Can we teach students how to make inferences?


Image: @jasonramasami

Good readers make inferences. They dive beneath the surface of a text. They reveal rich seams of meaning not immediately obvious to the naked eye. They draw insightful logical conclusions by synthesising a range of information. They deftly translate their findings into finely crafted academic language.

It seems sensible, then, to teach children the skill of inference (or whatever you want to call it: reading-between the lines, interpretation, insight, etc). But does such a reading skill truly exist? What is inference? Might it perhaps be little more than an illusion, a phantom? If indeed it does exist, might it take the form of a squirming, slippery, almost-translucent mass? Like a raw chicken breast?

Unfortunately, technology and science do not as yet allow us to eavesdrop on the thoughts of our students. We cannot enter a student’s mind as they are drawing together clues and ideas to make inferences about a section of text. (And would we want to?) We cannot witness the thought processes that lead to understanding and interpretation – or their nemeses, misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

It is easy to fall into a trap. Because we cannot see what a student is thinking we assume that their reasoning and deduction processes mirror our own. In other words, we expect them to think with the knowledge and experience of a well-read, well-educated adult.

We are led to imagine – erroneously so – that students are thinking not with their own minds, but with our minds. However much we kid ourselves to the contrary – and I am as much to blame as anyone else – students can only think within the bounds of their own minds and this is invisible to us. Speech and writing are only proxies for thought. This creates an empathy gap between student and teacher and, at its worst, can lead to what the Heath Brothers refer to as the Curse of the Expert. We forget what it is like not to know something. (Try to imagine that you do not know what a badger is? Hard, eh!?)

Here’s a well-known extract from John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men describing Curley’s Wife:

“Oh!” She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. “You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”


Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fingernails. “Sometimes Curley’s in here,” she explained

The only way to make inferences about this episode, and the many details that make it up, is to make connections between the words on the page and what we already know. This knowledge will come from a dazzlingly complex range of sources: knowledge of the novella gleaned already; vocabulary knowledge; knowledge of human behaviour gained from real-life experiences; knowledge gained from studying other texts and the conventions of characterisation; etc.

Let’s take the line, “Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she didn’t seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little.” The differing knowledge students bring to the text might stimulate a range of inferences.

  • The student who recalls that Lennie had a previous run-in with a girl in Weed might be alert to the clause ‘Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body’. Here Lennie seems oblivious to the reality that, once again, not only are his actions a danger to women but a danger to himself too.
  • The student who reads the line and recognises the artifice behind Curley’s Wife’s front – perhaps they have witnessed similar behaviour first-hand themselves (or in books, TV and films) – might notice the way her attempts to take on the guise of the confident and seductive temptress are somewhat undermined by her physical response to Lennie’s stare.
  • Another student who grooms horses at the local stables on a Sunday might understand the word ‘bridled’ a little better than others. Curley’s Wife’s actions mimic the discomfort of a horse being reigned in.
  • A fourth student – a teenage boy – might shamefully recognise his own behaviour around girls when reading this line. Similarly, a girl might shudder at the recollection of being looked at in such a manner herself. (A reasonable counter-argument here would be that even if you have never been the recipient or perpetrator of such behaviour, you could still imagine how you would feel as Curley’s Wife under Lennie’s gaze. However, this unveils a similar problem: is it possible to teach students how to make emotional responses to texts?)
  • The fifth student has read the novel before. The event has darker, foreboding suggestions when you become aware that this seemingly simple encounter is part of Steinbeck’s build up towards the tragic events of the novel’s finale: Curley’s Wife’s murder at Lennie’s hands. Again, the level of knoweledge influences the perceptiveness of the interpretation.

I admit that this list is rather contrived and does not fully capture the complexity of the reading experience. The list could certainly go on for a while longer. The point I am trying to get across is that inferences cannot exist without knowledge and memory. What we know, what we can access from what we know and how we connect this to the words we are reading are crucial to inference. Sometimes our inference might be an immediate one; at other times the result of deep thinking as we connect together what we know. Naturally, some students will be nonplussed by the Curley’s Wife episode, especially if the word ‘bridled’ stands in the way. Here, lack of knowledge – of the text, the world or the language structures necessary to express this understanding – becomes a barrier. At times, even a lack of knowledge will stand in the way of the best readers. Indeed, it is quite possible that an able, introverted child – who might even spend much of their spare time reading! – would fail to notice the sexual undertones of the ‘bridled’ line.

Whether we like it or not, children are learning all the time – in and out of our lessons. Many of these experiences we have no control over as a teacher. However, we do have some control over what children learn within our schools and classrooms. I think it is our duty as teachers of reading to furnish students with as much knowledge as possible.

We might do this by:

  • Paying particular attention to the teaching and development of student vocabulary.
  • Introducing students to rich and challenging texts which introduce not only new words, but new ideas and imagined experiences beyond those usually met in day-to-day life.
  • Encouraging students to develop reading habits (assuming they are fluent decoders already) by, perhaps, insisting they have a book with them at all times, supporting them to find books they might enjoy reading and building reading time into the curriculum. (And crossing our fingers and toes in the hope they continue the habit away from our watchful eyes.)
  • Promoting a knowledge-rich, academic curriculum in our schools. The more students know, the more they have to bring to their future reading.

Once again, the list could go on. Before I finish, an obvious practical tip to improve students’ inferences is to pre-teach knowledge before reading. So in the Curley’s Wife example, teach them the meaning of ‘bridled’, remind them of Lennie’s past misdemeanours and discuss with them examples of how attention-seeking behaviour manifests itself in the real world – all before reading the text. Unfortunately, though, such detail is not manageable all the time; at times we will still need to strategically brush over things.

Nevertheless, I will not throw out my baby with my bath-water. I will not stop asking students to infer. They must learn that the search for meaning beyond the immediately obvious is the mark of a good reader. Even very knowledgeable students can struggle if they are not in the habit of making such connections. They benefit from having this modeled explicitly and then practising it for themselves. Often we will need to tell them they are wrong or that their understanding is too simplistic. At other times, sophisticated interpretations will need to be taught as explicit knowledge (as I discussed here).

My grandmother would always say, “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”

Perhaps I should adopt an alternative: “Look after the knowledge and inferences will look after themselves.”


Further reading:

This on Bloom’s taxonomy and the slipperiness of soft skills by James Theobald is excellent.

As is this on ‘thinking with’ knowledge by David Didau.