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Breaking Down Inferences

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Children with special needs and autism often have a hard time learning to make inferences because of inferences’ abstract nature. It can be difficult to attach something that happens on the page to an idea they have in their heads. It can also be hard to recall events from a book and connect them to other events. Today we are going to talk about breaking down inferences and teaching the concept to children with special needs.

I have a student who, as far as his school is concerned, can’t make inferences to save their life. Just the other day they learned that this child was able to infer things with me, and his reading teacher wanted to know how I was doing it.

I told her, and she said their program didn’t allow for those kinds of scaffolds. 

That made no sense to me. What kind of reading program could be considered good, if it doesn’t allow you to scaffold the way your students need?

That’s a whole other issue though, so let’s instead focus on what she was doing versus what I was doing. 

When the reading teacher works with this student, she asks him straight out, “why is so and so doing this?” or “how does this character feel?”

That is jumping straight to the end of the inference-making process and while that might be okay for some kids, those aren’t the kinds of students who wind up with SEITs. 

Confused about what a SEIT is? Check out this blog post.

Instead, I walk them step by step through the process. Eventually, my kids learn to do so independently.

In this post, we are going to go over my strategy for breaking down inferences, how to do it, and why it works better.

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There are a lot of things we can make inferences about. Authors are never explicit. That would make reading boring and no fun. That’s why we can make inferences about how characters feel, character’s personality, character’s motivation, relationships, and on and on and on. 

I normally like to start with feelings, because they are typically easiest and what kids relate to the best. If you think your student would respond to something else better then, by all means, use whatever works. 

For this example though, I’m going to be talking about Character Feelings.

I know this might sound obvious, but I’m going to say it, just to be super clear. If your student is still struggling with the mechanics of reading or basic comprehension then don’t teach inferences! 

Your time is better spent there. 

If they are, then let’s get into it. Pick a book or reading passage without a lot of feelings, but nothing that is explicitly stated.

Have your student read it, and don’t be afraid to make them read it again. 

Many kids have processing problems and need to reread. Also, close reading strategies often require multiple readings and referencing the text. I normally make my kids with processing problems read it once, then I read it once, and then they read it again. 

To learn more about language processing problems, check out this post!

Next up you have to find important things your character does or thinks that could indicate how they feel. 

I have a lot of students just try to underline the first three sentences, and that does not fly, because we are supposed to be looking at the whole text for meaningful details. Not lazily picking things at random. 

Ultimately this becomes the evidence they use to make an inference.

If you are interested in cutting down your prep, my Character Feeling Reading Passages, which breaks down this process step by step with three different levels of scaffolds, can be purchased here! 

After you kiddos have found the evidence then they should look at those specific three examples and make an inference about how the character is feeling.

To make sure my children are accurately considering the evidence, I have them put it in their own words, either in writing or verbally, to check for comprehension of what the text is saying. 

As an added bonus it also helps work on their ability to come up with novel phrases and summarize things.

Finally, they greet to make their inference and tell me the feeling! 

If they get stuck giving them choices or a word bank with suggested feelings can be a great way to scaffold the activity and make it feel a little easier. 

My Character Feeling Reading passages come pre-scaffold with both choices and word bank options. And there is no prep! Just print and go. 

Click here to purchase! 

I always, ALWAYS, ask the student to verify that the evidence matches the feeling they’ve selected. For example, a sad person would not be smiling and jumping up and down. 

It’s important to do this even if your student is correct because you want to improve their independence. You won’t always be sitting right next to them, prompting them to double-check everything. 

Also, I’ve found with children with autism, if you don’t always prompt them to double-check, they’ll think it means they’re wrong if you tell them to look again and freak out.

It’s simply much easier to have them get in the habit of always confirming their evidence and inference match.

I like breaking down inferences with students finding the evidence first because when I ask them to do the same thing cold, they often cannot do it. 

When you just straight out as a student “How is this character feeling?” you’re asking them to do the same thing, just without formalizing the steps or offering support as they do it. Children with disabilities often need things broken down into tiny steps and have to be guided through them several times before they are able to do so independently or automatically.

Additionally, children with autism often have short and long-term memory problems. If you ask them to infer at the end of the passage, they might have forgotten details, but underlining evidence and rephrasing it helps keep said evidence fresh in their brains. 

A child who can’t remember the story is not going to be able to make an inference, but one who can recall the evidence, still might not be able to do it but has a much better shot. 

I have a few students, who have been working on inferences for a long time, and now if I ask them, “What is this character feeling?” they’ll often be able to answer, and with prompting give me supporting evidence. 

But that took a lot of practice for them to be able to do all those steps on their own without support. 

It takes a while, so be patient and kind to your kiddos as you work to break down and teach inferences.

They are trying their best and this is by far a very complicated reading strategy. 

If you want to get started today, and just print some worksheets out and go, I highly recommend purchasing my printable Character Feeling Reading Passages! 

In my opinion, any reading program that asks your students to make an inference without first breaking down how to do it is not a good reading program for children with special needs. 

That is why I scaffold for my kids and teach them individual steps in an easy-to-follow concrete manner. Finding evidence first helps solidify the facts in a child’s head, confirms they considered and understood the story, and offers them support throughout the inference-making process, rather than expecting them to do it on their own. 

I hope you will take this strategy in this post and use it to make your kiddos better readers! Find me on Instagram and let me know what amazing inferences they make!

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