Teach Inferences in a Systematic and Engaging Way

Benefit from specially designed materials to help you teach inference in a systematic and rewarding way!

By Barry Nitikman


Chalkboard of question marks behind young man

I’ve always really enjoyed teaching inferences, and hopefully you do too. In this article, I’m going to provide you with some specific materials you can use right away to help teach the concept of supported inferences in a systematic and engaging way. In early reading books, things happen and the author tells you exactly why: “The duck was angry!” or “Albert the Armadillo was so happy he wanted to sing!” But the higher you go in terms of reading level, the more authors use inference to tell the story in a more subtle and meaningful way.

Keep in mind that inference is very close in nature to drawing conclusions. I researched the issue of the difference between the two, and what I found was that in general, they should be treated somewhat the same. The best explanation I’ve found is that one draws conclusions through the use of inference.

For me, I define inference as the author making something known to the reader/audience without actually stating it explicitly. At a basic level, “Ernest walked into the room with a scowl, and threw his books on the bed,” as opposed to “Ernest was very angry when he came home.” This is something the kids can readily grasp, with sufficient practice.

Systematic Instruction

Unfortunately, I’ve found the materials on inference to be lacking, at least in my opinion. I teach inference in a systematic way, beginning first with a basic explanation followed by several specific standard examples I always use. I tell them, “These are things you say and hear every day, but you don’t think about them as inferences." These can be almost anything the teacher wishes, and the intent is to get the students used to using and hearing. I give some of the following examples:

Example 1:
  • The teacher walks into the room, slams down his books, and walk to the board, muttering. What can you infer? He's mad.
Example 2:
  • My friend Sally is very quiet at school today. She sits by herself at recess. When I look at her, I see her looking down at her desk with a serious expression on her face. What can you infer? She's sad, mad, frustrated, etc.

You will come up with your own examples. This makes the connection between something that they understand intuitively, and the literary term for it.

Get Your Class Moving

Next, they are asked to examine some examples that I will put up on the walls around the room. It is always a nice change of pace for the kids to get to move around. They must decide what they can infer from the information given. The first few exercises are definitely along the lines of drawing conclusions, and could be used for that purpose as well. 

I will prepare about six or seven different examples to put up on the walls. Here’s one example:

Example 1:

  • Ralph doesn’t have many friends.
  • When kids see him walking down the street, they sometimes cross to the other side.
  • He’s been suspended a couple of times for getting in fights.
  • Kids avoid him at lunch and recess.
  • What can you infer about Ralph?

Example 2:

  • The Williams House has been vacant for years.
  • Some people say they’ve heard strange sounds come from the house at night.
  • People avoid walking past it at night.
  • Kids are always daring each other to sneak into the house, but almost no one ever agrees to do it.
  • What can you infer?

I will post 6-7 of these around the room, then ask the kids to go around with a piece of paper, and make a note about each example, answering the question: What can you infer about each of these examples? Then we discuss the results.

Differentiate to Meet Varying Needs

The preceding work has been fairly simple, but will still be challenging for many. It will give learners the concept in a very clear way. The idea is to progress from the more obvious inferences, to the more subtle ones that require more insight.

However, for those pupils in your class for whom this is too easy from the beginning, have them start in right away with the more advanced activities. With my GATE students, I will generally give them the introduction and basic examples, and then skip the simpler activity just described, and progress to this one instead:

Example 1:

  • Alex doesn’t seem to pay attention in math class- she daydreams, plays with her pencil, or just looks around.
  • She doodles secretly on her binder all the time.
  • Sometimes the teacher asks her to answer a question, and even if she was daydreaming and it’s a difficult problem, she usually gets it right.
  • Once she was looking at her older sister’s math book and wound up reading it for an hour and doing some of the problems.
  • What can you infer about Alex?

 Example 2:

  • Steven, a fifth grader, has gotten in trouble for pulling Tia’s hair. Another time, he pushed her arm away roughly when she brushed by his desk.
  • He tells his friends “I hate Tia.”
  • Even though she sits far away from him in class, sometimes he will find himself looking in her direction, sometimes for quite a while, until his attention is redirected back to the teacher.
  • Once when the teacher made the two of them work together for a project in class, Steven seemed to be very nervous most of the time.
  • What can you infer about Steven?

It may seem obvious to us that Alex likes math, but is bored in class because the work is too easy for her; and in the situation with Steven, that he likes Tia but doesn’t want to show it. However, I assure you that even advanced fifth graders will not always get these. These sorts of scenarios can lead to some wonderful discussions, which only serves to solidify the concepts for the kids.

The following example is usually the most challenging; it requires genuine insight:


  • Janice is 8, and her parents spend a lot of time with her new baby sister, Reanna.
  • Janice loves to go shopping with her mom, but the last few times she asked if they could go, her mom responded “I have to take care of Reanna,” or “Honey, you know I have to change Reanna’s diaper.”
  • Janice got in trouble at school for hitting a classmate.
  • One of Janice’s friends won’t play with her anymore because Janice has been really mean to her lately.
  • What can you infer about Janice?

Again, even advanced kids will not always get this, which is why it’s great to use examples that stretch them, forcing them to really engage.

Keeping it Subtle 

These are fun to come up with (at least they are for me), but even more so, you can challenge your kids to come up with their own examples. After you’ve done this preliminary work, this is a great activity to do:

  • Each person is to write three scenarios similar to the ones they’ve been working on.
  • Exchange them with a partner - or mix them all up and then pass them out.
  • Try to figure out the inference/conclusion.
  • Discuss a few selected examples whole-class.

Stress that they should be scenarios where the point is subtle; not “Billy scored 15 points in the soccer game. Billy is captain of his soccer team. Billy had his picture in the paper with Christian Ronaldo.” etc. Their goal should be subtlety, in other words, using inference to get the point across.

Extending to Supported Inferences, Facts, Opinions

There are two major 5th grade standards relating to supported inferences, facts and opinions, and in the new Common Core standards, the emphasis remains: “[fifth graders]...... are able to draw inferences or conclusions supported by details from the text.” Make sure your class understands that for any inference, there must be supporting details they can point to. Furthermore, and this is very important, especially for gifted kids, this is not an exercise in speculation, or looking for creative possibilities in the text! All inferences must be based on what is given in the text, and what you can infer about the behavior and actions and emotions of the characters.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Fact vs. opinion is generally much simpler to teach than inference, as there is much less gray area.
  • Teach fact vs. opinion separately, to make sure it’s reasonably solid first, then teach them together with supported inferences.
  • It is not difficult to find passages in various class books that offer examples of each area. Online as well, you can find lots of examples.
  • You may find it necessary to augment these examples with your own self-generated examples, something I’ve always done, so that I can use them to exactly target the idea of supported inferences.

 I’ve prepared several examples to help my kids learn to differentiate between these three concepts. Here are two examples:

Example 1:

After the big game, the players dressed quietly in the locker room. There was hardly any talking at all, mostly silence. None of the usual laughter and kidding around that the Fordham High School football team usually engaged in. Brent, the halfback, just sat at his locker, staring down at the ground. When Billy, their all-star quarterback walked into the room, the players looked up at him, stone-faced, then looked away. One of them muttered “You’d think that somebody who’s supposed to be a star quarterback wouldn’t drop the ball when it really counted.” Some of the others nodded their heads in agreement. Billy looked over at his teammate who had said this, and almost said something, but didn’t. He just sat down at his locker. After what seemed like a long while, he sighed and said quietly “Well, we didn’t get creamed. But losing like this is almost as bad.”

Put an SI (supported inference), F (fact), or O (opinion):

 ___ The team lost the game.

 ___ The players feel really bad about the game.

 ___ Billy is an all-star quarterback.

 ___ Fordham has a really great football team.

 ___ Some of the players are angry with the quarterback for messing up during the game.

Example 2: 

Jimmy couldn’t sleep. He got up several times during the night, checking his suitcases, for probably the fiftieth time. Everything was there. He hadn’t forgotten anything, he was sure of it. Skis, snowshoes, warm jacket...it was all there. Finally, around 3:30 in the morning, he was able to fall asleep. He dreamed, not surprisingly, about snow. When he woke up, around 6:30 a.m., he jumped out of bed and raced to the bathroom to shower and get dressed. Five minutes later, he was downstairs, with all his suitcases, waiting by the door. Every time he heard a car, he would throw the door open, only to be disappointed. Finally, a car drove up into the driveway, and it was time to go.

Put an SI, F, or O before each sentence:

 ___ Jimmy is going on a ski trip.

 ___ He is excited and nervous.

 ___ Jimmy had a dream about snow.

 ___ Skiing is a lot of fun.

 ___ Jimmy took a quick shower.

Believe it or not, these will generate some serious discussions; with lots of arguments about whether something is actually a fact or a supported inference. Try to make certain statements borderline ambiguous in order to generate arguments which force them to engage in the topic. It’s fun!

Continued Practice

Esteban tiptoed through the hallway, trying not to make any noise. Luckily he got to his room without anyone knowing. “What’s the big deal?” he thought. “So what if I get home ten minutes late? That’s no reason for my parents to freak out!” He sighed with relief and sat down to do his homework. He was home safe and no one had heard him come in.

Suddenly he heard loud voices down the hall in his parents’ bedroom. Why do I have to work so hard? Why don’t you get a job?” “And why don’t you leave me alone and stop nagging me all the time?” Not again, thought Esteban. Couldn’t he get one night of peace, without the noise of arguing making it difficult to concentrate on his homework? His teacher always gave him a hard time when he didn’t finish his homework, but he just didn’t know how to explain what it was like at home.  The teacher just wouldn’t understand.

Finally, the voices quieted down, as they always did, and Esteban even heard some laughter. “Why can’t two people who love each other get along a little better?” he thought to himself. “Fighting is a waste of time.”

Put an SI, F, or O before each sentence:

____ Esteban was late getting home.

____ Esteban’s parents were arguing loudly.

____ When he’s late, his parents get really upset.

____ Esteban should try harder to get home on time.

____ His teacher gives him a hard time if he doesn’t turn in his homework.

____ Esteban’s parents love each other, but they fight a lot.

____ People who love each other shouldn’t argue all the time.

____ Esteban’s dad is out of work.

____ Esteban has trouble doing his homework when his parents are arguing.

____ His parents should be a little more courteous.

Example for Practice or Assessment

Mario woke up that morning, one thought was in his mind: “I want to take my new motorcycle for a ride today, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that.” He and his wife Rennie only had one car, and she had needed it the last few days. Today, it was all his. He planned to ride for about 10 miles on the Upper Camuesa Trail above Santa Barbara, one of his favorite trails. But unfortunately, the day didn’t turn out like Mario wanted it to, as a few things happened that he couldn’t have predicted.

For one thing, he intended to leave the house at about 1:00 p.m. But as he got ready to leave, he noticed that there was a leak in the dishwasher, and unless he wanted to have water all over the floor when he got back, he would have to take care of that now. It took him about an hour, but he was finally able to fix the leak and leave for the trail around 2:00 p.m.

Once he started out, he realized right away that he was low on gas, and had to pull over at a gas station to fill up. “I always fill up the tank when I’m done with the car," he muttered to himself as he pumped the gas, “why can’t Rennie show me the same courtesy? And here I am, with only about three hours of daylight left.” It seemed to take forever to finish filling up, but finally he was done, and he headed off towards the mountains.

As he arrived at the parking area for the Upper Camuesa Trail, he noticed a sign. It read “Trail closed for two weeks for repairs. Sorry, no riding.” Mario banged his hand hard against the steering wheel, saying “What next?” Mario rubbed his hand for a few moments, grimacing as he did so, and then thought about it. “I guess I could go all the way over to East Camino Cielo. It’s a long way, but I could still do some riding today.”

The trip took one hour. The entire time, he kept looking nervously at his watch every few minutes, and then up at the sky. Finally, he arrived, unhooked the motorcycle, started it up, and put on his helmet. As he took off down the trail, a broad smile across his face, he thought “I said I was going to ride today, and here I am, riding!”

Put an SI, F, or I before each sentence:

___ Mario planned to ride his motorcycle that day.

___ Mario loves to go for rides in the mountains.

___ The dishwasher had a leak, which delayed Mario’s trip.

___ Dishwashers are not worth the trouble; it’s easier just to wash the dishes by hand.

___ Mario should have just given up and gone riding another day

___ Mario is annoyed with his wife for not filling up the gas tank.

___ It was very inconsiderate of Rennie not to fill up the tank after using the car.

___ The Upper Camuesa Trail was closed for repairs.

___ Mario was very happy to finally be able to ride his motorcycle.

___ Mario intended to leave the house around 1:00 p.m.

These types of examples are not especially difficult or time-consuming for teachers to come up with, but remember as a start, that all of these examples are provided in the links.

I hope you will find this advice and the materials useful for teaching inference. Keep in mind that a very important extension to this is the idea of applying what they’ve learned about inference to their own writing. The more they use inference effectively in their writing, the more interesting and vivid and engaging their writing will be.

Helpful Supplemental Activities

Inference Practice Worksheets

Here is a list of six worksheets to accompany you through the above inference lesson.