Merlyn is perhaps the most famous character in literature to predict what is to come, as the young Arthur, the once and future king, learns. “Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance” (White, 1958, p. 39).  Merlyn, in T. H. White’s version of the Arthurian legend, has an advantage that Arthur does not share.  He lives in reverse and explains to Arthur: “But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind.  Some people call it having second sight” (p. 28).

Cognitive strategies and Instructional Routines

Unlike Merlyn, readers don’t have the advantage of having lived backward so they can see what’s coming.   However, as teachers, we can teach cognitive strategies that help readers explore the types of thinking that employ predictions, predictions that make use of important text cues and thus make predicting increasingly more accurate.  From our own teaching and from observing hundreds of classroom teachers in actual classroom practice, we know that teachers can weave the teaching of a number of cognitive strategies (presented in this section) and greatly facilitate student learning.  We also know that when students experience difficulty in comprehending text, teachers can isolate specific prediction strategies and provide more precise instruction.  As Fullan, Hill, and Crévola (2006) note, we don’t need more prescriptive teaching, but rather more precision in our teaching.  Focusing on predictions – both learning to predict and learning from predictions – allows for precision teaching if teachers address the conceptual understandings and sometimes the misunderstandings of their students.

In Part II of this e-book, the cognitive or thinking strategies that promote effective predictions are explored along with examples of how a teacher might encourage these. The term “strategies” circulates widely in discussions among educators and in textbooks (Kragler, Walker, & Martin, 2005); therefore, a distinction is drawn here that the authors have found useful.  Cognitive strategies are those that readers can consciously apply as they attempt to make sense of the texts they encounter.  As readers become increasingly proficient at selecting and applying a strategy, it becomes procedural and implicit; in other words, it becomes a skill (see Frey, Fisher, & Berkin, 2008).  Part III will investigate the connection between the cognitive strategies teachers teach students to employ (e.g., predicting and summarizing) and the classroom structures or instructional routines (e. g., DR-TA and reciprocal teaching) teachers use to promote strategic thinking in student readers.

1: Attending to Text Features: Illustrations

Attending to Text Features: Illustrations 

Pictures attract readers’ attention from the very first time a parent sits down to read a story out loud.  In some texts, pictures serve as a cue for emergent readers still learning that letters and sounds have a correspondence and that those correspondences are a foundation for reading.  In other stories, like one of the examples in this section, the pictures themselves tell the stories.  When pictures or illustrations are present, readers who learn to pay attention to particular attributes of the text and the artwork  can make predictions about what happens next as they move from page to page.

Years ago, in The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease (1982) noted that picture books without words allow students to become familiar with the world of books, to imagine a world suggested by the pictures, and develop the idea of how stories progress.  Although he is adamant about the idea that picture books serve a useful purpose for readers of all ages, Trelease states, “A good story is a good story, whether it has pictures or not.” (2006, pp. 64-65).

Learning to Predict

  1. Call students’ attention to the pictures pointing out what attributes of the picture contribute to the story.
  2. Ask students to fit picture cues with textual cues. Dechant (1991) suggests that early readers learn both word recognition and comprehension skills from attending to picture cues. When a young reader in the early stages of reading development encounters an unknown word, the teacher should help the reader identify important cues including explicit references to the pictures surrounding the text.
  3. When reading a picture book, the teacher may employ a strategy we have adapted for predictions. It is simply called “How do you know?” (Richards & Anderson, 2003).  During a read aloud, the teacher stops at a place calling for a prediction.  The students will respond after which the teacher asks them, “Does the author say that?”  When the students say, “No,” the teacher follows up by asking them why they think their prediction will be accurate.  Students are prompted to refer to all the cues.  In using pictures, graphs, and charts, the teacher may ask students to refer to the graphic before responding by asking “Are there any pictures (or charts, etc.) that give you some clues?

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom.  Barbara Dynes teaches fourth grade and she uses picture books to help students learn to predict and learn homophones.  At first, she introduces a few homophones like ore and oar and explores with the students that the words sound the same but have different meanings.  She points out that a spell-checker in many word processing programs often will not catch a homophone that is used incorrectly.  Then, she brings out the wordless picture book, Eye Spy: A Mysterious Alphabet (Bourke, 1991).  In each picture, students must attend to cues that advance the mystery.  As they work through the book, they become increasingly proficient at recognizing the cues that make a prediction for the next letter possible.  Ms. Dynes’ lesson overview can be found in Figure 1.1.

Secondary Classroom. United States History teacher Matt Duggan also uses illustrations and pictures to guide his students’ predictions.  During their examination of the industrial revolution, Mr. Duggan displayed a number of photos from this period in history.  After considering a number of the pictures, Mr. Duggan asked students to talk with a partner about what they saw and what they could predict might be some of the problems the people would encounter.  Walking around the room, Mr. Duggan heard a number of comments, including:

Tynesia: They look all dirty. They’re gonna have problems with keeping clear and well.

Ricky: It’s so crowded and dirty.  Look at that one (points to a crowded factory).  Those people don’t have room.

James: The machines look so old.  I’ve heard about this – they mangled people.  Arms got ripped off and stuff.  These machines were wicked.

Mr. Duggan was pleased with the discussions his students were having related to the illustrations and photographs.  He knew that their predictions about the issues at hand would serve them well in building the necessary background knowledge they would need to understand the texts they would be reading.  He also noted that none of the partners talked about the age of the people in some of the photos.  He asked the class a more pointed question.  “Take a look again at the photos and illustrations around the room.  You’re seeing a lot of great stuff that will really help you comprehend the texts we’re going to read and the unit overall.  What I’m wondering about is the ages of people you’re seeing in some of the visuals.  Look at the kids.  Why are there so many kids in the photos?  What do you think that is about?”

After the students talked with their partners for a few minutes, Mr. Duggan interrupted them and introduced the idea of child labor.  He talked for a few minutes about the ages of workers and how this has changed over time.  He also showed a short film clip about child labor during the industrial revolution and asked his students to consider the spoken text of the film and the images.  He knew that using visuals to build background knowledge by asking students to make predictions ensured their attention and learning.

Figure 1.1   In her own words: Barbara Dynes, Etiwanda, California, Etiwanda Elementary School District.

Lesson Overview: Learning to Predict with Homophones

Use the book, Eye Spy: Mysterious Alphabet by Bourke (1991). This text will allow you to teach homophones but through a unique text feature—a foreshadowing through illustrations that allow readers to predict what is to come.

  1. Have students sit nearby so the pictures can be easily seen.
  2. Tell students that they will use picture clues to solve puzzles about homophone riddles, and there is also a clue hidden in the last illustration on each right-hand page. That clue will lead to the next letter’s puzzle. See Figures II-1.2a and 1.2b
  3. Turn to the page that displays “A” and while pointing at each illustration say “ant, ant, ant, aunt.” You may want to write these on a dry-erase board so students see the differences in spelling.
  4. Ask students “Who can guess what the next illustration will be?”
  5. Hints can be given and will probably be necessary for the first few pages. The aunt’s necklace includes a picture of two bowling pins, the subject of the page for the letter “B.”
  6. After the entire book is completed, review the book once again with the students calling out each illustration as the teacher points at each one.
  7. The teacher asks for more examples of homophones and records them on the board.
  8. At this point, the students select a pair of homophones and illustrate both meanings on a paper which has been folded in half. A class book can be assembled from the students’ work.

More Books for Teaching Homophones

2: Attending to Text Features: Tables, Diagrams, Graphs and Charts

Texts that students use in learning content are often filled with tables, diagrams, graphs, and charts.  Students can learn to use these features to help them make sense of the materials they read and to make more informed predictions before and during reading.  It is surprising that there is not a great deal of research on the linkage of text, comprehension, and diagrams.  This appears to be true about many study aids and strategies that apply to content area reading and textbooks (Devine & Kania, 2003).

Diagrams and other visual aids provide cues to readers that can help them make more accurate predictions as they read.  Figure 2-1 provides a list of common text features.  A 1997 study (Moore & Scevak, 1997) found that students in fifth and seventh grade were less apt to attend to and connect the visual aids they encountered with the text they were reading than their ninth-grade counterparts.  In part, visual aids provide a measure of redundancy, which can be a useful tool when we think about literacy (Burmark, 2002). A message that appears in more than one form or format is one to which a reader should pay increased attention.  Visual aids may also help readers connect concepts represented in texts by visually presenting organizational patterns (Feathers, 1993). Finally, we can consider visual aids as texts in and of themselves independent of connected prose as it might be found in textbooks.Figure 2.1   Common Text Features

Features That Organize the Text
Table of contents


Page numbers

Feature That Organize the Ideas
Synopses (beginning or end of reading)





Graphic Aids



Charts and tables


Features That Elaborate or Emphasize

Bold, italicized, or highlighted words


Margin notes

Features That Extend Understanding


Projects or assignments


Learning to Predict

  1. Students can benefit if their attention is specifically directed to the visual aids such as diagrams, pictures, graphs, tables, and charts because these are easily comprehensible forms of information that can help a student predict, and thus attend, to the concepts represented in the accompanying text.
  2. Teachers can use a think-aloud protocol to model how to connect information gained from visual aids with the text, and the think-aloud protocol can be used to model how the information found in the visual aids can be used to reduce the uncertainty of predictions made during reading.
  3. Students should take time to survey texts in advance of reading them paying special attention to visual aids as well as annotations in text margins and font types (e. g., bold type font, italicized fonts, larger font than surrounding text, etc.). Teachers can encourage this practice by specifically directing students to survey the visual elements in their texts and providing time for students to do so.

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom. Punxsutawney Phil is the well-known groundhog who forecasts the winter weather.  Maureen Marino’s third grade students read graphs and charts on CNN’s weather page (Figure 2.2) to chart the highs and lows for each day for the six-week period beginning on Groundhog Day, February 2.  Students worked in groups with a different city and state assigned to each group. As their accumulated data increased, the students predicted what the weather would be like and analyzed topographical features for their effect on the weather.

Figure 2.2   Weather Conditions

The class discussed what it meant to have “typical weather” for the particular time of year in their region.  The students knew that they were collecting data but needed to investigate further what type of weather indicates an early spring or more winter weather. The students also created a chart with their data using Microsoft’s Excel® spreadsheet.  Once their data is entered, the students learned to create a bar graph, which Mrs. Marino’s students used to test their predictions about the winter weather.  (If doing this with older students you may want to use the Farmer’s Almanac to predict the weather, as well.) What did Mrs. Marino’s students call their project?  P.H.I.L., of course, Predictions Help Individual Learning.

Figure 2.3a  Zachary’s daily chart of high and low temperatures


Figure 2.3b  Zachary’s bar graphs created with a spreadsheet program

Secondary Classroom. With older students in his science class, Jesse Herrera teaches his students to use text features to make predictions.  While reading aloud from a science article, Mr. Herrera paused to make a prediction based on an illustration and the caption underneath it.  He models the use of text features and their usefulness in predicting, and thus comprehending so that his students will incorporate this practice into their repertories.

Looking at a photo of a scrawny tree, Mr. Herrera models predictions, “This tree doesn’t look so good. I think the gardener needs to come and cut it down.”  He then reads the caption, which describes the tree as a “champion tree” and one that scientists would like to clone.  He says, “Oh, a champion tree.  Champion usually means that it’s the winner. Given that word and the fact that scientists want to clone it, I predict this tree is important.  I also predict that there will be problems, as I know that people are sometimes uncomfortable with cloning.  I bet the author will tell us more about this as we read on.”

Mr. Herrera knows that making predictions based on the visual information presented in texts helps students consolidate their thinking, motivates them to keep reading to check their predictions, and results in better comprehension.  He also knows that modeling new or complex thinking, the use of predictions in this example, is an important way for students to incorporate this into their thinking habits.

3: Attending to Text Structures

Readers can learn a great deal from the content of a text. Students reading about the Constitutional Convention can learn about the important role that George Washington played in moving the new nation forward or that Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, did not attend the Constitutional Convention.  However, the structure of a text can also provide valuable information, too.  From the structure of text readers learn how ideas are related to each other and what might come next.  Because text structure conveys information about how concepts are organized, it also provides a basis for predicting and learning from those predictions.  Organization points readers in the direction of important attributes making use of the schemata a reader already has and the schemata that develop as the reading continues.

First think of text structures as one of two types: texts that describe or texts affected by time (Dymock, 2005). Major rhetorical structures like description, sequence, cause and effect, and so on help readers determine just what type of information they are reading and how to make sense of these structures.  Figure 3.1 contains a description of the major types of text structures. Chapter and section headings in most content area textbooks help students see how one idea is related to another, as well. We can think of story grammar as a means of paying attention to important elements of narratives, such as novels and short stories.  Since predicting calls for attention to specific attributes of a text source, it is important for teachers to show students how texts are organized and how that organization can improve understanding.

[Insert Figure 3.1]
Figure 3.1: Text Structure Types



Text Structure  Description Signal
Description/List Structure This structure resembles an outline. Each section opens with its main idea, then elaborates on it, sometimes dividing the elaboration into subsections.

EXAMPLE: A book may tell all about whales or describe what the geography is like in a particular region.

For example, for instance, specifically, in particular, in addition
Cause and Effect Structure In texts that follow this structure, the reader is told the result of an event or occurrence and the reasons it happened.

EXAMPLE: Weather patterns could be described that explain why a big snowstorm occurred.

Consequently, therefore, as a result, thereby, leads to

Contrast Structure

Texts that follow this structure tell about the differences and similarities of two or more objects, places, events or ideas by grouping their traits for comparison.

EXAMPLE: A book about ancient Greece may explain how the Spartan women were different from the Athenian women.

However, unlike, like, by contrast, yet, in comparison, although, whereas, similar to, different from
Order/Sequence Structure Texts that follow this structure tell the order in which steps in a process or series of events occur.

EXAMPLE: A book about the American revolution might list the events leading to the war. In another book, steps involved in harvesting blue crabs might be told.

Next, first, last, second, another, then, additionally


Source: Using Text Structure, National Education Association, www.nea.org/reading/usingtextstructure.html

Learning to Predict

  1. Survey the text. Model for students how to skim the text for organizational patterns and scan for key words.  Project a page of text using a data or overhead projector highlighting important indicators of text structure such as key words in bold or italics, headings that are indented, in italics, in bold type, or in a different font.
  2. Use notetaking tools (Fisher, Brozo, Frey, & Ivey, 2007) and demonstrate their use so that students detect and employ the structure of the text to organize the information they encounter. Concept maps use a series of bubbles or boxes to organize ideas in clusters (see section 3.10 for more on graphic organizers as they relate to predictions). Structured overviews are a type of concept map frequently presented as prereading.  The graphics are best presented in written and oral form by the teacher prior to students being asked to read.  In this way, students become familiar with the organization of ideas in the text and more readily connect the concepts as they read.
  3. Make use of story grammar. Story grammar helps students by expanding elements of the story (conflict, characters, plot, and so on) for individual examination.  A graphic which may help students to understand the plot of a story is based on Freytag’s pyramid (Figure 3.2).
  4. Students should be provided opportunities to reflect (Dymock, 2005) on the text structures they have encountered. Teachers can promote reflection through questions about what text structures were encountered, how a graphic organizer helps students to connect and visualize the organizational structures and whether the structure was appropriate for the content.

[Insert Figure 3.2 about here]

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom. During their small group reading instruction, Ms. Allen asked her students to focus on the structure of the text to help them predict what the author might tell them next.  As they read Lightning (Kramer, 1992), the students in this 5th grade class paused to talk with each other and their teacher about the description of lightening.  They noted that the author used a lot of words to “tell us what he saw and heard and felt” as Javier noted.  Amanda added that she thought that he would do the same thing, add a lot of description, but also use “compare and contrast because next in the book we’re learning about thunder. I think Mr. Kramer will compare thunder and lightening and give us lots of details about thunder.  That’s what I think.”

Secondary Classroom. Social studies call for understanding the relationships between concepts as they are presented in texts.  Mr. Wolsey presented a structured overview of taxes the British Parliament levied on American colonists (Figure 3.3). Then the students used double-entry journals to help students organize their thoughts as they read the text and to observe the relationships between the concepts.  As students read the textbook, they were able to use the knowledge they obtained from the structured overview to help them navigate the text (Figure 3.4a and 3.4b).

[Insert Figures 3.3, 3.4a, and 3.4b about here]



Figure 3.2 Freytag’s Pyramid




Figure 3.3  Structured Overview: Pre-Revolution Taxes Imposed on American Colonists


Figure 3.4a Source text for double-entry journal


Source: From A More Perfect Union (Armento, B. J., et al. 1999).




Figure 3.4b

Double-entry notes


4: Attending to Literary Devices

Literary devices include a wide variety of techniques employed by an author to add depth and create a sense of verisimilitude in a work of literature, often fiction.  Because literary devices, such as flashbacks or metaphors, provide a framework for a work of literature or for a segment of a work the readers who know a literary device is in use can also use that knowledge to engage with the text.  A list of common literary devices can be found in Figure 4.1. This knowledge, in turn, provides a framework a reader may use to determine the important attributes of the text and make predictions that are increasingly accurate.

Figure 4.1   Literary Terms that Lead to Better Predictions

Metaphors.  Because an author employs metaphor to draw attention to both the meaning conveyed and to attributes of the larger story, metaphors, as literary devices, may also help direct students’ attention to important elements of a poem, short story, or novel.  Sandburg’s famous poem mourning the loss of Abraham Lincoln is an extended metaphor. When the poet writes in

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The reader’s attention is focused on a difficult journey and the leader who guided the passengers safely home.  In this poem, the vehicle of the metaphor is a ship in a storm-tossed sea and the tenor of the poem is the grief felt at the loss of a beloved leader.    

Similes.  Like metaphors, similes compare two unlike objects.  And like metaphors, knowledge of how similes are employed in a written work can assist the reader by directing attention.  Similes differ from metaphors in that the comparison is stated directly.  In Sandburg’s poem, prior knowledge must be employed to infer that the poem is about Lincoln. In Robert Burns’ famous line, “O My luve’s like a red, red rose” there is no question what is being compared.

Foreshadowing. Literary devices that are presented in literature which lay the groundwork for later events are known as foreshadowing.  In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches in Act I, Scene 1 chant:

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

The reader learns in scene iii that the witches are very talented at causing confusion. Witch 2 tells Macbeth’s companion, Banquo, that he is, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.” Banquo’s role in the tragedy of Macbeth is foreshadowed and the savvy reader knows to pay attention to this character.

Flashbacks.  This literary device presents events that occurred chronologically before the opening scene or main timeline of the narration.  Flashbacks provide important information that is critical to understanding the events of the story to come and the nature of the characters that populate the story.  Able readers of literature pay attention any time the timeline skips backward because it will provide significant detail that can inform predictions about the motivation of characters and the subsequent events of the story.  Methods of taking the reader along during the flashback include “recollections of characters, narration by the characters, dream sequences, and reveries” (Holman & Harmon, 1992, p. 197).

In his own words: Jason Lefevre, The Salisbury School, Salisbury, Connecticut

Norman MacLean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman MacLean’s life. MacLean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

I will ask my students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information I have given them and the title of the novella. I have already put my students in pairs and asked them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? My students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. I will need to help my students understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As I clarify some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for my students to understand.

Learning to Predict

  1. Students need to know what the literary device is and how it is employed. This should not be a guessing game for students.  Learners need assistance in determining what the relevant attributes are for a given problem (Gick & Holyoak, 1983; Holyoak and Thagard, 1995).  If a teacher wants students to identify a relevant metaphor, then students’ attention needs to be explicitly drawn to that metaphor.  Sending students on a protracted search for a metaphor that the teacher already has in mind frequently ends in frustration for both the teacher and the students.
  2. Once students recognize a particular literary device in a work of literature, they are then in a position to use that knowledge to make predictions about what might happen and how that contributes to other aspects of literary experience. In The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), the main character wonders early in the story what it is like to be inside a burning ember as he lights a cigarette.  Teachers can help students as novice readers to recognize this as foreshadowing events that occur later in the work, which add depth to the story and assist savvy readers to know something about that character, Ponyboy.   Later in the novel, Ponyboy does end up inside a burning church saving some children from the flames.  This event is pivotal as the plot develops.
  3. Students can be encouraged to make a note of these literary devices as they are encountered and when the teacher or a peer points them out using a literature response journal. In this way, students become more conversant with vocabulary of literary devices and the concepts those terms represent.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom. Jason Lefevre wants his high school students to use literary devices to enrich their experience with the novella, A River Runs Through It (Maclean, 1976).  He writes about teaching students of “spots of time,” a term given to any moment in one’s life that has occurred in the past and has not been fully understood as to the influential qualities this moment has on the person’s life.  In this example, Mr. Lefevre uses questions to point out elements of the plot that may foreshadow future events in the story.

Norman Maclean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman Maclean’s life. Maclean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

Mr. Lefevre asks his students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information he has given them and the title of the novella. Mr. Lefevre’s students are comfortable working in pairs and he asks them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? Mr. Lefevre’s students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. He guides his students to understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As he clarifies some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for the students to understand.

Figure 4.2

Profiles, Cognitive Strategies, and Instructional Routines
Profile Description Cognitive Strategies Instructional Routines
1.        Literalists Look for all answers to all types of questions to be stated in the text. Accessing background and prior knowledge, making inferences, making connections, making and asking for clarifications. KWL, QAR, DR-TA, reciprocal teaching
2.       Fuzzy Thinkers Provide vague, ambiguous, or trite responses. Visualizing, summarizing, attending to text features, generating questions, making and asking for clarifications. Reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, anticipation guides
3.        Left Fielders Generate unpredictable ideas that seem to have no real connection to the text. Summarizing, Making inferences. Metacognitive double-entry journals, guided reading and summarizing procedure.
4.        Quiz Contestants Provide answers that are logically correct but disconnected from the text. Making textually-implicit inferences, generating questions. QAR, reciprocal teaching, Metacognitive double-entry journals.
5.        Politicians Use slogans or platitudes that sound meaningful but are not text connected. Generating and responding to questions. QAR, anticipation guides, cliffhanger
6.        Dodgers Change the question and then respond to the new one. Responding to questions, making textually-implicit inferences, attending to text features. QAR, hot seat
7.        Authors Create their own story lines and story details. Visualizing, summarizing, attending to literary devices. QAR, guided reading and summarizing procedure, KWL.
8.        Minimalists Provide no elaboration of responses, resulting from lack of confidence or fear of failure. Summarizing, visualizing, making inferences, accessing background and prior knowledge. Think aloud, hot seat, reciprocal teaching.


Source: Adapted from Applegate, M. D., Quinn, K. B., & Applegate, A. J. (2006).  Profiles in comprehension.  The Reading Teacher, 60, 48-57.

Elementary Classroom. Importantly, literary devices are not the sole realm of secondary school English teachers.  Authors use literary devices all of the time, across texts that people of all ages read.  During her small group reading instruction, Ms. Allen asked her fifth-grade students to notice the author’s use of color as a symbol in the book Rose Blanche (illustrated by Innocenti, 1985).  Noticing the colors the illustrator used in the text allowed students to develop their sense of symbolism and to better understand the subtle transitions the author was making as the story progressed. As Tino noted while reading this text, “Oh, the sky changed to grey here.  That’s not a good sign.  I think that some things are gonna happen that are even worse than the trucks in the streets and the soldiers being strict.”

Figure 4.2 In his own words: Jason Lefevre, The Salisbury School, Salisbury, Connecticut

Norman MacLean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman MacLean’s life. MacLean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

I will ask my students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information I have given them and the title of the novella. I have already put my students in pairs and asked them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? My students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. I will need to help my students understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As I clarify some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for my students to understand.

5: Accessing and Activating Background Knowledge

When teachers discuss what students already know prior to learning something new, they generally use one of two terms: background knowledge and prior knowledge.  Most of the time, the two terms are employed interchangeably (Strangman & Hall, 2004).  In this book, we will differentiate between background knowledge and prior knowledge as follows:  Background knowledge is that which the learner has acquired as a result of lived experiences.  Students in the Mid-West may have very limited background knowledge about the beach, for example.  A student who grew up in a city may not have the schema necessary to understand a text passage about a farm.

Prior knowledge, on the other hand, is that which a student learns as a result of being in school. What a student learned from a book last week or a lab experiment last year is prior knowledge.  This distinction becomes important when teachers plan instruction for their students.

Before moving on, one more point should be made.  A good prediction is not necessarily one that turns out to be correct.  An operational definition is: A good prediction is one that relies on relevant attributes and knowledge the student already has to increasingly reduce uncertainty.  A prediction that ultimately turns out to be incorrect may still be a good prediction if the reader is able to learn from the prediction while proceeding through the text.

Many textbooks used in teacher preparation programs suggest that teachers take steps before students read to prepare them for challenging materials (e. g., Betts, 1946; Ryder & Graves, 2003; Vacca & Vacca, 2005; Alvermann & Phelps, 2005; Tompkins, 2003).  This may be known as preparation for reading, prereading, or simply “before” reading.  The idea that what students already know is the foundation for what they are to learn is not new.  Some implications for teachers are:

  1. Students may have knowledge that is relevant but remains untapped in a given lesson,
  2. Students may not make adjustments accounting for new information if the knowledge they already have interferes,
  3. Students may experience interference when teaching practices don’t match their lived experiences (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

Smith and Wilhelm’s (2002) interesting study of literacy and boys’ lives suggests that teachers who recognize the outside interests of their students also foster a sense of competence that reaches beyond merely building relationships. Teachers can plan lessons that take their students’ background knowledge into account.  Planning appropriate activities and experiences before students read can help improve the reading experience, and thus comprehension, of the text.

Learning to Predict

  1. The cultural knowledge that students bring to school with them affects the new knowledge they are able to construct. Teachers should consider factors that extend beyond class, race, or ethnicity and take care to avoid stereotypes about their students, of course.  Teachers who know what their students know do far more than administer an interest survey or background inventory at the beginning of the year.  In order to know their students, teachers who assist their students to construct new knowledge take the time to talk regularly with their students as individuals—when they enter the classroom each day, as they move about the room when students are working, at lunch.
  2. All reading, even on the most literal of levels, requires the reader to activate appropriate schema (Anderson, 2004). Students without the right schema to draw upon or who activate the wrong schema will not comprehend the text.  Consider this sentence:

“A loop knot is a closed bight that is tied either in the end or in the central part of the rope” (Ashley, 1944, p. 185).

To make sense of this sentence, one has to know what a bight is and how it relates to tying knots.  Without that background knowledge, this passage won’t make sense.  A reader could also confuse “bight” for “bite” because the pronunciations are the same.  Such confusion would eliminate the chance that much comprehension would take place.  For teachers, this means instructing students in monitoring their comprehension of concepts they encounter that don’t make sense.  Teachers who know their students and the content of the reading material will take steps to teach students in advance of the reading those concepts that might be confusing.

  1. When students’ attention is directed in ways that improve comprehension, they are free to concentrate on the cognitive tasks of making predictions and looking for connections within the text. Students who struggle with matching their background knowledge to the concepts in the text exhaust their cognitive resources before they can work on constructing meaning at other levels.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom. Hilary Biggers’ students are preparing to read a play.  She knows that some concepts in the play will be outside the realm of experience for her students, but she wanted them to engage with the ideas of the play.

The reading selection is a screenplay of a “Twilight Zone” episode created by Rod Sterling entitled “Back There” (Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 262-275).  The screenplay describes a young man’s unintended travel back in time from April 14, 1965 to April 14, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s assassination. He attempts, yet fails, to stop the murder and is returned to 1965 where he declares that history cannot be changed.  However, a character from his life prior to the time travel the readers meet in Act I, Scene I has become a millionaire because of the main character’s actions in 1865.  The play has two acts and is taught in two separate lessons.

Before the students are introduced to the selection, their background knowledge is built by watching the “Eye of the Beholder“ episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  This prepares them for Rod Sterling’s science fiction writing style and stimulates them to look for his subtle criticisms of society in “Back There.”  During their reading of the screenplay, several students in Ms. Biggers’ class commented on the structure of science fiction in general and Mr. Sterling’s use in particular. These students, the ones with extensive background knowledge of science fiction, were able to understand the text because they used their background knowledge to make predictions about the structure of the text and what is likely to happen in this genre. They also built the knowledge base of their peers as they explained their predictions and how they used their knowledge of time travel, for example, to understand the text.

Elementary Classrooms.  Knowing that her students all had different experiences with city and country life, Ms. Schwartz selected the tale City Mouse – Country Mouse (Wallner, 1987) to read with her students. Ms. Schwartz knew that her students would have different experience with mice, country life, and city life.  She knew that this would be a great opportunity for her kindergarten students to share what they know with one another and to build their collective knowledge base.
Figure 2-5-1: In her own words: Background knowledge in a kindergarten class.

A topic in the kindergarten science standards is earth science. The students must know the difference between different landforms. We are learning about mountains. The first thing I did was have a discussion about mountains. I asked the students a series of questions such as, “Do you know what a mountain is? What does it look like? What can you do there? What kinds of animals live there?” While the students talked I wrote their responses on a large chart paper. I also asked the students if any of them have been to the mountains and what did they do when they were there. We talked about living in the mountains and visiting. The students also discussed what the mountains were like in the summer and what the mountains were like in the winter. After we discussed mountains I took them outside to actually look at the mountains. We took paper and sat on the ground and colored a picture of how the mountains looked outside. When the students finished their pictures they wrote a story about it. When we came back inside I read them a story about mountains, building background knowledge, and we connected our responses from the chart paper to the story we were reading.

Nyree Clark, Colton Joint Unified School District

6: Accessing and Activating Prior Knowledge

In cognitive student strategy 5, we discussed the importance of background knowledge and some ways that teachers can make use of what students already know.  Prior knowledge, learning that students gain as a result of their school experiences, is equally important.  We can think about the role of prior knowledge in two ways: activating what is already known and building new knowledge, which serves as prior knowledge when students read. Teachers who collaborate with each other and who know something of what others teach increase the probability that their students will be able to activate that knowledge from other content areas or earlier grade levels in service of reading.  As with background knowledge, what a teacher does before the students read a given text is critical. Many of the classroom structures discussed in the next section are designed, among other things, to activate both background and prior knowledge.

Learning to Predict

  1. Pay attention to vocabulary that is derived from the selection students are about to read. There are many activities that promote vocabulary knowledge, though these are beyond the scope of this book.  Students who have learned something about the vocabulary they will encounter will read more fluently and with greater comprehension because they will not have to spend cognitive resources dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. It helps to think of vocabulary as words that represent concepts from the content and represented in the reading rather than as separate vocabulary-building activities that have no relation to the reading.  In addition to classroom structures designed to introduce vocabulary or activate the prior knowledge the reader already has about the concept, teachers can facilitate word learning by using the words in speech with students (embedding the sentences with strategically placed synonyms), seeing the words written on chalkboards (we know—there are more and more white boards, these days), having students try out the words in small group activities, and so on.    
  2. When teaching content like social studies or science, teachers can facilitate building prior knowledge before students read by thinking about the activities already planned. For example, in science, a teacher may have planned a lab experience, a demonstration, and reading a course text.  It may be beneficial for students to watch the demonstration or even participate in the lab before reading the material; the authentic experiences of the lab and demonstration build knowledge that will make reading a more meaningful experience for students.  Reading about things that are somewhat familiar is reading that makes sense.
  3. As with background knowledge, prior knowledge can help direct students’ attention to important attributes of the content in the reading selection which enhances good predictions.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom.  When Chad Semling’s sixth-grade social studies students learn about economics, he introduces the important vocabulary from the text to them in advance with a strategy called “Meet and Greet.” Note that some words will be familiar (such as “want”) while other terms will be fairly new (recession).

Figure 6.1

Words I Know Words I Have Seen or Heard but Do Not Use Words I Have Never Seen or Heard.

Secondary Classroom: Analogy Boxes. Analogy boxes (Rule & Furletti, 2004) are a concept learning tool teachers might use to improve how students compare what they learn with what they need to learn.  Analogy boxes are included in this section about prior knowledge because students learn to find and compare common attributes of an analog and target and they learn content that improves the prior knowledge students can bring to bear in approaching reading tasks.  To create analogy boxes, teachers make a set of cards from a current unit of study that represents an analog including a form and a function.  Then, the teacher will create a card that corresponds to the target concept. The cars are placed in a box, hence “analogy boxes.”

When students are given the boxes, they must select a target card and sort through the analog cards to find an analogous relationship.  Once this is done, students map the analogy showing the relations of the analogy; in the example, this is done by underlining. In the final step, students create a chart showing the target, the analogy, and the similarities and the differences.  Students might also be asked to provide an alternate analog other than the one provided on the analog cards.  See Figure 6.2

Figure 6.2


Elementary Classroom.  During their unit on “people who make a difference,” second grade teacher Heather Mills wanted her students to read a number of biographies about famous Americans.  She planned to extend this unit of study to people who have made a difference across the world and across time, but based on her students’ background knowledge, she decided to focus on people that her students knew personally.  She started the unit with a class discussion about the idea, “people who make a difference.”  Ms. Mills asked, “who is it that has made a difference in your lives and what did those people do?”  The class discussion was lively, and Ms. Mills recorded the responses to this question on a language chart.  The language chart would serve as a record of the class knowledge that each student could refer back to during his or her personal investigation.  Over several discussions, the class agreed upon characteristics of people who made a difference, including: cares, didn’t get paid to do it, was in the right place, and so on.

As they selected the American who made a difference to profile, students used their prior knowledge and new information about characteristics to make predictions about the people they were studying.  During their small group discussions about the Americans they studied, they extended their prior knowledge by adding to the characteristics with examples.

Eventually, when they studied people around the world who had made a positive impact, they had developed significant prior knowledge such that they predicted what the biographies would contain and were to find the information they were looking for.

Figure 6.1 In his own words: Chad Semling, Menomonie Middle School, Menomonie, Wisconsin.

A Strategy to Pre-Assess Students’ Vocabulary Knowledge

Economics Vocabulary: bond, barter, capital, consumer, depression, demand, dividend, economic interdependence, entrepreneur, equilibrium point, federal Reserve Banks, Gross Domestic Product, law of demand/supply, need, producer, recession, service, single proprietorship, and want

Meet and Greet (Chapman & King, 2003) is such a simple yet seemingly effective way to pre-assess what students already know.  The strategy presents a very clear picture of what vocabulary students do know and which still need to be developed.  Each student is presented with a list of words and then fills in the chart like the one below.  Both teacher and student learn what words the student should attend to the most in developing their vocabulary and associated concepts.


7: Noting Word-Level Cues

Mature readers rely on a variety of strategies to read words (Ehri, 1995; Ehri & McCormick, 2004).  Experienced readers recognize most words on sight having approached them through various other channels such as decoding or word roots and affixes.  Dechant (1991) characterizes this process of recognizing words on sight as instant recognition.  Less experienced readers and experienced readers who encounter a new word may decode a word; that is, readers associate sounds with letters and letter clusters and reproduce the pronunciation for a word.  Readers may also employ analogies to compare unknown words with known words based on spelling patterns.  A fourth strategy for reading words is prediction based on initial letters in the words, the words that occur before and after it in the text, and perhaps based on the pictures that accompany the text (refer back to Cognitive Strategy 1 for more about picture cues).

Analogies, as we pointed out in section one, have predictive uses.  A reader who knows several words by sight including “talk,” “walk,” and “chalk” can apply the knowledge, by analogy, to a new word even replicating the silent “l” in “balk.” Readers who know many words by sight are able to learn more words through analogy, adding flesh to the argument that we learn to read by reading.

Syntax and semantic information also are useful as predictive tools for readers encountering a new word.  One study found that fifth grade students who were taught context analysis skills could generalize those skills to other texts when the texts were similar in nature, but that students didn’t necessarily employ the use of context cues in more generalized reading situations (Baumann, Edwards, Boland, Olejnik, & Kame’enui, 2003).  The researchers further taught students about five types of context cues (see Figure 7.1) which rely on semantic cues; the authors of this text added one which relies on syntactic cues.

[Insert Figure 7.1 about here.]

Learning to Predict

Baumann et al. (2003) taught the fifth-grade students in their study a two-pronged approach to attack a new word for meaning.  Our adaptation asks students to:

  1. Read the words and sentences around the unknown word for clues to meaning,
  2. Then look at the word parts for root words and affixes that are familiar,
  3. Finally return to the words and sentences around the target or unknown again to see if the readers had come up with a word meaning that fits the context. See Figure 7.2.

[Insert Figure 7.2 about here.]

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom.  Teacher Rita Hanson wants her first-grade students to use context cues and the initial letter to make sense of a poem.  Her lesson can be found in Figure 7.3.

[Insert Figure 7.3 about here]

Secondary Classroom.  Chad Semling approaches vocabulary in a unit on economics using a strategy called Crisscross Challenge (Chapman & King, 2003, p. 102). In economics, students encounter terms that have new meanings for words they already recognize (words like “bond,” “demand,” and “depression”) and new words students have never seen before (words like “dividend,” “entrepreneur,” and “gross domestic product”). In this example, Mr. Semling has students employ the glossary in the social studies textbook his seventh graders use along with context cues from the sentence where the target word is located in the text itself (Figure 7.4)

[Insert Figure 7.4 about here]

Chapman and King suggest that the Crisscross Challenge pits student teams against each other.  The teacher posts a word, which the partners then locate in the text and glossary.  When both are pointing to the location of the word in their respective sources, they shout “Crisscross” together.  The partners read their information to the class and points may be accumulated for each team.   All students could then use the glossary definition and context of the sentence or paragraph to explain the meaning of the word to each other.

Figure 7.1  Definitions

From The Literacy Dictionary, 1995.

Syntactic cue: Evidence from knowledge of the rules and patterns of language that aids in the identification of an unknown word from the way it is used in a grammatical construction (p. 249).

Semantic cue: Evidence from the general sense or meaning of a written or spoken communication that aids in the identification of an unknown word (p. 229).

Figure 7.2  Using Context Clues

  1. Definition of context clues: the author gives you a definition for a word right in the sentence.
  2. Synonym context clues: The author uses another word that means about the same as the word you are trying to understand.
  3. Antonym context clues: The author uses another word that means the opposite or nearly the opposite of the word you are trying to understand.
  4. Example context clues: The author gives you several words or ideas that are examples of the word you are trying to understand.
  5. General context clues: The author gives you some general clues to the meaning of a word, most often spread over several sentences.
  6. To this, the authors of this book add word order clues: The order of the words can tell you if a word is a noun, an adjective (description), and so on.

Adapted from Baumann, J. F., Edwards, E. C., Bolan, E. M., Olejnik, S, & Kame’enui, E. J., 2003, p. 465.

Figure 7.3  In her own words: Rita Hanson, Hanson School District, Alexandria, South Dakota.

Title of Lesson:  Using the beginning letter

Subject: Reading/ 1st grade large group

Literacy Objective: The children will use the beginning letter of a word in their reading to help them determine an unknown word.  The lesson will also focus on using context clues to make sure words look right and make sense as they are reading.

Materials and resources: A large copy of the poem Falling Up written on chart paper big enough for the all the students to see.

Anticipatory Set:  Boys and girls, today I need your help reading the poem on the board.  Someone has covered up some of the words in the poem.  I was wondering if you could help me try to figure out those words that are covered up.  Remember how when we read we have to make sure the words we are reading make sense and look right.  Word detectives are you ready to get to work?

Instructional Input:  We will read the poem together using context clues to determine the covered word.  I will use large sticky notes to hide certain words in the passage.  The children will make attempts at the hidden words by using context clues.  I will read the passage to them saying “blank” to signify the unknown words.  The children will guess possible words that would make sense in the paragraph.  The class will reread the sentence after each guess to make sure it makes sense and the word is about the right size.  After four to five words have been attempted I will uncover the first letter of the word.   I write all the attempted words on the board for them. We will discuss as a class what words can be eliminated because they do not have the correct beginning letter.  The students will be given another opportunity to generate additional word possibilities (three to four) for the hidden word.  I will uncover the covered word at this time to show the children the correct word.

Modeling: I will read the first sentence with the covered word.  I will model for them through a think aloud how a good reader thinks about what makes sense and looks right as they are reading.

Figure 7.4  In his own words: Chad Semling, Menomonie Middle School, Menomonie, Wisconsin.

This strategy involves a pair of students working together to accomplish a common goal, finding the term(s) both in the chapter and the glossary.  Once the students find the locations, they read aloud the information they found.  I feel this strategy serves a number of different purposes.  First, it reinforces the idea of using a textbook’s glossary.  Second, the students see first hand not only a term’s definition but also its contextual use.  Literacy objectives met here would be:  reading to perform a task and expressing ideas that build off the ideas of others.  This may take modeling on my end, but students end up discussing the differences/similarities between what is in the glossary and what is in the chapter.

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”?

9: Asking and Generating Questions

“To be, or not to be?” Hamlet’s famous question (Act III, Scene I) also leads the reader to predict aspects of Hamlet’s character.  Hamlet is a confused, but also a thoughtful, prince.  We might infer that, to him, questions were at least as important as answers. Questions and their answers, as we observe them in classrooms, characterize the discourse found there.  Often, teachers ask questions and students respond.  Thoughtful questions from teachers can provoke learning in ways no other instructional tool can.  However, questions generated by students can be equally powerful, if not more so. We believe the ability to frame a thoughtful question, especially when the answer is not immediately known, is a skill teachers should encourage in their students.  Of course, most readers of this book will be familiar with the questions that appear at the end of the section or chapter.  These, too, can take a useful place in classroom discourse.  In this section, we will treat statements that require a response as questions even if they aren’t punctuated with a question mark at the end (Turner, 1983).

An interesting study (Daines, 1986) reported the results of how 38 teachers in grades from 2 through 12 employed questions in their classrooms.  The question types classified in this study were of four types: literal, interpretive, application, and affective.  Interpretive questions included those that required students to make inferences, compare or contrast, determine cause and effect relationships, make predictions based on trends, and so on.  93 percent of the 5,289 questions teachers asked during this study were at the literal level.  Less than seven percent were interpretive questions.  Teachers asked about 78 questions per hour with second grade teachers asking the most questions and tenth grade teachers asking the fewest questions.  On average, teachers only waited two seconds from the time the question was asked until a student responded and this time did not increase when higher-order questions were asked. Do you want to know how long the average student’s response was?   It was only three seconds with a range that extended to five seconds in tenth grade.

Even though this study is more than twenty years old, the results can inform our teaching in the twenty-first century.  First, we might expect that higher-order questions are asked when the questions are planned in advance allowing for flexibility as a discussion evolves.  Second, we can provide opportunities for students to think through their responses by increasing wait time, through use of journals and other written forms in advance of oral discussion, and by allowing students to work out responses in small groups.  Fordham (2006) describes the responses of teachers and pre-service teachers who had never thought of questions as anything other than a way to assess comprehension.  She suggests that appropriate questions can also encourage the cognitive behaviors, like making predictions, that teachers wish to encourage.

Learning to Predict

  1. Recast your thinking as a teacher about the purpose questions serve. Questions from the teacher may promote better inferences, good predictions, and more transfer of knowledge to new situations in addition to their role as a check for comprehension or for other assessment purposes.
  2. Increase the opportunities for students to think through and respond thoughtfully to the questions they encounter in the classroom.
  3. Ensure that students are taught how to ask questions that further their thinking about classroom content and about how they learn best.
  4. Model responses to questions that show students how to construct the response required. Don’t forget that questions often look forward through content to reducing uncertainty about the content and predicting what may happen next or what the structure of the text may next suggest.
  5. Consider the questions at the end of the textbook chapter as useful tools that can foster discussion, provoke thoughtful responses, and expand what students know about the topics in the chapter. We contend that when these textbook questions are useful, it is because the focus is on the construction of knowledge rather than on obtaining one-dimensional responses that might be construed as correct by the teacher.  Knowledge sometimes is not as immutable as we think; questions about text can promote inquiry and an understanding of how knowledge is constructed.
  6. Use questions orally, in writing, in small groups, with individuals, and with the whole class to prompt thinking before students read, during reading to guide readers who are novices in the field of inquiry, and after reading to extend thinking and to assess what students know.

Applications and Examples

     Secondary Classroom. High school students reading The Good Earth (Buck, 1931) must make sense of another culture and a trying time in the life of a family where the situation the characters confront, on the surface, is beyond the scope of any they have, themselves, experienced.  Notice how teacher Cheryl Wegener uses questions to help students understand the novel and the situations confronting the characters rather than simply assessing what they know about the plot, characters, or theme (Figure 9.1 and Table 9.1.).

Table 9.1  Dilemma Worksheet

What is O-lan’s dilemma?
What are the two possible choices of the dilemma?
Choice 1
Choice 2
What information, evidence, or expertise does O-lan have to support her first choice?
What information, evidence, or expertise does O-lan have to support her second choice?
Evaluate her final decision and action. How does O-lan justify her decision? What information and evidence does she consider in her justification? Can O-lan ever be certain that she made the best decision?
Based on your values, beliefs, opinion, evidence, or other information, do you believe that O-lan made the best decision? Why or why not?

Elementary ClassroomBud, Not Buddy (Curtis, 2002) provides Marla Green with many opportunities to use questions with her students.  She employs questions before students read that help students learn about the setting of the novel and she asks questions and encourages students to ask questions as the novel unfolds. These set the stage for more thinking later on as the story unfolds (Figure 9.2).

[Insert Figure 9.2 about here]

Figure 9.1 In her own words: Cheryl Wegener, Eastern Michigan Writing Project, Brighton High School, Brighton, Michigan

After reading a chapter of text {The Good Earth) where the main character of O-lan kills her daughter shortly after its birth, students are sometimes confused.  Was the baby stillborn?  Did it die of natural causes shortly after its birth?  Did O-lan really kill it?  What is going through Wang Lung’s mind (the father) as he buries the baby, all the while knowing that the mongrel dog lurks nearby will immediately consume the corpse after it leaves?  Outrage commonly follows these questions, leading to a discussion where many morals and dilemmas are examined.  Students are presented a series of dilemmas that are based concepts from the novel. Students first begin thinking about the dilemma presented and the follow-up questions by first responding in journals.  This is followed by small group discussions, allowing students to share ideas and different points of views.  Students also reflect upon how the perceptions, beliefs, and values influence the way they make decisions.

One strategy requires the students to step into the shoes of the character forced to make the decision and examine it through their eyes.  Using key questions, students had to understand the text on multiple levels in order to fully respond.

“They needed to demonstrate not only basic knowledge about the text but also higher levels of understanding about characterization, plot, and theme” (Friedman, 2000, p. 101).  The use of a Dilemma Worksheet (Table 9.1) helps to facilitate this process. After examining this section of text, students are asked to predict the future of the Lung family.  Will they survive the famine?  Will they be forced to sell the daughter known as the Poor Fool?  In order to make such predictions, students may need clarification regarding the social norms in regard to the selling of daughters. They will also need to understand the hierarchy of the time, and what that meant to the Lung family.

Figure 9.2  In her own words: Marla Green, Kelso School District, Kelso, Washington.

I realize some students won’t have the schemata to attach new learning if it’s not pre-taught.  So being able to think about little things like, “What food was available in the 1930’s?  Were there restaurants?  Did they have a McDonalds?”  It seems silly but some kids really wouldn’t have a clue.  In chapter two, an altercation arises.  As Mrs. Amos walks in on Todd beating the heck out of Bud; at this point, I plan to ask for predictions, calling for questions at the interpretive level. Questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?  Will Todd get into trouble or will it be the “foster kid”, Bud, who gets the short end of the stick?  What would you do if you were Mrs. Amos?”  These questions will give the students an opportunity to form their own opinions and prepare them for further discussion after reading.