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Prompt Readers When Their Inferences are Off Track

November 19, 2019

To infer, readers figure out bigger ideas implied by an author by combining multiple details from the text with their own background knowledge. However, sometimes students draw conclusions about the text that are way off track.

For example, when learning about the Underground Railroad, many students immediately presume that there will be a train. Despite all the other facts and details and discussion within the unit, they inferred there will be a “train” because of the single clue of “railroad.”

In these instances, rather than telling students the correct answer, guide them to see their own misunderstanding. This process requires a couple key instructional points.


Alert readers that when they zero-in on one detail and jump straight to an inference, they are demonstrating the Scooby-Doo mentality. Recall how each episode of this classic cartoon starts with a single clue that has Shaggy and Scooby assuming that there is a ghost! But after finding and combining many clues, Freddie, Velma, and Daphne always reach a much more obvious inference.


In addition, reinforce that inferences are made by combining multiple text clues. Emphasize the word “clues” is plural; if only one detail led them to the “answer” then it’s not necessarily correct. Require students to always provide two or three textual details to support their inferences.


Despite all of this explicit instruction, expect that students will still occasionally offer inappropriate, inaccurate, or left-field inferences. Rather than telling them they are wrong, prompt them when they are off track.

  • I see what you’re thinking, but what about this detail…
  • I agree, but look at page ___ where…
  • I’m confused about something. Let’s look at what the author said.

This prompting process typically helps students discover for themselves when their inferences are off track.

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