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.

English teaching and the problem with knowledge


Tharby-knowledge-v-skillsWEBImage: @jasonramasami

At #tlt14 last weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with blogger and all-round nice chap Phil Stock about the role of knowledge in English teaching. Phil argues that student-generated interpretations of literary texts almost always lack depth and sophistication. Instead, textual interpretations are often better taught as discreet knowledge, rather than relying solely on the  flimsy attempts of our students. In other words, we owe it to them to teach interpretations of texts as explicit knowledge rather than hoping that we can teach them the skill of interpretation. Because an interpretation is formed in the context of what is already known, only children whose upbringings have been steeped in a wealth of cultural references have any chance of generating a genuinely sophisticated one.

Teaching for knowledge is not a simple concept in English. This is because we have to work out which and whose knowledge to teach. For traditionalists, this is where the Matthew Arnold argument comes into play: the ‘best that has been thought or said’ school of thought. But even if we took the Arnold line as gospel, the substance of taught knowledge would remain very different depending on which school, or even classroom, the child attends. In fact, two students steeped in traditional knowledge-based teaching might finish a GCSE course with completely different textual knowledge – Hamlet and Great Expectations rather than Othello and Jane Eyre, for instance. If we eschew the canon and teach a more eclectic range of texts, the problem becomes more extreme. I wonder if this confusion is partly the reason why the skills-based model of English teaching has become such a seductive alternative.

Indeed, for many years I have taken it as axiomatic that English is a skills-only subject. As such, texts and topics are useful only as reference points for developing nebulous skills – be it ‘making inferences’ or ‘charting the development of a character’ – with limited value in and of themselves. I am now realising that the problem is not that the skills should be considered unimportant, but that the resultant teaching approaches can inhibit learning.

Skills-based teaching lacks specificity. It encourages us to share abstractions, often in the form of learning objectives, success criteria or written and verbal feedback targets. A statement that I have used on many an occasion is ‘you need to use a broad range of vocabulary‘. It might seem straightforward to put into action, but it is not. Students can be left confused by which words to use and where to use them.

If we adopt a knowledge-based approach to teaching vocabulary, things become simpler and a hell of a lot clearer. We can decide on a set of words we would like them to use, ensure that they practise them accurately in a range of contexts, and then reasonably expect the new vocabulary to be put to use in extended writing and remembered in the long-term. Just ten interesting words explicitly taught over a half term – or three-hundred words over the five years of secondary school – is eminently more manageable and  more sensible than dropping students into the bottomless deep blue of The Oxford English Dictionary so that they can flounder time and time again. (This idea is brilliantly illustrated in Jason Ramasami‘s image at the top of this page.) Many other words will naturally be picked up in that time too, let’s not forget. However, the irony is that by focussing on the mastery of small, discreet items knowledge in the short term, we could accumulatively achieve so much more in the long term.

This approach, however, might rub against some deeply-held beliefs about what English teaching should constitute. We want our students to be free and individual, to produce work of flair and originality, so why deny this by encouraging uniformity? When we direct students towards specific vocabulary it is inevitable that there will be less diversity in the final written product produced within the class. This can leave us feeling cheap, like we have cheated our students out of the chance to be creative. But does it matter?

It is highly unlikely that a maths teacher would feel similarly. If every student achieves one-hundred percent in a maths test, and every student uses exactly the same working-out method, I imagine a teacher will feel that they have done a pretty good job. Now in English, work will never be identical, nor should it be. But does it really matter if the final product is similar because students are all practising the same concrete knowledge? In our quest for student divergence have we neglected to consider that all our students – even our brightest – need a secure base to start from?

Vocabulary is just one example where a focus on concrete knowledge, taught with the expectation that students will remember it and use it correctly in context, might reap benefits. Another example comes in the teaching of literature. To achieve between a B and an A* for the AQA English literature controlled assessment – which makes up 25% of the final grade – a student must develop ‘interpretations’. But as Phil explained, how well can novice readers, who in many cases have had little prior exposure to literary texts, make valid interpretations?

Inferences about a text are based on knowledge. We read that a character sits on a wall with their head in their hands and we infer that she is unhappy and dejected. The inference comes mainly from our knowledge of the world – that when someone puts their head in their hands it usually indicates a negative emotion. I would argue that most inferences made by students at KS3 and KS4 are drawn from their general knowledge of the world, not their knowledge of literary devices, conventions or other literary texts. Take the opening of Of Mice and Men. Almost all students will miss the biblical allusion in the description of the clearing ‘down by the river’ (used by Steinbeck to amplify the simple purity of George and Lennie’s companionship) because they do not securely know the Garden of Eden story and they do not realise that such allusions are a literary convention.

To teach ‘interpretation’ I have often expected students to do the work for themselves. Pedagogically, this has taken the form of in-depth questioning with the hope that I can elicit something that is hiding away in the deepest recesses of their minds. This has often, but not always, proven unsuccessful and I have had to backtrack and override the unfocussed ideas I have elicited. There is a critical question that cuts to the core of English teaching. At what point do we stop telling a student the answer and start asking questions? I think that, for many years, I have been asking the questions before securing the knowledge needed to answer them.

The solution might be to teach interpretations of a text as discreet knowledge. In this case, to talk through the Garden of Eden story – some will know it well, others will not – and how and why Steinbeck has alluded to it. So that they are involved in cognitive work, students can search for the textual details that support the theory. Teaching interpretations as concrete knowledge will be anathema to some teachers, but it is through this approach that we model how to make an interpretation. When students have grasped new ideas and can write about them with some fluency, they have achieved something valid. To accuse them of ‘idea plagiarism’ because they have taken ownership of an idea we have given them, or to misappropriate teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’, is very unfair. It is worth considering, too, that most teachers will actively research a range of interpretations to share with their students before teaching a new text. If teachers are intuitively aware that forming an interpretation is no easy feat, why do we expect it from our novice charges? I think interpretation is better thought of as an end rather than a means.

So, my key point is that in our desire to engender creativity in our students, might we be denying them the chance to learn English in a concrete knowledge-based way, in a way that will eventually guide them towards the independence we so desire from them? Since I have taken a more convergent approach and tightened my parameters, two things have occurred. One, student work has become more similar. Two, student work has become better.

Please do not take this as an argument against imagination. I think it is fair to say that some students are better at using what they already know to make interesting inferences and interpretations and to devise compelling written pieces than others, and that this should be actively encouraged. Knowledge teaching can sit side-by-side a celebration of the imagination; the two do not have to work solely in opposition. However, it is our responsibility to teach children new things, not to simply rely on what they already know. By teaching new knowledge in a simple and explicit way, we reduce cognitive load and probably increase the potential for creativity in the long-term.

Often this will mean changing the ratio between what we tell them to do and think and what we expect them to do and think individually.

Related posts:

The unheralded beauty of repetition

A simple classroom in a complex world

Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk