Watching the detectives: teaching inference and deduction skills

The answer is in the text.”

Come on, hands up everyone who’s uttered those five words to the children in their class. It’s fair comment when asking them retrieval questions such as the name of the main character, or recalling which character said a particular phrase. But what about those “Reading between the lines” questions that we ask? Not so easy then, is it?

Asking children to be reading detectives can be quite challenging, which is why we decided to tackle it here. First things first. Do you know the National Curriculum Reading Assessment Focuses? You do? Brilliant. Then you know that being a detective is Assessment Focus 3 (AF3): Inference and Deduction. One assessment focus, two skills.

Inference – finding the clues

Deduction – solving the clues

Teasing them apart can be a bit tricky. They’re complimentary and they tend to blur together. But we can see the difference by standing back and having a critical look at their distinct attributes. When we infer meaning we’re taking the information we’ve been given and processing it in order to make meaning. Let’s take an example, here from Bill’s New Frock by Anne Fine:

He ran down the stairs and out of the house so quickly he didn’t see Bill’s scowl, or hear what he muttered savagely under his breath.”

We’ve been given some clues here about Bill. He’s scowling and muttering savagely under his breath. It’s fair to say that Bill isn’t in the best of moods. We can infer that Bill is really quite angry. If we transfer this knowledge to our writing we find ourselves reiterating yet another well-worn teacher phrase of “Show don’t tell” to build up a sense of a character’s feelings. We can also see how very important a good vocabulary is for inferring what is happening in a text.

Deduction then, is taking the clues left by a writer and using them to solve a problem or make a prediction. In Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins when we see the rake we can deduce that the fox will stand on it and similarly when Harry Potter is given the Invisibility Cloak we can predict that at some future point he will use the cloak to mask his identity in a tricky situation. What is apparent with these deductions is the literary knowledge readers need to bring with them to be reading detectives. Knowing genres and literary traditions (Assessment Focus 7) is really very helpful, if you are going to be able to solve the clues left by a writer or make a prediction.

So, what of activities to support inference and deduction in the classroom? A real favourite which works with children of all ages is the bag of artefacts. With a collection of objects or pictures relating to characters or situations from the text children can have a really good time deciding the role played by the artefacts; having a go at surmising what the text might be about and who might be involved. If their answers have been recorded they can then return to these once the text has been read in order to assess their responses and evaluate their problem solving abilities. They can then use the artefacts to support them in retelling events.

Reading comprehension facilitates great opportunities for children to ask, as well as answer, questions. Providing question stems based on Bloom’s Taxonomy can help facilitate this dialogic relationship so that children can take an active role in leading their own learning. This works particularly well with book introductions. Providing front covers where the title and author have been removed and encouraging children to ask questions  based on the artwork leads them into exploratory talk which invariably delves into questioning about setting and genre. Asking them to qualify their thoughts with ‘why’ type questions then reveals the depth of their synthetic thinking skills and how they use the information they’ve been given to form their own thoughts.

Just one last word then on inference and deduction:

“In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much…”

 Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlet

Rachel Clarke, Director:  Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

If you’re using inference and deduction in guided reading you may find this post useful.

First published on LoveToReadToMyClass.Wordpress.Com

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