Sunday, April 18, 2010

Good Reader's Habit #4: Inferring

Today you need to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and pull out your magnifying glass. Or get out your CSI kit. Or your CSI Miami kit. Or whatever. Today we're going to play detective. Making Inferences is a lot like being a detective. It's also a lot like making predictions. However, when you make inferences you are making them about things in the present, rather than about the future. Another way to put it is to say that you are drawing conclusions about something.

We actually do this all the time, with varying degrees of accuracy. If you're in a conversation with someone talking about husbands and she suddenly bursts out crying, you may infer that something is wrong with her marriage. You may or may not be correct -- it could be something totally different -- but usually we try to fill in the gaps to better understand events or behaviors. The critical aspect here is that we follow some line of reasoning, some trail of evidence, that leads us to this conclusion.

Children make inferences, too. When they arrive home off the bus and Mom is standing in the doorway, hands on hips, tapping her foot and scowling, they may infer that she has discovered they left the lid off the hamster cage again and Mister Nibbles is loose in the house somewhere. Or they may infer that the principal called and she now knows about the gum incident on the bus that morning. Or they may just infer that she is mad about something and hope it's not something they've done.

Like detectives, we have to examine all the details and come up with a conclusion -- an inference -- that fits the evidence. The same is true in reading. Really good writers seldom tell you exactly how a character is feeling or explain the character's motives completely. We are left to figure all that out by ourselves, using the clues from descriptions and actions.

Wordless picture books rely almost entirely on making inferences to understand the story. Take Good Night Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman. The little gorilla is following after the zookeeper as he puts the animals to bed, but the little gorilla has gotten hold of the zookeeper's keys. What is he doing with the keys? The gorilla is pictured more than once with his finger to his lips, telling the audience "Shhh!" Why does he do this? Children can look at the pictures and infer 1) the little gorilla is letting the animals out, and 2) he doesn't want the zookeeper to know. It's up to the parent to pose the questions that allow the child to make those inferences. You are showing them both the evidence, and that there's something to be concluded from it.

Here's another scenario, one that's a little more complex in terms of the conclusions that can be drawn. In the book The Night Fairy Flory has been practicing her stinging spell. She has practiced it so much she is begining to change physically -- her chin and ears are growing sharper and pointier the more she practices. From this we can infer several things. Flory is practicing her stinging spell so often because she is afraid. She wants to protect herself, so she practices it a lot. We can also infer that growing pointy around the edges is probably not normal for a fairy. Flory is alone, except for Skuggle, who she knows would eat her if it weren't for her stinging ability. We can infer that she needs a friend who cares about her.

In picture books, draw your child's attention to the illustrations and ask questions to get at the characters' feelings or motives. In David Gets In Trouble, David tells his mother he wasn't responsible for taking the big bite out of the cake. However, since he's saying it with chocolate crumbs all over his face, get your child to make an inference: do you think he's telling the truth? (no) How can you tell he's lying? (he has crumbs all over him, he has cake on his mouth) Later, David fesses up. Ask: why do you think he told his mom the truth? (he felt bad, he felt guilty, he's sorry he lied, he's afraid she won't love him). Or just model the process for them: "Oh, David has crumbs all over his face -- I think he ate the cake and is telling a lie about it."

With older kids, stop the flow of the narrative and point out the evidence that leads you (and them, watching you) to a certain conclusion. "See, Edmund is trying to make himself seem more grown up, more like the older kids, by selling Lucy out. He's telling them Narnia was all a game -- lying about it -- so he can feel better and bigger than her." In about 3 seconds, you've traced the chain of evidence and drawn some conclusions about it.

This one, I'll freely admit, is trickier than the other habits because it requires a little more thought on the part of the parent. But it's a hugely important critical thinking skill that will serve them well in everything they read -- fiction and non-fiction alike.

Next Up: Good Reader's Habit #5: Determining Importance

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