The puzzle of inference in reading

I was always jealous of people who could do cryptic crosswords. Observed up close, their completing of each clue seemed like a small act of genius, the answers appearing from nowhere, usually making some sense only in retrospect. I could see that there was a great deal of skill involved or at least I thought so. My attempts to learn the skill of crosswording began with guides to cryptic crosswords, which revealed that there were only a few different ways that a clue can be formed. For example, one clue type involves breaking down a word into chunks and then signaling each piece elsewhere in the clue. Here are a couple of examples:

Quiet bird has a sign on a strange occurrence (10) PHENOMENON (quiet = p; bird = hen; sign = omen; on = on)

Stop! Everyone on the road. (5) STALL (road = st; everyone = all)

I’ve had some experience of musical notation so the fact that the word ‘quiet’ might signify the letter p made sense. However, road signifying st (from street) caught me off guard. “What other crossword abbreviations might I need to know?” I thought. Fortunately, Wikipedia had me covered.[i] I found to my dismay that there were literally hundreds of abbreviations. Not only that, but the Wikipedia list – according to other crossworders – was nowhere near exhaustive, and this was just one type of clue. With each new clue type that I encountered, there appeared to be an entire language of signifiers and abbreviations. On top of this, solving each clue depended utterly on the limits of my vocabulary. What had appeared from the outset to be a single learnable skill was in fact a vast array of overlapping fragments of knowledge. It was like the famous art gallery scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron, a teenager bunking off school, stares deeper and deeper into a pointillist masterpiece and sees the unified scene disintegrate into a multitude of individual coloured dots.[ii]

I know, I know: a truanting teenager choosing to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to contemplate existence in front of a Seurat painting is unrealistic. They’d choose a Rothko. Duh.

I think that my crossword experience can help us understand how to teach other skills that in reality consist of a vast array of overlapping fragments of knowledge, things like inference in reading…

Here is a statement from the national curriculum for year 5:

By the end of year 5, children should be able to understand what they read by drawing inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence.

Assuming that this drawing and justifying of inferences is to be performed using age-appropriate texts, a teacher is left with the same one question that they wrestle with most days: how on Earth do I teach this? Far too often, teachers’ understandable conclusion is to model the supposed skill of inference with one text and then have children mimic the skill with another text, one containing language and background knowledge with which the children are already familiar. This is the equivalent of teaching a novice crossworder by showing one clue and its solution and then giving them a clue of their own to solve, ensuring that the abbreviations, signifiers and vocabulary involved are already understood by the novice. In other words, in attempting to evidence a child’s understanding of a generic skill that doesn’t really exist, teachers – through necessity – avoid introducing children to the new language and background knowledge upon which inference is really based. If this all sounds slightly despairing, then fear not as perhaps our crossword example can shed some light on the methods through which we can develop children’s ability to make inferences while reading.

I found that by far the most effective way to learn how to solve crosswords was to place each question and solution side by side. For every clue that proved impenetrable – at first, this was all of them – I went straight to the answer and attempted to understand how it was derived. Sometimes the entire clue made sense; sometimes only parts did. Nevertheless, the more my own internal store of abbreviations and signifiers grew, the quicker I could isolate and understand those that were a little rarer. (Knowledge assists in the acquisition of more knowledge, a relationship that makes initial learning intimidating, but that eventually encourages mastery.) In short, to get better at answering crossword clues, I had to be shown thousands upon thousands of them, each one adding or reinforcing a fragment of relevant knowledge.

The parallels between this experience and learning to infer while reading are clear. Both crosswording and reading inference are the result of countless accumulated experiences of language, remembered and connected. In both cases we must remember that, first and foremost, we are building knowledge of language and of the world, something that has consequences for how we teach reading:

  1. Ensure that your reading lessons revolve around children encountering and understanding *lots* of text. Do not underestimate the quantitative aspects of reading instruction.

2. Ensure children learn from a wide variety of texts, carefully chosen to develop children’s knowledge of language and of the world.

3. Make explicit connections to where children might have seen particular words or concepts before, perhaps in other texts you have read.

4. Ensure children become familiar with key cohesive devices in written language and how they work, specifically connectives and pronouns. (It might surprise you how rarely some children grasp what is being referred to by a given pronoun.)

5. How much independent work is appropriate will depend on where the children are in their learning journey and the difficulty of the text. When first starting out, the balance between independent practice and explicit explanation will strongly (but not entirely) favour the latter. There is much to value in simply explaining the meaning of some text, but children also need opportunities to grapple with meaning independently.

Thank you for reading. Constructive feedback is appreciated.





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