The University of Iowa

Inference Making: The Key to Advanced Reading Development

Bridge over pines like inference making in reading is how students' bridge the gap in connecting information across a text

Inference making in reading is how students' bridge the gap in connecting information across a text. Teachers can prompt inference making with specific questions.


Posted on: September 13, 2016


With clippers in one hand and scissors in the other, Hassan was ready to begin his new job. What can you infer was Hassan's job?
After mastering the foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, oral language) that allow students to access print, students will need an additional skill to answer the question posed in the graphic. Progress in reading comprehension depends on inference making, or the ability to connect information across a text and bridge gaps in the information provided. Below are some common examples of inferences students might be asked to make when reading a text.

Examples of Text-Dependent Inferences

  • Author's purpose
  • Causal consequence
  • Conclusion
  • Emotion
  • Evaluation
  • Main idea/summary
  • Perspective
  • Prediction
  • Text-to-text

These inferences can be challenging, particularly for students with reading difficulties.

Skills Required to Make Inferences

In order to make inferences, a reader must:

  • Have background knowledge of the words and concepts in the text
  • Attend to relevant information
  • Hold information from earlier parts of the text in memory to be connected with related information that appears later in the text
  • Monitor for inconsistencies in information

When the information needed to make an inference occurs within one sentence or in adjacent sentences, it is somewhat easier to bridge the gaps than when the information is further apart. Consider these two examples:

Comparison of two examples of making inferences

In which example is it easier to infer that Marty took his cake home because he was too full from his lunch to eat the cake at the party? Most students would choose “A” because the sentence about eating a big lunch occurs just before the sentence about asking to take his cake home to eat later. In “B,” the details of what happened at the party separate the two pieces of information that need to be connected to infer that Marty was full already. A reader has to hold the information about the lunch in memory and recognize that it is relevant to when he would want to eat the cake. Even if the individual sentences are understood, it is their relationship that produces the meaning of the text as a whole.

Ways to Help Students Make Inferences

To ensure students read for more than facts, teachers can provide questions that prompt inference making. For example, after reading one of the texts about Marty above, students might be asked, “What caused Marty to want to take his piece of cake home to eat later?” Or, “What was the result of Marty eating a big lunch before he went to his friend’s birthday party?” These questions help students make the causal relationship between the pieces of information. However, teachers need to model how to answer the questions by articulating their thinking as they identify the relevant information in the text and figure out how those pieces fit together.

With more experience, students can be taught to generate their own inferences without the question prompts. As an initial step in this transition, students can work with sentence starters such as: Because/as a result of ____________, Marty __________. Teachers again need to model how to identify information stated in the passage to complete the sentence and articulate how they would figure out the relationship between the two ideas. The sentence starters should be gradually withdrawn as students build their skills in making inferences.

The importance of inference making ability for successful reading comprehension increases across the grade levels, so students need to be offered many opportunities to practice and transfer their skills to a variety of text types and topics. Research findings (Reed & Lynn, 2016) indicate that with adequate support, all students, including those with disabilities and those at significant risk for academic failure, can successfully learn to make inferences and improve their reading comprehension.


Reed, D.K., & Lynn, D. (2016). The effects of an inference making strategy taught with and without goal setting. Learning Disability Quarterly, 39, 133–145. doi:10.1177/0731948715615557 | Abstract