet, often follow one of the two patterns:
  • a sequence of questions that naturally arise from the text, usually a mixture of different reading skills
  • a more deliberate set of questions that aim to allow children to practise a specific set of reading skills
These are fine if your aim is for children to have a complete understanding of a piece of text, or if you are giving children the chance to practise a range of skills after they've had specific skills teaching. What I suggest, at least for lessons where you intend to teach reading skills, is that individual skills are modelled by the teacher and practised by the children. If, for example, you wanted children to get better at making inferences you would model inference-making and then make provision for children to practise inference-making.

But, even this presents a problem: not all inferences are the same. A teacher might model an inference about why something happened and then give children practise questions about how someone feels. This won't allow a child to practise particular skills; only children who are already very skilled in making inferences will be able to answer them and in this case the child would need some more challenging work.

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.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

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

Part 1: Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?
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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