Using pictures for effective teaching of inference and early comprehension skills

Donna Thomson

Donna is a primary literacy specialist, researcher and educational writer who has spent ten years researching and developing effective ways of teaching young children how to infer and apply core comprehension strategies to support reading and learning across the curriculum.

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‘Reading pictures can be as easy or difficult as reading printed text.’ Gomez-Reino, 1996

My research into how to teach young children explicit inference skills began in 2001 when I observed that there was a discrepancy in my school between many of our fluent reader's ability to read and their overall comprehension.

Evidence worryingly showed that an emphasis placed on phonics was producing readers who could decode the words but often had no understanding of their meaning. This was later reflected in the Rose Review’s ‘Simple View of Reading’ (2006) and more recently substantiated by York University’s ESRC reading study (2008) that raised the concern that ‘pupils' ease at reading words out loud may mask those who have difficulties with comprehension’. The cause of the problem was highlighted further by Anne Kispal’s ‘Effective Teaching of Inference’ NFER report in 2008 which concluded that poor inferencing skills cause poor comprehension and not vice versa’.

We realised that there was clearly a need to teach our children how to consciously infer and apply comprehension strategies as early as possible, if we wanted them to read for meaning and enjoyment from the very beginning.

We began finding ways of explicitly teaching these skills in Years 5 & 6 by exploring intriguing picture books with the whole class to help them focus on the process of ‘understanding’ rather than ‘decoding’. We wanted them to think about and share with each other how they unravel meaning to make sense of something, and how they identify clues and generate questions to make meaning. This meta-cognitive process was an equally successful foundation for teaching comprehension and reasoning skills to our Year 2 classes.

Over the years we have found that reading and interpreting images provides a powerful and stimulating comprehension teaching and assessment tool that supports children of all ages and abilities. Pictures are full of inferred and hidden meaning and as such are a great starting point for explicit comprehension instruction. If children cannot infer from pictures, they are unlikely to infer from text. This is because literal, inferential and evaluative visual clues are more immediate and easier to identify than text clues. Pictures can activate prior knowledge and experience in an instant. They prompt a range of emotions and personal reactions that absorb children and invite them to investigate and enquire further.

Evidence from classroom practice has consistently shown that once literal, inference and evaluative questioning skills and reading for meaning strategies such as summarising, predicting and clarifying are consciously applied and secure using pictures, young readers respond more confidently to being shown how to make inferred links between picture evidence and clues in the title or first or second line of text. From this understanding they can then successfully progress towards comprehending more lengthy text with illustrations – and finally text with little picture supplementation.

In addition, the metacognitive processes involved in picture comprehension enquiry and discussion, that leads to greater understanding of text, helps children to develop essential thinking, reasoning and justifying skills that they can consciously apply to other areas of learning in the curriculum.

Think2Read Comprehension Enquiry Project 2008 – 2011, funded by Real Ideas Organisation in association with Creative Partnerships (British Arts Council)

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