8 Activities to Build Inference Skills

When you ask students to describe a character’s traits, determine the theme of a story, examine cause and effect, or even to try to guess the meaning of a vocabulary word, you are asking them to infer.  Inference is an essential skill in English language arts, but sometimes we overlook the importance of intentionally providing the tools, strategies, and practice that students require to improve this skill. 


According to Marzano, there are certain thinking and reasoning processes that have come to be recognized as “foundational to higher-order thinking” and inference is one of them.  Not only that, but it is skill that is integral to comprehension in the ELA classroom. 

Students might not realize it, but they are actually making inferences all the time, which essentially means that they are making assumptions, educated guesses, and/or predictions based on the information they have or know from personal experience or their own background knowledge.   Grab these free classroom posters to remind students of the meaning of inference as well as thinking/discussion stems they can use when they are inferring information.

In order for students to understand how to infer, they first need to be instructed on what inference is and be given opportunities to practice this skill.  The hope is that with this practice, students will hone this skill and begin using it automatically.

To build this skill, there are four questions that Marzano suggests teachers pose to students to generate meaningful conversation and instruction around teaching inference:

- What is my inference?  
- What information did I use to make this inference?  
- How good was my thinking?  
- Do I need to change my thinking?  

Weave these questions into your instruction, questions, assignments, and language to help students build capacity in inferential thinking. 


Teaching students how to write using the Show vs. Tell method is an excellent way to introduce inferential thinking as it allows them to experience how authors use description and imagery that allow the reader to deduce information.  Students will be able to see through the writing process that when an author is showing something, they are relaying thoughts, feelings, emotions, senses, and descriptions in the text in a deeper and more meaningful way.  

One of my favorite ways to get students to understand the difference between showing and telling is to have students write a paragraph about a time that they felt a very strong emotion (anger, excitement, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise), but tell them that they are not permitted to use that specific word (or synonyms for that word in the paragraph).   Instead, they must show the reader this emotion through character, setting, and conflict descriptions.  For example, 

Students will find this exercise challenging, but it will help them understand the meaning of inference and hopefully will have an impact on how they read between the lines of other texts they encounter. 



Students may not know that they are making inferences about others on a daily basis and, in turn, others are making inferences about them as well.  Bringing real-world examples into your classroom activities will help students see that inference is not limited to text analysis.  Below are a couple of my favorite ways to do this: 


A lot can be inferred from a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram profile.  Have students examine random social media profiles to make inferences about the people based on what that person posts, shares, and comments.  I like to share these pre-made profiles and have students examine what they read, what they know, and what they can infer.  

You can also discuss the idea of “vaguebooking” with students.  Vaguebook updates are intentionally vague Facebook status updates that prompt friends to ask what's going on. For example someone might post 

“Ouchhhhh!!! I can’t believe how incredibly clumsy I am… UGH. Off to the ER…” 

They intentionally are fishing for someone to comment to ask what is going on or, at the very least, are getting their friends to infer what might be happening.  This makes for a perfect inference activity as students need to use the information they know about their friend to infer what the post may be about.  I share these vague status updates I created as a fun classroom activity to practice making inferences. 


Another great way to speak your students’ language is to incorporate music lyrics that require inferences into your teaching.  There are many songs that tell a story, but what exactly happens is not explicitly stated.   These songs are perfect to practice inference as they encourage students to look closely at the lyrics to infer what is going on.  Some songs that I like to use are: 

Two Black Cadillacs by Carrie Underwood 
Someone Like You by Adele
Teardrops on my Guitar by Taylor Swift 

Some of these songs do have mature content and topics and work best for high school.  It’s also important that you look at the lyrics carefully to ensure they are appropriate for your grade level or school community.


A unique and fun way to improve inference skills is to have students watch short films that have no words and infer what is happening based on what they’ve watched. One of my favorite video clips to use are the Hungarian Shadow Dancers who were featured on Britain’s Got Talent. Here are two performances you can use: 

The dances have absolutely no words, but audience members are brought to tears because of what they infer from the performances.  Have students create a three column table where they record what they see (consider location, events, people), what they know from their background knowledge and then what they infer from the performance.

If you have a younger audience, Pixar makes amazing short, silent, animated films that would also work perfect for this.  I recommend starting with the film, Partly Cloudy. 



Since 2012, The New York Times has been helping students fine tune their close reading and visual thinking skills through their popular “What’s Going On in This Picture?” feature, with incredible success. Together, with arts education organization Visual Thinking Strategies, they have attracted the interest of—not only thousands of students from all over the world—but the participation of entire classrooms.

Each week an interesting New York Times photo is selected with all captions and context removed, and students are challenged to look closely and infer what they think is going on in the photo. Students are asked to support their inferences with “evidence”, elaborating on what made them draw the conclusions they did, and to look even closer to see what else they might be able to find. They are also encouraged to consider the observations of others and respond thoughtfully. A few days after the photo is posted each week, more information is revealed about it. Students are then able to reflect on whether knowing more about the photo changes the way they see it, and if so, how. The goal is to get students “engaged in a writing or discussion activity”, and to ultimately foster their “writing, thinking, speaking and listening” skills.


It’s something you may have seen on social media - a lost camera or even just a memory card has been found, and someone posts the photos online in hopes of returning the presumably priceless memories to their rightful owner.

One can make a lot of educated guesses about a stranger based on their photos alone, and in some cases those inferences might even lead to the camera’s return to its rightful owner.  For example, you might see a logo on someone’s t-shirt and be able to determine their place of work, you might see a street sign in the background and be able to guess where they  live.  You might see a photo of a group celebrating a birthday at a popular restaurant or someone enjoying a yoga class at a popular studio.  These are all clues that allow one to play detective, and hopefully a successful one. 

You can easily bring this experience into the classroom by having students play detective by giving them lost pictures from a missing camera and having them make inferences about the owner based on those images.  They might be pictures of a wedding day, or grandparents meeting their precious grandchild for the first time; a once in a lifetime family vacation or a milestone birthday celebration.  Whatever the case may be, you don’t have to know the people to gather some information on the camera’s owner. 



One of my favorite stories to teach inference is The Chaser by John Collier.  The story is about a young man named Alan who is desperate to make a woman named Diana fall in love with him. So desperate, in fact, that he is willing to use a love potion!  The story requires students make a great deal of inferences to piece together what exactly happens at the end of the plot.  


Another great story to use is Visual story Ordeal by Cheque by Wuther Crue.  This isn’t your traditional short story as the story is told entirely with images of cheques.  Students must interpret the plot line, characters, and conflict based solely on the information shared on the cheques (the date, who it was made out to, who issued the cheque, and the amount it was for etc.).  Put students into groups and have them piece together the story and present their inferences to the rest of the class. 


Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Your students will love having the opportunity to get their collective Sherlock Holmes on by working together to solve a real-world mystery.  

One of my favorite real-world mysteries occurred in 1978 when a construction crew uncovered a buried ship underground in the middle of downtown.  Students watch a hand-drawn video that tells the backstory, and  speculate on the purpose the ship once served, who owned it, and why it remained buried for so many years without being discovered. 

Another way to have students solve a mystery is to present them with a crime and have them play detective.  You can either do this by setting up a crime scene in the classroom and have them infer what happened.  You can also share information, evidence, witness testimonies, and have students weave a story together and solve a crime. Try this out for free using my Who Kidnapped the Principal? resource. 


Let’s be honest, most people don’t sit around pondering what could be deduced about them based on the contents of their trash.  But your trash can actually reveal a lot about your interests, preferences, activities, and household routines.  Another fun activity you can use to help students practice inference is to have them examine the contents of someone else’s trash to make inferences about that person based on their own background knowledge.   Bring in some bags of "clean trash" and have students create a character sketch of the person it could belong to.

Inference is a necessary 21st century skill that many students struggle with, but it can be developed over time, with practice. Inference skills improve the ability to bridge gaps in information and improve reading comprehension.   By implementing creative ways to get students comfortable with inferring, they will realize that it isn’t as complicated as they may think.  

Need other ideas for teaching students to infer?  Check out some of the other Coffee Shop blogger ideas below! 

Black Cat Inferences Challenge by Nouvelle ELA

Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis Activities and Strategies by Room 213

Setting the Tone: Engaging Lesson Ideas for the First Class of the Year

For many high school students, the first day of school is - all too often - a monotonous time loop. They move from room to room, listen to numerous teacher introductions, collect a pile of course curricula, hear rules and expectations, and have to answer that predictable how-was-your-summer question (again, and again, and again). Not a great way to generate enthusiasm and excitement for the year.

So here are five more engaging ways to start the year right in the high school ELA classroom; they work for all grades from 8-12. If you really have to hand out course descriptions or go over rules and expectations, why not leave it for a couple of days into the course?

IDEA ONE: Guided Creative Writing

One of my all-time favourite first-lessons: jump right in and get students writing, writing, writing! By the end of class, students will have a whole page of writing generated, which works to eliminate the pre-writing anxiety, provide you with a sample of their written proficiency, and set the tone for creativity and productivity in your room!  

1. Arrange the room so that students are sitting individually. As students enter, hand them each a blank piece of paper, and tell them that there should be nothing else on their desks except a pen or pencil. 
2. Jump straight into the exercise without any introduction. Simply instruct students to divide the page into 6 squares. 
3. Tell students to pick an object (any one!) and write it in the top left corner of the first square (write small). Allow about 20 seconds for this. 
4. Now, work through the rest of the squares the same way, with the following guided prompts: in the second square, write an action (a verb); in the third, write an adjective; the fourth, an onomatopoeic word (sound); the fifth, an animal; the sixth, a number.
5. Next, instruct students to turn their attention to box one, and use that word in a sentence: write it small at the top of the box (allow about a minute for this).
6. Now instruct students to move on to box two, to use that word in a sentence; even if they were mid-sentence in box one, it doesn’t matter, they must move on. Again give them a minute for this. 
7. Repeat with all six boxes. 
8. Now, guide students through each box again, telling them to carry on where they left off, writing as much as they possibly can. This time, give about 3 minutes a box. 
Break here as students’ hands may be cramping! 
9. Now, hand out lined paper and explain to students that they have to take those boxes and weave them all into one coherent story! *For differentiation, you may want to give the option of only picking 3 or 4 boxes. 
10. Students may be shocked or exclaim that they can’t! Take the opportunity to emphasise a growth mindset, to encourage them that it doesn’t matter; it is not graded; it is just for fun, and that you expect their story to be completely bizarre! 
11. In the last 10 minutes of class, allow time for editing, or for perhaps reading stories out loud! 

For more ways to get to know your English classes, check out this blog by Secondary Sara.

IDEA TWO: Behaviors and Expectations for Learning

Student buy-in is key at the high-school level. They should be developing their own voices, and we should be encouraging them to use them! Therefore, flip the script and have them make their own goals for learning, and define their own expectations for the learning environment. After all, it is their education; encourage students to take ownership of it. Download these free printable cards for students to write their own mission statements and goals for the year, or use the following lesson:

1. Print out a set of these posters, and place them around the room: stuck on whiteboards or chart paper. 
2. Instruct students to walk around and write examples around the posters, or on sticky-notes attached to the posters. 
3. Then when they are done, put students into four focus groups: one per poster. 
4. These groups have to read all the contributions and then come up with 2 or 3 of the most common points or ideas (or combine different ones into these points). 
5. Then review and discuss. Take down the 2 or 3 main points from each group and write these up in a list of positive "Class Norms" on the wall.
6. Throughout the year, keep coming back to these to make sure all students are adhering to the expectations they agreed on.

IDEA THREE: Literature Close Annotation

As an English teacher, one of my key goals is to have students fall in love with words! I want them to engage with language around them in a meaningful way: whether that is the metaphors used in sports commentary, the subtle rhetorical techniques in political speeches, or the poetry increasingly popular on Instagram. Therefore, I often start the year (or course) by having students spend a whole lesson reading a range of extracts: annotating, finding connections, and making observations.

Before Class
1. Lay out the desks of the classroom in groups of 4 or 5. 
2. Collect and print sets of random pieces of text: poems, speeches, fiction, etc. You could print this set, or curate your own (one set per group). 
3. Place these sets in the center of each group, along with colored markers/pens. 
During Class
1. When students enter, assign them to a group, and tell them to keep their desks free from distraction: all they need is pens!
2. Now, instruct students to turn to the pile of extracts on their desk; they are to spend time passing them around, reading, and annotating.
3. Instruct students that they should annotate for content (questions they have, thoughts, links to other texts, etc.), for structure (line structure, punctuation, repetition, etc.), and language (figurative techniques, word choice, etc.) - You might want to write these prompts on the board.
4. Allow plenty of time for students to share the extracts around, each annotating multiple ones.
5. Now instruct students to discuss the extracts at their tables: Which did they like? Why? Can they make connections between any of them? Which were the most different? Which did they not like? Why not? Any notably interesting phrasing or word choice?
6. Project a few on the board, and annotate with the class: discuss and demonstrate things to look for; talk about why you like them; what’s beautiful about them; what’s clever or interesting.    

Get these LEARNING GOAL cards HERE

I hope your school year gets off to a great start; definitely check out our best Teacher Hacks for Back-To-School, and if you are looking for more ideas, make sure you read our list of nine of the Best Resources for Back to School.

If you are still hungry for inspiration, you may be interested in these resources:

Encourage Reading With Student Book Reviews

I love nothing more than hearing that a student loved the book they just read.  It is music to my ears when a student asks me if I know any other books like the one they just finished, because they are excited to keep reading.   As an ELA teacher and librarian, I work hard to help students find the right book... my only concern when I am helping a student, is to find a book that they will enjoy and hopefully read all the way through.  I do not worry about the level, how many pages it is, whether it is non-fiction or fiction - I only worry about whether I think I have matched a great book with the right student.

One of the best ways to encourage reading with my students is to have students chat with each other about what they are reading.  Nothing can inspire a student to read a book more, than when a friend or classmate tells them enthusiastically about a fantastic book.  If we are doing an independent novel study I give my class time to chat with each other about what they are reading - nothing formal, just a few minutes to share with someone new what they are reading.  When we are doing Lit Circles, where I have groups reading different novels, I create a quick jigsaw rotation so that students get to hear about the books that others have read.

My students have really enjoyed the books that they have read this year and so I created a template for a BOOK REVIEW POSTER.  It is short and sweet and does not take the students long to complete. I display the posters around my classroom and library as a way to encourage others to sign out the books.  Grab a FREE DIGITAL VERSION or a FREE PRINT VERSION!

Remarkably these little posters work! Students love seeing what other students have read and are encouraged to read the books that I have reviews for.  Next year I am planning to create a more permanent way of displaying student book reviews - I'll be sure to keep you posted!.

Another way I promote books and reading, is that I always share what I am reading with my students.  I give a quick book talk when I read something new and often encourage specific students to read if I think it will appeal to them.  This has been a great way to connect with students over the years.

Tips and Tricks
- Always read when the students are reading.  I know you could be grading, cleaning up or doing one of the million other things you have going on, but nothing is more powerful than modeling reading.

- Do a quick display of what the teachers at your school are reading! Give the staff a copy of the Book Review Template and have a teacher display!

- Have a wide range of books - diversity matters!  A wide range of fiction and non-fiction, magazines, newspapers, even old textbooks may appeal!  The more you have available, the more likely someone is to find something they like.

-In order to keep some of the momentum for reading going over the summer, I'm going to allow students to sign out three books over the summer. I have never tried this before and I am optimistic that some kids will take me up on the offer and very optimistic that the books will be returned at the start of the school year.

Popular Titles With My Students
Some of the books that have really taken off this year in the library and in my classroom are listed below.  They are not necessarily the newest books, but they are the books that have resonated with my students.
Bear Town - Fredrik Backman
Boy 21 - Mathew Quick 
Dear Martin - Nic Stone
The Declaration - Gemma Malley
Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
Invincible - Vince Papale
Juice - Eric Walters
Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds
Moon At Nine - Deborah Ellis
The Smell of Other People's Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Son of the Mob - Gordon Korman
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
We Are All Made of Molecules - Susin Nielsen

Happy Reading!

For more book suggestions or to read how I run Lit Circles in my classroom check out this blog post!

Also check out this fun Book Shelfie Activity from Tracee Orman - it's another great way to promote reading among your students.

Nouvelle ELA also has a great (FREE!) activity for Book Talks!

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