“Lydia is progressing really well with her reading! She’s confidently using a variety of strategies to decode the words, and her literal comprehension is secure. The area we really need to focus on is developing her inferential comprehension.” As the saying goes, ‘I wish I had a dollar for every time I…’ had this discussion with a parent!
Inferential comprehension…. the ability to read between the lines. This higher-order thinking skill is a difficult one for young readers to master. However, like all skills, it can be taught and practised. The other point worth noting is that inferential comprehension is not a one-off skill – it keeps developing and requires nurturing.
How can we help our students develop their inferential comprehension skills?
Sometimes students use so much of their brain-power simply deciphering the words on the page, that there is no ‘brain-juice’ left to devote to thinking about meaning. And yet, being able to infer is not only a skill we use when reading.
Comprehension is about making meaning. It includes various levels of understanding such as literal, inferential, evaluative and critical. If you think about it, we rely on these skills on a daily basis – when we notice the stooped shoulders of our partner as they walk in the door, or listen to the weather report and observe how heavily laden the sky is with grey clouds, or make a decision about the best position for the couch in the lounge room!
So, do we need to always marry the learning of inference skills with reading the written word? The answer is an emphatic “No!”
The written word can sometimes be an unnecessary added complication for students.
When we remove the reading component from an inferential comprehension activity, we allow students to truly focus on MEANING and what is being COMMUNICATED.
The World of Visuals
So we find ourselves in the domain of illustrations and photographs. These types of visual prompts set the stage for conversation which is ripe for the exploration of inference.
For example, our Inference Scenarios Teaching Resource Pack.
This pack includes five posters and worksheets which can be used for inference instruction.
Don’t forget the option of using the worksheets as a stimulus for oral discussion rather than written.
How about engaging your students in some comic strip design? Our Inference Comics Worksheet is a winning resource which is sure to have your classroom buzzing.
Photo of the Day
Another great way to provide opportunities to investigate inference is to introduce “Photo of the Day.” You will find “Photo of the Day” has so many applications in your classroom – you’ll wonder why you hadn’t thought of adopting it sooner!
Our Visual Writing Prompts Widget is perfect for this purpose. While this random collection of stunning photographs was initially curated as writing prompts, they fit the bill as stimuli in so many other ways.
Try projecting one of these photos onto the interactive whiteboard at the beginning of the day before your students enter the room. This is a great way to spark curiosity and discussion as students arrive. Urge them to think of a ‘wondering’ in relation to the photo.
This simple technique fosters a spirit of inquiry and love of learning in our students – and it draws us away from constantly focusing on achievement standards and meeting curriculum requirements!
Images displayed in this way automatically provoke discussion, and thus, provide opportunities to practise speaking and listening skills. When the teacher facilitates these discussions, the benefits are enormous. As students put forward their ideas, they are encouraged to explain and justify their thoughts. Any ensuing agreement or disagreement has the added advantage of developing the students’ critical thinking skills.
Our See, Think, Wonder Template is a superb resource to use in conjunction with the Visual Writing Prompts. It is a graphic organiser which helps guide inquiry as students arrange their thoughts into observations and interpretations. Use the template in small groups with each group member sharing ideas.
There are a number of other websites worth visiting if searching for photos to use as prompts.
- National Geographic Photo of the Day
- Smithsonian Photo of the Day
- New York Times – Learning What’s Going On in This Picture
- Pobble 365
Photos are often used as a primary source of information when studying history and geography. It is crucial that students form the habit of being keen observers in order to make meaning.
The ability to pay close attention to detail, however, takes time and practice. “Photo of the Day” gives you the means to do this.
How to Use Photos to Develop Inferential Comprehension
How can we best support our students to strengthen their inference skills?
Firstly, the act of viewing and talking about photos in small groups or as a whole class gives students the opportunity to co‐construct meaning. Yay! The power of peer teaching strikes again! Inferential thinking is further promoted when the teacher facilitates these discussions by posing inferential questions.
Our Viewing Response Template is another excellent resource to use in tandem with your chosen photo. Start out by asking the students to talk to a partner about the image they’re viewing.
Remember, this talking time is crucial!
- Have the students focus first on the main idea of the photo i.e. “If you had to use one sentence to describe what this photo is about, what would you say?”
- Ask the students to record this as their first observation on the Viewing Response Template.
- Then they discuss and write down at least two other observations – these are the details.
- Encourage the students to use lots of descriptive language (this will be an adjective workout!) in their observations. Ironically, one can only describe well if one observes carefully. This exercise is also a sensational opportunity to practise positional language such as “in front of,” “behind,” “to the right of” etc.
- The next step is to have your students think of an inference they can make from the photo.
- It is vitally important that they use their observations as evidence e.g. “I infer that the dining table is set for dinner because it is dark outside and there are wine glasses on the table.”
Initially, you may need to guide this a little. Your job is to show students how to search for clues to support their inference. Using clues and their personal knowledge of the world, you could also ask the students to think about what happened just before or just after the shot was taken. Or maybe they could contemplate what might be happening just outside the frame.
I have written a song that helps to remind students how to infer. It’s called The Inferring Song and we have it available as a poster to download and display in your classroom.
Each student’s inference is discussed with a partner and recorded on the Viewing Response Template. It is important to note that it’s OK for individuals to make a variety of inferences – as long as they can support their ideas with evidence.
Class sharing time at the end of this exercise is an essential ingredient to success. Allowing your students to hear examples of inferences promotes greater understanding of the concept and they come to realise that they actually infer in their lives on a daily basis. This is also a time when you can clarify any misconceptions, and your students can argue their point of view.
“Photo of the Day” presents so many teaching possibilities. Not only are students honing their inference skills, they are refining their ability to describe and to differentiate between the main idea and detail. The seeds are also being sown for summarising. What about the concept of probability? It will emerge naturally in discussions as students compare inferences. Are some inferences more likely than others?
Wordless Picture Books – Developing Inferential Skills
Another way to polish inference skills is through the use of wordless picture books. Use the Viewing Response Template in the same way as described above, but select specific pages for analysis.
The suggestions below would suit a variety of age groups.
- “Flotsam” by David Wiesner
- “Chalk” by Bill Thomson
- “Oops” by Arthur Geisert
- “The Farmer and the Clown” by Marla Frazee
- “Rainstorm” by Barbara Lehman
- “Journey” by Aaron Becker
- “Belonging” and “Window” by Jeannie Baker
- “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan
Wordless Videos Perfect for Inferring
Similarly, wordless videos are fertile ground for inference. “Trouble in Paradise” is a humorous short film which explores the antics of a small crab on a tropical island.
Before showing the video to your students, arrange them in pairs. Once again, the emphasis will be on discussion of inferences. Pause the video at the listed times below and ask students the questions. Each question will require the students to infer, and perhaps more importantly, justify their thinking.
- 0:48 – What’s in the hole? How do you know this?
- 1:02 – How is Crabby feeling when he first emerges from the hole?
- 1:42 – Why does Crabby react the way he does when he sees the coconut?
- 2:36 – Where do you think he’s pushing the coconut? Why do you think this?
- 3:35 – Why did he roll it into the ocean?
- 3:46 – What is the thump noise? Why do you think this?
- End – What did Crabby think when he saw another coconut? Why do you think this?
Try browsing some of the short films produced by Pixar Animation Studios. They are brilliant inference tools!
I hope these suggestions help you to successfully scaffold the teaching of this comprehension skill. When we start out using visuals alone, we lighten the learning load for our students.
The beauty of this approach is that it means we can develop the inference skills of all students regardless of their reading ability.
In the Early Years in particular, there is a danger that we devote too much time to phonics instruction and decoding skills at the expense of nurturing this essential comprehension skill. Visual prompts are an invaluable resource for any age-group!
Of course, the next step after exploring visuals, is to apply these skills to the analysis of text. You’ll be surprised at how easy the move across will be! Inference doesn’t have to be a scary concept. Make it fun!