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Activate Background Knowledge When Inferring

November 12, 2019

When making inferences, readers analyze textual details and apply their background knowledge to determine how they go together. Although this follows the process of Text Clues + Background = Inference, it’s not that simple for students to execute. Therefore, plan to provide extra support initially.

After identifying the multiple details from the text that are relevant “clues” to the inferential answer, model how readers put them together.

Select related details

Don’t ask students to determine text details that go together. Rather, take the lead in identifying 2-3 text clues–already knowing they have something in common. Physically identify, highlight, and/or move these details side by side.

Provide a sentence starter

With a couple related details clustered together, support the next step of the students’ thinking processes. Rather than asking them How do these details go together?, demonstrate their connection with a sentence starter.

  • When this happens, so does…
  • With this comes…
  • These are all signs of…
  • These indicate…
  • I’m thinking it’s like when…
  • I’m predicting that…
  • It makes me think that…
  • I suppose you could say…about…

NOTE: Depending on the inferential question and the selected details, some of the sentence starters will be more or less appropriate to correspond with the thinking.

By grouping related details initially, the teacher removes this burden from the students. And the sentence starter aids in activating their background knowledge. Again, the students are now freed up to focus all their energies on how the details fit together.

Broaden the meaning of background knowledge

When practicing this thinking process, don’t underestimate students’ abilities to make connections. Although many may lack personal life experiences, they often have a vast amount of “worldly” or general knowledge. They’ve learned a lot from television, the internet, video games, etc. It may not all be accurate information, but it does count as background knowledge, nonetheless.

When teaching students how to advance from simply naming text clues to actually making inferences, the teacher will need to provide extra support. But eventually, release more and more of the responsibility to the students. This means that gradually the students will choose details that “go together” and will create their own triggers to activate their background knowledge.

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