Do you remember the PBS show titled Between the Lions? I think of it every time I use the idiom “read between the lines.” Recently, I was teaching my WOW Writers Live students the skill of inference. While explaining that inferring is the same as drawing a conclusion based on reasoning, I shared it’s what we mean when we say “reading between the lines.” Several students thought of the same show I had; off on a tangent we went. Eventually, we circled back around and practiced finding the hidden and implied meanings of the text we’d been studying. This mental exercise is a valuable use of time. Inference is a higher-level, complex skill. It’s a skill that will eventually equip our children with the ability to comprehend with greater clarity, improve reasoning skills, predict and evaluate with more confidence, and connect on deeper levels with others. Best of all, this valuable skill can be taught and practiced with relative ease.
Children as young as six years old can infer. When Derek was that age, I asked him why he thought one of our big trashcans was tipped over while the other two were standing upright.
The first thing he said was, “I don’t know.” Of course he didn’t know. Neither did I, but I knew this was a perfect teaching moment.
I suggested, “It was probably the wind.”
Scrunching his brow, he looked at me. “It’s not even windy today, Mom.”
“True. That’s a good point. Then why is it knocked over?”
Stating the obvious, he replied, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there."
“Hmm. Maybe a dog ran between the cans and knocked that one down."
“I don't think so. That would’ve been a really big dog, and nobody lets their dogs run wild like that.”
“Another good point, Derek. I'm out of ideas. Do you have any thoughts?”
“It was probably the trash truck driver. Sometimes they put them down and they're all wobbly. Maybe that one fell over."
“I bet you’re right. I’ve seen that happen too. Good job, detective!”
Just like that, Derek got a lesson in inference, and he didn’t even know it. From a young age, this is the simplest, easiest way to practice inference. Before children read complex text, we can work with them using day-to-day experiences.
Another effective tool incorporates pictures or images. Showing a child a photo we’ve seen in a newspaper or online, without any words, offers perfect practice. Looking at old family pictures is fun too. Take a glance at this image below. Ask yourself the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how). Then make an inference. As the teacher, you may need to model this several times before your child gets the hang of it.
I infer that a grandmother and her granddaughter are working in the kitchen to bake a special apple dessert for someone they love.
Remember that inference is a conclusion based on evidence and may or may not be factual, true, or correct. For that reason, some children struggle. Children do not like to be wrong; some have been teased or ridiculed for being wrong in the past. It is essential to keep that at the forefront of our minds. There is nothing the matter with being wrong. Failing is a part of life. Why not help our children manage failure rather than expect them to avoid it altogether? I say we embrace failure! It teaches us the best lessons.
My writing students are currently working on their argumentative essays about zoos. They’ve been asked to defend or renounce the value of these animal habitats. While researching, I offered a Newsela article titled, “How a “happy little otter” named Juno learned to dunk,” by Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post. It was an informative article about a zoo that had rescued a young sea otter. Her mother went missing, and she was orphaned. The little marine mammal now plays basketball in her new enclosure. Her trainer, Amy Hash, loves her and says she’s bright and delightful.
Imagine my delight when a student emailed me and wrote, “Mrs. Webb, I’m confused. I read this article three times! There is not one sentence that says that zoos are good or bad.” A-ha! The perfect teaching moment revealed itself. Before long, three other students emailed me similar frustrations. In our next class session, we practiced inference. By the time we concluded, the students and I inferred the following based on the article we read.
For students wanting to defend zoos, many rejoiced after this quick inference lesson. This information was what they needed. It just took a little practice to read between the lines. Clarity arrived, and confidence peaked. Opening up more in-depth conversations like these are great ways to connect with children. While it is true that inference is a higher-level, complex skill, children are quite capable of mastering it. All it takes is a little practice reading between the lions, um, I mean, lines.
Author: Melissa Webb
CA Credentialed Teacher