The concept of inference is one of the most difficult to teach, however even as low as grade 4, the concept must be addressed in some form or another, usually by reading a fictional text and making an assumption or guess based on the evidence or facts from the text combined with their own prior knowledge.
Here are the Common Core ELA Standards (grades 4 and up) that mention inference:
- RL.4.1., RI.4.1 Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- RL.5.1. Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- RL.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- L.7.4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 7 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
- Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
- RL.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
In other words, students in grades 4-12 must be able to:
- demonstrate the ability to read a fictional passage or text, understand and articulate what the text directly as well as indirectly states in order to make an assumption about the text
- identify, extract, and cite text to support the response
- and further, in grade 7 specifically, students must be able to make meaningful assumptions about multiple-meaning and unknown words through context clues.
So, let’s start with some definitions:
Infer – verb; to conclude by using logic
Forms of the verb include: infer, inferring, inferred
Inference – noun; the process of drawing conclusions based on logic
Both definitions include the words logic, and variations of the words conclude. To conclude is to form an opinion or reach a decision about something. Logic is sensible, rational thought or argument based on facts rather than emotion.
In other words, to infer is to form an opinion based on facts.
There are several ways of teaching inference. At the very basic level, students must be able to discern between fact and opinion. I will assume that students are able to understand fact versus opinion by the fourth grade, but if not, start there.
Beyond that, students must be able to make observations. Observations are clues—things that the student sees—either literally (as in a picture) or figuratively (as in a paragraph or story). Observations are factual and can be proven. From observations, students must then use the knowledge they have been given and/or their own personal knowledge to make an inference. Inferences are personal and contain opinion.
Take a look at this picture:
Ask students to write down their observations, based on the picture. Remember, these are FACTS…what they see and what can be proven in the picture. To test this, you can ask students to literally show you where they see what they’ve written down. This can be projected on a whiteboard or computer projector screen.
Some simple observations:
There is a woman in the picture. She is looking into a microscope. She has on a white lab coat.
From here, students can make inferences:
The woman is a scientist. She is doing research at a university. She is on a team looking for a cure for cancer.
Give students a set of pictures to practice making observations and inferences. Have them make 3-5 observations and 3-5 inferences based upon those observations. To take the exercise further, have students make a prediction about what they think will happen next, based upon both their observations and personal inferences. (I have also put together this FREE download including pictures if you would like to use this activity.)
But of course, students must also be able to make inferences from texts. To do this, students must be able to make observations about a text or excerpt.
Here is an example:
Imagine that you enter your classroom and your classmates are standing around your desk. They’re waiting for you. When you walk into the room they see you and start clapping. What do you think? Why?
What observations (clues) can you “see”?
- classroom, classmates, they are waiting for me, they start clapping when I get there
What can you infer is happening, based upon your observations and the knowledge you have been given in this excerpt?
- (A) It is the last day of school and everyone is excited to be going on summer break.
- (B) It is my birthday, so they are going to sing “Happy Birthday” to me.
- (C) I stood up for a younger boy at lunchtime, finally telling the school bully to stop picking on everyone.
Based upon the information given in the excerpt, the logical answer is C. The cheers are directed to the student, so there is no reason to believe they are cheering for summer break (A). Similarly, the students have not begun singing “Happy Birthday” so (B) can be ruled out. While (C) is quite specific, it is the most logical answer. The class is waiting for the student to come to class, and they begin clapping for the student for his/her heroics at lunchtime.
For making inferences based upon texts, students should ask themselves:
- What facts do I see? (Observation)
- What else do I know? (prior Knowledge)
- What can I guess or imagine is happening, based upon 1 and 2? (Inference)
For more practice with inference, check out my FREE Observation and Inference activity.