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

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