All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.

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