Research Cycle

Order Jamie's books online with Paypal or a credit card

Vol 15|No 4|April|2019

Reading between the lines:
Powerful inference strategies
to unlock the implicit and the unstated

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Can you take a hint?

Because so much of life is implied rather than stated, each person must learn how to read between the lines and interpret what is implicit rather than what is explicit.


For students in school, the toughest reading test items often require inference:
  • What is the main idea of this passage? of this story? of this novel?
  • Why do you suppose Andrew ran away?
  • Why did the author use the words she chose to describe the shack?
  • What do you suppose is the point of this story?

© J.McKenzie

Sometimes the answer is directly stated in the passage, but often the reader must put clues together in order to solve the mystery. The reader employs inferential reasoning in a manner somewhat like a detective.

Inferential reasoning is necessary to score well on American tests designed to measure progress on the Core Standards and to score well on the NAEP reading tests. Sadly, after several decades of intense focus on improving test scores, less than half of the American students taking the NAEP reading test performed at or above the "proficient" level on the 2017 test. Only 35% of fourth graders and 35% of eighth graders performed at or above the "proficient" level.
Improvement since 1992 has been negligible. Source: NAEP Score Highlights

These poor results are scandalous, but they receive little attention from the media. Two decades of heavy-handed school reform efforts in the USA dominated by high-stakes testing have produced little progress and may have done great damage to education and schooling as outsiders like Bill Gates have tried to impose a corporate view of reform on schools despite their lack of experience and understanding of schools, teachers and learning.

© iPhoto

This embarrassing failure may be explained by the fact that the most demanding test items require thinking and inference. Students must be able to handle surprise and manage items unlike anything they have seen before. Too much school reform emphasized memorization of patterns.

Practicing inference with images

© J. McKenzie

Images like the one above I shot in London a few years back can provide good practice to strengthen students' inferential reasoning. While we cannot be sure of much without speaking with this man, we can make reasonable guesses about his mood and situation given his body language and the way he is seated.

The teacher may lead the class through a careful analysis with open-ended questions like the following, encouraging a far-ranging exploration of possibilities and discouraging remarks when apparently divergent ideas emerge - following the basic rules of brainstorming.
  • What do you suppose is going on?
  • What do you suppose his mood might be?
  • What do you suppose is going to happen?
  • Who is he?
As discussion proceeds, the teacher asks that each supposition be supported with some kind of visual evidence - details from the image that make the interpretation seem plausible.

The same appraoch works well with the photo below of "coal breaker boys" from the Library of Congress.

The teacher might ask, "Who do you suppose is the leader of this group?" While we cannot know the correct answer, since none of these boys are still alive, we can make reasonable suppositions based on the ways they are standing.

For an extended article exploring visual literacy, go to "Wondering with and about Images."

Practicing inference with poetry

Most poets employ multiple layers of meaning provided by metaphors and elements that are intentionally ambiguous. It is part of the magic of reading poems like Frost's "Stopping by woods" and "The road not taken" or “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied” by Edna St. Vincent Millay -- the way the poem seems to change over time as we bring new experiences to the reading.

Copyright prevents showing those poems here, but there are plenty of good ones at the site displaying the poems above.

One of my poems will illustrate this inference process. The poem was written after the 2017 terrorist bombing of the subway in St. Petersburg, Russia. Subsequent mass murders and terrorist attacks have brought the poem too much currency.

When innocents die

When innocents die
We all die
A little death
And innocence dies
As we all look away
Go on about our business
As the dying
Over there
Is over there
Not here
Until it does come
A truck driving through a crowd
A bomb at a marathon
A shooter in the office
A jet smashing into a building
And suddenly the screams are here
Not there
And we all die
A little death
Some the big death
And innocence dies
Over and over and over

The teacher might ask students to consider the following questions:
  • Why do you suppose the poet wrote this poem?
  • Did the poet have an important idea in mind?
  • Did the poet play with any words?
  • Did the poet play with your feelings?
  • Does the poet have an attitude? Anger? Grief?
  • How did the image of the massacre in New Zealand influence your reactions to the poem?
  • How did recent acts of terror influence your reactions to the poem?
As discussion proceeds, the teacher asks that each supposition be supported with some kind of evidence - details from the poem that make the interpretation seem plausible.

Note that the word "suppose" appears many times in questions suggested by this article. Inference almost always invoves a degree of supposition. The Apple Thesaurus offers related words:
belief, surmise, idea, notion, suspicion, conjecture, speculation, inference, theory, hypothesis, postulation, guess, feeling, hunch, assumption, presumption
It is not mere guessing when a student faces an item on a high stakes test. On multiple choice tests, there will be one correct answer, but some tests require the students to compose and enter the answer in their own words.

Practicing inference with paragraphs and longer passages

There are many sample test items available online. English Language Arts/Literacy Practice Tests are available for portions of the PARCC assessment, for example.

Click here to begin the 7th grade literary analysis items.

Building an inference is like building a house or making a case

© Sarah McKenzie -

It is a matter of collecting clues, details and hints of various kinds until an idea emerges that was not directly stated. It is somewhat like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, but there is no picture on a box to tell you in advance what the puzzle should look like.

© Wentworth Wooden Puzzles -

These metaphors help students to visualize the process of collecting and synthesizing ideas. Many of the inference questions that are frustrating American students on tests of Core Standards and the NAEP tests, present them with long passages like the one below and ask students to figure out what the author intended.

The test asks students to read the poassage and then summarize in their own words the main point the author is making. In addition, they are asked to explain which details from the passage support their answer.

In the USA today we hear more shouting, more shaming and more insults than ever before. This trend is especially noticeable on social media, but there are commentators and political leaders from many points of view who have taken off the gloves.

While searching for viewers, for ratings and for voters, too many have left civility behind and employed every possible verbal cudgel to attack the other side and whip followers into an ugly mood.

What good is civility?

courtesy, courteousness, politeness, good manners, graciousness, consideration, respect

When a gunman takes aim at a group of Congressional baseball players, we see the wages of sin. Terror, it seems, can be home grown, as we witnessed in the Oklahoma City bombing. It can come from the Left. It can come from the Right. Whether the encouragement comes from a radical Islamic hate preacher or a domestic political hate preacher, the consequences may be similar.

Fanning Tempers

When leaders and commentators consciously fan the anger of their followers, readers and viewers, they are playing a dangerous and divisive game. This game may pay dividends in the short run, but as Lincoln put it many years ago, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

The day after the near massacre of Republicans on the baseball field in congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, the President and other national leaders adopted a nonpartisan tone.

As The New York Times reported:

But for once, such party labels were not the defining trait. Badly shaken members of Congress — both Democratic and Republican — were united in concern for those wounded and in shock at the events as they assessed where the nation’s increasingly harsh political climate had led them: an early-morning playing field sprayed with gunshots that could have killed dozens of their colleagues, aides, security personnel and volunteers involved with the game.

Living on the edge

Inciting followers is a dangerous act because some of these people are already living on the edge, barely able to restrain the personal demons that ultimately lead many of these shooters to actually pick up weapons, rent a truck or put on a suicide vest. While those who promote rage may deny responsibility for murderous acts, it is apparent that those who preach hatred are doing the nation a disservice.

Source: "What good is civility?"
by Jamie McKenzie

This would be a challenging passage and question for high school students, especially if they must put the answer into their own words and explain which details from the passage support their answer.

The author clearly feels bad about what he sees as the decline of civility -- polite discourse -- and the rise of violence in American society. But what is his point? He seems to be blaming political leaders for the problem and while he does not say so explicitly, he is hinting that they should change their behavior.

Even a multiple choice version of this question would be challenging because test designers usually include answers called "teasers" that are almost as good as the correct answer.

What is the main point the author makes in this passage?
  1. We need strict gun control laws to stop violence.
  2. We need more civility and polite dialogue.
  3. Leaders are to blame for much of the violence we see today.
  4. We need our leaders to set a better example and stop promoting rage.
While #4 is the correct answer, many readers will be trapped into one of the other answers. Reading between the lines takes us to #4, but the other answers have considerable appeal.

It is easy to dismiss the gun control answer because there is no hint of that anywhere in the passage, but both #2 and #3 are tempting because there are explicit statements that point that way. Grasping #4 as the correct answer requires the reader to "put 2 and 2 together" and see what case the author is making.

© iStock

Providing Daily Practice

If we value our students' ability to read between the lines, then this kind of inferential reasoning must become a daily challenge. It is not enough that students find answers that are directly stated. They must also be capable of creating answers based on reasonable suppositions.