Developing Inferential Comprehension

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Before students can comprehend the written word, they need to be able to decode the text and this should always be a core focus of intervention if this is the underlying problem.

One component of comprehension is to be able to infer meaning by connecting ideas, responding to meaning that is not explicitly stated and making links to prior knowledge. For example, we can infer the meaning of unknown words by the other words used in the sentence. We can determine people’s values or motivations by their appearance, what they say and from their behaviour. The research consistently shows that time spent on developing inferential skills (even just by asking inferential questions) leads to greater comprehension compared to time spent on literal understanding.

Even before students can decode, they can be taught inferential skills. Kelly and Moses (2018) discuss strategies they use to help develop the ability of their Grade 1 students to make inferences. They chose three different types of children’s books:

Ambiguous books: These books did not have a clear conclusion (e.g., This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen) and were used to encourage students to infer the ending and to generate alternative plausible endings based on the pictures and provided storyline.

Didactic books: These books were used to teach students how to infer the author’s intention or message (e.g., Fish Is Fish by Leo Lionni). An important component of this process was for students to use their own background knowledge to defend their arguments.

Fractured fairy tales: These books were used to encourage students to question the trustworthiness of the author (e.g,. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka). These judgements require students to take into consideration details from the text, knowledge about the physical world and cultural knowledge. An important component of this discussion is to acknowledge that everyone sees the world through their own cultural and experiential lenses.

In choosing texts look for:

  • Books with illustrations that contradicted the words.
  • Books with narrators of questionable credibility or with unique perspectives.
  • Books with illustrations that provide visual clues to the characters’ emotional state and/or values.
  • Books with a ‘twist’ in which the conclusion is different to what would be expected from the initial reading of the story.

Some key teaching points:

  • Offer multiple opportunities to make inferences not just using books, but also when observing real world events or watching videos.
  • Encourage students to provide support for their views.
  • Accept that different students may make different inferences, but this does not make their suggestions wrong.
  • Use questions to ‘dig deeper’.
  • Summarise each student’s response to affirm each student’s response and to help other students develop their thinking.

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Kelly, L.B., & Moses, L. (2018). Children’s Literature That Sparks Inferential Discussions. The Reading Teacher, 72(1), 21–29.