Making inferences

When a reader makes an inference from a written text, they are connecting pieces of information to clarify the author’s message and to create an overall picture or mental model.

Two types of inferences are of central importance.

Local cohesion or lexical inferences

The reader clarifies the meaning of words and phrases by linking them to other words and phrases in the text. This type of local cohesion inference is called a lexical inference because it relies on links between lexical items (i.e. words).

Global coherence inferences

Inferences that make the text form a consistent and meaningful whole so a mental model can be built. Typical global coherence inferences are ones that evoke the setting of a text or a character’s emotions or goals from key words in the text.

For example, in these sentences,

Ramesh was excited about his new toy.
The remote control car went very fast on his driveway.

A local cohesion inference would be that the ‘toy’ in the first sentence is the ‘remote control car’ in the second sentence.

A global coherence inference would be that Ramesh is happily playing with the new toy car on the driveway of his home.

Local cohesion inferences are always necessary – and typically automatic – but the need for global coherence inferences depends on the type of inference, the nature of the text, the reading purpose and the reader.

The three most common reasons that students have difficulty making inferences are: poor
memory; impaired access to background knowledge and/or vocabulary; and difficulties setting appropriate standards for coherence for reading.

Teaching students to make inferences when reading

Inference making abilities can be improved with evidence-based instruction, which leads to better comprehension (Elleman, 2017).

Effective approaches include:

  • Questioning the text (who, what, when, where, why questions) and ‘Questioning the Author’ to encourage students to connect information and to draw conclusions or raise hypotheses.
  • Graphic organisers to create schematics for their thinking.

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