Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Scaffolding Inference: Trialling a Teaching Technique

If you are short of time but would like to get the gist of this technique, please see my Quick Reference Guide: http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/scaffolding-inference-quick-reference.html


With inference being the most-assessed skill in the Key Stage 2 reading tests it is no wonder that teachers spend a lot of time attempting to teach children how to infer meaning from texts, with varying degrees of success. It's the sort of skill that readers (by that I mean those who make a regular habit of reading, and enjoy it) possess without really learning. Because of this, it is a skill that is hard to teach; many teachers infer naturally so deconstructing how they do it in order to teach a process to children can be difficult.

In case you missed it, the reading test framework has rearranged reading skills into eight cognitive domains. The fourth domain, the one we are concerned with here, is: 
2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text
Background Reading

The chapter in 'Reading Reconsidered' entitled 'Writing for Reading' (read an excerpt here) discusses the various structures a teacher might use within a reading session. The ideas presented widen the scope of how different task sequences can support the development of different skills. This made me think more carefully about how the teaching and learning sequence could build to help children to infer more successfully.

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills initiated the thinking that led to my development and trial of this method. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words: 
"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."
Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', in section 2.3 (page 26) goes into more detail on this and the document as a whole is an informative read.

So, another cognitive domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:
2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context
I also had an inkling that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.
2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
Children usually find retrieval easier than inference, however it is worth noting that in the 2016 KS2 tests even some of the retrieval questions were difficult, often because of the vocabulary skills that are needed in order to retrieve information. There are plenty of places to learn about how to improve vocabulary skills, so I won't go into detail on that in this article, but I must stress that it is important that children are taught skills such as contextual and morphemic analysis before they attempt the process I suggest. Before my own trial I spent around 4 weeks focusing on teaching vocabulary skills, allowing the children plenty of time to practice.

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice

In short:
  1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
  2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
  3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
  4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.
There are different ways in which the 2a and 2b questions might provide a scaffold for answering the 2b question. In order to explain this I will share some examples. All the examples are based on 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio. I chose 'Wonder' as our first class novel because although it is fairly heavy in subject matter, it is easy-going with its vocabulary. I wanted to begin by supporting children's acquisition of vocabulary skills in a non-threatening manner before we started to read novels with more advanced language.

The first excerpt takes place in the chapter entitled 'The Summer Table' in which a girl named Summer joins August who is alone at a lunch table on his first day at school.


In the first example (pictured above ) the scaffolding structure can be seen clearly: question 1 is a 2a question, question 2 is a 2b question and question 3 is a 2d question. There is a very obvious grammar discussion to be had to surrounding common nouns and proper nouns - the children asked for clarification on this despite the words in question 1 not being capitalised. The discussion we had cleared up possible later misconceptions that Summer meant the table was only for people named Summer - a misconception which would have been at odds with the basic fact that August was also sitting at the table. I've noticed that test questions are often set about texts with potential misconceptions so I try to take opportunities to incorporate similar tricky bits in my teaching.

The second example is taken from the same chapter; the text follows directly the previous excerpt:



The second example does not lead the children directly to the answer for question 3 but it does provide background knowledge which should inform their own thoughts on the motivation for Summer's actions. In answering question 1 the children realised that there was a long list of names and by answering question 2 they began to get the sense that the quote in question 3 was true; they gained their own insight into why August says that most of the names weren't actually summer names. Questions 1 and 2 allowed the children to understand what Summer was doing (making a long list, bending the rule that only children with summer names could sit on the table) before they began to think about why she was doing it.

Question 3 actually also requires previous knowledge of the text - the children must have already grasped that August (a boy with facial birth defects) is sitting alone on his first ever day in school whilst children whisper about his looks in order to infer that Summer agrees that so many children can sit with them so that he finds more friends. The more perceptive children might also realise that Summer also wants him to have fun so that he forgets about his situation and so that he feels like all the other children. I was satisfied that our previous reading and dialogic discussion (thanks Mat Tobin for the terminology) meant that they understood the whole text well enough to approach this question.

It should also be noted that here there are two retrieval questions and no vocabulary-based question; the vocabulary they needed had been covered in the previous set of questions.

Here is an example of a child's work. This task was undertaken independently directly after completing the previous task (see above). The first task was completed independently prior to a whole-class discussion and then children edited their answers (with a purple pen) based on the discussion that was had. This example contains no edits - the child was able to answer question 3 successfully first time. It is worth noting that this child is one of the best readers in my class - for her the scaffold has had almost immediate impact. In further blog posts on this subject I will provide before and after evidence.


For the next examples I must give credit to Rhoda Wilson for her excellent 'Moving Beyond Comprehension Sheets' resource as I used it along with the Herts for Learning question stems to vary the question styles in these activities.

Here's an example of a very scaffolded set of questions - the scaffold questions (questions 1, 2 and 3) make the answer to question 4 very obvious.


This one worked so successfully that I actually encouraged the children to further their answers for number 4 by explaining how the evidence showed that the children were unsure how to treat August - this was not initially required of them, and when compared to similar questions in the 2016 KS2 test, this would be classed as an inference (2d) question without the addition of an explanation. It also made me contemplate giving them the inference question to answer before the scaffold questions, as well as after, in order to compare the difference and the impact the scaffold questions have on the quality of answer.

Some more activity examples:


Here is an example of child's work. This child entered year 6 in September assessed at a year 4 standard for reading. This method appears to have been very successful for him, even after only a few times working in this way.


One more example:
What Next?

If this way of scaffolding inference questions works for the children in my class then I will begin to adapt it in order to support the development of skills outlined in the other cognitive domains:
2c; summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
2e: predict what might happen from details stated and implied
2f: identify / explain how information / narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole
2g: identify / explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases
2h: make comparisons within the text
It will also be important to begin to remove the scaffolding - for some children sooner than others - in order to encourage children to use the skills independently; one question often raised against methods such as this is how will this approach help children when the structure is removed, for example, in the SATs reading test? And it's a good question. My hope is that it will provide them with a method for answering inference questions; a method which will be embedded in their way of working. If this technique is successful then children will naturally make inferences using their ability to understand the vocabulary (these skills will need to be taught in addition to this method of scaffolding questions) and their ability to locate and retrieve information from the text.

The trial of this technique for scaffolding inference is in its infancy. As such I will follow up this blog post with others including commentary on what I learn, further examples of questions and some more examples of children's work showing the impact.

I would also love to engage in discussion on this idea - please use the comments section to tell me where I am going wrong, to point me in the direction of relevant research or additional reading or to share your own examples if you decide to try it!

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