Part 1: Elephants With Four Trunks
There are good reasons for that, which I’ll outline over the next few posts, together with some ideas for teaching this important reading skill.
Every diagnostic comprehension assessment you set will have some level of inferential questioning, and there a few things that are necessary for our students to be able to make good inferences (Kispal, 2008):
- A desire to make sense of the text
- An ability to monitor comprehension and repair misunderstandings
- A rich vocabulary
- A competent working memory
- A wide background knowledge, and cultural understandings
Let’s take each of these in turn, and tease them out a little.
If I were asked to read a text that I wasn’t interested in, or to which I had no connection--say, a recount about a mountain biking expedition in South America--chances are, I wouldn’t immediately be making any wonderful inferences. The first thing I’d do is get a literal understanding of the text using information directly stated. I might also combine two or more literal pieces of information from adjacent sentences or scattered throughout the recount. Key inferential understandings that I might make would probably have to do with vocabulary - determine the meaning of unknown words like bottom bracket, top tube, derailleur. Finally, I might express an opinion about the text in terms of the author’s crafting of the piece. If I’ve never washed, fixed or ridden a mountain bike, never experienced a trail, have no prior knowledge about the landscape in South America,and have no real desire to understand or be interested in mountain bikes at all, then this text is probably going to be challenging in terms of making inferences.
The youngest of our students live in a world that is constantly throwing novel ideas and new experiences at them. Other humans don’t think the same way as me. There are countries and cities and times long ago where people don’t live in the same shelters as me. There are strange animals in countries far, far away with long claws, and kind eyes, that move so slowly, it looks like they’re moving in slo-mo. As a result, our youngest students are more tolerant of uncertainty, inconsistency or dissonance. When these little people come across novel ideas in a text, they may not be able to repair misunderstandings, because no misunderstanding has been made - everything is possible in this wonderful world of ours! The elephant had two small ears and four heavy, sturdy legs. The student reads: The elephant had two small ears and four heavy, sturdy trunks but doesn’t repair the miscue because, quite frankly, perhaps there are elephants in the world with four trunks! Wild! When the inferential question is asked: How might the mice know the elephant is coming? The student can’t answer, or offers a response using prior knowledge but without referring to the text (They can see the elephant from far away.) In this case, prior knowledge and text knowledge can’t meet adequately to provide a good inference. Another reason suggested by Harrison (2004) is that our youngest readers might be processing text just at phrase level, so checks for ambiguity or inconsistency aren’t implemented.
If your students are having difficulty with inference, consider how often you’re reading to them. Students without a rich vocabulary can’t make all-important inferences about the words and ideas they don’t know. Students need to be read to at least once every day for ten to fifteen minutes. They need to read widely and often. They need to be in classrooms where interesting words are noted and listed. They need to hear how adults use context and clues to determine unknown vocabulary.
Students need a good working memory to determine inference. Working memory is important for executive functioning. If we forget what’s happened at the beginning of the story, or we can't combine information directly stated with our prior knowledge, drawing inferences is going to be that much more difficult. Working memory is necessary for completing tasks with multiple steps, staying focused on a task, finding a good spot in the conversation to say your piece (and then remembering what it was you wanted to say!), maintaining progress on a task which requires manipulating and processing information, and completing work independently. If you have a student in your class with poor working memory, they almost certainly will have trouble with making good inferences, and with reading comprehension, in general.
Finally, inference skills are also helped along when students have a wide background knowledge, and when students share the same cultural background evident in the text. Think, now, about your students who come from a different cultural and linguistic background, students living in poverty. Students like these need to hear about (and experience) a range of ideas relevant to the culture assumed in the text before they can make any inferences. How will you make sure that this happens in your classroom for those children?