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Inference

Observations occur when we can see something happening. In contrast, inferences are what we figure out based on an experience. Helping students understand when information is implied, or not directly stated, will improve their skill in drawing conclusions and making inferences. These skills will be needed for all sorts of school assignments, including reading, science and social studies. Inferential thinking is a complex skill that will develop over time and with experience.

Why teach inference?

  • Inference is a complex skill that can be taught through explicit instruction in inferential strategies
  • Inferring requires higher order thinking skills, which makes it a difficult skill for many students.

How to teach inference

One simplified model for teaching inference includes the following assumptions:

Marzano (2010) suggests teachers pose four questions to students to facilitate a discussion about inferences.

  • What is my inference?
    This question helps students become aware that they may have just made an inference by filling in information that wasn't directly presented.
  • What information did I use to make this inference?
    It's important for students to understand the various types of information they use to make inferences. This may include information presented in the text, or it may be background knowledge that a student brings to the learning setting.
  • How good was my thinking?
    According to Marzano, once students have identified the premises on which they've based their inferences, they can engage in the most powerful part of the process — examining the validity of their thinking.
  • Do I need to change my thinking?
    The final step in the process is for students to consider possible changes in their thinking. The point here is not to invalidate students' original inferences, but rather to help them develop the habit of continually updating their thinking as they gather new information.

One model that teachers can use to teach inference is called "It says, I say, and so" developed by Kylene Beers (2003). Click below to see graphic organizer examples from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as the steps to solving a math problem about area and diameter.
See graphic organizer example >

When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Examples:

Language Arts

The Question-Answer Relationship strategy helps students understand the different types of questions. By learning that the answers to some questions are "Right There" in the text, that some answers require a reader to "Think and Search," and that some answers can only be answered "On My Own," students recognize that they must first consider the question before developing an answer.
See Question-Answer Relationship strategy >

Into the Book has an interactive activity that helps young children learn about inferring. In the interactive, students try to infer meaning in letters from virtual pen pals. They try to answer two questions: "WHERE is your pen pal?" (inferences about location) and "WHO is your pen pal?" (inferences about personality). Students search for clues in the text, then choose from three possible inferences for each clue.
See virtual pen pal interactive >

Riddles are one way to practice inferential thinking skills because successful readers make guesses based on what they read and what they already know. The object of this online riddle game is to infer what is being described by the clues you read.
See riddle game >

BrainPop offers several activities for teaching inference, and they offer resources for teachers and parents.
See inference activities >

Because so many stories contain lessons that the main character learns and grows from, it is important for students to not only recognize these transformations but also understand how the story's events affected the characters. This lesson from ReadWriteThink uses a think-aloud procedure to model how to infer character traits and recognize a character's growth across a text. Students also consider the underlying reasons of why the character changed, supporting their ideas and inferences with evidence from the text.
See lesson plan >

Math

The Math Standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) identify standards for PreK-12 students that include developing and evaluating inferences and predictions that are based on data. For young students, the standards specifically state the following:

  • Pre-K–2 Expectations: In pre-K through grade 2, all students should discuss events related to students' experiences as "likely" or "unlikely."
  • Grades 3–5 Expectations: In grades 3–5, all students should propose and justify conclusions and predictions that are based on data and design studies to further investigate the conclusions or predictions.

Science

Science teachers spend time helping students develop their observation skills. Inferring and observing are closely related, but they are not identical. Observation is what one sees, inference is an assumption of what one has seen. Observation can be said to be a factual description, and inference is an explanation to the collected data. It's not a guess. If an observation can be termed as a close watch of the world around you through the senses, then inference can be termed as an interpretation of facts that has been observed.

Teachers can start out providing simple observations:

As you're working to develop these skills, encourage your students to incorporate their scientific vocabulary into their statements. "From what I observe on the grass, I infer that…"

Learn more about how to use inference, and other science process skills, to help students understand our water resources.
More on science process skills >

This strategy guide from Seeds of Science introduces an approach for teaching about how scientists use evidence to make inferences. The guide includes an introductory section about how scientists use evidence to make inferences, a general overview of how to use this strategy with many science texts, and a plan for teaching how scientists gather evidence to make inferences.
See teaching inference strategy guide >

This lesson from ReadWriteThinkuses science to engage students in the process of making inferences. First, students work through a series of activities about making inferences. Then they read a booklet of descriptions of a series of mystery objects that are placed under a microscope. Finally, they look through each microscope and use the formula of schema + text clues = inference to make their own inferences about the identity of each mystery object.
See science lesson plan >

Social Studies

In this Teacher Guide from the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, students use clues in a portrait to infer things about George Washington and his life. They work to identify visual clues the artist used, they compare various portraits of George Washington, and discuss the importance of the different portraits as visual records.
See teacher guide >

Often, inferring is introduced to students by using familiar symbols, activities, and environments from which they automatically draw inferences or make predictions (an inference about the future). For example, suppose you are about to begin a unit on the Great Depression. You might have students view a picture of the exterior of a mansion and then of a soup line. Then, through questioning, students focus on details, making inferences about the people who live in both places, their socioeconomic status, the kinds of food they eat, the kinds of activities they pursue.

Parents can help to build these skills at home. For ideas to share with parents, see our Growing Readers tip sheet, Making Inferences and Drawing Conclusions (in English and Spanish).
See parent tip sheet >

Differentiated instruction

for second language learners, students of varying reading skill, students with learning disabilities, and for younger learners

  • Use graphic organizers like the It says, I say, So one to make the steps from observation to inference more explicit.
  • Model the observation to inference process over and over again, using as many real-life examples as possible.
  • Recognize that the background knowledge upon which inferences are drawn will be different for each student. Reassure students that answers can be different, but all should be made based on some sort of collected data.

See the research that supports this strategy

Beers, Kylene. (2003). When kids can't read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gregory, A.E., & Cahill, M. (2010, March). Kindergartners Can Do It, Too! Comprehension Strategies for Early Readers. The Reading Teacher, 63(6), 515-520.

Harvey, Stephanie, & Goudvis, Anne. (2000). Strategies that work (pp. 277-281). York, ME: Stenhouse.

Marzono, R. (2010). Teaching inference. Educational Leadership, 67(7), 80-01. Available online at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr10/vol67/num07/Teaching-Inference.aspx.

Ozgungor, S., & Guthrie, J. T. (2004). Interactions among elaborative interrogation, knowledge, and interest in the process of constructing knowledge from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 437-443.

Children's books to use with this strategy

Looking Down

Looking Down

From high above, readers journey from space to earth with a progressively closer view though always looking down. What viewers are seeing changes with each page turn and may yield interesting inference on a number of levels (e.g., what else might one see from space?).

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero

This lively picture book biography of a woman who disguised herself as a man during the Civil War introduces a time in U.S. history and a bit of women's history. There are inferential thinking opportunities in either subject. (For example: From Sarah's experiences, what can be inferred about women's status in the 19th century? What can be inferred about the status of slaves when one young enslaved man tells Sarah he can't use cash money?)

I See Myself

I See Myself

Brief text and clear illustration combine to present both information and experiments that will encourage "what if" and "what next" discussions that can comfortably and safely combine with activities appropriate for young children.

Chalk

Chalk

Join three children who find a magical piece of chalk that begins an exciting series of events to figure out "what next." This might be fun to use in conjunction with Crockett Johnson's Harold & the Purple Crayon (HarperCollins).

Deep in the Forest

Deep in the Forest

A baby bear explores a human abode in this riff on the Goldilocks tale. Readers could infer seasons, feelings, and consequences in this modern classic.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?

Clear, textured illustrations of animals and their special parts (e.g., tail, nose) focus readers on the special function of each. Not only is it likely to generate a description of the appendage but its function (what it does), and of the animal and its environment. Other books by Steve Jenkins, such as Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, may also generate rich descriptive language.

The Little Plant Doctor: A Story About George Washington Carver

The Little Plant Doctor: A Story About George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was always curious and grew into a recognized scientist in spite of the challenges of the time in which he lived. His life and accomplishments become accessible to younger children through the voice of a tree planted by young George, augmented by child-like full color illustrations.

Pop! A Book About Bubbles

Pop! A Book About Bubbles

Have you ever wondered why bubbles are round? And why they pop? These and other questions are asked and answered in accessible language and crisp, full color photographs. Many easy-to-do science activities are suggested (to be done with adult help).

If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States

If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States

If all of the 300 million people were simply one village of 100 people, its diversity is easier to understand. That's just what the author has done to make the complex make-up of the U.S. residents (in terms of languages spoken, ages, and more). Colorful illustrations accompany the understandable text. Additional resources complete the book. If the World Were a Village: A Book About the World’s People, also by Smith, looks at the inhabitants of the world as a village to allow its diversity to become more understandable for adults and children.

Wave

Wave

No words are needed to share a child's seaside adventure as she plays with the waves, is knocked down by one, and then discovers the sea's gifts brought to shore by the wave. Softly lined wash in a limited color palette evoke a summer afternoon on the beach.

Pancakes for Breakfast

Pancakes for Breakfast

On a cold morning, a little old lady decides to make pancakes for breakfast, but has a hard time finding all of the ingredients. This wordless picture book tells a story of determination and humor, ideal for young readers who can narrate the story as they go.

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo