Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tuesday Slice: Rigor and inference

It is never more evident that I work on a book-loving campus than during our twice-yearly book fair fundraisers.  The students come pouring in as soon as we open the door at 730a, hurrying to make their purchases before the bell rings.  At 740a, there are long faces as we ask them to label a sticky note and "layaway" their stash of books, assuring them that their teachers will let them come down later to pick them up.

It's also a time when I get to chat with parents and grandparents, helping them find books for their little ones.  Some accommodate their children's wishlists, while others are intentionally looking for books to "stretch" their readers with different genres and more difficult text. As a parent of avid readers, I've tended to be more like the former buyer, not the latter. 

A school librarian's dream, to work with a campus of readers.  Why, then, do we have a testing "hotspot" on the skill of making inferences?

One of our attentive, actively involved parents asked me about my suggestions for remediating the "inference hotspot" on our test scores. I explained that inference skills rely heavily on the background knowledge of the student--and that is formed by life experience and wide reading. Play and socializing are so very important to be able to infer character feelings and motives, too. We should be spending more money on field trips!

Notice I said "wide reading", not "harder reading".  Time and again I find younger students who are able to decode  vocabulary beyond their grade level, and may even test higher in snapshot comprehension assessments, reaching for those thick volumes in the fiction section.  But are they really able to comprehend a story arc that stretches over 300 pages?  Do they get the depth and complexity of the characters, infer hidden motives,  enjoy the rich vocabulary?

Some may be able to do so, but I suspect many don't.  In the surveys I give to the students.  many confess that they have a hard time finding a book they like, and rarely finish a book they've checked out. I have to wonder how much is due to choosing books that are, simply put, too hard.  And if one improves reading skills by reading more and reading deeply, then leaving books unfinished defeats the purpose.

Dr. Seuss' books may not have SAT words, but they do have lessons on caring and learning through play.  Robert Munsch's picture books cover a wide variety of family situations and feelings.  Following along with Amelia Bedelia's foibles  or Geronimo Stilton's adventures allows younger readers to become familiar with characters and learn to anticipate their actions.  "Easy reader" nonfiction books allow students to explore their interests and focus on the content, not the decoding.  

Life lessons, making connections with text, delving deep with characters and interests--this is what increases inference skills, as does maturity and experience.  Don't be so fast to skip over the picture book section, readers; there is learning to be had there.

And don't be afraid to revisit those books.  As my oldest daughter once said, "Oh, The Places You'll Go meant a lot more to me as a graduating senior than as an elementary student."


  1. Oh, how I love this post!!! I could not possibly agree with you more!

    1. Thank you, Sonja! I will issue a challenge every now and then for my fourth and fifth graders to choose a picture book as one of their checkouts. They hesitate at first,but come back with smiles talking about them. :-)