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What Does It Take to Teach Inferencing?


Reading comprehension instruction should focus on guiding students to think actively about the ideas in text. I suggest treating inferencing not as a skill but as a strategy for intentionally making sense of text. Students who take specific steps to consciously identify motivations, causes, and linguistic connections are likely to comprehend better.

Teacher Question

I am reaching out to see if you can clarify for me and possibly point me in the direction of a resource(s) where I can read more about the differences between predicting, inferring, and drawing conclusions. Our curriculum was developed in house and is very skill/strategy based. 

In Virginia, our state tests operationalize reading in the following way: predicting is making an informed guess about what happens next using text evidence and schema, inferring is reading “between the lines” to a given point in text using text and schema to understand what is happening in the text, and drawing conclusions is projecting forward using text and schema

Shanahan’s Response

I’m happy to distinguish these three concepts, but it won’t help. It won’t help you teach better. It won’t help your students read better. You are interested in making sure you are appropriately teaching these reading skills so that your students will comprehend well. But the problem is teaching those skills aren’t likely to do that. Only one of these has a clear research record (inferencing) and that operationalization is gobbledygook.

Written messages – texts – are not so complete or explicit to allow readers to make full sense of them without filling some gaps or making some connections. Authors don’t tell everything. They imply an awful lot. Inferences are used to make sense of those implications. But inferences are complicated.

There are lots of ways to characterize inferences… as demonstrated by the late Tom Trabasso. There are, for instance, forward and backward inferences. Predictions and drawing conclusions are usually examples of forward inferencing. Readers draw a forward inference based on the textual information provided up to that point in the text. Backward inferences require that the gap be filled by information an author hasn’t yet revealed. Forward inferencing requires that you remember enough information the author provided so that when something is lacking you can fill the gap.

You can’t possibly know where the author is going to leave gaps, so the more coherent and complete your memory is the smoother things are going to go. Backward inferencing is more complicated because you must spot the gap and realize that you don’t know how to fill it; then you must be vigilant for the needed info when it arises.  

Another way to think about inferences has to do with the source of the information needed for filling the gap or making the connection. The critical information may have been provided by the author earlier in the text or it may come from readers’ own prior knowledge. Frequently, the information may come from both (and perhaps it will be necessary to coordinate information from more than one bit of the text).

Here’s a fairly simple example:

            Mary and John went to the movies.

            He asked her if she wanted popcorn.

Figuring out who asked who seems rather straightforward, but how do you go about it? You must first recognize that it isn’t entirely clear who was doing the talking, and then you must draw on your knowledge of the world. In our culture, people named John are usually boys so John must have asked Mary about the popcorn. This required information from working memory (sentence 1) and the reader’s world knowledge.

A third way to think about inferences is the functions that they fill. The John and Mary sentence would be an example of inferences used for text connection or slot filling. This is how we make cohesive links; these inferences fill a linguistic function, connecting chains of synonyms that operate across a text. But inferences play other functions, too. Look at this example:

He plunked down $10.00 at the window.

She tried to give him $5.00 but he refused to take it.

So, when they got inside, she bought him a large bag of popcorn.

To grasp this requires an inference that they must be at the movies. Making that inference transforms this into a scene that most of us could visualize. This kind of inference allows the reader to create a model of what is going on. Other inferences have other purposes (e.g., explanatory, predictive, associative).


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