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Commuter Series: Teaching Inferring

Commuter Podcast Series: Teaching Inferring with Tanny McGregorHelping students to understand what they read is one of the most central academic aims of school. No matter what subject you’re teaching, students’ reading comprehension likely plays a big role in their success in your classroom.

Back in 1992, Dr. P. David Pearson and others identified six strategies that proficient readers consistently use as they read: using schema, inferring, questioning, determining importance, visualizing, and synthesizing. Explicitly teaching these strategies can improve students’ comprehension. The question is, how can these strategies be taught in a way that students can easily connect with?

Today, we’ll hear from teacher and education consultant Tanny McGregor. In this excerpt from her book Comprehension Connections, Tanny focuses on one of the slipperiest strategies: inferring.



Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript of this episode.


Hi. This is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. Helping students to understand what they read is one of the most central academic aims of school. No matter what subject you're teaching, students' reading comprehension likely plays a big role in their success in your classroom.

Back in 1992, Dr. P. David Pearson and others identified six strategies that proficient readers consistently use as they read: using schema, inferring, questioning, determining importance, visualizing, and synthesizing. Explicitly teaching these strategies can improve students' comprehension. The question is how to teach these strategies in a way that students can easily connect with them. Today we'll hear from teacher and education consultant, Tanny McGregor, in this excerpt from her book, Comprehension Connections. Tanny focuses on one of the slipperiest strategies, inferring.

Tanny McGregor:

1972, me in my bell bottom corduroys tumbling off the bus after a long day in first grade, Scooby and Shaggy were always there waiting as I stretched out just three feet from the television. Was this my time for passive TV viewing? No way. From the very moment that the Green Mystery Machine van appeared on the screen, I used clues to help me guess the identity of the bad guy. Cartoon watching or animated inference training? Maybe a combination of both, but I think it's significant that no wild guessing was going on. I always based my inferences on evidence, evidence from the text, script, and the animation.

When I relate this story to my students, they always nod in understanding. They know as well as I do, how much fun inferring can be. Guessing is a childhood pleasure. Game companies take advantage of this. Dozens of guessing games can be purchased at your local toy store. We should take a cue and make the most of the enjoyment inferring can bring.

Children infer all the time, every day, but that doesn't necessarily mean they know how to infer with text. When difficult text gets in the way, inferring can become drudgery. So the explicit teaching of inferring is one of the most important things we can give our students. Without it, many students may not experience the exhilaration that inferential thinking can bring. Inferring makes reading fun. The ability to infer helps us make solid deductions often in a short amount of time.

When you break it down, inferring is really the process of merging your schema with an evidence-based guess. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the decisions and judgments that humans make in an instant, sometimes solidly and sometimes with misconceptions. Of course, I read this book through the lens of a reading teacher, and it seemed to me a book about the strategy of inferring. Gladwell reminds us that this kind of thinking is "an ability that we can all cultivate." We must remember this. Even those students who think very literally and never seem to read between the lines can learn to infer. They just need time and practice.

As a third grade teacher, I would sometimes feel frustrated when teaching inferring lessons. My students seemed overwhelmed. I knew the ability to infer was crucial in reading, in test taking, even in life. I think now, however, that I expected my students to do too many new things at once. My instruction combined grasping new language, decoding, and processing challenging text with making solid inferences. Too much, too fast. This chapter reflects the changes in my thinking with regard to teaching inferring, providing a map for doling out responsibility in manageable pieces.

Teaching students to infer can be a load of garbage. No, really. A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak at a school board meeting, a cable-televised session, mind you, to help the board members understand strategy instruction. Besides being a little nervous, I was very excited. What a great opportunity to create awareness and rally support. I wasn't exactly sure how to plan, but I knew right away that I didn't want to present some dull, mind-numbing lecture based on a bunch of slides with diminutive print. No bored board for me.

After thinking about it for a couple of days, it hit me. Make it concrete. I decided to deliver a brief, research-based rationale for the strategies and then get specific, inviting the board members to experience a single strategy in a concrete way. Inferring was the perfect strategy to use. Its importance is certain, and it is so much fun to practice.

I decided to assemble a bag of garbage to help the board members practice inferring. In a small plastic trash bag, I collected a few discarded items from around my house: an empty bottle of vitaminwater, an old ACE bandage, a label from a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner, the receipt from my expired pool membership, a couple of airline ticket stubs from the previous December, a past issue of Consumer Reports. I asked the board members to make inferences based on the hard evidence that I produced from the garbage bag. Let me just say it was a success.

And here's how this little experiment with the school board helped me develop a trusted anchor lesson to use with students when launching inferring. I tell my students I have an interesting story for them, a mystery of sorts. I describe a house on my street that puzzles me. "Someone must live there because sometimes lights are turned on, sometimes the garage door is raised, and so on. But I've never actually seen anyone around." Now, this is not a true story, just a story. The kids enjoy the uncertainty, trying to figure out which parts might be true.

I relate how my curiosity has been getting the best of me. "How many people live there? How old are they? What are they like? Why are they so private?" I exclaim to the students that "It is my lucky day, garbage day in the neighborhood." I recount the experience of driving to school that very morning and noticing a small bag of trash at the end of the driveway of the mystery house. I tell them that before I could talk myself out of it, I hopped out of my car, snatched the bag, and then drove away.

At this point, some of the kids can see where I'm going with this. Some know I'm just pulling their leg. Others are concerned that I broke the law. I assure them that I did not. I produced the premeditated bag of trash, telling the students that by examining the evidence, we can make some inferences to help us figure out the mystery of my neighbors. I emphasize that every inference must be directly supported by evidence. I reveal one piece of trash at a time, inviting kids to turn and talk about what they can infer. I post the inferring stems to aid students as they express their thinking: "My guess is, Maybe, Perhaps, It could be that, This could mean, I predict, I infer."

Here are some of the most common inferences I hear. Bottle of vitaminwater. "These people must care about their health. They must have some extra money because that stuff is expensive. You can drink water for free if you want to." Old ACE bandage. "I'm thinking someone got hurt while exercising. Maybe they're trying to get in shape. They threw it away, so they must be feeling better." Label from a Lean Cuisine dinner. "I infer that a woman lives in this house, because my mom and my aunts eat those kinds of dinners. I'm thinking someone either wants to stay healthy or they want to lose weight." Receipt from a pool membership. "I infer that these people want to eat healthy so they can look good at the pool each summer. This must be an active family." Airline tickets. "This family has enough money to go on trips and to fly in an airplane. They probably have jobs. Since they flew to Florida during the holidays, it's likely that they have family or friends that live there." Consumer Reports Magazine. "These people must care about getting a good value. Maybe they like to read, especially magazines."

Together with their talk partners, kids create a profile of the mystery family, citing their evidence along the way. One class even created a courtroom-style exhibit table, complete with inferences written on index cards that accompanied each item. This enjoyable exercise is effective with students of all ages. Kids refer to this memorable anchor lesson over and over again as we deepen our study of inferring.


Now, let's listen in as Tanny talks us through a lesson to introduce the concept of inferring to students.

Tanny McGregor:

Everybody has schema for shoes. They are part of our everyday lives. The shoe schema our students bring to school is quite diverse, however. I have taught students whose new leather Nikes were without a scuff. I have taught many more students, though, whose soles were coming loose and whose laces were soiled and broken. Forrest Gump's mama was right. "Mama always said you could tell an awful lot about a person by their shoes."

Shoes have a story to tell if we'll only listen. This is why shoes are a perfect concrete item to use to launch the teaching of inferring. Using shoes to introduce inferring has worked for me again and again. I always begin with my husband Miles's house slippers. He ordered this pair of leather slippers from the Eddie Bauer catalog about 12 years ago. Don't mistakenly visualize a nice, well-cared for pair of shoes. No. These slippers have been worn to and from the mailbox. They have had kittens sleep in their fleece linings, and their leather laces have not been tied since the 1990s. To say that Miles has gotten his money's worth out of these things is a total understatement.

Maybe you even have schema for shoes like these. Anyway, I like to draw my students in close and pull one of these decrepit slippers out of a grocery bag. After the groans subside, I ask the students to think about the person to whom this shoe might belong. As the students pass the slipper around, touching, viewing, even smelling it along the way, they immediately begin to make inferences and collect evidence. The students are quick to infer. "It belongs to someone who likes to relax, someone who has a pet, someone who hates going shoe shopping." I quickly chart as many of these inferences as I can, commending the students for their ability to infer.

It usually doesn't take very long to gather a dozen inferences, but we are only halfway home at this point. One request comes from me now, "Cite your evidence." Just like all of us, kids often jump to conclusions without linking them to something solid. I remind my students that inferences without evidence are just unsubstantiated claims. I want these thinkers to become reflective and metacognitive, always striving to support their thinking. Sometimes this part of the chart is not completed so quickly. This column is excellent practice for what is to come, however, since I will soon be asking them to revisit text to pinpoint supporting evidence.

For every inference written on our chart, we cite the evidence that led us down this path of thinking in the first place. I write the evidence on the right side of the paper, taking time to link the inference and the evidence with brightly colored arrows, just another way to accentuate the link between the two. Some evidence is easy to cite. "Consider the pet hair clinging to the slipper's fleece lining." Inference. "A pet owner wears this shoe." Evidence? "Pet hair on the fleece lining."

However, other evidence can be elusive, based more in our schema than in something physical. Here's an example. There is usually a student who will say, "My uncle has slippers like those" or "I saw those slippers in the men's department at Sears." When I first started teaching this lesson, I wasn't prepared for this dilemma. It wasn't as cut and dry as I wanted it to be. Isn't that always the way?

Never fear. One group of thoughtful students helped me understand. Fourth-grader Tatum said, "Mrs. McG, we really shouldn't infer without a big dose of schema mixed in." Together we created a formula that organized our thinking about inferences. "A dose of schema + a piece of evidence = a solid inference." We posted it in the classroom along with the equation from the Comprehension Toolkit for future reference. "Background knowledge + text clues = inference."

As I jotted down Tatum's words, I left that classroom knowing who the experts really were. So what? I brought in some grungy slippers and made another chart for the already overcrowded wall. True, but so much more was achieved. My students now know what an inference is. They know the importance of citing evidence. They have language in place that supports their thinking about inferring. Most of all, they feel successful in attempting this crucial comprehension strategy, having fun all the while. Mission accomplished.

Inferring and concrete objects accompany each other wonderfully. How worthwhile to get to know the world around us while practicing inferential thinking. Consider using some of the following objects, or sets of objects, to help your students secure the language of inferring: a shoe horn, a crumber from a fancy restaurant, a biscuit cutter, a garlic press, printer's dyes, an 8-track tape, a brayer (ask an art teacher), a pitch pipe or tuning fork (ask a music teacher).


Who knew you could learn so much from a shoe? Well, that's it for our commute this morning. To hear more from Tanny, you can stream or download her audiobook, Comprehension Connections, wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn about in our time together. You can learn more about Heinemann's audiobooks at heinemann.com/audiobooks. Have a great day.


Tanny McGregorInternationally-known teacher and conference speaker Tanny McGregor brings nearly 30 years of professional experience to her popular sessions. Her workshops are known for their creative and engaging style. Originally an elementary school teacher, Tanny has served as a literacy coach, gifted intervention specialist, and preK-12 staff developer.

She is the author of three books, Comprehension Connections (Heinemann, 2007), Genre Connections (Heinemann, 2013), and her newest release, Ink & Ideas (Heinemann, 2018). Tanny was also a contributor to the seminal work, Comprehension Going Forward (Heinemann, 2011). In addition to writing and consulting, Tanny serves as a teacher on special assignment for West Clermont Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. She and her husband Miles have four daughters and two grandsons.

Topics: Podcast, Tanny McGregor, Comprehension, Heinemann Podcast, Inferring, Comprehension Connections, commute

Date Published: 08/21/23

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