A Recipe for Reading Comprehension Skills: Four Tips for Teaching Elementary Students to Make Inferences in any Non-Fiction Text

My number one teaching accomplishment ever was the day that my fourth grade student, Antonio, was hiding a copy of The Lightning Thief in his math book during a lesson on fractions. It took me four months to hook Antonio with reading, and his sneaky reading session was confirmation that my hard work had paid off. 

Students come to us with a lot of attitudes about reading. These attitudes can serve to build students up as learners or as an impediment to academic growth. Reading is one of the ultimate cross-curricular resources and is a great way to hook those fish, er, students with texts that can excite them about learning. 

Many emergent readers lack basic reading skills, such as making inferences, summarizing, and determining importance. Making inferences is a great skill to support reading skills with upper elementary and lower middle school learners. 

What do students do when they make inferences? They use their background knowledge and clues from the text to identify what the author is trying to say. In my fourth grade classroom over a decade ago, my students and I collaboratively invented a formula for making inferences. The formula is I=BK+TC. They would jokingly refer to it as, “Insanity equals Burger King plus Taco Bell”, which clearly doesn’t match up with the formula!

This formula can help students remember that making an inference includes using what you already know about a topic or situation and adding it to any clues from the text that help you understand what the writer finds important.

Here are some tips for teaching students to make inferences:

  • When you are teaching this skill the first time, make sure to use a text that is LESS rigorous than your students’ reading levels. When learning a new skill, it’s critical that students are focusing on practicing the new skill, rather than struggling with the text.
  • Get more bang for your buck and use this during science or social studies lessons. Students benefit from practicing past concepts after they’ve been assessed. If you just finished a lesson set on ecosystems, find an article on one of the many leveled reading websites (Newsela, Actively Learn, etc.) that reviews the past concepts.
  • Use the I do-we do-you do method. First, find a short passage (like a paragraph), and make your thinking visible by thinking out loud as you read. For example, “We just learned about ecological relationships. The author seems to be talking about predator-prey relationships here.”
    • Once students see you model this once or twice, have them support you in working through the text as a whole group. As for students’ suggestions as you work through a new paragraph.
    • Next, students can work independently or in pairs to try a paragraph on their own. Circulate as they work to provide support and to get a dipstick assessment of their progress.
  • Once students can work more independently, have them practice this skill with a text for any content area class.

You might be wondering how I responded when I “caught’ Antonio reading that day. I summoned up my best Tim Gunn impression and whispered, “Carry on!” as I passed by his desk. There truly is no better reward for a teacher than when a student finally finds his/her/their passion for reading.

I am passionate about making resources that enhance teaching and learning for students AND teachers! Check out this resource at the Crosswalk Curriculum TPT store to support students in making inferences in a non-fiction text. This reading comprehension resource can be used with any text for any content area! Includes a lesson and a writing graphic organizer, both written at 2 reading levels. Included in pdf and document for use with Google Docs formats.

Find this resource at TPT. Includes 9 pages for $3, and can be used in any content area.

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