Asking the right questions is the key to activating students’ thinking when modelling inference in the classroom.
In Episode 46 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, educators Phil and Sharon Callen continued their discussion on how to teach inferring and elaborated on the different prompts to use in classroom discussions and during roving conferences.
Sharon particularly explained the different question prompts you can use to open up insightful discussions.
According to the duo, the most effective question is the simplest one – ‘what are you wondering?’.By using this open-ended question, it allows greater capacity to think of new ideas and explore different perspectives.
“So what are you wondering about this character? Then they can say, oh I think that character’s feeling this. Or you can ask what are you wondering about this event?” she said.
“Just that can open up a door into getting that thinking activated, and I’ve seen that work so well. Especially if I’m working with a class where I don’t know what questions they’ve been asked or thinking prompts they’ve been given, if I open up with an ‘I wonder’ question about any of those things, I see everybody involved because I’m opening it up to say okay, you’re all wondering something and I’m ready to listen.
“It allows for that really insightful thinking to come about. If you open up with a question like that and we start talking, that’s where you get great discussion and it isn’t just a singular answer.
“Sometimes a narrow question doesn’t let them get to the big thinking that they’re actually doing around these things.”
Once teachers have a grasp of what students are wondering, they can really embrace the strategy of inference by asking students ‘what evidence does the author provide to support this’ and ‘what does the author want you to realise?’.
“I think I use that question more than anything, particularly in reader responses when we’re writing in our literature logs…It’s a fabulous question because what you don’t do is draw on literal information,” she said.
“A lot of the time we’re looking for the literal information, but when we say, what does the author want you to realize? What’s the author’s perspective on this? What were they trying to tell us? What did they want us to know about this character or this event or this situation, or on this day? This isn’t necessarily even about the whole text. This might be at the end of a chapter, you know, chapter two of 13 chapters.”
When asking this question, Sharon recommended teachers use quick writes to obtain students’ responses.
“Some of the deepest writing I’ve ever had when students have responded to that question might be in a quick write at the end of an average reading workshop for the day. I might come back to what we were reading and say, what do you think the author wanted you to realize from that?And to do a quick write, then they can get to do that about their own writing. ” Sharon said.
“So get a quick write in three minutes, write down in your reading journal or your reader’s notebook what did the author want you to realize? Because that’s the bigger thinking. We’re not drawing out literal things. We’re coming to lifting from the page and lifting from what’s said and not said – this new idea that isn’t there that isn’t just on the page.”
Part of finding out what the author wants you to realise is also asking ‘what clues does the author give’ which might lead you to a certain conclusion or opinion about the text.
“With inferential, there is a point of determining what’s a fact and what’s an opinion. So we can have an opinion about something just based on our own idea of something [and background knowledge], but we have to remember a text is coming from an author’s perspective. So if we actually ask what facts can we draw from the text that’s different than I’m just using my opinion to infer something?” Sharon said.
“[For example] we might’ve read in a text that the character slyly said go away. The fact is he said it slyly, so how’s that going to sound? And why was he saying it like that? That’s the fact that we want to work with.
Finally when asking these questions, Sharon and Phil said it’s important for teachers to ensure their students fully understand what is being said.
“You know, when we’re reading a text and we’re going, oh my goodness why did he say it like that? What’s going to often happen is we’ll hear ourselves saying what’s going to happen. And sometimes we realize by the look on our students’ faces that they didn’t get what that just said. So that’s a time where we can draw out that bit or come back to it at another time and say, okay what is it?” Sharon explained.
“And so by doing that, then we are helping them to infer and we can name it as that. Let me help you infer here because I’ve noticed you didn’t quite understand what was being said here. So once we can do that, then we’ve got them knowing what action they can take and we can practice an action.
“So rather than me just saying oh it means this, let us take that as an opportunity to go, through inferencing and through looking at these clues or these facts, we can now work out what the author means, and by doing that we’re inferring.
“So I think there’ll be plenty of people thinking, oh yes I do do those things, but if we can name it, demonstrate what we’re doing and let them practice that, then they know the importance of reading those clues to get information and to build the picture.”
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