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Students Need to Make Sense of What They Read. Here Are Ways to Support Them (Opinion)

Today’s post is the third in a series offering strategies to support older students experiencing reading challenges.

You can see Part One here and Part Two here.

Verbal Reasoning and Making Inferences

Toni Faddis, Ed.D., previously a bilingual teacher, Reading Recovery specialist, and principal, is now a full-time professional consultant.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., a professor and the chair of the educational leadership department at San Diego State University is also the dean of faculty affairs at Health Sciences High and Middle College, San Diego.

Diane Lapp, Ed.D., Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State University, is also an academic coach at Health Sciences High and Middle College:

When it comes to understanding text, some students find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They may be able to decode the words, but they’re still in over their heads, struggling to answer comprehension questions. This is the next installment of a series dedicated to supporting adolescent readers. In this post, our focus is on verbal reasoning, which is the ability to understand what you see, hear, and make sense of the heaps of implied messages, figurative language, and multiple-meaning words in the English language.

Like any cognitive skill, verbal reasoning can be improved through instruction. It’s vital that teachers in all content areas plan opportunities for students to ponder language, then explain and justify their thinking. Activities that prompt students to verbalize their thoughts foster speakers and listeners with chances to revise their thinking while gaining knowledge because of the act of processing out loud.

Teachers who provide experiences where students must negotiate and construct meaning together may get a kick out of how much fun word play and detecting meaning with tweens and teens can be. Below are five strategies that we’ve found to work well with our students.

1. Infer by Reading an Image. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so asking students to describe an interesting image can provoke meaningful discussion and different perspectives. Much like the close reading of a text, students can close read an image and respond to questions posed by the teacher and peers. Instruct students to pretend they are looking at the image with a magnifying glass and write down all the details they notice. offers a free “photo of the day” that students find interesting. A graphic organizer can assist students to make inferences and draw conclusions based on details found in an image.

2. Infer by Reading Amazon Reviews. Another way for students to practice reading between the lines is to read real reviews from Amazon. Choose a product that students are into, such as the latest video game, eyelash extensions, or another current fad. The trick is to provide students with three written reviews of one product but not the accompanying stars. Ask students to infer the quality of the product based on the clues in the writing. A graphic organizer can assist students to make note of the clues in the textual information, inferences that stem from the clues, and their rationale for recommending or not recommending the product. Here is a link to the latest Madden NFL video game as a start.

3. Infer by Watching a Wordless Film. As a whole class, in groups, or in partners, students watch a short film, pausing at designated stopping points to infer what the character(s) is thinking at that moment. Through discussion, students can collaborate to determine the character’s inner dialogue based on what is happening in the clip. The short film Soar, at 4:50 in length, is a great place for students to get the hang of making inferences.

4. Class Discussion: Paraphrasing. Prompting students to paraphrase a statement encourages them to listen carefully and not just repeat what was heard. For example, if we ask students to repeat what their partner says, we miss an opportunity for students to practice the skill of paraphrasing. Repeating that parrots the speaker requires little thought and can bore students, discouraging their participation. Instead, teach students the purpose and skill of paraphrasing and develop language frames with them. Post these frames so students can refer to them throughout the year.

5. Class Discussion: Reasoning. As students become skilled at paraphrasing, teachers can also prompt for evidence that supports their ideas. Asking “why?” or “how do you know that?” encourages students to provide reasons and evidence for their thinking, which decreases guesswork while simultaneously teaching peers. As students engage in these types of discussions regularly, they also practice making inferences in the company of their teacher and peers. The classroom should be a safe place for students to dig into thoughts and inferences, both exploring and explaining them.

All images created by the authors

Conclusion: Developing students’ verbal reasoning skills is mission critical—they’re essential for success in school and in life. While wide, independent reading will certainly expose students to a range of figurative language and multiple-meaning words, it’s important that we provide students with guided practice activities in which they make inferences based on the clues they identify. In other words, they step up their games, their verbal reasoning games.

Thanks to Douglas, Diane, and Toni for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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