Douglas Fisher, a literacy expert from San Diego, compares reading to detective work to describe how readers figure out important ideas writers only hint at. Readers piece together clues and evidence from the text and filter them through their prior knowledge to make educated guesses, or inferences, needed to comprehend the selection. Because writers are often deliberately cryptic about what they want readers to figure out, making inferences is a skill all readers must possess.

Making an Inference

To make an inference, a reader notices a detail in the passage, recognizes its possible importance and applies reasoning and background knowledge to determine its probable meaning. For example, in a story, a writer describes a woman entering a hotel lobby shaking out a wet umbrella. Even if the writer hasn’t included a description of the weather, the reader can make an inference that it’s raining. The reader notes the umbrella and uses prior knowledge that umbrellas usually get wet in the rain. From there, the reader needs to be aware how the rain is important in the story.

Attentive Reading

An inferential reader pays close attention to the text and looks for deeper meaning that isn’t immediately obvious. She asks herself the right questions to keep her mind focused on finding the important hints and clues. Questions like “What do I see happening here?” and “What do I already know about this?” are foremost in the inferential reader’s minds as she seeks out important details and applies prior knowledge to analyzing the text. Teacher and literacy consultant Kelly Gallagher points out that readers also have to consider what the writer has deliberately left out. For example, the fact that a character isn’t present in a particular scene in an Agatha Christie novel could be a significant clue to solving the mystery.

Visualization and Inferences

Skilled readers constantly try picture the scenes and events writers describe in a text. According to Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, authors of “Strategies that Work,” visualizing is an important step toward inferring. The reader takes the descriptive details the writer provides and uses them to form a mental picture. Then, the reader can make inferences about the character or the events based on what he sees in the text. For example, the writer describes a tight jawed expression on a character’s face. The reader pictures that expression, matches against a mental catalog of similar expressions from prior knowledge and infers that the character is angry.

"It Says, I Say and So"

Reading specialist Kylene Beers recommends a strategy called “It says, I say and So” to develop inferencing skills. First, the reader makes a three-column chart and labels the columns “It says,” “I say” and “So.” When the reader finds a key passage, she copies it in the “It says” column. She considers relevant background knowledge and writes that in the “I say” column. She makes her inference in the “So” column. For example, in the “It says” column, the reader might copy a line that says, “The Montana skies grew dark with clouds and a bitter wind blew in from the North.” In the “I say” column, the reader writes, “I know Montana gets snow, the north winds are cold and clouds mean storms.” Under “So” the reader predicts, “There is going to be snow,” and anticipates how that might affect the story.