Making Inferences: Reading Between the Lines
Stories, poems, and even some nonfiction selections require readers to “read between the lines” to understand what the text really means. Readers need to make inferences from the literal words to the ideas the words signify.
Making an inference means using information that you have at your disposal to draw a conclusion about something that is unknown. The word infer literally means “to draw.” For example, if you see a lot of people walking into a building carrying wet umbrellas, you can infer that it is raining outside. The weather is actually unknown to you because you are not outside to see it. But the presence of wet umbrellas gives you enough information to make a good guess about the weather.
When we read, we make inferences all the time. We don’t just read the words; we draw conclusions from them. The conclusions we draw come from connecting the information we read to our own knowledge of the world. It’s like being a reading detective. We read the clues in the text, then we add things we already know about the world. This process helps us figure out what’s going on in the text.
Of course, everyone’s knowledge about the world is different. And the way we draw conclusions can be different, too.
Inferences and Complexity
Some inferences are easier for readers than others. For example, if a character in a story puts candles on a cake, you can be fairly sure someone is having a birthday. The author doesn’t have to say it. Some inferences may be harder for most readers to figure out. For example, if a story about the Civil War mentions “the boys in gray,” the reader might have to think about who that is. If the reader knows that Union soldiers wore blue uniforms and that Confederate soldiers wore gray uniforms, the inference is easy. Otherwise, it will be difficult. Someone who doesn’t know that historical fact probably won’t make the correct inference.
Getting Better at Making Inferences
Writers usually create their works assuming that readers will have the relevant background knowledge. They can be right most of the time, but not all the time. The more background knowledge someone has, the better inferences that person can make from a text. Skilled readers know a lot about many different things. First, they need everyday knowledge about how people act and talk in different situations. But they often need to know about history, science, literature, art, politics, sports, and many other topics. All their background knowledge adds to what they bring to the text. It helps them make accurate inferences.
Reading books is a great way to expand our knowledge of many topics. So, people who read a lot tend to make better inferences. Again, we see that the more people read, the better readers they become.
Good reading instruction helps students learn to make inferences. It also provides students with the background knowledge they’ll need to make accurate inferences.
Making inferences is a thinking skill, and it depends on other thinking skills. Those skills include:
- being able to put events in order,
- finding cause-and-effect relationships,
- imagining different possibilities,
- identifying inconsistencies, and
- predicting what will happen.
The table below shows some different kinds of inferences that readers may need to make.
Kinds of Inferences
|What the inference is about||Example|
|The meaning of a word||A student might figure out the meaning of an unknown word from clues in the sentence.
“The equestrian took a tumble as the horse jumped across the stream.”
|The personality of a character||A student might figure out if a character is supposed to be funny or serious based on what the author writes about the character.
“As was usual for Lena, she was calling out loudly to her friends while running up and down the street, hair flying behind her in the wind.”
|The mood of a story||A student might figure out how the author wants to make the reader feel by thinking about the details provided.
“An old house filled with cobwebs.”
“A sound that might be footsteps.”
|The way events or ideas are connected||A student might be able to determine what is a cause and what is an effect by paying attention to how an author talks about a series of events. In the following example, see if you can tell which part of the meal most makes Tim enjoy breakfast.
“Tim’s father set a full plate in front of him. It wasn’t just pancakes, but also all kinds of things he didn’t like. He put syrup on everything—the pancakes, the sausage, even the bananas. Then he devoured the whole thing in five minutes.”