October 2015: Inference Instruction for Struggling Readers

Hall, C. S. (2015). Inference instruction for struggling readers: A synthesis of intervention research. Educational Psychology Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s10648-014-9295-x

Summary by Dr. Amy Barth


Hall (2015) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis (empirical synthesis) of the literature on inference interventions with struggling readers. By way of background, the ability to make inferences while reading is integral for comprehension of narrative and informational texts. Inference-making involves linking the ideas within a text and integrating one’s knowledge of the world with text. Inference-making is important for comprehension because it “fills in the gaps” in the text. If these gaps are not filled by making inferences, the message is less coherent and the text more difficult to understand. During reading, readers form several kinds of inferences to maintain semantic coherence (McKoon & Ratcliff, 1992), such as pronoun reference, lexical reference, and word meaning from context. Readers also use general knowledge to fill in gaps in text (see Table 1).

Although both skilled and less skilled readers make inferences that are required to maintain coherence, less skilled readers are less accurate and slower at forming these inferences (Barnes, Ahmed, Barth, & Francis, 2015; Barth, Barnes, Francis, York, & Vaughn, 2015; Oakhill, 1984), frequently make fewer inferences during reading (Cain & Oakhill, 1999), and make inferences of lower quality relative to skilled readers (Carlson et al., 2014). These significant differences in the rate, accuracy, frequency, and quality of inferences formed during reading may be because less skilled readers lack sufficient working memory resources or general knowledge to make these inferences (Cain, Oakhill, Barnes, & Bryant, 2001; Cain, Oakhill, & Bryant, 2004; Currie & Cain, 2015). Another reason may be that less skilled readers have spent less time practicing how to accurately and efficiently integrate information in text with general knowledge on the topic (Cain et al., 2004). Some researchers have argued that less skilled readers have “lower standards of coherence,” meaning that they may not always expect what they read to make sense and may therefore put less effort into trying to make the text more coherent by making the needed inferences (van den Broek et al., 2005).

A growing body of evidence suggests that explicit instruction in inference-making can improve inference-making in less skilled readers. Hall’s review and synthesis of nine intervention studies reported that explicit instruction in the formation of inferences results in significant improvements in inference-making and reading comprehension among less skilled readers. Mean effect sizes for researcher-developed measures of inference-making ranged from g = 0.72 to g = 1.85. These effect sizes are large, meaning that students in intervention made significant gains in inference-making, gains greater than 0.7 of a standard deviation. For standardized measures of reading comprehension, mean effect sizes ranged from g = -0.03 to g = 1.96, suggesting that students made small to large improvements in reading comprehension.

Hall also reported that inference-making and reading comprehension of less skilled readers were improved following a relatively small number of intervention sessions. The average number of intervention sessions was 15.7 (range of 1 to 40).

Finally, certain instructional features were associated with significant gains in inference-making and reading comprehension among less skilled readers. Key instructional features were explicitly provided and included (a) practice answering inference questions, (b) inference question generation, (c) use of key words and text clues, and (d) background knowledge strategy instruction (see Table 2).


Hall suggested that interventions targeting inference-making are highly effective among less skilled readers but that additional research is required. For example, the majority of studies evaluated the effect of inference training among struggling readers in the elementary grades. Future research should examine the extent to which explicit instruction in inference-making leads to improved inferencing and reading comprehension among struggling readers in the secondary grades, when inference-making may become increasingly important for reading comprehension (Ahmed et al., 2014; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007). Second, most interventions targeted inference-making in narrative texts. Future research should examine whether these instructional methods result in significant improvements in inference-making and reading comprehension for informational texts, which become increasingly important sources of learning in the higher grades. Finally, fidelity of intervention and use of reliable and valid measures were not consistently employed across studies. Future research should measure fidelity of implementation and include reliable and valid informal and standardized measures of inference-making and reading comprehension to demonstrate the effectiveness of inference instructional practices.

Type of InferenceDefinitionExample
Pronoun referenceResolves what a pronoun or noun phrase refers toAmy lives in Missouri. She owns a horse ranch.
The proper noun Amy must be linked to its referent (she).
Lexical referenceLinks related words in textWhile Amy was riding her horse on the ranch, dark clouds rolled in from the south and it began to storm. The rain ruined her straw cowboy hat.
Dark clouds, storm, and rain must be integrated to understand the change in weather.
Word meaningSurrounding text defines an unfamiliar wordMy Norwegian grandparents served lutefisk for dinner. This dish of dried whitefish is one of my favorites.
The surrounding text must be used to infer that lutefisk is a type of fish.
Background knowledgeFills in gaps in textThe Kansas City Royals pitcher pitched a perfect inning—three up, three down.
The second part of the sentence makes sense if one knows that three outs (in this case, made by three different batters) end an inning.
Practice answering inference questionsStudents practice answering inference questions that are interspersed during the reading of text or presented after reading the complete text.
Inference question generationStudents learn to ask and answer inferential questions during reading or after reading.
Textual clues or key word instructionStudents are taught how to identify key words in text or important ideas and then link this information to form inferences.
Example: The hurricane is approaching the coast of Texas. Houston will experience heavy rains and high winds on Tuesday.
Background knowledge strategy instructionStudents are taught to activate, identify, and use relevant background knowledge to fill in gaps in text.
Examples of strategies: Awareness of need to use background knowledge Activation of prior knowledge when answering inference questions


Barnes, M. A., Ahmed, Y., Barth, A., & Francis, D. J. (2015). The relation of knowledge-text integration processes and reading comprehension in 7th- to 12th-grade students. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19(4), 253–272. doi:10.1080/10888438.2015.1022650

Barth, A. E., Barnes, M. A., Francis, D., York, M., & Vaughn, S. (2015). Bridging inferences among adequate and struggling adolescent comprehenders and relations to reading comprehension. Reading and Writing, 28, 587–609.

Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (1999). Inference making ability and its relation to comprehension failure in young children. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11, 489–503. doi:10.1023/a:1008084120205

Cain, K., Oakhill, J. V., Barnes, M. A., & Bryant, P. E. (2001). Comprehension skill, inference-making ability, and their relation to knowledge. Memory and Cognition, 29(6), 850–859. doi:10.3758/bf03196414

Cain, K., Oakhill, J., & Bryant, P. (2004). Children’s reading comprehension ability: Concurrent prediction by working memory, verbal ability, and component skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 31–42.

Carlson, S. E., van den Broek, P., McMaster, K., Rapp, D. N., Bohn-Gettler, C. M., Kendeou, P., & White, M. J. (2014). Effects of comprehension skill on inference generation during reading. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 61(3), 258-274.

Cromley, J. G. & Azevedo, R. (2007). Testing and refining the direct and inferential mediation model of reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 311-325. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.311

Currie, N., & Cain, K. (2015). Children’s inference generation: The role of vocabulary and working memory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 137, 57–75.

McKoon, G., & Ratcliff, R. (1992). Spreading activation versus compound cue accounts of priming: Mediated priming revisited. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 1155–1172.

Oakhill, J. (1984). Why children have difficulty reasoning with three-term series problems. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2, 223–230.