What Strategies Can Be Used to Teach Inferences?

Teaching students to make inferences will open new levels of critical thinking.
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Inferences are a kind of everyday detective work that involves using background knowledge and a bit of logic to interpret meaning implied by hints and clues. For students accustomed to literal understanding, making inferences will engage their minds in higher-level thinking used in reading, science, social studies and math. Working with inferencing strategies will teach students how to employ background knowledge and critical thinking skills to make inferences in each subject.

1 Using Art

Ron Ritchhart and his colleagues at Harvard University’s Project Zero recommend using art to teach students how to make inferences. Students look at a piece of artwork and ask themselves, “What is going on in the picture?” and “What makes me say that?” For example, in a social studies class, students could view Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre before asking themselves the Project Zero questions. They write out their answers and explain their thinking. In finding answers, they will use their prior knowledge of events leading to the Boston Massacre to interpret Revere’s implications in the engraving.

2 Inferences and Reading

Learning to make inferences while reading is an important step in moving students from literal comprehension to higher order thinking. Kylene Beers, who has taught literacy at Yale and Columbia universities, uses a strategy called, “It Says, I Say, And So” to help students with inferential thinking while reading. Students create a three-column chart for this activity. As they read, they look for a statement that might contain an implication, like a character’s action that implies a character trait. In the “It Says” column, the student records the line from the text. In the “I Say” column, the student connects the textual information to prior knowledge that helps explain the character’s action. In the “And So” column, the student records their inference about the character.

3 Inferences and Hypotheses

In science class, students use inferential thinking when they form a hypothesis, interpret data and draw conclusions. To form a hypothesis before an experiment, students use what they know about the topic to make an educated guess about the outcome of their tests. Of course, experiments don’t always workout as predicted, which teaches students that inferences aren’t always correct. They can also see that much of science is based on theories that can’t quite be proven because, at present, humans haven’t traveled to the center of the galaxy or the core of the sun. Instead, scientists use their current knowledge to interpret the data they observe.

4 Asking Inferential Questions

Understanding historical and current events often requires examining cause and effect. Frequently, that analysis involves making inferences. For example, by reading biographical information about Benedict Arnold, a student can infer reasons why Arnold betrayed George Washington’s Army in the Revolutionary War. Educational researcher Robert Marzano suggests teaching students questioning strategies to engage in critical thinking. After students look over the information, students ask, “What is my inference?” Then, they explain their inference by asking, “What information did I use to make the inference?” The question, “How good was my thinking?” leads students to evaluate their thinking. Considering that answer students must decide, “Do I need to change my thinking?”

David Raudenbush has more than 20 years of experience as a literacy teacher, staff developer and literacy coach. He has written for newspapers, magazines and online publications, and served as the editor of "Golfstyles New Jersey Magazine." Raudenbush holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education.