Literacy Skill 2: Inference

The core skills that underpin the English section of the 11+/common entrance are actually skills we spend a lifetime learning, developing and practicing. In fact, we start learning some of them from the moment we are born. A baby will gradually pick up cues from its parents’ behaviour – are they happy? Angry? Worried? You can’t fool a baby! This skill is called inference.

What is inference?

Inference is the number one skill tested in the comprehension section of the paper. For years I have been giving the same example of inference to pupils when the subject first comes up:

We have an appointment for a lesson at 3:00. You have been so busy revising (!) that you haven’t left the house all day and so it is a surprise when you answer the door and I am standing there soaking wet.

What is the weather outside?

Well, you and 99 out of 100 people will then say that it is raining heavily. Of course it is. But of course you don’t know that it is raining. Someone could have thrown a bucketful of water over me. I might have gone for a swim in my clothes. Unlikely. The most logical explanation is the weather. You have just used your powers of inference. Using the evidence presented you have made a logical assumption. If this was a comprehension question you would state your answer backing it up with this evidence: “it is raining because the tutor’s clothes were soaked through.”

How is inference tested in comprehensions?

Comprehensions are packed with inference questions:

How do you know the boys had a poor childhood?
How would you describe the attitude of the girl’s mother?
How do you know Charles was having difficulties adjusting to the heat?

These types of questions test the pupil’s ability to look for clues in the text. It is sometimes called reading between the lines. So, the boys might be wearing torn hand-me-downs (this also tests non-common vocabulary); or the mother might be strict on account of her insistence on silence in the company of others; and of course Charles is breathing heavily and wiping away sweat from his forehead.

Inference questions often come with a lot of marks (by comparison, an information question is never usually more than one or two marks). Once you have spotted your answer it is vitally important to format it correctly. This requires a bit more work and practice but it is essential that your answer includes the evidence from the passage – so a good answer will comprise the stated point and the vital clue in quotation marks.

This can all seem a little daunting when you start formatting your answers on paper at the age of 10. That is when it is worth remembering that you have been using your skills of inference your whole life. Everybody has them and you don’t stop honing them.

You are Sherlock Holmes

So, what have we learned? Well inference runs the full range, from the obvious: you know your friend is bored or tired because they have just yawned through your story; to the more obscure: whenever the politician was avoiding answering the question her nose twitched and she fiddled with her hair.

Picking up inference is often innate (which is why it is such a useful comprehension question), but it can be improved. As always, the most effective mind-gym for any literacy skill is reading, and inference is no exception. Reading book after book enables you to make connections without even noticing you’re doing it – writers are forever inferring and implying information without stating it directly. In fact, that is what one definition of what poetry might be – inference through words.

On a day to day level there is plenty a parent can do. Ask your son or daughter good quality questions. Don’t just pump them for information (what did you do in History today? How was football practice?), but ask them follow-up questions:

What do you think of your History teacher?
How did you feel when you lost in football?
Why do you think the traffic was diverted in town today?
Which of your teachers do you think would make the best head teacher?
Why do you like pizza? What is it about the taste of prawns you like?

These sorts of questions go beyond the simple call and response of information. They are questions designed to allow your child to think, feel and express.

Inference in everyday life

When I turn up at a house to start work with a new pupil I often scan the room. Is there a quiet place where he/she can work? Are there books lying around or on a shelf? Do you all eat dinner around the table? I ask these questions not because I am a terribly judgemental person who likes to interfere, but because often, although not always, a yes answer to all three are short cuts to good literacy.

A good detective sees clues everywhere. Sherlock Holmes took great delight in cracking cases purely by using inference and logic. He understood the power of the small detail. It is a power available to us all.

Contact Nicholas C for more information.

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