Inference as a Reading Skill

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“I can’t stop shivering.” Lucy had to speak louder than normal so Gary could hear her over the wind’s caterwaul.
“Move closer,” Gary said as he tugged gently at her light jacket. The material felt alarmingly flimsy in his hand. He wondered how much longer they’d have to wait until help would come.

Although you may not realize it, you have made several inferences from the passage above without even trying very much.

 

For example, you probably concluded from the conversation that Lucy and Gary were cold, and that they may be in serious trouble. However, if you look back, you’ll see that there is not direct statement about temperature in the passage. You have determined the information from several clues.

What else can you infer from the passage? Are the two inside or outside? Do you think Lucy has prepared herself for this situation? What might her lack of preparedness say about her personality? What do you think of Gary’s personality?

Most of the information you believe about Gary and Lucy has come from inference.

What Is Inference?

Inference is what we do when we draw conclusions based on observations and experience. 

Any time you read, you make inferences about the characters, scenes, and actions. You can do this because you bring a pretty large vocabulary and some life experience with you as you read.

As you read the passage above, you made inferences about the following:

Pronoun antecedents: In the last sentence (He wondered . . .), you have most likely inferred that the pronoun “he” refers to Gary.

Meaning of words from context: Can you define the word caterwaul? You have most likely concluded that it means something similar to howl or scream.

If you weren’t familiar with the word before reading the passage, you probably made a conclusion because you are familiar enough with the words that came before and after to determine the meaning of this new word. 

In other words, You determined this from the context of the sentence. You put the clues together to make an educated guess about an unfamiliar word.

Determine character traits through words, thoughts, and actions: How would you describe Gary’s personality, based on the few sentences above? Is he a cruel person or a kind person? Is he sensitive or uncaring? What clues have led you to your conclusions?

Pick up on clues about setting and mood: Is Gary happy, sleep, or worried in the passage? You probably think he’s worried, right? So try to identify the clues that left you with this impression.

Did you come up with these clues?

  1. Lucy’s coat feels alarming flimsy. 
  2. He’s waiting for help to come.

Pick up on character flaws or weaknesses: What can a reader conclude from the fact that Lucy is wearing a light jacket that seems to be inadequate for the situation at hand? Not much, to be fair.

There is simply not enough information in this short passage to help the reader make a reasonable conclusion about Lucy’s personality.

However, your brain is doing something interesting as you read. It stores clues.

As you read long passages, you pick up on subtle hints and store them in your memory. You accumulate these clues and add them together to make further inferences as you read.

Why Does Inference Matter?

Inference is an important ingredient for reading comprehension, but it is impossible to isolate inference as a factor alone. You can’t make inferences if you don’t possess other reading skills, like a strong vocabulary, an understanding of paragraph structure, and a knowledge of the parts of speech.

All of your reading skills work in unison as you practice reading. And the more you read, the more you build your reading skills.

 

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Fleming, Grace. "Inference as a Reading Skill." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/inference-as-a-reading-skill-1856815. Fleming, Grace. (2017, March 3). Inference as a Reading Skill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/inference-as-a-reading-skill-1856815 Fleming, Grace. "Inference as a Reading Skill." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/inference-as-a-reading-skill-1856815 (accessed January 18, 2018).