Inference: how to teach it in primary school

inference is one of the trickiest skills to teach in primary, but Clare Sealy says two approaches make it much easier

Clare Sealy

What's the best way to teach inference in primary school?

Teaching children to read is a complex business. Not only do we need to teach children how to crack the alphabetic reading code by teaching them phonics, we also need to teach them how to infer meaning.

This second task can be much trickier than the first. With decoding there’s a clear route mapped out. While it takes some children a bit longer to travel the route, if you stick to the path, in the end you will get there.

But with inference, some children seem to just get it and some really, really don’t.  And when they don’t, it’s frustratingly hard to move them on. Why is this?

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Professor Daniel Willingham, the American cognitive psychologist, explains why. It’s because inference isn’t really a skill that one can practise and get better at in the way that one can practise decoding. Learning how to infer is more of a trick than it is a skill.

Inference tricks

The "trick" of knowing how to infer involves being able to do three things: notice whether or not you are understanding what you read, connecting ideas together and having a wide vocabulary and general knowledge.

As adult "expert" readers, it may seem strange to us that some children do not realise that what they read is meant to make sense. However, if we reflect on what happens when someone learns to read, we can see why some children fail to make that realisation.

When children first start to learn to read, all their attention is caught up with decoding. There is simply no room left in their working memory to also attend to meaning. Teachers compensate for this by rereading and discussing texts after children have decoded it. As children become more fluent decoders and have working memory capacity to spare, most children begin to attend to what it is they are actually reading.

Guessing game

But some don’t. They don’t realise it is now their job to pay attention to what they are reading and check that they understand what it is saying. This lack of awareness is exacerbated because all of a sudden, children are expected to read in their head. No one has explicitly told them that when you read in your head, you need to pay attention to what you are reading. If something doesn’t make sense, then it’s your job to go back and reread it again.

What our novice readers have failed to appreciate is that writers, like speakers, leave bits out and expect us to join the dots, assuming we have the knowledge to do so. But speakers usually monitor if we seem to understand and will clarify what they are saying if we seem puzzled, by adding in extra detail or giving fuller explanations.

Books are, of course, completely unaware of whether or not we are understanding what we read. So, therefore, the onus is on the reader to monitor their own understanding and go back and reread if they don’t.

Modelling inference 

As teachers, then, we need to model how we notice that the author has left out information, how we notice that a sentence does not (yet) make sense. We need to make our thinking process explicit.

Children who do not realise the need for checking their understanding and taking action when things don’t make sense will either blame the book and say it’s boring or blame themselves, thinking they are just not as clever as other people. Or possibly both.

This brings us to Willingham’s second trick: making connections. Because authors leave out information when they write, readers need to make connections between ideas, putting back in what the author has omitted. When we don’t understand something, that is often because we haven’t made a connection that the author assumed that we would.

So thinking about what that connection might be can be a really good strategy. Willingham uses this trio of sentences to show the processes we go through to join the dots:

Bill came to my house yesterday. He dropped a cup of coffee. My rug is a mess.  

Connections and corrections

The reader is expected to draw on their life experience and general knowledge to connect these 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. It is also assumed that the reader knows that coffee is dark liquid likely to stain a rug and that such stains are not usually desirable.

The reader will need to access their long-term memory and retrieve information about coffee, rugs, stains and mess; not just what these things are – though that, too, is important – but how they inter-relate.

The writer is assuming that the reader can make the following connections: dropping a cup of coffee would cause this dark brown liquid to escape on to the floor; sometimes, floors are covered with rugs; if the coffee fell onto the rug, its colour would remain – stain the rug – even after the rug had been cleaned; people usually clean up after spillages, so when the person says that the rug is a mess, they are most likely referring to the stain as being "the mess" rather than the cup and liquid, which have already been tidied up; this is because Bill came yesterday; that means the writer is writing about something that happened a day ago, and people do not usually leave a mess like that for a whole day, they usually clean it up straight away.

Making things obvious

All of this is so obvious to us that we don’t even notice we are making these connections and are baffled when children fail to make them.

In order to help children understand the need to make connections, teachers need to think out loud. They need to articulate how they are making connections between different elements of the text, thus making explicit the thought processes involved in making inferences.  

However, this is a very under-used teaching strategy. Instead, teachers often ask questions of the children rather than model their own ways of making sense of text.

If children are going to be able to learn this way, they will need a wide general knowledge. A child’s background knowledge is one of the strongest predictors of their reading comprehension.

While some children gain this at home, for others this will mainly be learned at school in lessons from foundation subjects. However, in some schools, children who have problems with inference are taken out of foundation subjects in order to do interventions on inference!

This is counter-productive; it is denying children access to the one thing that will really make a difference to their ability to make inferences – strong background knowledge.  

This is why we should see exposure to a rich curriculum and explicit modelling of inference as the best kind of intervention that we can provide for children who struggle with inference.

Clare Sealy is a headteacher in London 

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Clare Sealy

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