How Do We Know He Killed His Wife? Teaching Inference
There is a general belief in our culture that assumptions are bad, that we should assume nothing, and many people, including students, pride themselves on assuming nothing.
However, in reality, much of every day life is made up of shared assumptions. When I stop at a traffic light, I am assuming other drivers will also obey the rules—I would not venture out on the streets otherwise. Rarely are my assumptions violated in this case, and it is notable when they are, with lawsuits and trips to the emergency room ensuing.
Assumptions, and cultural assumptions, hit home with me recently when, at the end of a story, a student asked me, “How do we know he killed his wife?” I answered that we didn’t, exactly. Still, he was heard threatening her; he bought a large insurance policy on her life, and he was found standing over her body with a loaded gun—I’m going with the inference he killed her. The student was persistent in that we should assume nothing, and, if I were on the character’s jury for murder, there would be some validity to this, to assume nothing. But I am merely a reader and need only go with the best evidence available.
Important Points of Teaching Inference
Best evidence. Go with what all the signs suggest. This is especially true in higher level reading, when readers are expected to make those connections because the writing is so information-dense the author can’t make all of them for you. When doing a reading, pause frequently to ask students why they think a character did a certain thing or why they believe something happened.
Context Counts. I once asked a student, who was hobbling into class on crutches: “Sports injury?” This was a fair inference in the context of a university and young students, and in fact, I turned out to be right. It would not be such a fair inference with an older man coming out of Denny’s restaurant on crutches. As another example, a man doing some landscaping work on a neighbor’s house one afternoon called out to me, “Do you know where a subway is?” I couldn’t fathom why he would be asking about a subway in a suburban California neighborhood, a place notorious for its dearth of public transportation, until I realized he meant Subway—a sandwich chain. In midtown Manhattan, a subway is a train; in California, it’s probably a restaurant.
Inference is often based on the assumption of shared knowledge. I gave students the example of a movie I had recently seen in which an FBI informant on the Mafia, on returning to his office and opening his desk, found a dead rat. His reaction was one of extreme fear—he took this as a threat on his life, based on his cultural understanding of “rat” as one who goes to the authorities. Someone from another culture or situation wouldn’t have the same reaction: someone from China, for example, who didn’t have that cultural understanding of “rat,” or who is not involved with organized crime, as in my case—I do understand the idioms “rat” and “rat someone out,” but since I have never informed on the Mafia, to me a dead rat in my desk would just be a dead rat, and I would not draw the same inferences the man in the film did. This seems to go with the “Best Guess” element—what is the best guess on the meaning of “rat,” given the situation?
Inferences aren’t infallible. An inference is a best guess, based on the situation and what is known at the time. The man knows he has snitched on the mob, and he jumps to certain conclusions about a dead rat left in his desk. But he could be wrong—it may be just a rat. My student coming in on crutches could have simply fallen down the stairs at her home. Getting students to accept this - that they don’t always have to be right in their inferences, and probably won’t be - can take many hours of class time and practice.
Inference has a lot to with the assumed audience and how much the reader can expect that audience to understand. I will assume a lot less from an American vs. non-American audience, for example, in discussing my family’s celebration of American Thanksgiving. “Yeah, the turkey was dry, and the game was boring,” might be the way I dismiss this year’s Thanksgiving to another American. I’m not going to go on at length about the history and common practices of the holiday and risk boring him—he knows, probably, what I mean about dry turkey and “the game.” However, I understand I’ll probably have to explain a little more at length to someone new to the culture.
Methods for Teaching Inferences
Real life concepts. Begin by pointing out things in the room or around campus: “Tom’s jacket and hair are wet. What can we infer?” He’s just come from across campus; it’s started raining since I came to class, and so on. Continue with applying the inference to ourselves: “I’m probably going to want to put on my jacket before going out,” and so on, to show that we actually do use inferences every day.
Go through a few lines of your latest reading and ask students what they understand about the piece: “How do you know it’s his own house he woke up in and not someone else’s? How do you know he lives in a city? How do you know it’s an American city? Can you tell what part of the country?” to show we infer all the time.
Show the difference between a reasonable and unreasonable inference, perhaps drawing on a past example. For me to infer my student on crutches had a sports injury was a reasonable inference. It would be less reasonable to think she had fallen from her dorm roof—though this could conceivably be true. It just wouldn’t be a reasonable/best evidence inference.
Academic texts for college students assume a lot—perhaps wrongly—about students’ knowledge base. Going through a difficult reading and discussing what the reader seems to assume students know can be insightful –highlighting what they believe the author thinks they know (and what they probably don’t).
Students are also notorious for writing writer-based prose: that is, writing that is more “writer” than “reader” friendly in that it relies too much on inference and supposed shared assumptions, as if the reader in some way were an extension of the writer: for example, writing about a family celebration and its own specific, individualistic traditions and then assuming the reader will understand that. Audience awareness can be taught with inference: in giving the assignment, ask the students to think about the possible audience and how much can be expected for about readers to know about the topic and how much needs to be explained. Tell students to imagine themselves in dialogue with that imagined audience and think about how they would modify their language and how much they would explain. This develops in writers a sense of audience.
Although we do it every day, drawing inference does not always transfer directly to academic skills.
With planned instruction, the teacher can show students how to use this skill for college reading and writing.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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