What Does It Take to Teach Inferencing?

  • 07 August, 2021
  • 16 Comments

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 
  • drawing conclusions is projecting forward using text and schema

Shanahan 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 interests 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).

What’s my point?

Only to show the difficulties and complications inherent in the inferencing process during reading.

Given the different ways inferences work – requiring recognition of different kinds of omissions or implications, depending on information drawn from different sources (e.g., working memory, background knowledge), accomplishing different interpretive goals, and operating in different ways – what are the chances that you could teach students to infer effectively?

One wonders whether there is any sense to distinguishing inferences, predictions, and conclusion drawing. Do these odd distinctions (without psychological reality) help or hinder kids? My bet is that they learn to ignore such nonsensical teaching.

Nevertheless, many experts claim that asking students inferential questions improves their reading comprehension. Research hasn’t been especially supportive of those claims, however.  Although we can ask questions that require inferences, that doesn’t mean answering them would have any discernible impact on future inferencing. Inferences are too complex and multi-faceted and texts too diverse to allow such teaching to help.

It’s not that questions cannot or do not shape readers’ attention during reading. Just that inferences by the descriptions provided couldn’t possibly do this.

An example from the research is a study done by Reynolds and Anderson. They found that if they asked questions about the quantities expressed in a text, readers started paying more attention to the quantitative info during future readings.

That makes sense.

I remember blowing a midterm in a history class. I hadn’t recognized that the prof wanted the dates of the events we’d studied. My attention shifted to the dates after that, and my final exam went much better. Questions tip kids off as to what information is important and studies show that such guidance is effective because it gets the readers to spend more time on certain information.

That can only work in those cases in which the information is recognizable. As a reader, I had no trouble recognizing the historical dates, so devoting more attention to them was a breeze. Telling kids to pay attention to inferences, to practice answering drawing conclusion questions, or making predictions during reading aren’t likely to provide much of a learning payoff since this guidance fails to direct students to specific workable actions that they can take during reading.  

It is possible to improve reading comprehension through some kinds of inference training, but not the general kind emphasized in state standards.

For instance, when reading fiction, it is important to consider the characters’ motivations. What do they want? What are their goals? Why are they taking those actions?

Students can be taught about motivation and the importance of this can be stressed instructionally. Students can learn to ask themselves why characters do what they do and to pay attention to how they know that. If the author tells such information explicitly, they should pay particular attention to that. If the author doesn’t reveal what is driving a character’s action then an inference is needed.

Likewise, students can be taught to do something similar with causation when reading science. In this case, there are even signal words that can tip a reader off to causes and effects (e.g., because, so, consequently, therefore, thus, since) and distinguishing words that refer to other kinds of relationships (e.g., correlated, similar to, associated). Again, the reader needs to learn that such text demands special attention to cause and effect, whether the author states it explicitly or depends upon the reader to recognize that relationship.

Those earlier-mentioned lexical or cohesive inferences (e.g., repetitions, synonyms, pronouns) can be taught, too. Teaching students to track a character or idea across a text to support comprehension is doable and it is successful at improving students’ ability to comprehend. Learning to connect pronouns, even in the earliest grades, can have real payoffs.

Essentially, I’m suggesting 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. Those taught to “infer” by the definition you provided would not.

Reading comprehension instruction should focus on guiding students to think actively about the ideas in text. Previewing predicting, self-questioning, visualizing, rereading, identifying text structure have all been found to be beneficial because they prescribe actions that encourage students to spend more time thinking about the ideas in texts. Teaching students to identify certain kinds of information when they read – information that is actually identifiable in lots of texts – can help as well (that’s where inference training succeeds).

(Prediction is an odd duck. I would recommend it as a strategy for motivating oneself through a text, but not one that I would want to question students on to evaluate their prediction ability. I can’t think of many texts in which predictions are truly important to gaining meaning. And, with regard to drawing conclusions, no studies of inferencing or comprehension have pursued that colloquial terminology).

References

Baumann, J. F. (1986). Teaching third-grade students to comprehend anaphoric relationships: The application of a direct instruction model. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(1), 70-90.

Cain, K., Oakhill, J., & Lemmon, K. (2004). Individual differences in the inference of word meanings from contexts: The influence of reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and memory capacity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 671-681.

Elleman, A.M. (2017). Examining the impact of inference instruction on the literal and inferential comprehension of skilled and less skilled readers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 761–781.

García?Madruga, J. A., Elosúa, M. R., Gil, L., Gómez?Veiga, I., Vila, J. Ó., Orjales, I., . . . Duque, G. (2013). Reading comprehension and working memory's executive processes: An intervention study in primary school students. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(2), 155-174.

Hamada, A. (2015). Effects of forward and backward elaboration on lexical inferences: Evidence from a semantic relatedness judgement task. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 1-21.

Magliano, J.P., Trabasso, T., & Graesser, A.C. (1999). Strategic processing during comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(4), 615-629.

Reutzel, D.R., & Hollingsworth, P.M. (1991). Reading comprehension skills: Testing the distinctiveness hypothesis. Reading Research & Instruction, 30(2), 32-46.

Reynolds, R.E., & Anderson, R.C. (1982). Influence of questions on the allocation of attention during reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(5), 623-632.

Trabasso, T., & Magliano, J.P. (1996). Conscious understanding during comprehension. Discourse Processes, 21, 255-287.

 

Thanks to William Conrad for his gracious assistance in identifying photographs with young African American readers. His assistance is greatly appreciated.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Marissa
Aug 07, 2021 12:59 AM

Thank you so much. I’ve been reading your blog for the past year and it really has changed the way I approach teaching reading, coming from a balanced literacy background in undergrad. If I had a question to submit, where would I do that?

Ava
Aug 07, 2021 01:00 AM

Florida Center for Reading Research has some graphic organizers to help with comprehension strategy instruction. Are you familiar with them and what are your thoughts?

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 07, 2021 01:59 PM

Marissa--
Either post to the contact page on this website (which emails right to me and is not a public post) or write to me at shanahan@uic.edu.

good luck.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 07, 2021 02:02 PM

Ava-

I haven't seen those so can't comment, but they do great work there so I would suspect they are quite worthwhile.

thanks.

tim

Jake Downs
Aug 07, 2021 05:41 PM

I really liked this post. I found two points especially salient:

1. Drawing distinctions between predictions/inferencing/drawing conclusions is somewhat arbitrary and likely unnecessary.

2. Questioning the prevalent practice of peppering students with inference questions to improve their performance on future inferencing.

I think both of these imply (ha, ha) certain instructional considerations. One of these--as you point out--is teaching students how to be strategic text readers.

Harriett
Aug 07, 2021 07:03 PM

This recent trend encouraging teachers to abandon teaching isolated comprehension skills is promising, especially since in many cases these isolated skills have been practiced by reading very short passages followed by answering multiple choice questions. By contrast, your emphasis on "treating inferencing not as a skill but as a strategy for intentionally making sense of text" is liberating for the teacher and, more important, just darn good teaching because "students who take specific steps to consciously identify motivations, causes, and linguistic connections are likely to comprehend better." I really appreciate this emphasis on understanding an entire text (every time you encounter one since making sense of text never changes as the reading goal) because it will always entail taking into consideration 'motivations, causes, and linguistic connections'. Thank you for clarifying these distinctions.

Harriett
Aug 07, 2021 07:03 PM

This recent trend encouraging teachers to abandon teaching isolated comprehension skills is promising, especially since in many cases these isolated skills have been practiced by reading very short passages followed by answering multiple choice questions. By contrast, your emphasis on "treating inferencing not as a skill but as a strategy for intentionally making sense of text" is liberating for the teacher and, more important, just darn good teaching because "students who take specific steps to consciously identify motivations, causes, and linguistic connections are likely to comprehend better." I really appreciate this emphasis on understanding an entire text (every time you encounter one since making sense of text never changes as the reading goal) because it will always entail taking into consideration 'motivations, causes, and linguistic connections'. Thank you for clarifying these distinctions.

Lynn
Aug 07, 2021 07:44 PM

I am a 36 year public Montessori teacher. We integrated all of our literature with our science and social studies work to increase the students’ knowledge base. Everyone in the same grade level read the same book no matter their reading level. Our literature was carefully chosen to be thought provoking and enjoyable. We provided support in doing this to some of the students. That way students are introduced to grade level concepts and vocabulary. I did also have the students read books on their reading level. Now I am an Orton- Gillingham tutor. Most of my dyslexic students are not included in grade level books so are not included when learning grade level vocabulary and concepts. I’m very disturbed that they are not included just because they’re having trouble decoding. They can still think and learn! Can you please share your thoughts?

Nancy Santucci
Aug 08, 2021 02:59 AM

Your post validates what I've experienced as an educator of 30+ years. English language learners struggle with inferring due to lack of schema and struggling readers and/or readers with working memory deficits do as well.

Mary-Jane Lewis
Aug 08, 2021 03:08 AM

Thank you for explaining why I have never felt genuine by telling a student to 'read between the lines.' Over the years, I have found tracking pronouns, visualising, thinking about character motivation, questioning, making text to world connections, finding synonyms and linking images to texts or linking different parts of a text more identifiable and achievable strategies by students than 'read between the lines.'

Melanie
Aug 08, 2021 12:31 PM

Thank you so very much, I am now rethinking my instructional methods and approach. Please suggest some of the Inference questioning stems that you prefer.

Sam Bommarito
Aug 08, 2021 01:20 PM

Once again I'll be posting your comment below on my office wall and referring to it when I resume teaching by Zoom this fall. I'll also be sharing it with the teachers I'm pushing into. What you said (below) is an excellent summary of how to teach interence as a strategy. THANKS. "Essentially, I’m suggesting 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. Those taught to “infer” by the definition you provided would not.

Reading comprehension instruction should focus on guiding students to think actively about the ideas in text. Previewing predicting, self-questioning, visualizing, rereading, identifying text structure have all been found to be beneficial because they prescribe actions that encourage students to spend more time thinking about the ideas in texts. Teaching students to identify certain kinds of information when they read – information that is actually identifiable in lots of texts – can help as well (that’s where inference training succeeds)."

Cass
Aug 08, 2021 02:04 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
So I was curious to know what you would suggest for Virginia teachers (or any teacher for that matter)? How do we change the conversation? What can we do about mandated tests that operationalize reading. This particular article came out earlier this year, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it: https://dianeravitch.net/2021/02/26/bob-shepherd-on-standardized-tests/?fbclid=IwAR19GaUaMhUpm3Ork-U8Xa1x_T53rCx3YCXJTL1i-oZlHyeV8kSfm9b7zps

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2021 02:30 PM

Cass- Honor the standards by teaching what can actually be taught. For this aspect of your teaching focus on inferencing alone (don't worry about those prediction, drawing conclusions distinctions since they won't help). Then teach kids to do things like track pronouns and to focus on what the conjunctions are linking and so on. Also, when there are identifiable types of information that can be reliably identified (in the examples above, cause and effects, character motives, but also comparisons, problem-solutions, etc.) teach students to intentionally identify such information even when the author doesn't provide it explicitly).

good luck.
tim

Timothy Shanahan
Aug 08, 2021 02:38 PM

Melanie--
With regard to stories, a lot of the inferential questions would start with why... such as "why did Oliver enter the house?" or "why did Cinderella run from the palace?" Character motivations (and reactions to events, too) are not often stated by an author, but are signaled by the events themselves. Making sense of literature demands that you think about the reasons or motives for character actions, so getting students to link these causal chains by focusing on the characters' intentions is critical. For expository text, it is a bit more complicated so recommending a specific question stem would be too limiting. For that text, teach students to see particular kinds of information (like cause and effects) whether it is explicit or not.

In terms of linking ideas, it might go like this.
Text: John liked milk. He thought he would have some.
Teacher: He thought he would have some what? Who thought he'd have some milk? (You could ask about the John's motivation, and I would recommend that, but in this case, that would not require an inference since the author stated it explicitly.

thanks.

tim

Kathy Levy
Aug 09, 2021 04:47 PM

Thank you. I could never understand how drawing conclusions, making predictions, and inferencing could possibly be taught as separate skills. I also believe that making inferences is based on prior knowledge and experiences. Some inferences are more concrete like when we ask students to make text-to-text inferences (which is a popular way of teaching to standardized tests) and other inferences are more of a blend of experiential knowledge. Other than concrete inferences, I don’t even know how inferences can be measured appropriately in reading to be useful data. Making inferences is like art. We can all look at the same painting and see different things within it depending on our knowledge and experiences with art.

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What Does It Take to Teach Inferencing?

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