Part 2: Whad'ya mean there are different types of inference?
It’s all very well to say that your students have difficulty inferring ideas from a text. But what do you mean, exactly? And does it matter?
Text and illustrations help us infer. We use them to understand and make conclusions about what’s not stated, but implied. We make judgements about characters, events, themes, and plot that have not been explicitly stated. We think about the deeper meanings of text, recognise symbols, develop theories to explain character motives, develop empathy, and use our background knowledge with the text to form theories about the significance of events. (Fountas, & Pinnell, 2006)
So many researchers have had a crack at determining the different types of inference, you’d think they’d have come up with a definitive list by now. No such luck, I’m afraid. Turns out that inference is a complicated beast. Studies have emphasised, for example, the processes of inference, the focus of each inference, the distinctions between the different types of inference, or the minimal vs constructivist views of inference. If you have a spare few hours, you might also be interested to investigate automatic and strategic inferences, online and offline inferences, text-connection and knowledge-based inference, coherence and elaborative/ knowledge-based/ evaluative inference, or unconscious and conscious inference. To complicate matters, while you’re researching these different studies, you’ll find that they outline the same type, focus or distinctions, but label each of these differently. Phew!
Here, then, are six key types of inferences that might be of use to consider as you assess and guide student’s use of inferential comprehension strategies.
Felix asked his teacher to allow him to restring the guitar.
Also called referential inference, readers have to understand to whom the pronouns refer. In this case, his and him refer to Felix.
Hanna opened the front door and gasped. She sloshed quickly through the giant puddle of water towards the kitchen.
A student carelessly threw away a burning cigarette. The fire destroyed many trees on the campus.
Readers need to draw on life experience and general knowledge to elaborate on the details provided and realise the flood was probably caused by an appliance in the kitchen, or that the fire was caused by the burning cigarette.
“Pulse ox is 76%. We need to intubate. Central line. 10 milligrams of morphine, and then get him upstairs, stat!”
Local inferences generally are made within one-or-two sentences, and generally are based on information stored in short-term memory. Readers demonstrate local inference/ coherence when they connect information that immediately precedes what they’re currently reading. Comprehension of implied information about vocabulary, location, time, and cause and effect is included in local inference. In the example above, we can infer that the location is an emergency room.
The reader is required to comprehend implied information from across larger sections of text. Global inference includes making conclusions about the theme, main point, or moral of a text. To maintain global coherence, we need to connect what we’re reading with information stated earlier in the text, and build connections with our prior knowledge.
How does Twinky feel right now?
What could he do next?
What will happen next?
Why do you think the dog is barking?
Online inferences are generated automatically during reading, and can include determining a character’s goals, or causal antecedents. You probably do this with your class quite naturally during read aloud, or shared reading. The online processes that take place during any reading event lead to the offline inferences and conclusions that are made after a reading event. Now, questioning is important, but we have to be cautious not to overburden a reader’s cognitive load by asking too many questions that may, in fact, interfere with comprehension.
What could have made it difficult for Kevin to take the branch down to the lake?
What difference in behaviours would there have been between a hunting dog and a dog bred for herding animals?
Why have the meteorites that have hit land caused so few deaths?
What do think this character's motivation was for behaving in that way?
What is the theme of this composition?
These strategically-drawn inferences are made after reading and provide information about the reader’s final interpretation of the text. This is the type of inference we use when we assess comprehension after a reading event, and generally only arise when prompted. As such, we’re actually assessing cognitive processing ability, or memory, or the process of question answering - not quite the same as reading comprehension. We often deduce a students’ reading ability based on these offline measures, which, in fact, don’t make much difference to a student's overall understanding of a text. It’s actually very difficult to create offline questions that accurately measure what has been meaningfully inferred during a reading event.
What we want to do is encourage our readers to practise and use this skill authentically. So, what do we need to do teach inference? Stay tuned for Part 3.