Reading for inference, inferential thinking, begins well before children are required to draw meaning from written and visual texts at school.
This type of thinking, making inferences about our world, is used all the time by everyone. We learn to make considered – and often not quite so considered – judgements and assumptions about people, places and events every day. Children learn early to ‘read’ their parents, through facial expression, tone of voice, and gesture. As we develop our communication and language skills, we continue to interpret meaning from tone and body language, which, when combined, can be considered to be more powerful than the spoken word. We use inferential thinking when we see the expression on a person’s face as they glance at their watch and hurry across the road, or we hear news headlines, catch a couple of bars of a melody (or not) as a car drives past with the windows down, as we smell the perfume of jasmine on the evening air, and we work out whether we should have the salad or the pizza for lunch.
What we are doing is making assumptions and judgements based on the evidence we have on hand, our prior knowledge and experience, and the possibilities that may be available.
What we are doing is making assumptions and judgements based on the evidence to hand, our prior knowledge and experience, and the possibilities that may be available.
Inferential thinking is not a simple matter. It is a skill that develops over time, informed by experience and events. A teacher has ‘eyes in the back of their head’, parents know when their children are not telling the whole truth, and the elderly smile and nod as if they have seen it all before (they have).
One of our major concerns with the teaching of reading in classrooms, is students being able to draw inferences from text, to read ‘between the lines’. We expect students to be able to make the same considered assumptions about elements such as character, intent and authority in texts as they do in real life. This translates into ‘reading for inference’, and can have considerable impact on reading development. The lack of inferential skills can have impact on results in some of those ‘high stakes’ but somewhat inadequate tests, without the issue being clearly defined.
Written and visual text are removed from reality. Each has great density of meaning, which increases as students move through their schooling. Both have language and grammatical conventions which are complicated and variable. Print and visual text have complex purposes, so those skills of drawing conclusions, making predictions, and developing inferences which students have developed in the real world, are no longer reliable.
Inference is about using what we know, about using data and information as evidence to develop and consider possibilities. It is about investigating, finding out, bringing our knowledge to the context. It’s about analysing evidence, and using all this to make predictions and draw conclusions – easy to do in our everyday lives, because we practise it all the time. In the classroom, students have to learn to use these skills within the structures and demands of subject areas.
Inferring of meaning is a component of the thinking required in all subject areas, and increases in complexity and significance as students move towards Stages 5 and 6. We need to teach students how to ask the questions, how to look for the signs and cues from written and visual texts, and to do this through strategic use of syllabus content.
Reading for inference is one of the key comprehension strategies in the NSW English Syllabus for the Australian curriculum, for readers to ‘bring meaning to and extract meaning from text – making inferences based on information in the text and their own prior knowledge (2012 Glossary p.188)
Inferential thinking is important to all subjects, and its teaching should not be limited to imaginative texts in English.
Investigation is a key component in Science K-6:
Investigation: A scientific investigation is a systematic inquiry applying the processes of planning a course of action, safely manipulating tools and equipment in collecting and interpreting data, drawing evidence-based conclusions and communicating findings.
NSW Science and Technology Syllabus K-6 2017 Glossary p.101
In Science and Technology K-6, students from Stage 1 to Stage 3 are required to participate in investigations, to ask questions, and to make predictions.
In Mathematics K-6, the importance of inferential thinking is emphasised in Statistics and Probability:
Skills in evaluation, and the ability to produce reasoned judgements, lead to students building further skills in critical evaluation of statistical information.
NSW Mathematics syllabus p.38
History provides the skills for students to answer the question ‘How do we know?’ An investigation of an historical issue through a range of sources can stimulate curiosity and develop problem-solving, research and critical thinking skills.
NSW History syllabus p.10
In Stage 3, Students interpret data and other information to identify and compare spatial distributions, patterns and trends, infer relationships and draw conclusions.
NSW Geography syllabus p.16
In Visual arts students will:
interpret the meaning of artworks by taking into account relationships between the artwork, the world and the artist, and learn about how artists, including themselves, can interpret the world in particular ways in their artmaking
NSW Visual Arts syllabus p. 32
The texts we want students to access must be used strategically. We want to move students into being able to see how they can find the evidence to support their knowledge and experience when thinking about meaning in all texts, just as they do in their daily lives. Inferential thinking is one of the necessary skills for 21st Century life. It is one of the foundational processes for higher order thinking. (Marzano, 2010)
It has been said that the most exciting comment to hear in a scientific investigation is ‘That’s funny …’, when something doesn’t quite fit the pattern or the expectations. It’s that curiosity, a questioning, and being able to relate text to our own lives, that makes learning happen. That’s where real investigation starts, and that’s exactly what we want our students to bring to their learning.
Marzano, Robert J. (2010) Teaching Inference in The Art and Science of Teaching http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr10/vol67/num07/Teaching-Inference.aspx accessed 11/08/2018
NSW Board of Studies (2006) K-6 Creative Arts Syllabus
NSW Board of Studies (2012) NSW English Syllabus K-10
NSW Board of Studies (2012) NSW History Syllabus K-10
NSW Board of Studies (2012) NSW Mathematics Syllabus – K-10
NSW Education Standards Authority (2017) NSW Science and Technology Syllabus K-6
For information and strategies that may be useful, see: