In my last post I argued that thinking about English as a ‘skills based’ subject is counter-productive. One response to this was to say, “Hang on, what about practice. If you can practise something you become more skilled at it, so how can you say English isn’t a skills-based subject?”

It seems obvious that “just knowing” something is different from practising it. Pretty much anything we do can be improved through practice. But, the role of practice changes depending on whether you think English is a skills based subject or not.

In the skills-based approach it makes sense to practise the skill of inference because by practising it you’ll become better at it. My view is that there is no such thing as a skill of inference, and so, if it doesn’t exist, you can’t practice it. To be clear, I’m not saying inference doesn’t exist, – obviously you can tell students what an inference is and show them lots of examples –  just that it’s not a skill that can be practised. Let’s see if I can explain why.

An inference is defined as “a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning”. So, to think about whether we can practise making inferences we need to consider whether by drawing conclusions based on evidence and reason we’ll become better at drawing conclusions based on evidence on reason. This sounds logical, but we need to consider what we are actually practising. How do you actually draw a conclusion from evidence and reason? Well, first you need to weigh the specific evidence. How do you know what the evidence is telling you? How do you know the importance of the evidence? Then, how do we apply reason to this evidence? Are these generalities that can be learned, or do they depend on specific instances?

Robert Marzano suggests that we can teach inference by posing four questions to students:

  • What is my inference?
    This question helps students become aware that they may have just made an inference by filling in information that wasn’t directly presented.
  • What information did I use to make this inference?
    It’s important for students to understand the various types of information they use to make inferences. This may include information presented in the text, or it may be background knowledge that a student brings to the learning setting.
  • How good was my thinking?
    According to Marzano, once students have identified the premises on which they’ve based their inferences, they can engage in the most powerful part of the process — examining the validity of their thinking.
  • Do I need to change my thinking?
    The final step in the process is for students to consider possible changes in their thinking. The point here is not to invalidate students’ original inferences, but rather to help them develop the habit of continually updating their thinking as they gather new information.

I’m going to assume that readers will consider themselves reasonably practised at making inferences. Let’s try applying these four questions to a short passage from Finnegan’s Wake:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe totauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. The fall

The rest of the section is here.

  • What is your inference?
  • What did you use to make that inference?
  • How good was you thinking?
  • Do you need to change your thinking?

Was your skill in making inferences any help? Did the questions help you in your thinking?

  • My inference: I have a general sense that some sort of route or journey – possibly involving Howth Castle – is being described.
  • What I used: “past”, “from swerve of shore to bend of bay”, “brings us” all suggest a journey is being undertaken or directions given. References to “North Armorica” and “Europe Minor” make me think of old maps – possibly someone has travelled over the Atlantic?
  • How good was my thinking? Honestly, I have no idea. I could be completely on the wrong track.
  • Do I need to change my thinking? How would I know? I have no idea if I’m even vaguely right.

If I wanted to improve my ability to make an inference I would need to know more about what Joyce was trying to achieve. Have a look at what Cliff’s Notes has to say and see if you could have inferred any of this without knowing an awful lot.

Once you know that inferences can be made about a text, then you can start trying to make them, but unless you know something you won’t be able to make a worthwhile inference. So what does it mean to be skilled at making inferences? My argument is that this is indistinguishable form being knowledgable.

Practising the wrong things leads to Cargo Cult Teaching. Students know what an essay is supposed to look like, they know the sorts of words and phrases they should use, but they have no understanding of the underlying content and therefore whatever they say is likely to be superficial at best and fatuous at worst.

What you can practise is retrieving and applying what you know. This will be the subject of my next post.

You should also read Willingham & Lovette’s article, Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?