Not understanding inference leads to reading comprehension problems

Inference, or reading between the lines, is the ability to use two or more ideas to arrive at another idea which hasn’t been stated.  For example, you see someone come into your home wearing a wet rain coat and carrying a wet umbrella. You can infer that it is raining out even though no one has said so.

A student with poor inference skills has reading comprehension problems.

one child says "when pigs fly" but the other child doesn't understand

But there are many kinds of inferences which children must learn:

  • Pronoun antecedents:  In the sentence, “Mary gave her dog a hug,” the child needs to infer that “her” means Mary.  Figuring out pronoun references is a kind of inference.
  • Physical or emotional responses:  In the sentences, “Alan read the math problem. He frowned,” the inference is that Alan read something puzzling.
  • Cause and effect:  In the sentences, “Mom put the baby on the floor. Mom left him alone for a moment,” the inference could be the effect of a cause. What will the baby do? Will the baby do something dangerous?
  • Cumulative ideas:  When Junie B. Jones hides in a classroom cupboard, plays with clay she isn’t supposed to play with, and sticks dozens of bandages from the nurses’ office on herself, the reader can infer that Junie is a mischievous, fun-loving kid who doesn’t follow the rules.

What leads children to have problems understanding inference?

  • Vocabulary:  If a child does not understand the meaning of a word, and the inference depends on that meaning, making an inference is difficult. ESL children have this problem. I have worked with children who mix up he and she, him and her, or who use those words interchangeably. But native English speakers with limited vocabularies also miss inferences.
  •  Idioms:  ESL children are confounded by idioms and cannot make an inference from words which they interpret literally.
  • Working memory: If a child with a poor working memory must hold a certain idea in his mind over several sentences, making an  inference can be hard.
  • Predicting: Some children do not make predictions while they read. Perhaps they are focusing intently on decoding words or on pronunciation, and they have no mental energy left to make sense of what they read. Or perhaps they have never been taught to ask “why?” while they read. I work with a middle schooler whom I stop while we read together. I ask, “What do you think will happen next.” He always says the same thing. “I don’t know.”
  • Background knowledge:  Children who have encountered a situation, or who have heard their parents talk about a situation, or who have seen a situation on TV will have an easier job of making connections to what they read. Sheltered children without much life experience will have a harder time making inferences.
  • Cultural differences:  A child from one cultural background—say, Chinese—might not understand subtleties of a story about an Italian immigrant child from 100 years ago. Or an only child might miss inferences clear to a child from a large family.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about how you can help your child overcome inference problems.

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