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How to Infer When Reading & Questioning

by David Raudenbush

When you read how literacy experts like Debbie Miller describe making inferences, you realize inferring is a complex skill vital to good reading comprehension. In her book “Reading With Deeper Meaning,” Miller explains that inferences require you to gather clues from the text and compare the evidence to your prior knowledge, which leads to drawing conclusions about ideas implied by the writer. When you make inferences, you go beyond literal understanding into building deeper comprehension.

Visualizing

As you read, you begin to make inferences by visualizing what the author is writing about. Many writers follow the rule, “Show, don’t tell,” meaning they write descriptions rather than explicitly state what’s going on. You need to form a mental picture from the words using your imagination and previous experiences, then draw conclusions from what they see. For example, the writer describes a character storming in to an office and pounding his fists on the desk. The reader immediately infers the character is angry based on picturing the character's actions and previous experience with angry people.

Interpreting Clues

Readers often get to the end of a passage and realize they aren’t certain what they have just read. When the text defies immediate interpretation, that’s when it's time to go back and read carefully, looking for clues, hints and evidence to make inferences about what the author meant. It’s okay to make guesses, then go back and look for evidence that supports the theme. On a piece a paper, you can list the important details in the passage, then write why you think they are important. At the end of that process, you should be able to draw conclusions about what the author implied.

Asking Questions

You can train your mind to make inferences while you read by asking yourself questions that promote deeper thinking about the text. Since inferential thinking requires background knowledge, you should always ask, “What do I know about this topic?” In connecting the new information to your prior knowledge, you will start to make inferences about the passage’s main idea, the author’s bias or purpose, and the most significant details. You can also ask yourself, “What’s the writer hinting at here?” to look for clues that will lead you to the writer’s implications. “What does the author mean by this?” will also help you to interpret and make inferences from lines in the text.

Responding to Questions

As a reader, you often make inferences in response to questions or prompts. When you are asked questions that begin with, “What can you infer from . . .?” or similar phrases, you need to respond with your thought and back it up with a combination of text evidence and background information. Summarize or paraphrase the text, then clearly explain any relevant prior knowledge. In a sense, you form an answer by explaining the thinking process you used to make the inference. Questions like this test the higher levels of your reading comprehension along with your ability to use valid reasoning skills to interpret a text.

References

  • Reading With Deeper Meaning; Debbie Miller
  • Strategies That Work; Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis
  • Building Reading Comprehension Habits in Grades 6-12; Jeff Zwiers
  • Strategies To Engage the Mind of the Learner; Rachel Billmeyer
  • When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do; Kylene Beers

About the Author

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.

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