Teaching inference is a critical skill for elementary readers to learn; so much of what we read in any kind of text is not explicitly stated, but is left for the reader to infer.
Good readers make inferences using text details and background knowledge to figure out information that isn't present in the words on the page. Making inferences helps us understand and appreciate the author's message.
Fortunately, elementary kids in grades three through six have enough background knowledge and life experience to really “get” inference. They love puzzling through what the author really means once they get started on learning this concept.
They become like little story detectives tracking down the author's meaning or the theme of the book. This motivation to truly understand what's happening in the story can greatly increase reading fluency and the comprehension that comes with it.
Examples of teaching inference
Here are nine great sentences that I use to get kids headed in the right direction on inference. See if you can infer the correct conclusion from each of these.
- “When I woke up, there were branches and leaves all over the yard.”
- “We bought tickets and some popcorn.”
- “I forgot to set my alarm clock last night.”
- “A student falls asleep in class.”
- “One student put her hand in the air.”
- “Mary plays her recorder every day for two hours.”
- “Shannon grabbed her raincoat and umbrella.”
- “A group of students did not turn in their homework.”
- “Three students were late coming in from recess.”
Those last two are kind of an inside joke for my students; when students don't turn in their homework in my room, the inference is that they will be missing their lunch recess to complete it. And when students are late coming in from recess, the inference is that they will be headed for after-school detention. That makes them laugh a little bit, but they do know the answers!
If you use sentences such as these to demonstrate inference, then don't hesitate to include some of those inside jokes to really engage the kids in thinking and learning about the concept.
Inference as an engagement Tool
Once the concept has been introduced, be certain to bring it up frequently when the children are studying reading. And of course, it's a great technique to stop during a classroom read-aloud and ask what the author or main character is really thinking or trying to communicate. This is a great technique for keeping your young readers engaged in the story.
Don't forget nonfiction! There are plenty of unstated themes running through nonfiction texts. I find it interesting to ask:
“What do you think the author means here?”
… even when I'm not completely certain that there is anything to infer. It's amazing to listen to what kids come up with! You will also gain some insights into their patterns of thinking that can help with your nonfiction reading instruction in the future.
Once you have started your children down in the path of being “inference detectives,” it's great to give them a tool to help them track down the meaning of words they don't understand. Much of the time, complicated words carry special – but unstated – meanings. I provide my students with a grid, illustrated below, that allows them to keep track of words they don't understand.
You can see that the grid guides them through the process of finding clues to figure out what a word means, and then reinforce its meaning by using it in a student-created sentence.
Again, this is a great way to get inside their little heads and understand what they're thinking and how they're mentally approaching a text – either fiction or nonfiction – based on their life experiences.
Teaching inference is great fun in the elementary classroom and is one of those skills that pays huge dividends in reader engagement, comprehension and fluency.