Pedagogy Focus: What is inference?

In the latest Pedagogy Focus piece, we ask what inference is and how is it used in the classroom to teach reading comprehension

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inference pedagogy

What is inference?

Inference is the process of using observations, evidence and reasoning to formulate understanding and reach conclusions. 

Often referred to as reading between the lines, inference involves using prior knowledge and experience to make deductions and work out intended meanings. 

Broadly speaking, inference can be classified as either deductive (inference based on theory that starts with a hypothesis or premise) or inductive (forming logical generalisations based on specific observations).  

Who were the key theorists?

Edward E Jones and Keith Davis (1965) developed the correspondent inference theory. They suggested that the inferences we make are based on observations of motivation and personal choice (rather than external or situational factors). 

Inferences are therefore based on the assumption that there is a correspondence between motive and behaviour.

Chris Argyris (1970) created the Ladder of Inference, which outlines the mental steps in our reasoning and acts as a tool for checking and reflecting on our assumptions (which form the basis of our inferences), preventing us from jumping to conclusions that simply reinforce our original beliefs.

Arthur C Graesser (1990s) is known for his work on inference skills used and created through the reading of texts. Graesser’s research suggests that readers generate a variety of inferences as they engage with a narrative and work out what a text is about.      

How is it used for reading comprehension?

Although typically associated with the teaching of English and literacy, inference is vital in many (if not all) subjects.

It is a key cognitive skill that forms the foundations of higher and critical thinking, and should be taught and practised within the school environment to aid pupils in their learning.

This could happen in the following ways:

  • Remind students that this is not a new approach but one they are quite well versed in. Highlight what inference looks like in real life and explain that all of their assumptions, predictions and opinions stem from their inference capabilities.  
  • Model the inference process by thinking aloud, demonstrating how pupils can reach conclusions using inference skills.
  • Use particular questions and phrases to signpost reasoning and share how they form links and conclusions.
  • Use questioning techniques to draw out prior knowledge and scaffold connections that will lead to inference. 
  • Use pictures, images and riddles to help develop inference skills in a different way.  Inference doesn’t need to be (written) text-based and practising with alternative stimuli can offer opportunities to demonstrate higher levels of inference.  

Further reading:

National Foundation for Educational Research: Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading Literature Review.

Catherine Delamain and Jill Spring, Reading Between the Lines: Understanding Inference, Routledge (2014).

Robert J Marzano, “The Art and Science of Teaching/Teaching Inference”, Educational Leadership, ASCD (2010).

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