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Objective: Students will be able to identify what constitutes a strong inference in order to make evidence-based inferences from informational texts.
What is an inference?
Unlike in Maja’s and Imaan’s classes, my class had not previously been focusing on inferences. However, Ms. H constantly reminds her students the importance of using evidence from the text to support their conclusions and responses, so I did not think inferences would be too difficult for them to understand. Although inferences have not been explicitly discussed in Ms. H’s class, I thought some students might still have an idea about what they were.
As a result, I first asked my group of students what they thought an inference was and only after they gave me some of their ideas did I give them a definition. Although students’ initial responses did not define an inference, they still provided important components of making inferences. This part of the lesson was not meant to teach students exactly what an inference is but rather to make them more familiar with the concept. Furthermore, I thought the concept would become clearer after we worked through making inferences as a group.
This weekend I…
Once we had defined an inference, I read students a passage about my weekend. At the end of the story, I asked, “What do you infer I did this weekend?” Initially, no one responded to my question, but after one of the students re-read the passage aloud to the group and I re-asked students what they inferred, or thought, I did this weekend, they began to answer. Imaan thought perhaps the students did not respond because they did not understand the question. Noticing this as well, I decided to remind students of the definition of infer by also asking them what they thought I did this weekend based on my story. Although, like Imaan, I also was not convinced that all the students fully understood what at inference was at this point in the lesson, I thought going over student-provided examples would be the best way to clarify this concept. For example, when attempting to give an inference, one of the students quoted a section of the passage, which allowed me to further explain that an inference is not something directly stated in the passage.
After gathering a couple plausible inferences, I asked students to pick one that we would analyze further. I then introduced the inference rating scale and the format in which I wanted students to analyze their inferences. In Maja’s lesson, the discussion about the instructor’s story was much less formal. However, because Professor Borrow recommended finding additional ways to scaffold students’ abilities to make inferences and because the students in Maja’s group seemed to have some difficulty filling out their graphic organizers, specifically rating their inferences, we decided to use this discussion as a model for later analysis. Through guided instruction, we analyzed our inferences based on the categories on the graphic organizer—evidence from the text, inference, and rating. Furthermore, because the rating scale seemed to cause the most difficulty, we decided to pay specific attention to the justification of the rating scale in this section of the lesson.
As expected, the students were able to successfully find evidence from the passage to support the inference we chose to analyze, and the rating seemed to be more difficult. Even though my story was “almost certainly” about my Thanksgiving, all of the students only gave it a rating of a “2,” signifying it was possible. I asked students to revisit their rating and discuss their reasoning with a partner. I reminded them that a “2” means that the inference was only possible and asked if that was really what they meant. After talking in small-groups, most of the students revised their rating to a “3,” meaning it was very likely. While I probably would have rated our inference as a “4,” almost certain, I could understand the students’ reasoning and wanted to make sure I did not become the “final authority” in our decision-making. Furthermore, it seemed students had a better understanding of how to rate their inferences, which was the goal of this discussion.
Underground Railroad Review
When I began planning my literacy lesson, I talked with Ms. H and was under the impression that her class would have read “Two Tickets to Freedom,” a true story about William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery, before I taught my lesson. However, after asking students if they had read the story, I learned they had not yet gotten to this unit. Nevertheless, the Underground Railroad is a topic that the students have learned about many times throughout their educational careers, so I still asked what they already knew about it. For the most part, the students were familiar with the Underground Railroad—although one student initially thought it was an actual train—and they were still able to contribute to this discussion. While their responses were not as fact heavy as I originally wanted, they still served the purpose of refreshing students’ memories and establishing that the Underground Railroad was a way for people to escape slavery and that conditions while escaping were often very difficult.
Primary Source Inference Analysis
In Maja’s lesson, she used pictures are primary sources because her class was accustomed to analyzing pictures. My class, on the other hand, did not analyze pictures but instead frequently cited evidence from the text they were referencing. Therefore, I wanted to use a narrative with my students to make the task as familiar as possible. Because we wanted to use authentic primary source documents in our lessons, we thought it would be best to read them out loud as our students followed along in order to make the text more accessible to them (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996, p. 22).
After I read the narrative, students received the graphic organizer and were instructed make inferences about what it must have been like to be a slave on the Underground Railroad. However, I quickly noticed that even though I read the text aloud, the complex vocabulary still made the task difficult for students. As a result, we went through part of the first sentence together, defining words that were challenging. While the purpose of this was to help students understand the text better, I did not have time to go through the meaning of the entire passage. Imaan also noticed the difficult vocabulary seemed to inhibit students’ abilities to make inferences, and after the lesson we discussed that it may have been a good idea to read the text once and then go back through the text using language that would be easier for the students to understand, perhaps even giving students a copy of the “translated” version of the text.
After noticing that Maja’s lesson ran longer than expected, we decided to use only one primary source rather than two. However, I still ended up running low on time, so I asked students to just make one inference on their handouts and told them that if they preferred, they could circle the evidence directly on the narrative, instead of rewriting it on the worksheet. Nevertheless, many students still did not have time to complete their graphic organizers. However, based on the work that was completed, it seemed that students did a pretty good job making inferences and using evidence from the text to support those inferences. Their ratings of their inferences, on the other hand, often did not match its likelihood, even though I explicitly went over justifying the ratings at the beginning of the lesson.
For example, the narrative talked about the runaway slave’s fears as he traveled on the Underground Railroad, so many students wrote something along the lines of “the Underground Railroad is scary” as their inference. However, many of them only ranked this inference as a “1,” not likely, or a “2,” possible. Only one student in the group ranked this inference as a “4,” and it looks like she originally wrote down a different number. Thus, it seems students understood how to make inferences but still struggled with rating them. I am not sure if this indicates that students actually did not think they were making strong inferences or if they just did not understand the rating scale. I wonder if I had given them more time to reflect on their inferences if other students also would have changed their rankings.
Initially, the exit slip was supposed to ask students to choose what they thought was the most compelling inference and explaining why they thought so. However, we did not have time to share students’ inferences with the group nor to discuss in more detail what makes some inferences better than others. As a result, I decided to revise the exit slip. Instead of writing about the inference they thought was the best or most interesting, I asked students to tell me what an inference was on the back of their graphic organizer. In response to this question, I got very mixed results. Some students gave me an example of an inference that related to the narrative, some students attempted to define inference, and others said they could not think of anything to write. Of the students who defined inference, one wrote “fact” and the other wrote “an important thing about the story.” Although the second definition is loosely related to the definition of an inference, neither of these “definitions” correctly conveys what an inference is—and “fact” is essentially the opposite of “inference.”
However, although students seemed unable to express what exactly an inference is, their work shows that, for the most part, they could make decent inferences. Perhaps if I had given them more time to complete the exit activity, they would have been able to come up with more valid definitions. Furthermore, the goal of our lesson was for students to identify what constitutes a strong inference in order to make evidence-based inferences from a text. While they might not know exactly what constitutes a strong inference, they still were able to make evidence-based inferences from a text.
Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.