Category Archives: inferences

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

I was working with a fifth grader the other day.  He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing.   One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?”  He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”

“Yes, it does say,” I responded.

He scanned again.  “No, it doesn’t.”

I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.

He read it again and shrugged.

“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.

“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”

I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.

“Well, why don’t they just say so?”

“Because they are trying to get you to think.”

“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”

I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well.  They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.”  They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.

What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?

  • Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together.  Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?”  “Little Red Riding Hood.”  “Where is she going?”  “To her grandmother’s house.”

 

  • Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “The grandmother is hungry.”  “Yes, but why is she hungry?”  “I don’t know.”  “Look at the picture.  It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.”  “She can’t get out of bed.”  “And why might that be?”  “She’s old.”  “Most old people don’t stay in bed.”  “She’s sick?”  “Maybe.”  “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.”  “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?”  “Oh.”  “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”

By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded.  Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.

This Kid Can’t Read

Before you can help students to read, you need to know why they can’t read. An umbrella statement like, “This kid can’t read” is too broad to be helpful. You need to be more specific in identifying the problem. For example,

• Does she know how to read maps, charts, graphs and political cartoons?

• Can she decode CVC, CVCe and other one-syllable words?

• Can she segment and pronounce two-, three-, and four-syllable words?

• Does she struggle so much with decoding English sounds that she cannot take in meaning?

• Is her English vocabulary limited?

• Does she recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words?

• Does she apply punctuation when she reads?

• Does she read in a monotone without inflection or expression?

• Does she monitor her understanding as she reads, rereading whenever she realizes she doesn’t understand?

• Does she know how to use context clues?

• Can she predict what will happen next as she reads?

• Does she make inferences?

• Can she identify the main idea in a reading passage?

• Can she summarize a passage, paraphrasing?

• Can she distinguish between important details and less important details?

• Can she detect author bias?

• Does she know how to think deeply?

• Does she believe she can read?

Reading problems can be divided into dozens of smaller, specific problems. And those smaller problems can be tackled—and usually solved—by a skilled teacher using appropriate strategies.

Teaching inferences

If students’ vocabulary is good but comprehension lags, the problem could be inferences.

Inferences are connections between what is said in the text and what we know to be true based on our experiences.

Good students delight in bringing their own world view to their reading, enriching the reading experience. But struggling readers don’t know they are supposed to do this. They think everything must be right there on the page. If asked to answer a question based on inference, they might say, “It doesn’t say,” or “The answer isn’t here.”

How can you teach inferences? According to Kylene Beers*, using the “It says—I Say—And So” chart helps.

Suppose, for example, the students read “The Three Little Pigs.” You ask, “Why can’t the wolf blow down the house made of brick?”

It says: The third little pig made his house out of brick.

I say: Brick is strong and heavy. And it is stuck together with cement.

And so: The brick is too strong to be blown down by the wolf.”

For the “It Says—I Say” strategy to work, this strategy must be used regularly, with modeling by the teacher or by students. A good place to start is with fairy tales or other well-known stories. Later, move on to grade level texts.

*When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004