Last time, I introduced the concept of building micro-comprehension skills in young readers, starting with words. Often, students need direct instruction in the various areas of micro-comprehension to become efficient readers. I started with words because they are the foundation upon which to build the other skills.
With a strong word base, students can begin the arduous task of comprehending the meaning of strings of words and phrases. In order for that to happen, students must be able to infer meaning. Inferring (or inference) just means that the student’s brain will have to do some gap-filling to understand basic information as it is shared through the words, whether reading the words themselves or hearing them read.
When I first began my career, teaching inference was a big deal. At that time, I was simply following the standards in the state where I was teaching. But, the most effective way to teach inference was a mystery. Once I grappled with helping students get a strong vocabulary base, teaching inference became a lot easier. It was clear that students who had a good bank of words made inferences more readily. Those students who had poor vocabulary exposure didn’t fare as well.
As I improved my teaching skills, I learned that inference skills in reading were basically just the activation of the gap-filling ability in their brains. Brains are absolutely amazing! Brains are always seeking information, and for the missing pieces, they call upon special neurons that “fill-in” the missing information to make the existing information make sense. Now, sometimes, the brain can get it all confused—it’s normal. But, wise reading teachers will help kids recognize the comprehension errors by using a strategy called “Unpack Your Thinking.” To unpack one’s thinking just means to say out loud what thoughts you have as you read. Teachers can model this by slowing down their own reading process and then saying aloud what it is that makes them able to comprehend what they read. When they share that thinking out loud with the kids, it serves as a powerful model! Look at the following example:
After watching the sad movie, Sarah grabbed a tissue.
Now, read the “unpacked, out loud thinking”:
“I know that Sarah is probably sad because she just watched a sad movie. I also know that when people are sad, they often cry. I can infer that Sarah must have cried because of the sad movie and needed to dry her eyes with a tissue.”
In this example of “unpacking your thinking,” it helps to state aloud the parts of the information that are included in a passage because it accentuates what IS NOT included. I like for kids to say, “I know that…” to begin each out loud idea. Then, it is a small leap for the teacher to ask: “How do you know Sarah was probably crying?”
This kind of question is actually a macro-comprehension question. Students who have a clear mental model will deduce that people often show emotion when watching a sad movie. Notice, the example passage about Sarah did not explain that she was actually shedding tears, but the micro-comprehension work the brain does makes it obvious that she was crying and needed a tissue.
I am sure you have discovered in your students the gap-filling ability or the lack of it. As you read aloud to your students or as you listen to them read aloud, try to be more aware of opportunities for them to practice accurate gap-filling inferences. I think you will be surprised how adept they can become.
In my next post, we’ll move into sentence structure processing and the role it plays in micro-comprehension. Please join me!