Making Inferences: 5 Classroom-Ready Activities
by Lexia Curriculum and Reading Intervention Specialist Catherine Demetros, M.Ed.
You've made the learning objectives clear. You've provided the necessary materials. You've given explicit directions, and you've asked students to repeat these directions. Twenty-three students get to work, but almost inevitably, there's one who asks, "Wait, what's going on?"
On the plus side, at least that student was aware of being off track and asked for clarification. All too often, students fail to recognize when something doesn't make sense, and consequently they don't ask themselves What's going on? as they read stories or informational articles.
Many readers don't realize that authors expect them to understand what is happening based on clues in the text (such as words and pictures) along with their own experiences. Using these clues to figure out what is happening is called making inferences.
Inferential thinking is a critical reading skill needed to fully comprehend both fiction and nonfiction. Strategic readers are able to draw conclusions and support these with evidence from the text, or from their own experiences.
The following activities give your students a chance to practice making inferences together:
1. Real-Life Inferences
Pose familiar situations to get students to draw conclusions, and to help students realize that they draw conclusions all the time and throughout the day. Present the following scenario: A boy is going to school. He looks outside, and then puts on a raincoat and gets an umbrella. Ask students, "What is going on?" (It is raining.) Then, have students explain how they know this. As students respond, point out their use of the clues in the scenario (looks outside, raincoat, umbrella) as well as relevant personal experience (I use an umbrella when it rains). Making sense of these real-life scenarios gives students a concrete way to practice combining text clues with background knowledge.
2. Picture This!
Display an interesting picture or photograph (e.g. a dog that is dirty and wet, sitting on a doorstep). Ask students to offer inferences related to the picture. Pose questions to guide discussion, such as What do you think happened just before this photo was taken? and What do you think will happen next? Refer to this activity when students need to make sense of an illustrated story or a text with detailed descriptions of the setting or characters.
3. It's in the Bag
Put together small bags of items that relate to a destination (e.g. sunglasses, flip flops, and sunscreen). Have students work collaboratively to look through the bags and write sentences that draw a conclusion about the destination of the person using each bag (e.g. The person using this bag is going to the beach). By combining personal experience with tangible clues, students benefit from concrete examples of how to make inferences while they read.
4. Riddle Time
Practice making inferences through riddles, and challenge students by asking how many clues they would like to solve a particular riddle (e.g. I would like three clues). After presenting the designated number of clues, see if the student can solve the riddle. Students earn a point for each clue presented, and the lowest score wins. This engaging use of clues to solve riddles prepares students to make inferences by looking for clues while they read.
5. That's Bananas!
Provide students with sentences in which a keyword has been replaced by the word banana (e.g. Every time I take my banana for a walk, he barks at squirrels and pulls on his leash). Have students use their own experiences and background knowledge—along with other words in the sentence—as clues to help identify a word that could replace banana. This combination of text clues and background knowledge is at the core of making inferences while reading.
In addition to these activities, it is also helpful to model how to check for understanding and make inferences as you read aloud to students. Show students how to use a Pause-Ask-Fix strategy by stopping at various points in a story or article to ask What's going on? or Does this make sense? If anything is unclear, search the text for clues that can be combined with background knowledge to bring the text back into focus.
Explain to your students that they should be using the same Pause-Ask-Fix strategy to make sure what they are reading makes sense. By using their own experiences and background knowledge along with clues from the text, students become text detectives, ready to figure out any mystery that comes their way!
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