Inferring is a reading comprehension strategy that should be continually modelled across all year levels.
In Episode 45 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen talked about the importance of inferring in the literacy learning process and building upon this comprehension strategy from early years to secondary school.
“Inferencing is the bedrock of comprehension. It is about reading faces, reading body language, reading expressions, and reading tone, as well as reading text when we read and we are reading about people,” Sharon said.
“Authors frequently give us insights into people’s expression through illustrations or through what they tell us about the character or through the tone of how something is said in a text.”
For teachers with early readers, Sharon said the focus should be on demonstrating and explaining how students can notice how characters are feeling.
“Character feelings is where we start with our very youngest ones. So if in this situation something’s just happened and we think how would the character be feeling, that’s inference. We are using background knowledge and this event that’s just happened to go, ‘I think they’re feeling this’,” she explained.
“And then there may be further information that we’ve been given. So we’re not just operating on one bit of information – we might then be operating on something that the character said, or we might see in an illustration their response to this and what their body language is.”
Phil added: “A young one could already have that background knowledge about how they feel and what feelings are and what they mean. And they can connect with the character straight away with their own background knowledge about that.”
Especially at these younger stages, the duo highlighted the need for open-minded discussions where there isn’t always one correct answer.
“So we would as a class or as a group then get to talk about that. And we want them to talk about, so what have they used to work that out? Not just they’re feeling this or they’re feeling that, how did you work that out?” Sharon said.
“And we want students to know that it isn’t just about coming up with a right or wrong answer of they’re feeling this or they’re feeling that and that this person got it right. We need to give them the opportunity to learn. How did they get to that answer? I thought based on my background knowledge of when I saw that happen to somebody and I then saw this, then I think that’s how they would feel. So discussion is an important part of this process too.”
Once you hit Year 3, Sharon said the focus should be on how to develop empathy for characters.
“By this time, we have to be able to not just draw on our own background knowledge, but have understandings of others to be able to make those inferences … if we can show empathy for characters and infer their feelings and emotions, then we’re not just connecting it to ourselves, we’ve now got an understanding of how someone else might feel in that situation. So that’s an inference on how someone else feels about something,” Sharon said.
“So talking about feelings and motives and attributes should be this thread through the years where we get more sophisticated. So we might say, ‘ok, we do character feelings early on, but now what about through their dialogue?’ So what kinds of things do they say? How do they say it? And we’re thinking further about what was the cause? And what was the effect of that?”
Finally throughout upper primary and secondary school, these processes should become more complex and involve multiple characters and different perspectives.
“Then we get more advanced by following multiple characters in different episodes and infer their feelings about each other. So now it’s not just what we’re inferring about a character, but what are these characters inferring about each other? So this is the route to getting to deeper understandings about just this one thread of inferencing, because as we work with more and more complex texts, we’re going to have texts that will include lots more dialogue,” Sharon said.
“It’s also about being able to take perspectives that aren’t our own. So before we talked about inferencing being about getting to the writer’s viewpoint. So we need to be aware then of what are the perspectives here. And they might not be our own, we can’t always come at things from our own perspective to make sense of something. So sometimes, we have to be able to come from perspectives that are unfamiliar to us to help us interpret.”
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