Inferring in Nonfiction: Going Beyond the Text

by Stephanie Harvey

Inferential thinking is the bedrock of understanding.

Inferring involves drawing a conclusion or making an interpretation based on information that is not explicitly stated in the text. Inferential thinking helps readers make predictions, surface themes, or draw conclusions.

What can students infer from clues in text and media?
Photograph by Winn Brewer, National Geographic

When reading nonfiction, readers infer from the text, but they also infer from illustrations, photographs, and graphic features such as color and design.

Readers may have to crack open language to get at the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts. Answers to questions often must be inferred.

Inferring requires that readers merge their background knowledge with clues in the text and/or graphics to come up with something that isn’t explicitly stated. We share this inferring equation with students:

(Background Knowledge + Text Clues = Inference)

Students need to know that inferring is not merely guessing. Inferences have to be tied to the text. Guesses do not. (Harvey and Goudvis 2016)

Infer with Explorer

National Geographic Explorer magazine, with its remarkable images and features, offers a wide array of inferential entry points to help students gain understanding and build knowledge.

The May 2018 issue of National Geographic Explorer contains an article titled “The Blue Fleet.” Loaded with stunning photos, we can share the inferring equation and then flip through the magazine, making inferences from photographs as well as text.

Beginning with the cover, educators can model how we infer the meaning of the title.
Photograph by Emily Mallozzi, National Geographic

Beginning with the cover photo and the title, we model with students how we infer the meaning of the title:

“I know what a fleet is (a large group of ships) but since there are no ships on the cover, I can infer that this title actually doesn’t mean a group of ships. So, I need to use the photos as additional clues. These photos help me infer that The Blue Fleet is an inferential title and seems to relate to the creatures on the cover. I infer the meaning of the title by using the inferring equation BK+TC=I.”

Once you have modeled this, have students scan pages 2 and 3 and ask them to turn and talk about what they can infer from the images and the selection title on those pages. They might infer that the creature is a jelly. They might confirm that “Blue Fleet” means blue sea creatures, since there is one on the page.

Suggest students preview the article, paying attention to the photos and subheads. You might read the subhead “Many Parts, One Animal” and share what you infer this section will be about.

Photograph by Emily Mallozzi, National Geographic

“I infer from the subhead and the photo to the left that this section is going to give information about this creature, but that it is more than one creature.”

Read the first sentence under that subhead. “Don’t let the name fool you. The blue button jellyfish is no jellyfish. It’s a colony.”

Say “I made a reasonable inference based on the subhead and the photo. I will jot my inference on a Post-it and place it right next to the photo where I made it.”

Once you have modeled how you infer from photos, subheads, and titles, invite students to find a partner, read together, practice inferring, and jot down their own inferences as they read and view.

After they finish the article, have students come back and share out what it is they inferred … as well as any of the cool content they learned.

Use Explorer to help students infer and explore!
Photograph by Winn Brewer, National Geographic



Adapted from: Harvey, Stephanie and Anne Goudvis. 2016 The Intermediate Comprehension Toolkit. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Interested in Explorer magazine? Click here to subscribe to this great classroom resource.

Stephanie Harvey is a National Geographic Fellow and private consultant to schools and school districts around the world. Her company implements K-12 literacy initiatives focused on comprehension, collaboration, and inquiry.

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