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What is Inference?

- How to Infer
Intended Meaning
Chapter 1 / Lesson 1

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.
In this lesson, we will define the terms inference and intended meaning. We will then discuss what
steps to take when making inferences in literature.

Have I Used Inference Before?


Imagine for a moment that you have arrived at your house after work. All the lights are out, so you
assume that you are the first one home. As you walk from your car, you see there is a package on
the front step. Before you even pick it up, you assume that it was left by the mailman. You finally
open the front door and see that the living room has been cleaned. You then conclude that someone
must have cleaned the room while you were at work. In each of these moments, you have practiced
inference.

What Is Inference?
Inference is using observation and background to reach a logical conclusion. You probably practice
inference every day. For example, if you see someone eating a new food and he or she makes a
face, then you infer he does not like it. Or if someone slams a door, you can infer that she is upset
about something.
Before you can begin to practice inference in literature, you should know what you are looking for.
Your goal is to find the intended meaning of the text. Intended meaning is what we think the author
is trying to teach us.
Why is it important to make inferences? When writing a story, an author will not include all the
information for us. He/she will expect us to read between the lines and reach conclusions about the
text. When making inferences, you are looking beyond what is stated in the text and finding the ideas
to which the author only hints. This makes you a more active reader and critical thinker. It also makes
it easier to understand what the author is sharing with you.

How to Practice Making Inferences


When reading, we make inferences through the author, the text and our response. The first step to
reaching a conclusion of the intended meaning of a writing is to look at the author. You should spend

time reading the author's biography. Look at his/her other works and see what they have in common.
Also, look at the historical and cultural context of the writing. This will help give you a background of
the writing that you can use in the next step of reading.
After you have taken time to read about the author, you are ready to start to read the writing. Your
goal as you read is to make conclusions. These conclusions are not stated, but you should read
between the lines to understand what the author is trying to say.
As you read, make guesses. Try to guess what will happen next in the story, what a character may
say or think or even what other characters not in the scene are doing.
Next, ask questions. Why are the characters acting a certain way? What are they thinking? Where
are they going? What are they feeling? What do you already know? What is missing? Why is the
author not including information?
After this, you should make predictions. What do you think will happen next? How will a character
react? What will the outcome be?
Finally, you should find connections in the details. After you have made predictions, see what is
missing or stated in the details and make connections. Fill in the missing information using your
questions, guesses and predictions.
When you finish reading the text, you should take time to fill in between the lines by looking at your
response and experience. Take time to review the guesses and predictions you had made and see
which ones are correct.

Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.
In this lesson, you will learn how readers use prior knowledge, context clues and word structure to
aid their understanding of what they read. Explore these strategies through examples from literature
and everyday life.

Prior Knowledge
Reading requires a lot from our brains. We decode out each word, put those words together into
sentences and paragraphs, and hold all of the information in our working memory as we go. There is
another aspect of reading we do without thinking much about it: activating our prior knowledge.
Prior knowledge is the information we carry around with us, and all the previous experiences we call
up when reading. For example, when we read a book about sea turtles, we recall everything we
already know about the subject of turtles and related topics like the ocean and reptiles.
Prior knowledge gives us a foundation to build upon, so when we read about a broad topic, like U.S.
current events, we don't have to start all over again from the beginning. Just as knowing a bit about
each U.S. state helps you to understand a national newspaper, it helps if you already know what a
turtle is and what they look like when reading about sea turtles.

When we read a novel, we make connections to what we already know, including connections to
other works of literature. Through different reading experiences we develop expectations of specific
genres, say, mystery or romance novels, and start to recognize the literary conventions authors use.
Prior knowledge is also particularly helpful when reading historical fiction, where knowing even a little
bit about the past can assist you as a reader. Think about how our understanding of the history of
slavery in the Southern United States could aid our understanding of books like Mark Twain's The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the
Wind, all of which deal with slavery (and slavery's legacy) through very different perspectives.

Context Clues
When faced with a word we don't know, especially when reading, we often use the context in which
the word is used to determine its meaning.
Take, for example, this quote from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain,
'The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough
living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her
ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out.'
You might not have immediately recognized the word 'sivilize' by sight, but if you read it aloud you
might notice that it sounds like 'civilize,' which matches the Widow Douglas' plans for Huck. If you
didn't know what the word 'dismal' meant, you could look at the rest of the sentence - 'rough living,'
'couldn't stand it any longer' - and know 'dismal' wasn't a good thing.
Context clues provide readers with enough information that they can infer or make an educated
guess about the meaning of a word. Often, context clues mean we don't have to check an online
dictionary or other reference material, allowing us to continue reading with less disruption.
Here is another example from the novel The Golden Notebook by British writer Doris Lessing:
'I don't think I really saw people then, except as appendages to my needs.'
If you didn't know what 'appendages' meant, you could use the context clues in the rest of the
sentence to figure it out. The speaker says she wasn't able to 'see people' except for how they could
serve her needs, making an 'appendage' something that is secondary to a primary object.

Word Structure
In addition to drawing on prior knowledge and using context clues, we also use our knowledge of
word structure to aid us when reading. Word structure describes how words are formed and can be
broken down into component parts.