How do you boost inference skills? Two words-Chris VanAllsburg! Oh yes! A HUGE dose of Chris VanAllsburg! Here's how!
First, explore who this author is. Many of us know him, but we don't! Sure, he's The Polar Express, Jumanji, and Zathera. But he is SO much more! He is a supreme artist. If you look at his work carefully, you will see that his quality is amazing. I prefer his black line work myself. His shading and detail are incredible. Next, look at it even closer. He hides things in his work. There are reoccurring patterns of pictures and imagery. One of these is his "nephew" dog! That cute little dog is in every book he has created!
Next, there are the stories. Oh, the stories! These stories will make students think! VanAllsburg doesn’t provide all the answers. No, he is going to give hints and pieces that give the students a chance to think it through, to dig deeper into their own thinking and understanding. It is REAL practice each time they hear the story, or pick it up on their own afterwards.
It is important that you don’t just attack these stories in a haphazard way. There has to be a plan. Students need the opportunity to build their inference skills when presented with his stories. Let’s take a look at how they can build this skill within this practice of listening and inferring.
First, start with the most familiar books. The Polar Express, even when it is not Christmas time, brings the students to a familiar place. They are comfortable yet surprised by some of the differences with the movie and the book. This leads to good conversations in class. Move onto Jumanji and Zathura, since students may have seen those movies as well. And, this becomes a fascinating set of tales for them. It also begins to press into inference, as they must use their understanding in a different way. They inferencing process can be charted and discussed at this point. There is a serious transfer of characters at the end of Jumanji that goes into Zathura. Students will use their inferencing skills to start this story. They will then apply their former knowledge to infer events in Zathura. Building this slowly creates a growth mindset because you don’t overload them with the serious books yet to come.
Next, we head into the medium inferential thinking books that he has written. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is an example of this. Most of the story is a nice tale of a boy who doesn’t follow directions and the results of that decision. Then, BAM, just like that, kids have to make a serious inference that isn’t a huge risk. They take it, they have success, and they are ready for more! The Wreck of the Zephyr, Ben’s Dream, The Wretched Stone, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and Probuditi are good to read in this stage. Success for growth in inference, repeated practice, and a growing love of his work all come out of this continued practice.
In the final stage of practice I introduce them to the heavy stuff. This is where you have to work carefully, because these stories can overload the kids if you are not careful. I start with The Witches Broom. There are some things in this story that students must connect through inference. When they do, they are amazed at the depth of their thinking! I follow this with the Sweetest Fig. This one is a little harder and raises many questions for the students. Run with it and work together through the tale. The end is so worth it! And, again, success! Next comes my favorite, A Bad Day at Riverbend! OH MY GOODNESS! Do NOT, I repeat, Do NOT let them see any pages ahead in this tale. Inference, inference, inference is used on every single page! And, be sure to read it with a western twang! This is truly the most amazing of all his books! All of this will prepare them for The Stranger. This one is really hard for my students, since we live in Florida. It takes lots of inferencing and, frequently, after discovery, I reread it to them so that they can find the clues and truly enjoy the story with the deeper understanding it takes.
I know that I haven’t talked about a single activity to do with these books. That’s because I don’t do them! I don’t overload the process with writing activities and recording information. I can totally gather information from faces and group talks. I’m not looking for perfection or continual growth. I want to have this skill impact them through the simple joy of hearing, thinking, and team discussion. I have been reading and completing this unit for over 15 years and I can honestly say, it works! One of the true errors of this post is that I’m recording this information now. I won’t do this unit until at least January! By then they will be ready.
I do finish this unit with a graffiti wall activity. This is an awesome way for kids to record their favorite parts of the story, their inferences, or a picture that will stay with them from each title. The end product wasn’t fancy, but it was full of great thinking and creativity on their parts.
How do you teach inference? I’d love more ideas for great authors and activities to build my students’ skills!