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Inference: Unlocking the Prison Door to Close Reading Strategies


Dear Dr. D',

My 10th grade American Literature students just don't get it. I mean, when they are reading a fictional piece or a non-fictional piece, they don't know how to infer. They don't know how to look deeper into a piece. They don't want to look deeper, and they shut down. Please HELP! I'm at my wits' end.

- Shannon

Dear Shannon,

First, have a glass of wine, a nice cup of coffee, or your favorite beverage; take a deep breath; and realize that you are not alone. "Inference" is not easy to teach. It's a green monster (CM)! But, look at it this way, you have some time to organize your thoughts about how to approach this skill for next year. Let's see if I can get you started.Start the first week of real school (usually takes a few days to level the classes) introducing your students to diction, denotation, connotation, and tone. Then, for the rest of the year, don't let up on these four terms.

  • Diction. "In linguistics, diction means word choice" (Holman)
  • Denotation. "The basic meaning of a word, independent of its emotional coloration or associations" (Harmon 144).
  • Connotation. "The emotional implications that words or phrases may carry, as distinguished from their meanings" (Harmon 114).
  • Tone. "[. . .] the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, solemn, sombre, playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or many another possible attitude" (Harmon 510).

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 9th ed. New York: Macmillan, 2003 (This reference is now in its 12th edition, and it is a must-have for all ELA teachers!).Look at the denotation, connotation, and tone of similar words and then ask the students, "When and, more importantly, why would a person prefer one word over the other? Give examples."

  • house vs. home;
  • large vs. ponderous;
  • sit vs. flop;
  • giggle vs. snicker;
  • lie vs. fudge;
  • anger vs. disdain;
  • happy vs. giddy;
  • and more . . .

Next, pull a rich passage from one of your texts:

“A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

  • "throng" -- large group, mob-like mentality (Ask the students questions. Why didn't the narrator say 'large group?' Why did the narrator choose the word, "throng?" What is implied by a "throng?" What is the author's purpose?)
  • "sad-colored garments" -- Ask the students questions. Why "sad-colored?" Why not just say 'black' or 'navy'? It implies a sombre tone, yet it's a "throng." Hmm. Something is strange here -- irony -- (appearance vs. reality) -- sad, but mob-like. Hmm.
  • "steeple-crowned hats" -- Ask the students questions. What do you think of when you think of a steeple? The word 'steeple' has a religious connotation. Religious people? Religious people wearing dark clothes. Dark? Dark on the outside and the inside, maybe? Mob-mentality, dark on the inside. A religious mob? Pointed Hat. Narrow. Maybe narrow-minded? What is the narrator implying? What is the author's purpose?
  • "women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded" -- Ask the students questions. Why would a person wear a hood? What does a hood do? hidden (secrets) vs. open? "bareheaded" -- Does that mean nothing inside those heads?
  • "door of which was heavily timbered with oak" -- Ask the students questions. What is the purpose of a door? A door opens and closes. What do you think of when you think of the difference between 'open' and 'closed?" This door is closed. It's oak -- stubborn, unmoving, inflexible . . .
  • "[. . . and studded with iron spikes" -- Ask the students questions. What about these "iron spikes?" torturous, ominous, unyielding, dangerous, wounding . . .

Who knows what's right and/or what's wrong with the above interpretations, with the above inferences? All of the green above is inference.

After you study the sentence, tell them the sentence is the first sentence and the first paragraph of Chapter 1, titled "The Prison Door" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. From this one sentence, you already gain insight about the characters. Say to the students, "With insight like this, the reading becomes much easier to understand and to anticipate.

"Present one sentence a day during the first ten minutes of your class; make it a rich sentence and let the students discuss the subtleties and complexities of the diction. Don't correct them when they say something that makes you want to hang your head and cry. Let them be creative. Of course, they have to use evidence from the sentence (CD). I ask my students, "What words or phrases pop? If they pop out at you, pause and think about why they pop? They popped for a reason. What is that reason? (CM)"  You can also create a bank of sentences this summer. Then, at the beginning of the year, assign each student one of those sentences to present to the class on a certain date. (In your mind that date will correlate to a passage or chapter you will be introducing.) Practice! Practice! Practice! The more the students practice under your watchful eye, the more the skill of inferencing will sink into your students' minds--this is close reading. Next up -- Point of View/Perspective. But that's another blog! One more consideration: What I have learned is that the students do not understand how to deconstruct a prompt. They do not understand what the prompt is asking them to do. That, too, is a skill that needs practice. Make sure you give the students reading and writing prompts so that they will become familiar with and eventually master how to deconstruct or decode a prompt. If they are not taught the skill of prompt deconstruction, they become paralyzed. Before they begin reading, give them a prompt. Doing so will help with the close reading, because they will be searching for what the prompt is asking them to do. Do not wait until after they read. Some teachers say to me, "Deborah, I want them to find the nuances on their own." I answer, "Yeah, wouldn't we all! But, you have to teach them the skill first, and giving them reading prompts as well as writing prompts prior to their reading helps them to be successful.

"We, as teachers, can always learn, too. One of my mentors, Sharon Kingston of Lubbock, Texas, taught me that the reason Hester made the “A” so ornately on her bosom was because to her, it stood for “Arthur.” I never saw it!! Remember, when you were in high school, ladies, and you would create a beautiful, ornate rendering of your boyfriend's initials on your notebook?? So, being a student of inference is a life-long journey, for sure – in and out of school, right? . . . (I’m just saying).

Most of our students are not as giddy about the written word as we are. Be patient. And practice. Those two keys will unlock the door. Keep Writing and Reading!Yours truly,Dr. D'

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