Read Between the Lines

Build comprehension, inference, and conclusion skills by encouraging learners to see the importance of reading between the lines.

By Christen Amico

Man staring at a chalkboard of questions: who? what? when?

Reading is more than merely correctly pronouncing words on a page. Reading is understanding and analyzing those words in a meaningful way. In order to foster critical-thinking skills, readers need to be aware of both direct and indirect comprehension questions. Most children can easily answer the basic who, what, when, where type questions regarding a given text. These answers are explicitly stated by the author and require simple summarizing skills. However, the more inexplicit and indirect types of comprehension questions refer to higher-level thinking skills, such as reasoning, inferring, and predicting. These are far more challenging and require significant practice to develop mastery.

Piece Together the Clues

Imagine a book in which the author meticulously explained, in detail, every little aspect about the characters, setting, and plot. The story would become mundane and boring to the point where no one would have the patience to actually finish reading it. That is partly why authors leave some parts for the reader to decipher. The author gives just enough clues to keep the story interesting without becoming monotonous. The reader must then piece together those clues, combine them with their own personal life experiences, add some common sense, and draw a conclusion about what the author is trying to say. Basically, text + schema = conclusion (or sometimes referred to as inference).

We do this all the time in real life, but don’t always think about it. For example, if someone walks in the house wet and holding an umbrella, you can infer that the weather outside is rainy. It doesn't need to be said because the water and the umbrella are clues to the weather. Couple this with the fact that you have your own rainy day experiences, and you can easily conclude that the weather is rainy. Authors do the same thing, they give clues without actually documenting every detail.

Go Beyond the Text

It is often the burden of upper-grade teachers to focus on these higher-level comprehension reading skills, but the truth is that even teachers of emerging readers can, and should, introduce this topic. One of the most effective strategies in teaching this concept is to break-down the text and segment specific parts from which to draw inferences and conclusions. An entire text may be too overwhelming, but one paragraph will provide enough information to get started. A graphic organizer would be particularly helpful for visual learners. Try dividing the graphic organizer into three columns. Begin with the quote or textual evidence in one column, the reader’s schema (prior knowledge or experience) in the middle column, and the actual inference in the final column.

Another great strategy for all readers, but especially young readers, is to begin to draw conclusions based on illustrations from the text. If a character is smiling and waving, we can infer that he/she is excited. However, if a character is looking down with his arms crossed, we can infer that he is mad. Similarly, older readers who are having difficulty with this concept may benefit from analyzing the dialogue between characters and making inferences based on the words and actions in the story.

Make Assumptions & Draw Conclusions

There is a fine line between making a legitimate inference based on textual evidence and just assuming you know what a character is going to do. One of the first reading comprehension skills introduced in the primary grades is making predictions. Young readers use what they know to predict what will happen next in the story. This is an age-appropriate comprehension strategy to help emerging readers develop strong thinking skills, but often the predictions are off topic or just don’t make sense. Just as young learners make silly predictions, older children may not always come to the right conclusions. Assumptions can be made based on familiar story patterns which may not be accurate. Be sure that your students understand that they cannot assume that they know what is going to happen, or why something did happen. They need to practice using actual textual evidence as a means for drawing their own conclusions.

Questions and Sentence Starters

  • What can you infer about the main character?
  • Based on the front cover, what can you infer about the setting?
  • If I see __________, and I know __________, I can conclude ____________.
  • What words are clues to how the character is feeling?
  • What additional information would be helpful to make a more accurate conclusion?
  • What is the author trying to tell you?
  • I can infer that this word probably means _______ because ___________.
  • What generalizations can you make about the main character’s personality?
  • How would your conclusion change if _________ happened?

Lesson ideas:

Primary Sources: Images used for Inferring

Readers learn to use visual clues to infer meaning. Black and white historical photographs are available to use with the lesson to aid students’ thinking while building comprehension skills.

Drawing Conclusions Article with Lesson Plans

Here is a great article outlining the importance of connecting the text to prior knowledge. You will find many teaching strategies and specific lesson plan ideas.

Drawing Conclusions Reading Passage with Multiple Choice Questions

Upper grade teachers and parents can use this worksheet to review test-taking strategies and practice using this comprehension skill. Readers can answer high-level analytical questions regarding a short fiction passage.

Making Inferences

This is a great worksheet for emerging readers to use as an introduction to inferring. Learners can read a short passage, look at a picture and draw a picture about their inference.

Graphic Organizer for Inferring

Use this blank graphic organizer with any text to help learners organize the clues they see in the text and write their inferences next to them. This would be great for any grade level. Note: It may be beneficial to include page numbers of the text.