Young Readers Make Inferences with Little Bear
Maurice Sendak’s illustrations reveal implicit truth in the classic children's book Little Bear.
Illustrator/author Maurice Sendak brought literature to vivid life with his illustrations long before Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963. Sendak began illustrating books for his brother at age 11. His artwork came to widespread awareness with the publication in 1957 of Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. A gentle, loving look at childhood with language conducive to early reading, Little Bear features an interplay of text and artwork that not only depicts, but expands the text. For teachers, the book offers abundant opportunities to build reading skills, but also to explore themes and stories relevant to the lives of emerging readers.
A Classic Story for the Common Core
Little Bear holds the prominent first place on the list of Common Core State Standards text exemplars for K-1 readers. Text exemplars represent material that provides readers at specific grade levels with age-appropriate text complexity, thematic richness, and enduring cultural value. Little Bear celebrates familial relationships (the book’s only two characters are Little Bear and his mother) and though some might claim the schema of a stay-at-home mother available to respond to her child’s playful whims is hardly universal at this point in time, the book reveals essential experiences of youthful imagination and parental connection that transcend contemporary family structure.
Both Minarik’s language and Sendak’s illustrations offer evidence that there is more to the story than the words alone communicate. For this reason, Little Bear provides teachers and readers with ample opportunities to read between the lines, to develop the roots of strong reading comprehension and critical thinking: inference.
As an English teacher, I believe that the literacy skills I help my students develop can extrapolate to the ability to evaluate their own experiences in ways that will benefit them as navigators of life as well as texts.
My 8th graders this year were charged with elucidating a character, either fictional or real, from one of our readings, by writing an essay focused largely on indirect characterization. To accomplish this, they had to describe a character’s actions or reactions in the text, and explain what each citation revealed about the character. For my middle school, grade-level readers, the latter was a monumentally difficult task. Over the course of the year, their fluency in inferring meaning from textual evidence evolved, but I can’t help thinking that if they’d been mining the unsaid in stories since kindergarten, interpreting the actions of characters would have come much more naturally.
By extension, perhaps they might also be able to move forward from their early-adolescent egocentric responses to the actions of others in ways that caused less drama than is typical of junior high school. Who among us wouldn’t have had an easier time in adolescence had we been better equipped to interpret the actions of others as representative of the actor rather than as a reflection of who we were?
Subtext in Little Bear
Learning to make the inferences that lead to strong critical thinking can begin the day a child enters kindergarten, with books like Little Bear to feed the process. Each of the four stories in the book lends itself to questions that require looking beyond the words themselves. In What Will Little Bear Wear?, Mother Bear indulges repeated requests from Little Bear for outerwear to keep him warm while he plays in the snow. When he claims he is still cold after she has made him a hat, coat and pants, she asks, “My little bear… Do you want a fur coat, too?” Insatiable, of course, he does. When she takes off all his clothes, sends him outside in his birthday suit-fur coat, and he is perfectly comfortable, the conclusion doesn’t fit the plot. Minarik ends the story with “What do you think of that?” Perhaps this simple question makes this book exemplary for encouraging, not just decoding, but authentic critical thinking.
The story is ripe with subtexts that require inferential skills to divine. Teachers can build conversations that lead children to identify and discuss concepts such as:
- mothers’ patience and children’s persistence (Illustrations show Mother Bear engaged in a different task each time he interrupts her to ask for something.)
- letting children discover for themselves things adults may know all along;
- the value of keeping open to current experience as opposed to clinging to old perceptions.
Questions to Guide Inferential Thinking
To guide primary learners to draw conclusions beyond answers explicitly stated in the text, I might ask children after reading the book aloud:
- “What is Mother Bear doing each time Little Bear asks her for a new article of clothing?”
Sendak’s illustrations portray Mother Bear in her apron sweeping, sewing, and finally reading a book (Was that the first moment she could sit down all day?); with
- “How do you think she feels when he does that? Why?”
Sendak’s illustration of Mother Bear — having closed the book she was reading, leaning toward Little Bear with an expression of fatigue and near-exasperation, and having her fist on her hip when faced with his fourth request — gives clues to aspects of the story that Minarik barely suggests in the text.
- “Why do you think Mother Bear made clothes for Little Bear even though she knows he has a warm fur coat of his own?”
She is obviously busy with her own work but she indulges his requests over and over again.
- “What would happen if Little Bear refused to go outside when she took off his snow clothes, if he were afraid he would be cold without them?”
If he kept the idea in his head that he needed a lot of clothing to be outside, we would not see him sitting in the snow playing with a snowball at the end of the story when Minarik says, “And he was not cold.”
Keeping in my mind my 8th graders who struggled with interpretation, I would ask after each answer,
- “How can you tell?”
Readers who early on learn to build meaning about motivations and the nature of characters based on their actions, expressions, and responses will expect inference to be an inherent part of reading.
Inference makes its initial appearance in the Common Core for literature in the anchor standards related to Key Ideas and Details in Grade 4, but readers can conclude meaning from evidence long before then. What follows are links to lesson plans to teach inference making and various practice opportunities applicable throughout grade school.
Geared to 2nd grade readers, this resource is complete, follows the “I do, We do, You do” approach to fostering independence while building comprehension and vocabulary skills (Using context clues to derive meaning is inference as much as understanding character motivation!), and can be used with any book for children. Includes short practice passages to develop skills and focus on inference-building as a discrete skill.
The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) provides complete background on the place of inference in language arts instruction, ways to encourage pupils to read actively, techniques and graphic organizers for making inferences by building on prior knowledge, a variety of engaging activities suitable to video and written texts, practice ideas for building skills, and suggestions for keeping inference-making an ongoing part of the reading curriculum. Highly organized, focused and adaptable.
Comics require inference to be understood. Their brevity and humor provide a blend of pleasure and opportunity to develop some serious academic skills! Directed at 7th grade special education students, this lesson features a nice homework sheet with practice making inferences based on brief descriptions of situations that require reading between the lines, examples of possible inferences one could make, and space to explain. I’d adapt the homework model for texts read in class to review and discuss.
This straightforward lesson plan can be used with any text. A graphic organizer to demonstrate relationships between characters adds depth to unidirectional characterization. Generic questions about character can generate strong inference building skills. I would add the question, “How do we know?” to each Think/Do pair of questions to emphasize the importance of citing textual evidence to support inferences made. Concludes with a fun Bio Poem assignment at the end.