Look at this picture.
What can you guess about the character that it belongs to?
This is exactly the question I asked a group of second graders and when I did, they astutely called upon their background knowledge to tell me some very smart things. The character is a boy because girls don’t wear swim trunks. The character is not a grown-up because the trunks are not big enough to fit someone older than seven or eight. The notebook is small and portable (they really used that word) so the character carries it with him. The character must be at the beach because you use a bucket and shovel to dig in the sand.
In order to draw these conclusions, these second graders had to infer. Most teachers recognize inferring as an important, higher level comprehension skill but feel stuck when it comes to knowing how to teach it. When we started here and pointed out that inferring is when you take information and put it together with what you know from your prior experiences and draw a conclusion, somehow, it seemed so much easier than it had in the past. As we began to read the Nate the Great and the Boring Beach Bag together, we stopped every so often to talk (the text written in brown under the “clues” column is text that comes directly from the book) and think about what we knew (background knowledge column) without being told (inference column) and it was amazing how the students could “see between the lines.”
Download this lesson: Did you know you knew that?
How do we get children to move past the literal meaning of what is written on the page to reading between the lines and inferring the author’s intended meaning? If you work with second, third, or fourth grade students, this lesson might help you to tackle this issue.
Starting with a simple sentence like “Suzie sniffled and coughed as she ate the chicken soup her mom made for her,” ask students what they know about Suzie. In a sentence like this, it’s easy to tell that Suzie is not feeling well. This opens up the conversation that leads to figuring out how students knew that. Children work backwards to figure out the clues and background information they used to figure out the inference that was so easily made.
No good lesson is complete without a guided practice component for them to try out in the company and support of their peers. This example was done with a second grade class, many of whom are currently reading and really into the Horrible Harry series. Because of Harry’s popularity, I used a short excerpt from Horrible Harry and the Dungeon to demonstrate that this isn’t a skill done in isolation, it’s something we use every day in the things we choose to read.
Download this lesson: What’s written between the lines?
Have you ever felt like it’s impossible to teach inferring to kindergarten and first graders? Though we know it’s not, that sentiment is often shared among primary teachers. So, what can we do to help primary aged children understand the concept of reading between the lines to make meaning?
The answer to this problem: Mo Willems. Mo Willems? Yes. Mo Willems.
When you look at this picture of the pigeon can you tell what he is feeling? Of course you can…and it’s not because it’s written in the words. It’s because you are taking clues from the picture and combining them with your prior experience to help you to know that that pigeon is down in the dumps.
Now look at the words that elephant is sharing. Can you tell from the dialogue how elephant is feeling? Between the capital letters and confused punctuation, elephant seems distressed.
Teaching children to use clues from the illustration and dialogue helps them to delve deeper into the author’s intended meaning. This is simple even for our most emergent readers!
Download these lessons: Noticing Body Language and Facial Expressions