Inference, says Clare Sealy, isn’t a skill that can be taught. But it can be improved – through knowledge.
I’ve always found it much harder to teach how to infer meaning than how to decode. With decoding, there’s a clear route map. Some children may take a bit longer to travel that route; but if you stick to the path, in the end you will get there. But with inference…some children just get it and some really, really don’t. And when they don’t, it’s really hard to move them on. Why is this?
Having been intrigued and perplexed about how best to teach children to use inference in their reading for many years, I decided to find out what research said about the subject. What I found out was somewhat surprising.
According to Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist, it seems that inference as a skill doesn’t really exist. That might explain why it’s so hard to teach! Willingham explains that inference is more of a trick than a skill.(1) With a trick, once you know it, you won’t get any better by practising it over and over again. Skills, on the other hand, improve with practice.
Willingham says that when we teach inference, what we are really doing is teaching children to connect ideas, filling in the missing bits the author has left out. Authors always leave bits out; they don’t explain every last detail – just like when we speak, we make certain assumptions about the person listening, assuming they already know stuff and so can join the dots. The difference is that when we talk to someone, we monitor to see whether they are understanding us. We will look at the person we are speaking to from time to time to check for signs that they understand. The person listening will give us some useful feedback, maybe nodding or saying ‘mhm’ or ‘uh-huh’ – what linguists call giving ‘acceptance signals’ – to show they get it. If we have assumed too much and the listener doesn’t understand, they will send us a signal by saying something like ‘huh?’ or by looking baffled. This is our cue to provide more detail.
Books just don’t care whether we understand what they are saying or not. They don’t monitor our acceptance signals (even though we might nod along as we read a set of instructions) and they certainly don’t rephrase what they are saying if we exclaim ‘huh?’ So the first thing we need to teach children about inference is their own crucial role in checking they are understanding what the text is saying as they read. The book isn’t going to stop and repeat itself or explain in more detail if they don’t understand. Successful readers expect to understand what they read and know what to do when they spot themselves not understanding. Successful readers don’t just read the actual words on the page; they also check that these strings of words make sense. And if they don’t, successful readers stop, go back and reread to try to fathom out what the writer is trying to say. If children have never seen this process modelled by a teacher, then how would they know that this is what they should also be doing? Teachers need to use ‘thinking out loud’ to show how they check for meaning as they read.
They need to model stumbling over phrasing or meaning and then stopping and rereading to clarify the sense. Children need to understand that this is a normal part of being a reader – something expert readers do all the time – and not a sign of failure.
The second thing we need to teach children about inference is that because writers leave bits out, they expect readers to join the dots and connect ideas for themselves. It would be beyond tedious if writers explained everything in minute detail. We are so used to this as expert readers that we don’t even notice the gaps; that sentences are connected is obvious to us. Willingham illustrates this with the following trio of sentences1: ‘Bill came to my house yesterday. He dropped a cup of coffee. My rug is a mess.’ The first connection the reader needs to make is one of coherence inference: the reader needs to connect ‘he’ with Bill. Then there is elaborative inference: the reader is expected to draw on their life experience and general knowledge to connect the three sentences together. In this case, the reader is expected to make the connection that the cup of coffee that Bill dropped is the cause of the mess on the rug even though this is not stated. This is all so obvious to us as expert readers that we don’t even notice we are making these connections and are baffled when children fail to make them. Teachers need to help children understand how to do this by ‘thinking out loud’ as they read aloud to pupils, showing how they are seeking to make connections between different elements of the text, thus making explicit the thought processes involved in making inferences.
The research shows that teaching children these two techniques is quite important, but there is little benefit to be had in teaching this for more than a few lessons because the techniques of monitoring one’s understanding and then trying to make connections are easily learnt within a few hours of instruction.(2) No additional benefit is gained by spending any more time on mastering these techniques beyond this. That’s because once you know these tricks, the only things that will get in the way of understanding texts are gaps in your life experience, general knowledge and vocabulary. You will realise you don’t understand something and try to make the necessary connections, but still fail because you don’t have the knowledge to know how the things you are trying to connect actually relate. So instead of spending too much time on teaching children how to infer, ‘acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits’.(1)
If we want our children to be able to make inferences about what they read, then we need to afford them every opportunity to acquire the kind of rich background knowledge that the most advantaged children routinely acquire at home. Since the humanities and science lessons are the main places where children will gain this knowledge, cutting back on foundation subjects to improve reading is a false economy and should be resisted.
1. Willingham, D. T. (2006) ‘The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension studies’, American Educator 30 (4) pp. 39–45, 50. Available at: www.bit.ly/2K8KVvM.
2. Willingham, D. T. (2017) ‘What happens when you teach children to make inferences while reading?’, Daniel Willingham – Science & Education [Blog]. Available at: www.bit.ly/2K3GLoE.