Article

TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #16:
Making Inferences in the Inclusive Classroom

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)

Introduction

Reading comprehension is a complex task involving several cognitive skills and processes that work together in order for students to understand the text they read. Students must be able to recall and sequence information, make inferences from insights about the text, and integrate their new learning with previously learned material. In this TIPS, we give suggestions for teachers on how to teach inferencing skills to all learners in an inclusive classroom. The examples presented are reflective of a collaborative process required to plan the use of inferencing strategies in inclusive classrooms through the UDL framework. To learn more about the process and how to implement it in an inclusive general education classroom, please see the TIES Center 5-15-45 tool.

Evidence

Inferential comprehension is often defined as when students “read between the lines” of a given text. It involves the reader integrating literal understanding of what is happening in context with their prior background knowledge, intuition, and imagination to derive meaning and extensions of their thoughts (William & Mary Technical Assistance & Training Center, 2002).

 In Barrett and Smith’s (1974) Taxonomy of Reading Comprehension, eight subtasks are possible when making inferences. Noted below, there are different goals for each type of inference:

  • Inferring supporting details – guessing about additional facts the author could have included in the selection that would have made it more informative, interesting, or appealing.
  • Inferring the main idea – providing the main idea, general significance, theme, or moral that is not explicitly stated in the selection.
  • Inferring sequence – guessing what action or incident might have taken place between two explicitly stated actions or incidents or making hypotheses about what could happen next.
  • Inferring comparisons – inferring likenesses and differences in characters, times, or places.
  • Inferring cause-and-effect relationships – hypothesizing about the motives of characters and their interactions with others and with time and place.
  • Inferring character traits – hypothesizing about the nature of characters on the basis of explicit clues presented in the selection.
  • Predicting outcomes – guessing the outcome of a selection after reading an initial portion.
  • Inferring about figurative language – inferring literal meanings from the author’s figurative use of language (p. 54-55).

To learn more about the process of inferencing see Effective Teaching of Inference Skills: A Literature Review.

Research Support for Teaching How to Make Inferences

Reading comprehension, including inferencing, is a necessary target within literacy instruction for all students across all grade levels (Browder et al., 2009). According to Pearson and Duke (2002), reading comprehension is best taught for all students through explicit instruction, “Comprehension improves when teachers provide explicit instruction in the use of comprehension strategies. Comprehension improves when teachers implement activities that support the understanding of the text that students will read in their classes” ( p. 247). Reading comprehension as a whole has an extensive literature base; however, research specific to students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings is still limited (e.g. Saunders et al., 2020).

Implementation

Several strategies exist to teach how to make inferences and this section will focus on ones that would make a good fit for the inclusive classroom setting. We will also share some adaptations using a case study student with examples.

Inclusive Implementation

One way to ensure all students have equal access from the use when making inferences is to use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL; Meyer et al., 2014). UDL is a framework to help teachers develop lessons and activities that include all students by addressing engagement, representation, and action and expression. These UDL principles help educators to make the most of varying student strengths and reduced barriers when teaching how to make inferences. When students have improved access to content and instructional practices, such as when they are making inferences, they are able to show what they know and become more independent and actively engaged.

Making Inferences in Action

Below are examples showcasing a collaborative team approach to provide all students with explicit instruction on making inferences, including students with a significant cognitive disability. Using a UDL framework, barriers and potential solutions are provided showing where teachers can create access points for these students. Several strategies for making inferences are included in the resource section near the bottom of this article. Each of the 25 strategies/activities included in William & Mary’s The Inferential Reading Comprehension Considerations Packet PDFaddress different types of inferencing. We suggest the following as a starting point to adapt for students with significant disabilities:

We use a student vignette to highlight three of these strategies (Picture This, Sequencing Text, and Open Mind). The vignette addresses three different types of inferences ( main idea, sequence, and character traits) using a UDL framework for decision making and collaboration between team members.

Meet Welles

Welles is a 5th grader with diagnoses of a severe intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder. He attends school in an inclusive setting with a paraprofessional, Mr. Tommy, who splits his time between two other students with disabilities in Mrs. Jenkins’ general education class. Welles responds more regularly to Mr. Tommy than to other adults in the room or to his peers. Welles communicates best through the use of gestures, some signs, and a speech generating device (SGD). Welles has strengths in mathematics and can answer many math computation problems from memory. In reading, he and his class participate in Reader’s Workshop in which Mrs. Jenkins and his special education teacher, Ms. Enriquez, co-teach lessons. Welles is more engaged when the teachers share images or video clips to go along with Reader’s Workshop lessons. Following the whole group lesson, he rotates with a small group of students with, and without, disabilities to the paraprofessional. In this small group, students work on the day’s Good Reader Strategy. Welles likes doing activities in the class with his peers. However, when the class breaks off into small groups to do activities requiring higher order thinking skills, Mrs. Jenkins often gives Welles’  group other assignments that require only literal recall from the lesson or class reading. While the gesture to differentiate is appreciated, Ms. Enriquez wants Welles and the other students in his group to be challenged. Mrs. Enriquez wants to help support Welles in participating more fully in the general education content. She wants him to be expected to meet the same high expectations Mrs. Jenkins holds for all her students. The context for the examples will occur within this group structure (i.e., Welles and his group working with the paraprofessional).

Welles’ general education teacher, special education teacher, and the classroom paraprofessional met quickly to discuss his participation in the "Good Reader Strategy: Good readers make inferences about the main idea" in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Team Input conversation transcript

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): This week I want to work more with the class on making inferences about the main idea in text.

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): Great, I have some ideas for the small group and specifically for Welles.

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): Oh, that would be great. We are going to be doing a strategy called “Picture This” where the students are going to have to look at pictures and make inferences based on the clues in the image.

Paraprofessional (Mr. Tommy): That sounds good. I think the groups will enjoy taking a break from reading text to practice inferencing with just pictures.

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): Agreed, this may be a great opportunity to include Welles in inferencing activities by focusing on his strengths of being able to understand and communicate using pictures.

See the table below for the process and outcomes the team used to come up with a plan for Welles’ participation in the classroom activity of inferring main idea using the Picture This strategy (page 10 of PDF) PDF.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles responds more to the paraprofessional in the room than his peers.

The paraprofessional can support Welles’ independence by having the small group of peers ask each other questions when holding up the picture cards that are closely aligned with Welles' interest (i.e., favorite television show, video game, etc.) or familiar experiences (i.e., riding the school bus, siblings, etc.) for inferences.

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles has not consistently been an active participant in small group work, so he has not practiced following group norms for small group interactions. For the Picture This activity, he will be expected to expand on his peers’ thoughts.

The group will practice how to expand on a partner’s thoughts using examples and non-examples of group norm behaviors (i.e., how to wait for a turn, raise hand to contribute, etc.).

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles relies on gestures, signs, and his SGD to communicate. He needs relevant terms programmed into his device.

Welles’ general education teacher will give the paraprofessional possible terms to add to the “Picture This” activity prior to small group time.

Welles’ team members met again to discuss his continued participation in the “Good Reader strategy: Good readers make inferences about sequencing” in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Team Input conversation transcript

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): I am so impressed with Welles' progress so far when making inferences.

Paraprofessional (Mr. Tommy): I agree. He seemed really engaged with his group when he starting using pictures to show his inferencing skills.

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): I am glad that he was able to participate in that activity. I would love it if you can help me brainstorm our next task. I want our students to  use inferencing skills to order events when reading.

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): I know he can do things like this on his AAC device, but I want to challenge him to work with the group to sequence events together, maybe using sentence strips.

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): All right. For the “Sequencing Text” strategy, I was going to have class practice first with putting their sentence strips in order for how to make a pitcher of lemonade. And then our next lesson, we'll expand on this and have them sequence texts. But for now, I want them to practice with something they know well.

See the table below for the process and outcomes the team used to come up with a plan for Welles’ participation in the classroom activity of inferencing sequence using the Sequencing Text strategy (page 11 of PDF) PDF.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles responds best to visual supports for learning. He may need models rather than just reading the sentence strips. 

While each group works to sequence the steps for making lemonade, Welles’ small group could begin by watching a video clip on an iPad of materials laid out and then an ending clip of kids selling lemonade at a lemonade stand.

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles has never made a pitcher of lemonade before but has seen his parents make one (may not know the motor steps).

As part of the lesson, all the small groups, including  Welles and his peers, could act out the process of making lemonade with an empty pitcher, specifically how to do motor movements (e.g., pour, stir, squeeze).

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles cannot read the vocabulary on the sentence strips without support.

Welles would either highlight the vocabulary on the sentence strips that is programmed in his AAC device or the sentence strip would be read by a peer or paraprofessional. After two strips are read, Welles could place the highlighted sentence strips in the order he thinks each step should go.

Welles’ team members met again to discuss his continued participation in the “Good Reader Strategy: Good readers make inferences about character traits” in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Team Input conversation transcript

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): I feel like we're getting the hang of this. Welles is doing really well in his small group and preparing the activities with him in mind is not that hard.

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): I am glad. It takes practice but the more we do it, the easier this becomes. What is next in our reader’s workshop unit on inferencing?

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): Well, something all kids struggle with is inferring about characters beyond just physical descriptions.

Paraprofessional (Mr. Tommy): I’ve seen the same thing. Any time I ask my group to describe characters, they are always telling me what they look like.

Special education teacher (Ms. Enriquez): For Welles and his group, I would like to see them share more about the character traits and about what the characters are thinking and feeling.

General education teacher (Mrs. Jenkins): Exactly! Maybe we can include images to help Welles participate with the class on this one. The “open mind” strategy is easy. I will have a poster sized silhouette of each character’s head and the small groups can pull information from the text and add drawings and words to show the character’s motives and traits.

Paraprofessional (Mr. Tommy): Perfect, if you tell me what to add for his group’s character, I can add some symbols and words to his AAC device before that lesson.

See the table below for the process and outcomes the team used to come up with a plan for Welles’ participation in the classroom activity of inferring character traits using the Open Mind strategy (page 14 of PDF) PDF.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

When the group is making something collaboratively, Welles often just looks through his AAC device for images and symbols while the group works to finish a task.

To enhance his engagement, the paraprofessional will make sure images and symbols for a variety of characters are provided. Welles and other students in his small group could then choose which character they want to make inferences about. The paraprofessional can quickly practice with him, before the small group meets, to show him how to navigate categories when it is time to do the “Open Mind” activity.

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles has limited experience describing character traits. Previously he had only described physical character traits by looking back at pictures of characters.

The special education teacher could prepare a lesson for the paraprofessional’s group on non-physical character traits (i.e., honest, caring, etc.) and have students label different examples using one sentence descriptions (e.g., she always told the truth, even when she didn’t want to) using text-based evidence.

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Welles has limited verbal expression, but he can make gestures, facial expressions, and some signs.

When in groups, accept answers from Welles that include facial expressions or signs as part of the group response. For the explanation part, Welles could be provided picture-supported adapted text to pair with his character trait label.

For students with significant cognitive disabilities, teaching them how to make inferences requires planning by general education and special education teachers and staff. Thoughtful consideration of strategies, and adaptations to strategies, to explicitly teach inferencing skills is critical to the academic achievement of all students who struggle to comprehend text. When teams work together to create access points for these students, authentic participation is possible.

Resources

  • CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning guidelines (version 2.2). Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

  • Kispal, A. (2008). Effective teaching of inference skills for reading: Literature review (Research Report DCSF-RR031). Berkshire, UK: Department for Children, Schools, and Families; National Foundation for Educational Research. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications.

  • William & Mary Training & Technical Assistance Center. (2002). Inferential reading comprehension considerations packet. Retrieved from https://education.wm.edu/centers/ttac/documents/packets/inferential.pdf

References

  • Barrett, T. C., & Smith, R. (1974). Teaching reading in the middle. Reading, PA: Addison Wesley.

  • Browder, D., Gibbs, S., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., Courtade, G. R., Mraz, M., & Flowers, C. (2009). Literacy for students with severe developmental disabilities: What should we teach and what should we hope to achieve? Remedial and Special Education, 30, 269–282. https://doi.org/10.17/0741932508315054

  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

  • Pearson, P. D., & Duke, N. K. (2002). Comprehensive instruction in the primary grades. In C. Collins-Block & M. Pressley (Eds.), Comprehensive instruction: Research-based best practices (pp. 247–258). New York: Guilford Press.

  • Saunders, A. F., Wakeman, S., Reyes, E., Thurlow, M. L., & Vandercook, T. (2020). Instructional practices for students with the most significant disabilities in inclusive settings: A review of the literature (TIES Center Report 104). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, The TIES Center website: https://files.tiescenter.org/files/gMyqghMkcj/ties-center-report-104

TIPS Series: Tip #16, November 2020

The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. N., & Wakeman, S. (2020). Making Inferences in the Inclusive Classroom (TIPS Series: Tip #16). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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