Can we teach students how to make inferences?

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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?”

“Yeah.”

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.”

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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.

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Closed-question quizzing – unfashionable yet effective

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Image: @jasonramasami

Back in the misty past of teacher training I was introduced to two golden nuggets of wisdom:

1. Closed questions are the devil.
2. Open questions are the apotheosis of virtue.

We green-behind-the-ears newbies were encouraged to observe the lessons of experienced teachers with a clipboard so that we could tally up the ratio of closed questions to open questions. I left many a classroom shaking my head in disbelief! Why were teachers still wallowing in the ignominious shame of when, what, who and where?

In my quest to become the all-conquering teaching equivalent of Genghis Khan, I vowed to build my empire on the solid ground of why and how, and in doing so consign their backward cousins to the windswept steppe of deepest, darkest teaching Mongolia…

Recently, however, I have come to think of the closed question as a really quite wonderful thing. I would now go as far to say that lists of closed-questions, especially in the form of quizzing, are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources. Not only do they have multiple functions in the English lesson and beyond, but they pave the way for analytical thought rather than stand in its way.

Quizzes are like raincoats – unfashionable and effective in equal measure. (Apologies in advance if this post points out the bleedin’ obvious!)

Retrieval practice

The evidence collated by Dunlosky et al (2013) – nicely summarised here – asserts that retrieval practice is one of the most effective learning strategies there is. If students are encouraged to actively recall information from memory they are more likely to remember it in the long-term than if they are encouraged to re-read their notes or other material. Re-reading creates ‘illusions of fluency’ – it feels secure as we read the material, yet it quickly decays from memory. I use short, low-stakes quizzes at the starts of lessons to encourage students to recall information from the last lesson and further back. If I have not got time to write out a quiz before a lesson, I will write a list of answers on a piece of paper and make up the quiz verbally as I go. Read this post for more.

A quick assessment tool

A quick closed-question quiz at the start of a lesson, or indeed at any point during the lesson, can double up as an assessment tool. The great advantage of quizzes held during lessons (rather than at the end) is that we receive student feedback there and then. We can quickly ascertain misconceptions and knowledge gaps and act fast. I find it best to create a dialogue as answers are fed back so that I can re-explain material when necessary or encourage students to elaborate.

A five-minute quiz is a great way of testing the temperature and retrieving in-the-moment data. I cannot hear every students’ answer during feedback (and hands-up are not always trustworthy) so I simply circulate the classroom and peer over a few shoulders as they are writing.

Fine reading

Any densely-packed piece of writing – or indeed verbal or media presentation – presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information. Questions can be provided before reading – to prime students for what to look for – or later if you would prefer them to establish the gist first. Whenever I teach a poem now, students complete a closed-question short answer quiz. I used this one only on Monday with Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’:

1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?
4. What simile is used to describe the rifle he is lugging?
5. Which ‘p’ is used to describe the tear that he once had?
6. What does he ‘almost’ do?
7. What is he said to be running like?
8. What simile is used to describe his foot?
9. What creature brings him back to reality?
10. What are this animal’s mouth and eyes doing?
11. Which four items drop from his mind?
12. What does he want to escape from?

These questions help students to target key evidence and break down complex and dense meaning into manageable chunks. As they feed back the answers, we elaborate together on the greater significance of this information.

Closed questions encourage comprehension and more acute understanding. Students will almost always perform better in later open-ended tasks when they have time to build their knowledge of basic meaning first. Some would argue that this kind of simple quzziing is not challenging; I would argue that on the contrary it makes challenge all the more possible later down the line.

Focused research

Most students struggle with research. When we say “Go and look it up” rather than tell a child a piece of information we are relying on their existing world knowledge to pull them through. Let’s say I asked a child to look up ‘volcanoes’ for homework. Here’s Wikipedia on the topic:

“Earth’s volcanoes occur because the planet’s crust is broken into 17 major, rigid tectonic plates that float on a hotter, softer layer in the Earth’s mantle.[1] Therefore, on Earth, volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. For example, a mid-oceanic ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates coming together….”

The vocabulary here – converging and diverging for instance – is very tough for novice learners, as is discriminating  between the important and less important information. Such tasks are simply inaccessible to most but the very able. However, a series of very simple questions to research before the lesson can help to manage focus so that they arrive with something useful and concrete. The question “How many major tectonic plates are there on our planet?” means that all can find the answer (17) and will come to the lesson primed and ready for an explanation of just exactly what a tectonic plate is.

Encourage thinking

Last of all quizzes are highly efficient. Children know how to complete them and no time is wasted explaining unnecessarily complex tasks. They allow for total focus on subject content and so fit comfortably with Daniel Willingham’s now-famous maxim, “Memory is the residue of thought.” Questions cut away the unnecessary.

I would argue, too, that children genuinely like doing them. Even the most restless of classes can be pacified with a list of twenty-five juicy questions – and, yes, on those Thursday afternoons in November too! If, like me, you are sometimes sceptical of collaborative tasks, students are usually well-focused when answering quiz questions in pairs.

Children answer questions at different rates, so it is always worth your while to have an extension question planned too. I tend to choose an open one that hinges on developing the closed question answers – e.g. Now that you have answered these questions, which of the three pigs has the qualities to become the leader of Animal Farm?

They are great, too, if you use exemplars as a modelling tool. How many quotations does the exemplar use? Which word is used instead of ‘walk’? Does the writer use a topic sentence? Once again, you are ensuring a close reading that will ensure that students identify the writing techniques you would like them to emulate themselves.

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I am not in the least suggesting that we dispose of open questions, just that they are often best answered when a child has mastered the basic knowledge beforehand. Quizzes provide a simple, effective and powerful tool to bring this about and ensure that every student is compelled to take part.

Come into my lessons with a clipboard and I will  happily disappoint you.