Saturday, February 28, 2015

Making Inferences in Nonfiction

It sure has felt like Antarctica at school this week!
    As intermediate readers move into more complex, dense informational texts, they need to make more and more inferences. Talking about these inferences and the thinking behind them is essential.

    I created a new text with embedded questions to help readers get to this level of inferencing. Embedded questions are great for helping readers to notice key details in texts. The text is chunked so that it looks less intimidating, and readers know where they will find the clues they need to devise answers.

    Visualizing is a kind of inference! After all, authors never explain all of their details in a description. Authors depend on readers to fill in critical details from their own prior knowledge. In turn, those details help readers to fill in other gaps in a text.
    Consider the text at the right. How did people try to find a southern land mass? The word "sailors" is a key here. 

  1. Read the text aloud with students.
  2. Ask students, "Can you find the sentence that helps you to visualize how people tried to find a southern land mass?" Some will be able to; others may be confused by the mention of Greeks at the beginning of the passage.
  3. Demonstrate underlining the sentence. 
  4. Think aloud: If sailors tried to find Antarctica, what would they be using? Ships! Would they have modern ships? Why or why not? Students may recognize The Age of Exploration as a clue to the time period, or they may not. 
  5. What other details from the text could we add to our visualizations? Icebergs, sea ice
    This led to such interesting questions and comments from students. Some students didn't recognize that "southern land mass" refers to Antarctica. Others started wondering--why didn't the sailors steer around the icebergs? Why was the sea ice such a problem? I followed up with a video from my Antarctica playlist to answer their questions at the end of class.

Pronoun/Antecedent Inferences
    Pronoun/antecedent inferences are essential to understanding expository text. Often, students have trouble tracking these, especially when the pronoun is in a different sentence from the antecedent.
    In this example, we marked the text with arrows to show the relationship between the pronoun and the antecedent. This helped to prepare students for the inference question: What is the name of one of the three research stations? 
    If this seems remarkably easy, I assure you that it is not simple for many struggling readers, especially ELLs. We had to discuss whether the station would be "Nathaniel Station" or "Palmer Station", and why! 

    Making inferences helps readers to put the pieces of a text together. These kinds of inferences need to be explicitly taught and discussed. 
    To make your own embedded questions, take a look at some informational text that you are sharing with students. Cut it apart and add inference questions--visualizing, pronoun/antecedent, text-based inferences, and reader-based inferences. How do your readers respond? 

For more on kinds of inferences, you can see Chapter 4-7 of my book, The Forest AND the Trees: Helping Readers to Use Details in Texts and Tests.

Here is the Antarctica text that I used in my lesson:

Making inferences from Emily Kissner

Looking for more texts to compare? I just finished Spring Paired Passages, which includes texts about weather sayings and tulips. Great for test prep, but with interesting enrichment and extension possibilities as well!

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