8: Making Inferences

Inferences are close cognitive cousins of predictions.  In each, thinkers are required to identify relevant attributes of one or more concepts and connect those attributes with other concepts.  Teachers reading this book will probably recognize asking students to respond to questions only to find that they have copied passages from the text, word-for-word.  Students who copy responses in this manner are often identifying key words from the question and matching them to a section of the text that contains those words.  Often, the teacher wanted students to infer a response rather than literally recognize what had already been read.  Indeed, students may expect that copying word-for-word is how one is supposed to respond to such questions.  Students must learn not just what an inference is or that it is essential to comprehension; students must also “understand that they are making an inference about something” (Liben & Liben, 2005, p. 403) and when doing so is appropriate.

In making an inference, readers learn to connect their own existing knowledge with what they read (also referred to as scriptally implicit inferences) or to connect parts of the text with other parts of the text (also referred to as textually implicit).  Each type of inference must be modeled and taught intentionally (McGee & Johnson, 2003) if students are to avoid the trap of calling words accurately but not really comprehending the text. To further complicate the skill of making inferences, readers must also be able to do so at the word, sentence and event levels (the focal level, borrowing from Smith, 2004) or for the text as a whole (the global level).  We can look at inferences by comparing them with their purposes (See Table 8.1)

Table 8.1

Table 8. 1   Types of Inferences
Elaborative Inference Not necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit (relies on background knowledge)
Cohesive Inference Necessary for comprehension Textually implicit (relies primarily on cues at the word, sentence, or whole text level).
Knowledge-based Inference Necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit
Evaluative Inferences Necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit (relies on background knowledge and calls for the reader to relate an emotional connection to the text.
Adapted from Bowyer-Crane & Snowling, 2005.

An elaborative inference requires the reader to predict a possible outcome for events, add detail by relating personal experiences to those related in the text, and so on.  As such, these inferences add depth to a reader’s understanding of the text through elaboration.  Cohesive inferences require readers to make use of connective features of sentences and larger text structures, such as paragraphs. In the sentences, “I lost my book, but Jan found it under the sofa” the reader must infer that “it” is the book, which was found under the sofa.  This is a focal prediction of the cohesive type.

Often students reading a textbook must hold in mind concepts from earlier in the text and connect those with concepts recently encountered.  This is done in working memory (Cain, Oakhill, & Bryant, 2004) where integration enabling inferences takes place.  You may wish to review the role of working memory presented earlier in this book.  Clearly, readers who have learned to attend to appropriate attributes of a reading selection and who also have learned to deploy their attention in working memory appropriately are more apt to make inferences that span large sections of text, from one paragraph to another, from one chapter to another, and so on.  These are also types of cohesive inferences.

Knowledge-based inferences require readers to draw on background knowledge in order to understand what they are reading.  Consider this passage: “When I opened the book, I found that the title page was torn.  Jan ran to get the tape.”  In this sentence, background knowledge is required which would suggest to the reader that tape is used to repair torn pages, and Jan will locate this resource to help me effect the repair.  None of this is stated in the passage.  It must be inferred, and from this example teachers will be able to infer that students who ask why the author doesn’t just come right out and say what they mean would end up writing a huge tome, explicating every little detail.

In a more complicated example of the knowledge-based inference, consider the opening lines of Hemingway’s story, “A Day’s Wait” (1987, p. 332). “He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill.  He was shivering, his face was white, and he walked slowly as though it ached to move.” In the very first lines, we must infer that there are two people (“we”) still in bed and a third walks into the room.  This person could be a child (who else would just walk into the room?) or a butler (who else would be shutting windows?). We use background knowledge to make these inferences.  But, we’re not sure which of the two inferences are correct.  What we must do is continue to read to see if we can obtain additional information that will help us determine who it is that is shutting the windows first thing in the morning (another inference—is it really morning?).  Let’s read on.

“What’s the matter, Schatz?”

“I’ve got a headache.”

“You better go back to bed.”

“No. I’m all right.”

“You go to bed.  I’ll see you when I’m dressed.”

But when I came downstairs he was dressed, sitting by the fire, looking a very sick and miserable boy of nine years.  When I put my hand on his forehead, I knew he had a fever.” (p. 332).

If you’re thinking what we’re thinking, then you know that Schatz is the boy’s name, that the narrator of the story is probably the boy’s father [we will have to keep reading to verify this prediction and inference], and you know that the butler is not the closer of morning windows (if it really is morning—we have to keep reading). All of these inferences were made with background knowledge about family relationships, story structures (the narrator refers to himself as “I,” but we haven’t yet verified the gender of the narrator, have we?), and that butlers are not typically nine years old. More important, we can use these inferences to make additional predictions about what happens in the next paragraph, the next page, and the rest of the story.  When we connect the fact that Schatz refers to the narrator as “Papa” on page 333, we have made a cohesive inference connecting one part of the text on page 332 with another on page 333.  The narrator is the father of the sick boy.

In “A Day’s Wait,” Hemingway’s Schatz character mistakes degrees centigrade for degrees Fahrenheit and believes that he is going to die because his temperature is so high. Hemingway never tells us directly that Schatz is a brave boy who faces what he feels is impending death with a large measure of dignity, but readers of this story can relate their own emotional experiences of having a sick child or of being very sick to that of Schatz.  In this case, the reader has made an evaluative inference that can inform a judgment, in this case, about the theme of the story.

Learning to Predict

  1. Teachers should model the process of connecting background knowledge and text segments with new information as reading progresses. This can be done by “thinking aloud,” a process of explaining what the teacher is thinking aloud just as we have done in print in the passage above.
  2. Students can be taught that there are different types of inferences and that inferences can help a reader to predict what is going on in a text, thereby increasing attention to the relevant details of the text.
  3. Students who have many opportunities to make inferences and to share those with classmates are increasingly likely to make what Allbritton terms predictive inferences (2004). This may include the use of small group discussions (e. g., Daniels, 1994, 2002), threaded discussions (Wolsey, 2004; Grisham & Wolsey, 2006), or
  4. literature response journals.

 Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age: Techniques for Grades 5-12 (Teaching Practices That Work) 1st Edition

  1. Teachers can provide or direct students to supporting information that builds schema (see section four) students may rely upon in making appropriate inferences.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom. Students in Dryer Thackston’s high school English class read “Hair” by Malcolm X (1997), an essay in which the narrator describes the process some African-Americans used to straighten their hair in the mid-twentieth century.  Because the process involves substances that are unfamiliar to twenty-first century students and the essay deals with issues affecting African-Americans before the civil right era began in earnest, many inferences on the part of students are required. In the essay, Shorty is the friend who first conked Malcolm X’s hair (Figure 8.1).

[Insert Figure 8.1 about here]

Elementary Classroom.  Reading between the lines, or making inferences, isn’t easy for most students, yet it’s a standard in most states.  Understanding that inferring is important for students and is one of the ways that they make predictions, Leah Katz modeled inferring with her third-grade students.  She used a number of comics from the newspaper to focus her students’ attention on that which was left unsaid by the author/artist.  After modeling the inferences she made on one panel of a comic strip, she asked students to talk with their partners about the next panel.

On one particular day, Ms. Katz’s students were talking about the comic strip Peanuts. Dumas said to his partner, “I think that Charlie Brown will get in trouble.  See the cloud coming and the darker lines?  He didn’t tell us that, but I think it will happen. I can make a prediction because of that.  Because of the stuff that the author almost tells you.”

Table 8. 1   Types of Inferences
Elaborative Inference Not necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit (relies on background knowledge)
Cohesive Inference Necessary for comprehension Textually implicit (relies primarily on cues at the word, sentence, or whole text level).
Knowledge-based Inference Necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit
Evaluative Inferences Necessary for comprehension Scriptally implicit (relies on background knowledge and calls for the reader to relate an emotional connection to the text.
Adapted from Bowyer-Crane & Snowling, 2005.


Figure 8.1  In his own words: Dryer Thackston, Watkins Mill High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

A Conk is More Than Just a Hair Style

These questions require students to connect text segments in order to make an inference. (Cohesive, textually implicit):

The answers to the following questions are inferred by connecting information from different places in the text.  You will have to answer them by making inferences.

1) How substantial is the amount of money that Malcolm X saves by having Shorty conk his hair?  (Don’t focus on the dollar amount—look for something in the story to compare with the barber’s price for a conk.)

2) Why does Malcolm X curse at Shorty while his hair is being rinsed?

3) According to Malcolm X, what are the moral implications of conking one’s hair?

These questions require students to connect information from the essay with their own background knowledge (knowledge-based and evaluative inferences, scriptally implicit):

You will have to use clues from the text as well as your own knowledge to answer these questions.

1) What purpose do the Vaseline, rubber apron and gloves serve since they are not ingredients?

2) Why would African Americans at the time want to look “white”?

3) Why would Malcolm X call such African Americans “brainwashed”?

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