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How to Teach Inferencing

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You’ve taught your student to decode the letters on the page, and he is now reading sentences. What reading skill is left to teach? Inferencing! Here is all you need to know about how to teach inferencing.

How to Teach Inferencing

What Is Inferencing?

Imagine you are reading a cartoon without words. In the first box, you see a skinny cat eyeing a plate of fish. In the next box, you see him lying lazily by an empty plate, his stomach bulging. Can you figure out what happened? If you guessed that the cat ate the fish, you used inferencing.

Inferencing involves using existing clues in a picture or piece of text to draw conclusions that are not stated outright. Here is another example: “Brows creased, Ginny stared at the test. As the minutes ticked by, she nibbled her pencil from end to end like corn on the cob.” How does Ginny feel about taking this test? If you said nervous or uncertain, congratulations! You used inferencing to read between the lines. Even though you were not explicitly told in the text that Ginny was nervous, you were able to use the clues to draw that reasonable conclusion.

Using inference is pivotal for reading comprehension because the reader can draw the full meaning from what she reads.

How to Teach Inferencing

Inferencing Activities

Inferencing doesn’t just happen for students; it has to be taught.  The good news is that your child doesn’t have to be a strong reader to practice the skills of noticing details and using deductive reasoning (that’s inferencing in a nutshell).  Try some of these activities for teaching inferencing.

The Scenario Game

We infer all the time.  Give your kids a scenario and see what they can infer.  Remember, an inference is an educated guess based on clues.

  • Mark is always doing tricks on his skateboard. One day you see him walking on crutches.  What do you infer?
  • At a party, there are two drink options: apple juice and fruit punch.  You see a girl with a pink stain on her shirt.  What do you infer?
  • Jody finds a stray cat and brings it home.  That night her brother sneezes twenty times.  What do you infer?

Use an Anchor Chart

Anchor charts and graphic organizers are a visual reminder of the steps of inferencing.  You can make your own with markers and some creativity or purchase a ready-made one.  The basic steps of inferencing involve:

  1. Take what you already know. (The fancy word for this is schema.)
  2. Look for clues in the text. 
  3. Make an educated guess. (“The author wants me to think ___.”)
How to Teach Inferencing

Is It an Inference? Game Show

Play a silly game show to determine if there is a need to make an inference. Remember, an inference involves reading between the lines. It is not something the author states outright. Use an over-the-top announcer voice (and a hairbrush microphone) to let the student guess: Is this an inference?

For example:

  • The cat enjoyed playing with the feather, knocking it about the room. (an inference is not needed)
  • The cat’s tail twitched as it swatted the feather. Then the cat leaped into the air and pounced on the feather.  Holding the feather in its mouth, the cat raced around the room like a high-speed train. (inference–the cat enjoys playing with the feather.)

Practice with Cartoons

Wordless cartoons rely on inferencing to piece together the storyline. Believe it or not, Wile E. Coyote, Shaun the Sheep, and Pixar short films are actually teaching your kids something. Watch the cartoons together and pause them when there is an opportunity to infer.

Thought Bubbles

Use an inferencing picture (simply search for the term) and give the student a thought bubble post-it. Can she infer what the character in the picture is thinking? Write it on the thought bubble. It must be inference and not just a random guess! Tell your student to take what he already knows and look for clues in the picture.

How to Teach Inferencing

Pictures for Inferencing

Inferencing pictures can help teach the skills of inferencing without reading. Wonderfully, The New York Times publishes an inferencing picture every week for students to practice their inferencing skills.  Inferencing is at the heart of photojournalism.

You can also find wordless pictures in books that work wonderfully well for teaching inferencing. 

Inferencing Questions

The black-and-white thinker may struggle with inferencing because there is no guarantee that your educated guess is the correct answer.  Inferencing involves detective work, prior knowledge, and a sprinkle of imagination.  Get your kids warmed up to inferencing with these kinds of questions:

  • How is the character feeling? How do you know?
  • Why is he/she feeling that way?
  • Does the title of the story/picture give you a clue as to what it is about?
  • What do you imagine the character is thinking?
  • What do you think will happen next?  Why?
  • What is the character doing? How is she/he doing it?
  • Why is the character doing this?
  • What is the problem?
  • Predict what will happen if…
  • Predict what will happen when…

These types of questions lead to the basic reading inferencing questions:

  • What is the author trying to show me?
  • What conclusion can I draw from this?
How to Teach Inferencing

Books to Teach Inferencing

You don’t have to invent inferencing pictures and passages from thin air.  You can find books with passages dedicated to practicing inferencing.

For a gentle start to the skill, scroll through the children’s bookshelf to find detailed wordless books that rely on inference or use this list of picture books to teach inferencing!

Teaching Inferencing to Kids

Inferencing is a skill everyone must learn, but the good news is that learning to do it is actually fun!  Who doesn’t love searching for clues and mixing in equal parts creativity and deduction?  Watch out, Sherlock Holmes, we’re coming for you!

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