What is Inference? - How to Infer Intended Meaning

Video Lesson on Author Purpose: Definition and Examples

In this lesson, we will define the terms inference and intended meaning. We will then discuss what steps to take when making inferences in literature.

Have I Used Inference Before?

Imagine for a moment that you have arrived at your house after work. All the lights are out, so you assume that you are the first one home. As you walk from your car, you see there is a package on the front step. Before you even pick it up, you assume that it was left by the mailman. You finally open the front door and see that the living room has been cleaned. You then conclude that someone must have cleaned the room while you were at work. In each of these moments, you have practiced inference.

What Is Inference?

Inference is using observation and background to reach a logical conclusion. You probably practice inference every day. For example, if you see someone eating a new food and he or she makes a face, then you infer he does not like it. Or if someone slams a door, you can infer that she is upset about something.

Before you can begin to practice inference in literature, you should know what you are looking for. Your goal is to find the intended meaning of the text. Intended meaning is what we think the author is trying to teach us.

Why is it important to make inferences? When writing a story, an author will not include all the information for us. He/she will expect us to read between the lines and reach conclusions about the text. When making inferences, you are looking beyond what is stated in the text and finding the ideas to which the author only hints. This makes you a more active reader and critical thinker. It also makes it easier to understand what the author is sharing with you.

How to Practice Making Inferences

When reading, we make inferences through the author, the text and our response. The first step to reaching a conclusion of the intended meaning of a writing is to look at the author. You should spend time reading the author's biography. Look at his/her other works and see what they have in common. Also, look at the historical and cultural context of the writing. This will help give you a background of the writing that you can use in the next step of reading.

After you have taken time to read about the author, you are ready to start to read the writing. Your goal as you read is to make conclusions. These conclusions are not stated, but you should read between the lines to understand what the author is trying to say.

As you read, make guesses. Try to guess what will happen next in the story, what a character may say or think or even what other characters not in the scene are doing.

Next, ask questions. Why are the characters acting a certain way? What are they thinking? Where are they going? What are they feeling? What do you already know? What is missing? Why is the author not including information?

After this, you should make predictions. What do you think will happen next? How will a character react? What will the outcome be?

Finally, you should find connections in the details. After you have made predictions, see what is missing or stated in the details and make connections. Fill in the missing information using your questions, guesses and predictions.

When you finish reading the text, you should take time to fill in between the lines by looking at your response and experience. Take time to review the guesses and predictions you had made and see which ones are correct.

Let's Practice!

Hopefully at some point in your childhood, you played the game of Clue. If not, we are going to play it together now and see how making inferences work. We will be trying to solve who murdered Mr. Boddy, where and with what weapon.

The victim: Mr. Boddy.

The suspects: Mrs. Peacock, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum.

The rooms: kitchen, ballroom, library, conservatory, game room and the study.

The weapons: wrench, lead pipe, rope, revolver, knife and candlestick.

When you play the game, you first ask questions. You want to know where each of the suspects were and in what room. You also ask questions to eliminate weapons or areas where Mr. Boddy may not have been.

Next, you will begin to make predictions. If we know that Mr. Boddy was killed with a revolver but Miss Scarlet only had rope, she could be eliminated. We may also predict that the game room was still available for the murder. As you play (or read), these predictions can continue to be made and tested.

Finally, you would make a guess. Once you have successfully asked questions and made predictions, you can make a stronger guess of who killed Mr. Boddy. Perhaps all of your findings led to the theory that it was Professor Plum with the wrench in the library.

While this game may be fun, making inferences in a text works the same way. As you read, look for clues of the author's intentions. Ask questions, make predictions and come up with a conclusion. You would then want to test this conclusion through your experience and the author's background.

Lesson Summary

When making an inference, you are using background and observation to reach a logical conclusion. In literature, we use inference to find an intended meaning and what we think the author is trying to teach us. To do this, we should first learn about the author, then study the text and finally connect our response to the text. By doing so, you should be able to make predictions and reach a logical conclusion about the material.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you'll have the ability to:

  • Describe what it means to make an inference
  • Explain how to make inferences when reading literature

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