Teaching Students To Make Nonfiction Inferences

When we make inferences, we help students draw conclusions and gather deeper meaning about the text using a combination of their background knowledge and clues in the text itself. This is a skill that naturally lends itself to fictional texts, which you can read more about digging deeper into inferences in this post. However, using inference skills in nonfiction texts is super important too. There are a few key differences when working with nonfiction texts though, so let’s look at a few inferencing skills that pair specifically with nonfiction. Here are my best tips for teaching students to make nonfiction inferences.

Here are my best tips for teaching students to make nonfiction inferences, a super important skill for upper elementary students.

Modeling Nonfiction Inferences

Making nonfiction inferences is a slightly more difficult skill than making fiction inferences, so I like to start with modeling. You can share your own thought process that you use when reading nonfiction texts to help students develop their own analytical skills. When modeling how to make an inference, be sure to think aloud and highlight each step along the way. Be specific about what evidence from the informational text you used to come up with your inference. This dialogue will help students learn how to take the necessary steps between the concrete details in the text and the abstract meanings they’re creating. Pointing out subtle clues along the way (like how you used the unique nonfiction text features!) provides an example of the thought-provoking practice students need to use when they read nonfiction texts on their own.

Making Inferences Using Text Features

When teaching nonfiction texts, start by showing how the headings and subheadings can lead readers to understand more about what they will read in each section and guide them as they make inferences from the text. This is similar to the way we might use chapter titles when making inferences about fiction texts.

However, informational text also has special extra features to help students make inferences that we typically don’t use in fiction. Have students draw on illustrations, diagrams, captions, boldface words, sidebars, and boxes of new terms to draw conclusions about the text content. Don’t underestimate the use of diagrams, charts and graphs that allow for visualization of important facts or allow students to draw their own conclusions from patterns found in data. You can have students analyze these elements and ask questions like, “Based on the diagram, what can we infer about _____?” 

Of course making inferences using text features requires a solid understanding of those features first, so this analyzing text features post is a great place to start.

Making Inferences About Author’s Purpose and Craft

We can also look closely at the author's purpose and author’s craft using nonfiction texts. We often start with the basics of “PIE” when determining if the author’s purpose is to persuade, inform, or entertain. You can start by asking students, “What is the author’s purpose in writing this text? How do you know?”

Then you’ll dig deeper on the specific ways the author has chosen to inform readers because nonfiction gives us new crafts to analyze. For example, nonfiction often has different headings, subheadings, and text types (bold, italics, etc). Invite students to analyze why certain text features were chosen in specific places by asking questions such as, “Why did the author include this chart with the text?” or “What did the author use _(diction)___ to describe ___?”

We can also look at different text structures that nonfiction authors use: compare/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solution, sequence, and description are all different ways nonfiction texts can be organized. We can ask students to identify the structure being used and why the author used it to help us understand the text. If your students have trouble identifying different text structures, this post has more ideas for teaching informational text structures.

Nonfiction Resources To Practice Making Inferences

You can use your favorite upper elementary nonfiction texts and textbooks to practice inferencing. Here’s an Amazon affiliate link list with some of my favorite informational texts. Websites like Commonlit and NewsELA are also great resources for free nonfiction passages. Pictures from age-appropriate news sites work too, like the NY Times random picture of the day from an article without any captions.

Finally, I also use this Informational Text Paired Passage activity often in small groups. These paired passages have been thoughtfully created to teach students how to integrate information from two different high-interest informational text passages. It comes with guided questions and booklets, so I can scaffold and lead my students through inferencing.

More Inference Tips

You can also learn more about teaching inference with this FREE guide. It's packed with a variety of inference resources– checklists, book lists, lesson plans, anchor charts, practice activities, and more!

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