How to teach students inference skills
These core reading comprehension skills are key to improving literacy
Inference skills are about so much more than simply “reading between the lines”. Here we look at:
✓ What they are
✓ Why they’re key to improving literacy
✓ How to teach them
As English teachers, we understand the vital importance of inference and that it’s so much more than simply “reading between the lines”. With this year’s SATs cancelled, now is the perfect time to explore the ways we teach inference, and consider how strong inference skills lead to better literacy and deeper critical thinking.
What is inference?
Of the many definitions available for the word ‘inference’, one of the most thought provoking comes from the Cambridge Dictionary: “a guess you make or an opinion that you form based on the information that you have.”
Inferring ideas, or guessing what the author means, is part of the joy of reading. Imagine a world where books gave it all away upfront! At first, inference can feel a little like code breaking. Many students are resistant to the close analysis it requires. However, in time, able readers infer information from texts as naturally as turning the page.
Why does it matter?
Inference plays an important role in reading comprehension and the closing of attainment gaps. With 92% of teachers believing that school closures have contributed to the word gap widening, a focus on inference – especially through vocabulary – is crucial.
A quick glance through the Key Stage 2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests emphasises this. Activities like identifying adjectives, exploring synonyms and antonyms, and matching up suffixes and prefixes all require strong vocabulary and inference skills.
Perhaps most importantly of all, if we want our students to improve their critical literacy, we need them to pay attention to the hidden meanings within what is said, and what’s left unsaid.
What do the experts say?
In their 2017 report Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2, the Education Endowment Foundation outlined some key steps for developing reading comprehension skills:
✓ Encourage students to make predictions about what’s going to happen next as they read a text.
✓ Get students to ask questions about the text. These questions are so important for helping teachers know when students have misunderstood.
✓ Clarify key information in a text. Help students to feel confident to say when something doesn’t make sense.
✓ Use graphic organisers and defined structures in which students summarise sections of the text. Doing this concisely is a real skill.
✓ Encourage students to infer the meanings of words and sentences in context. This is the first step to developing a personal response.
✓ Ask students what they already know and help them to activate previous knowledge. This will help them start making connections.
Teachers might notice that a lot of these steps require a level of independence in students, so we need to make sure we’re careful about modelling and gradually withdrawing support as students feel more confident.
What can I do in my classroom?
The Education Endowment Foundation report recommends collaborative activities such as reciprocal reading as the perfect way to build confidence.
The Exceed Academies Trust say that being an active reader is a major precondition for inferencing. As simple as it sounds, this means students need to understand that what they are reading should make sense. Students should question their own understanding as frequently as they need to.
Engaging students with a bag of objects related to the text can be a brilliant way into understanding, according to Rachel Clarke. From here, students can make predictions about the objects and how they’re connected. After reading, students can revisit their predictions and tie them to key moments in the text.
A personal favourite is the Quote Race, which was shared with me by a wonderful colleague in my first school. Students are given statements about texts such as ‘the character is feeling angry’ and they must race against time to find the right quotation, then justify their choice. It’s endlessly adaptable for different age groups and abilities and the competitive element makes it fun.
When it comes to literature, familiarising students with literary techniques and devices gets them thinking about intent. This helps them read with deeper meaning in mind. The scaffolded 102 GCSE Terms & Analysis scheme of learning teaches students to recognise and develop their own responses to a text at a language and structural level.
At KS1 students ‘learn to read’, at KS2 and beyond students ‘read to learn’ – Bedrock has a 360° approach to literacy to support all learners with reading comprehension skills, so when faced with an inference question – students know exactly what to do!