How to teach inferring so your students actually understand it

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I love to teach inferring in fourth grade. However, inferring is often one of the hardest skills for students to master. In fact, how to teach inferring should be a college course for teachers. Inferring requires students to read the clues left by the author and connect them to their prior knowledge to figure out something the author never actually said. Unless we teach students step-by-step how to infer in reading, some of them will never be able to do it. 

What is inferring?

Inferring is the ability to read a piece of text, gather information, connect that information to what you already know about the topic, and figure out something the author didn’t say but wanted you to know. Basically, when we infer, we are being “reading detectives.” 

As adults, we go through this process automatically. However, students need to be explicitly taught how to infer in reading. As teachers, we must break this process down to students, so they can actually understand how the pieces come together to create an inference.  

A picture of a teacher standing in front of your class. The title "How to teach inferring in reading" is written below the picture.
Wondering how to teach inferring in reading? Keep reading for ideas!

Why is teaching inferences important?

In my opinion, inferring is one of the most important skills readers need to master to become proficient readers.  In fact, the question should not be why we should teach inferring but rather how to teach inferring skills. So much of what we comprehend in any text is inferred, students miss a lot of what is happening in a story when they fail to infer. 

Inferring is also an important life skill. Teaching students to gather evidence and make inferences will help them read social situations and respond appropriately. It will also help students understand how the world works and why things happen a certain way. 

A picture of a teach standing in front of a chalk board holding some books. The title "How to Infer in Reading" written over the picture.
Planning a lesson to teach students how to infer in reading? This blog post outlines a five-day plan that is easy to implement and engaging for students.

How to teach inferring – The prerequisites 

When teaching students how to infer in reading, it is important to begin by teaching students about schema and text evidence. Before I even think about how to teach inferring skills to my students, I make sure they understand what prior knowledge is, and how that prior knowledge can help them connect with the text. 

I also teach students about text evidence. One of the issues we often face when teaching students to infer is the overuse of schema. Students will often let their schema run wild and will forget to go back to the text to collect text evidence. I like to review text evidence with my students and remind them that they must go back to the text to make sure the author actually said what they think he said.

How to teach inferring – The Lessons

Once we have discussed schema and text evidence, it is time to teach students how to infer in reading. I have some specific, sequential lessons that I like to complete with my students. By the end of these lessons, my students are ready to practice inferring on their own. 

A picture of a teacher standing in front of her classroom. A student with her hand raised. The title of this blog post on how to make inferences in reading is written over the picture.
Teaching students how to make inferences in reading doesn’t have to be complicated. Focus on exposing students to this particular skill in a variety of ways and watch them flourish.

 How to teach inferring – Day 1: Use pictures

I like to begin my inferring unit by teaching students how to make inferences with pictures. This is the perfect way to begin the unit because students don’t have to do any reading. This helps to level the playing field, so all students can understand the concept. This is especially helpful if you teach students who struggle with reading or language learners. 

As a dual language teacher, I am always introducing content in someone’s second language. By introducing such a complex skill using pictures, the language barriers fall by the wayside. Everyone has an equal opportunity to access the content. 

How to teach inferring skills with pictures?

To teach students how to infer with pictures, I begin by choosing a few pictures on Google. I bring my students to the carpet and use the first picture to model how to make inferences through a “think-aloud.” 

I begin my think-aloud talking about the things I notice in the picture. It is important to be very explicit and describe in detail everything you see. We want students to observe each picture closely, so we must model that to our students. As I notice things in the picture, I write them down on a sticky note and post them on the picture. By the time I am done analyzing the picture, I aim to have at least five sticky notes on it. 

A picture of a woman holding a bouquet of pink roses. The woman is sneezing. Next to the picture, a script for a think-aloud. This script shows teachers how to teach making inferences using pictures.
This think-aloud is an example of how to teach making inferences using pictures. This is a great strategy to use when introducing this skill because students are not reading. This levels the playing field for all learners.

I then look at each of the sticky notes and apply my schema to make sense of them. Inferring is like putting together a puzzle. Schema is what makes it possible to figure out where each piece goes, and how it relates to the other pieces. As I access my schema, I write my thinking down on sticky notes as well. I suggest using different colors for schema and observations. It will make it easier for students to remember what they are. 

Once I have connected my schema and my observations, I can begin to make inferences. I write my inferences on the board next to the picture in the following format:

  • I can infer that _______________ because the picture shows ___________________, and I know that __________________________. 

How to teach inferring – Day 2: Create a “how to infer anchor chart”

Once I have introduced students to how to make inferences with pictures, we move on to our mini-lesson and create an anchor chart. Anchor charts are a non-negotiable in my classroom, especially since I teach dual language students. You can read more about how I use anchor charts in my dual language classroom by clicking here. 

During our mini-lesson, we create a “how to infer anchor chart.” In this mini-lesson, I explain to students exactly what inferring is. As we create our anchor chart together, students take notes in their interactive notebooks. I want my students to have a copy of this anchor chart that they can refer back to. 

A picture of a how to infer anchor chart.
A “how to infer anchor chart” shows students the steps needed to make an inference.

This mini-lesson is important because this is when we break down to students exactly how to infer in reading. Students can’t use apply a skill they don’t understand, so taking the time to break it down makes it possible for students to really understand what inferring is and how to make inferences in reading. 

How to teach inferring – Day 3 and 4: Infer and Record 

On day three, we begin to practice how to make inferences using text. Teaching students how to infer in reading is the ultimate goal of this teaching sequence. However, because we took the time to develop students’ understanding of what inferring is, it will be much easier for them to apply the skill to a text. 

There are many types of text you can use at this point. I like to begin with fiction because I think it is easier for students. I have a whole blog post about picture books in English and Spanish that can be used to teach inferring. You can read more about that here

A picture of four book to teach inferring in Spanish with the title "Books to teach inferring in English and Spanish."
Any of these five books would be a great book to teach inferring in Spanish and English in the upper elementary grades.

The most important thing when choosing a text to practice inferring is to make sure students have a lot of schema on the topic. Schema is an important component in inferring, so we can set our students up for success by choosing a text they can relate to. 

How to teach inferring skills with text?

Once you have chosen the text, you are ready to begin the lesson. I like to create a chart with three columns. Column one is for text evidence, column two is for schema, and column three is for making inferences. 

A picture of an anchor chart with a paragraph explaining how to teach inferring skills in upper elementary.
Another tip on how to teach inferring skills? Create an anchor chart to record the inferences your students make during a read-aloud. Record the text evidence, their schema, and the inferences they make. This will solidify the idea that we must use both text evidence and prior knowledge to infer.

Let’s take the book “The Sweetest Fig” by Chris Van Allsburg as an example. I like this book because it is available in English and Spanish. Regardless of the language of instruction for that day, I can still use this story in my dual-language classroom. 

In this book, the main character, Bibot, is a very mean man. He is a dentist, and one day a patient pays for her dental treatment with magical figs. The figs make what Bibot dreams about at night become reality when he wakes up in the morning. 

A picture of two anchor charts to show the reader how to teach inference to 4th graeders
How to teach inference to 4th graders? Use anchor charts! Your students will have a record of their learning that will help them practice the skill independently.

As we read the story, we stop to make inferences and record them on our anchor chart. As we complete the anchor chart together, students can see how we use our schema to understand the text evidence and make inferences. This book is filled with opportunities to practice inferring, and the unexpected twist at the end of the story allows for some very interesting discussions. If you would like to grab a FREE read-aloud lesson using the book “The Sweetest Fig” in English and Spanish, click here.

How to teach inferring – Day 5: Connect reading and writing (show don’t tell) 

In my opinion, a great way to conclude this lesson sequence about how to infer in reading is by having students write inferences. I think it is important to show students that reading and writing go together. As readers, we piece together evidence and schema to make inferences. As authors, we create inferences that readers will have to figure out. 

A chart with examples of show don't tell. Show don't tell can be used to help students with inferring character traits.
Teach your students about inferring character traits with this “Show, Don’t Tell” activity.

One of the things I always teach my students in writing is “show, don’t tell.” One of the ways we use “show, don’t tell” is by inferring character traits. As the authors, we must use descriptive language to describe the traits of each character without actually naming those traits. Instead, we describe the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings, and let the reader interpret their meaning.

For example, let us pretend that the main character in our story is angry. Instead of using the word angry, we will describe what the character is saying or thinking, and how he is acting to show the reader how the character feels.

  • Lips pursed together
  • Narrowed eyes 
  • Stomping, yelling, breathing heavily 
  • Saying mean things to his friends 

Even though we never actually used the word angry, these descriptions would lead the reader to INFER that the character is angry. 

How to teach inferring skills in writing?

If you are already working on some type of fiction or narrative writing with your students, you could simply add this lesson during the revision process. However, I like to work on this activity during my reading block. It helps students to see how reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. 

Inferring with characters is a great way to practice “show, don’t tell.” For this lesson, I divide students into groups of three or four. I then give each group a picture of a person (the character.) In each picture, the character’s emotions can be inferred through how they look and what they are doing. With their groups, students write a paragraph that describes how the character feels without naming the emotion. 

Once all groups are finished, I collect the pictures and the paragraphs they wrote. I tape the pictures to the board and read each description to the class. If the groups did a good job “showing” how the character is feeling, the class will be able to match each description to the correct picture. 

We then discuss how we were able to infer the emotion in each description and picture without ever naming that emotion. 

Pro tip: Apply it to real life 

One of my best tips on how to teach inferring, or any other skill for that matter, is to connect it to real life. When we first begin talking about inferring, I like to use real-life examples. In life, we infer all the time. We just don’t think about it. We don’t even know we are inferring, but we are. 

Helping students see how they are already using this skill in their own lives makes it more concrete. Here are some of the real-life examples I use with my students.

A picture of a student standing with this index finger on his forehand as if he is thinking. A quote describing how to make inferences in daily life.
Students already know how to make inferences. They just don’t know that they know! Using real-life scenarios to explain this skill will make it more relevant to students.

Example 1

It is noon. You are at home with your mother (or whoever you live with). You are both sitting in the living room watching TV. Suddenly, your mother (or whoever you live with) gets up and goes to the kitchen. You can hear pots and pans being moved around. You can hear the fridge door opening and closing. A delicious smell is coming from the kitchen. 

Q: What is your mother doing in the kitchen? 

A: Based on the evidence, your mother is making lunch. 

Q: Why do you think that? 

A: It is noon, and that is when we usually eat. She is moving the pots and pans around, and that is what she uses to cook the food. She is getting stuff out of the fridge, and that is where the food is. I can smell the food. 

Q: Did she have to tell you she was going to make lunch?

A: No. I could infer it based on the evidence and my schema. 

Example 2

It is 3 pm (or whatever time school ends for you.) Your teacher asks you to stop what you are doing and begin packing up. The bell rings. You hear students in the hallway. 

Q: What is happening?

A: It is time to go home. 

Q: How do you know?

A: My teacher asked me to stop working and pack up. She always says that when it is time to leave. It is 3pm, and that is when we go home. The bell rang. The bell always rings to let us know it is time to leave. Students are in the hallway. They are getting ready to go home, too. 

Q: Did your teacher have to tell you it was time to go home?

A: No. I could infer it based on the evidence and my schema. 

Final thoughts

There you have it! An entire week on how to teach inferring planned out for you. If you would like to get the free inferring lesson plan for the book “The Sweetest Fig” in English and Spanish, click here. The lesson plan will guide you through days 3 and 4 in this lesson sequence. 

Happy teaching! 

A picture of the author, The Dual Language Hero, with the title of this blog post.
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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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36 FREE writing Prompts in Spanish