‘Ah it’s the 9 day Queen next isn’t it?’ The boy in the front row was flapping his arm around like some kind of demented jack in the box. The teacher determinedly ignored his gesticulating and purposefully carried on writing on the whiteboard. Quickly the black whiteboard screeched across the reflective white surface of the board, squeaking loudly it formed the words Lady Jane Grey – Queen for 9 days. The boy puffed out his cheeks, frustrated that he couldn’t share his little morsel of knowledge. He had spent devouring history books, facts, figures, brutal battles and short lived queens. His knowledge in the subject exceeded his classmates, his thought box bursting with relevant nuggets.
This was knowledge. Knowledge that he had garnered through reading books, sometimes with a parent, often alone. This history anchored knowledge had grown year on year, supported at times by teachers but mainly pursued in a solitary manner. This knowledge became the bedrock on which all future historical facts were built upon. Inference and deduction were possible due to this knowledge. Reading is a knot of strings pulled taught to create the rope. Each string important, knowledge, vocabulary, comprehension and inference among them. But which is more important, inference or knowledge? Which is more vital? The truth is, both.
Without one you can’t feed the other. But we shouldn’t be afraid of recognising that sometimes the knowledge that is necessary for successful inference may take years to come to some of our children. The reasons for this are vast and true there are many things schools can do to combat this but we as educators shouldn’t beat ourselves up for our children having different knowledge banks to draw upon. So how do we teach inference then? A question I was asked on Twitter this week. Whilst a full response would take many thousand words I will attempt to have a crack at it below. Simply I use a pyramid.
The first thing my class and I do when I challenge them to infer is to look at context. Where are we? What time? Who are we? What’s happening around us? All of these things help to narrow towards a point. If our story is set in for example a school, we eliminate certain words and move closer to others, if the focus event is happening at night it lessens the likelihood of some language being used. If it is set in an unfamiliar time period it makes it trickier but at least we can remove modern phenomenon from potential answers.
Second we look at the section setting. In this we look at what’s happening at that precise moment. Is our character in danger? Is there a threat? Are they stood on the beach? What’s going on basically? For this example it is raining and our character, Thomas, was rushing home. From this we were able to deduce a set of emotions that were likely to be present and those that were less likely, actions that were possible to happen (being splashed by a car) and those that were less likely (stopping for an ice cream). I know that sounds ridiculous but I am giving extreme examples and it is all part of the narrowing of the options.
Next we move on to the specific sentence. In the case I described on Twitter we talked over the sentence ‘Carefully Thomas removed his anorak and placed it on the table’. None of my class knew the word anorak. However they could tell that it was something smaller than a table, something Thomas possessed and something that for some reason he was treating with care or caution. The pyramid narrows.
Finally, we look at Thomas as a character and what we already know about him. We know that he is an older man and spends his free time fishing. We know that he has rushed to get home due to the rain so can deduce he doesn’t like getting wet.
When I asked the children what an anorak was (the prompt for the start of this piece) none knew. I have an able group of Year 5s, they are all confident readers, we study vocabulary every day and spent a lot of time discussing and enjoying new words. But they didn’t know this word. Their life experiences and knowledge hadn’t brought it into their sphere yet. But just because they didn’t know the word doesn’t mean they couldn’t work it out to a high level of accuracy.
The gobby child at the front of the class screaming about a 9 day queen was me. My knowledge in that particular field was very strong but if you had asked me what a colander was I wouldn’t have had a clue. We must recognise that yes knowledge is of course important in reading however we can’t teach all knowledge. We can’t cover all subject matter ever. Therefore we must give children the best tools and devices possible to be problem solvers, to be forward thinking and innovative.
Like the case of the anorak many deductions we make are in fact based on truths we learnt at a young age, in this case people don’t like getting wet and they normally wear coats to prevent this when raining. This isn’t specialist knowledge. Showing and guiding your children to use their knowledge to crack inference questions is a corner stone of effective reading lessons.