10 Mar 2022By Amy Arora
Inference is about so much more than just "reading between the lines". In this blog, we discuss:
- What are inference skills?
- Why are inference skills useful?
- How do I teach inference skills to my learners?
What are inference skills?
Inference skills are skills that allow you to make guesses and estimates for additional information, based on information you already have.
Inferring ideas, or guessing what the author means, is part of the joy of reading. Every time we read a book and get involved in the suspense of the plot, guessing what is going to happen next, we are using inference skills - and this is what makes reading books so fun.
However, inference skills require close analysis, and many learners can be resistant to inferring. However, inference skills give learners more than just the ability to enjoy books - they are a key part of improving analytical thinking and improving overall literacy, as well as building reading habits that stick for life.
Why does it matter?
Inference skills play 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 learners to improve their critical literacy, we need them to pay attention to the hidden meanings within what is said, and what’s left unsaid. This develops their analytical skills, not just in English but in every application - this is a crucial life skill. Developing learners' inference skills shapes them for the wider world.
What do the experts say about inference skills?
In their 2017 report Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2, the Education Endowment Foundation outlined some key steps for developing reading comprehension skills:
- Encourage learners to make predictions about what’s going to happen next as they read a text.
- Push learners 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 learners summarise sections of the text. Doing this concisely is a real skill.
- Encourage learners to infer the meanings of words and sentences in context. This is the first step to developing a personal response.
- Ask learners 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 learners , so we need to make sure we’re careful about modelling and gradually withdrawing support as learners feel more confident.
What can I do in my classroom to improve inference skills?
The Education Endowment Foundation report recommends collaborative activities such as reciprocal reading as the perfect way to build confidence using inference skills and techniques.
The Exceed Academies Trust say that being an active reader is a major precondition for inferencing. As simple as it sounds, this means learners need to understand that what they are reading should make sense. This means that to develop the inference skills needed for life, learners need a solid bedrock of strong literacy knowledge such as a wide vocabulary and knowledge of grammar - this is where Bedrock comes in, providing learners with that important foundation so skills such as inference can be developed.
Engaging students with a bag of objects related to the text can be a brilliant way into understanding, according to Rachel Clarke. From here, learners can make predictions about the objects and how they’re connected. After reading, learners 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. Learners 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 GCSE English Terms & Analysis scheme of learning teaches learners to recognise and develop their own responses to a text at a language and structural level. From this, learners can take their knowledge of literary techniques and infer authorial intent, building on their critical thinking and analysis skills.
Bedrock has a 360° approach to literacy to support all learners with reading comprehension skills. With this bedrock of literacy, when learners encounter a situation requiring inference skills, whether it's in their academic lives or beyond, they know what to do.