Micro-comprehension: Gap-filling Inference

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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!

(This post is part of a series on Micro-Comprehension. To start at the beginning, click here.)

Micro-comprehension: A Foundation of Words

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In an earlier blog post, I pointed out that early reading might best focus on micro-comprehension strategies before exploring the macro-comprehension kinds of questions that are found in most reading programs. But why? To start with, a reader won’t have clear macro-comprehension without clear micro-comprehension. A deep and wide vocabulary makes the micro-comprehension much more accurate!

Make Words Concrete: I like to think of words as “containers.” Some have a lot of sound-symbols (letters)—quite roomy! Others don’t, but kids can see words as concrete rather than abstract with this kind of metaphor. These sound containers (words) have limited meaning outside of context. To build deep and wide vocabularies, keep context front and center. Help kids expand their word banks, using these strategies:

1.  Label everything in the learning space. If you are a home educator or classroom teacher, label the items in the students’ learning space. In lowercase letters (except for proper nouns), write the name of the item on index cards or self-stick name tags.

2.  Use synonyms. On the same index cards or other signage, also write under the most common word for the item any synonyms associated with the original word. For instance, a box of crayons may have the original word crayons on its label, and beneath it, you might also write the word colors.

3. Focus on Early Reading books. Many early reading books contain illustrations with similar labels, like I described in item number 2 above. Keep these kinds of books handy for young learners and call attention to the items and their labels.

4. Include poetry. Be sure to read a new poem every day! Start with short rhyming poems. Branch into longer poetry with repetitive sections and cadences that children like to repeat aloud.

To launch into the next several blogs about early reading, establishing a baseline around micro-comprehension makes sense. You can take the lead and help students build a strong vocabulary. Students have to be able to hear words, interpret their meanings, choose the correct meaning, and apply that within the context of the story they are hearing or reading—no small task—but doable!

On your next visit, stay tuned for gap-filling inference, an important step in building micro-comprehension skills…until then!

Sound and Spelling Rules: How to handle the "ei" vowel pair

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I am sure you have seen posts like this before. I know I have, and I get a charge out of them. Whether or not you like to teach systematic phonics and spelling, you probably have a hard time getting kids to lock in certain sounds and spelling rules…and this one can be a doozy!  

Let’s look at this dastardly duo up close. You have probably heard the old rule “I before E except after C?” Well, the rule doesn’t really end there. Nevertheless, this rule doesn’t always make spelling words that contain an “ei” vowel pair any easier. Let’s try it this way.


Teach a Sound Rule AND a Spelling Rule

1. Teach students that “ei” will sound like one of the following FOUR sounds in most English words, where an “ei” is found together in a word:

ē (Long E sound)  

ā (Long A sound)   

ĭ (Short I sound)  

ī (Long I sound)

2. Teach words together that use both an “ei” or an “ie” in the middle and follow this simple rule:

Use ei after the letter C and to say /ā/; otherwise—use ie.

See how easy it is to spell these words right using this rule?

chief               tie                   field                beige              niece              heirs              weird


We already see either an “ie” or an “ei” in each word, so all we have to do is look at the letter in front of each vowel pair to be able to get their order right. If there’s a C, it’s “ei”; if not, it has to be ie. Then, to pronounce the vowel pair correctly, use the four sounds we learned earlier:

    ē (Long E sound)           ā (Long A sound)       ĭ (Short I sound)        ī (Long I sound)


Yes, a few exceptions exist, but by getting more direct with the rules, the exceptions won’t present a major sound or spelling roadblock. In future posts, we’ll check out some other letter combos that give us fits. See you then!