Thursday, 11 December 2014

Teaching inferential reading

Simple comprehension of a text isn’t enough. To be high-level readers, children need to be able to infer meaning that goes beyond what the text explicitly tells them. But how can we teach them to do this?

In this blog post, you'll find an outline for a session on inferential reading for use with Key Stages 2 and 3. There's also a free worksheet for you to download from our website and a number of suggested starter activities. 

But first, what is inferential reading, and why is it so important?

An essential reading skill
Inferences are the conclusions we draw based on what we already know and judgements we make based on given information. When reading inferentially, students use the information the text provides, combined with prior knowledge, to make assumptions about meanings which are not directly stated.

In a blog post on inferential reading for P@WSLeanne Hegarty says: 'Inference can be as simple as associating the pronoun "he" with a previously mentioned male person. Or, it can be as complex as understanding a subtle implicit message, conveyed through the choice of particular vocabulary by the writer and drawing on the reader’s own background knowledge.'

The ability to make inferences is important for reading comprehension, but also more widely when analysing and critiquing texts. Inferential reading is vital to understanding the aims of a writer and the impact of their work on its audience, which, in turn, are crucial to the study of literature  at GSCE and beyond.

How to teach inferential reading
So we've established the importance of inferential reading  but how do we teach it?

It's best to start early, in Key Stages 2 and 3. A session on inferential reading with pupils of that age group might progress as follows:

1. Introduce the notion of making inferences from text. You can do this through an example text or poem (such this one here); a brief, sentence level activity (such as ‘Cucumber Cues’ or ‘Simple Sentences’ – see 'Activities to introduce inferential reading' below); or a discussion on the inferences students make in everyday life.

2. Hand out the text or section of the text you will be working on. Give each student the activity sheet ‘Reading and discussing texts together’ - download this for free here (download begins straight away).

Before reading the text:
3. Encourage students to discuss their prior knowledge about the topic. They will need to think about their experiences, background knowledge, what they have heard and seen, and other books they have read, then record their ideas in box 1 on the worksheet.

4. Students make predictions about what they might learn from the text or what might happen in the text, filling these in box 2.

5. Students record any questions they have about the text in box 3.

Reading the text:
6. Ask students to read the passage as a whole without interruption.

After reading the text:
7. Have students review their written predictions about the text.

8. Ask students whether they needed to modify their ideas in light of the text, and how the new information changed or reshaped their prior knowledge. They write this down in box 4.

9. Students complete the activity with a summary of the text in box 5, filling in the most important facts from the text in chronological order.

Activities to introduce inferential reading

There are many fun and simple games and activities to introduce the concept of inferential reading. You can find a whole list of them in this article by Dale Pennell. One example of his is the game ‘Cucumber cues’. This is how you play it:

1. Write a list of sentences on the board. Replace one word in every sentence with the word ‘cucumber’. Examples include:

  • I like to eat peanut cucumber.
  • A dog has four cucumbers.
  • I clean my cucumber with a toothbrush.

2. Students work individually or in pairs to write out the sentences, changing cucumber to a word that makes better sense.

3. Students share their responses with the class and identify words that gave them clues to the word they substituted. Ask students to relate the clue word to their background experiences and explain how this background information helped them find an appropriate substitute word.

An alternative to this activity is ‘Simple sentences’. Give students a list of sentences to practise making inferences. Each sentence should contain two facts, which, when combined with prior knowledge and context, can give the students further information about the characters or situation in the sentence. Examples include:

  • Sue blew out the candles and opened her presents.
  • John went running out into the street without looking.
  • We bought tickets and some popcorn.

Roy van den Brink-Budgen explores ways teachers can develop the critical skill of inferential reading and the research behind it in our upcoming issue of Creative Teaching and Learning. Watch this space for more information!

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