This is the fourth in a series of posts related to the six Strategies covered in my book Practical Reading Strategies. You can buy a copy of the book here. Check out the previous three posts on Making Connections, Visualising, and Questioning.
Inferring means ‘reading between the lines’. In practice, however, it’s one of the most complex Reading Strategies for a student to access and requires a much more sophisticated understanding of text than simple comprehension.
Although inference is complex, it is – like many processes – formed early in a child’s development. Studies have shown that children as young as three years old can begin to infer information from stories, such as conflict, plot and character arcs. Similarly, children can begin to conceptualise the difference between real and imaginary information from four years old, with a lot of skill development between four and six.
Even so, the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and the communication of misleading information on social media proves that even though we can infer from an early age, we don’t always choose to read between the lines before hitting the share button.
The ability to infer meaning is arguably the most important skill for critical literacy. Without the strategies good readers use to infer, information is taken at face-value. This might be as a result of a surface level skim of a text, rather than a more considered reading, or it may be due to difficulties or an inability to infer. In any case, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide students the tools they need to be able to read between the lines.
Slowing down the reading process is key. Tests like the ACER PAT-R, which test for inferential skills amongst other things, demonstrate that inferring implied meaning in texts often takes more time: students who gloss or skim read questions often “miss the point”. We do students no favours when we barrel through content at a lightning pace, generally in an effort to “cover the curriculum”. Instead, slow down and concentrate on truly reading and exploring texts, even if it means that you ultimately cover less ground.
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The search for meaning
Focus on activities which draw connections between ideas and issues in texts, building towards a greater understanding of the deeper meaning. This applies to complex texts like novels and films, and shorter texts like persuasive opinion pieces or editorials.
The “meaning map” activity, for example, encourages students to dig a little deeper than just identifying what they see in the text and asks them to articulate why they have made that judgement. It can be a simple activity or one that extends into a very complex and detailed concept map at the end of a text study. This activity relies on the students knowing enough about the text to make several inferences, meaning that it is best suited for the end of a unit, or after a significant portion of the text has been read.
Slow down the pace of the classroom to allow students time to build complex, meaningful inferences. What you sacrifice in content, you’ll make up for in quality.
Practical Reading Strategies contains clearly explained activities for Inferring and the other five Strategies. Join the mailing list for more resources and activities.