Kispal outlined her summary of ideas for classroom instruction that were supported by research:
- Word-level work - vocabulary building, using cohesive devices
- Text level work - make explicit the structure of stories, the role of titles, and the multiple interpretations allowed by fiction
- Activating prior knowledge - generating, clarifying, reformulating knowledge
- Prediction and contextualisation
- Aural work - listening to stories, and participating in discussion in subject areas beyond the literacy block.
Hall (2015) also reviewed a number of research articles and made this summary of implications for practice with regard to struggling readers:
- Help readers to identify key words in a text and then use those key words to provide answers to post-reading inferential questions
- Teachers should consider devoting time before reading to building and activating students’ knowledge related to topics covered in a text.
- Provide instruction and practice in integrating prior knowledge with information in the text
- Lay off the literal comprehension questions. Ask lots of inferential comprehension questions after reading!
Here, though, is something interesting to consider: We understand that there’s no agreed taxonomy for inferential comprehension. So you won’t be surprised to know that we can add ‘gap-filling’ inferences to that list. There are necessary gap-filling inferences that we need to make in order to have a basic understanding of the text. For these, we use our prior-knowledge to... well... fill in the gaps to understand that the cigarette caused the fire, or the flood was caused by a kitchen appliance. Aaannnndd... there are gap-filling inferences that we actually don’t need at all. This second-type include inferring a character’s motivations, goals, emotions or personality, or making conclusions about the theme of a text, and they simply aren’t necessary for comprehension. But, these types of inferences can provide a richer reading experience, greater detail for the mental or situation model of the text, and more prior knowledge to be used at the next reading event!
And here’s a thought: It would be interesting to note how many of our diagnostic comprehension tests are assessing this second type of gap-filling inference unnecessarily.
On then, to something practical. Here are some ideas for inference instruction. You could use each of these as the focus for explicit instruction for individuals, groups or the whole class, or you could consider them before, during or after your Read Aloud.
- Activate prior knowledge
- Generate predictions
- Use think aloud to model your own use of inference, and to make explicit the cognitive processes that will help you draw an inference
- Draw attention to new vocabulary, using decoding skills, and meaning strategies (eg prefixes, suffixes, root words, etymology)
- Draw attention to pronouns and connectives to show how cohesive devices work.
- Discuss the role of the title and how it's used
- Discuss how fiction texts allow for multiple interpretations
- Draw attention to possible symbolic representations (colour, objects, actions, metaphor, allegory)
- Ask questions about relationships between characters, goals and motivations
- Help students to become aware of an author’s deliberate use of gaps (especially at the start of the novel), and why information has been deliberately omitted
- Use context and clues to determine the meaning of an unknown word
- Explore story structure
- Explore metaphor, allegory, and other symbolic representations
- Investigate picture books as excellent sources of inference
- Infer a character’s motivation and feelings
- Demonstrate how to use information from the text to justify answers
- Consider how the character has changed from the beginning of the book, to the end. What evidence is there to support your answer?
- Identify how the character’s feelings have changed throughout the story. How do you know?
- Consider what the character says or does as clues to a character’s traits
- Explore the difference between a plot and a theme
- Determine some possible themes of the class novel. What evidence do we have?
- Demonstrate how to use parts of speech to infer vocabulary
Hall, C. S. (2016). Inference instruction for struggling readers: A synthesis of intervention research. Educational Psychology Review, 28, 1–22.
Kispal, A. (2008). Effective teaching of inference skills for reading: Literature review (DCSF Research Report 031). London: DCSF