Words, Images, Contexts: Making Inferences Explicit

A lot seems to happen when we make inferences. Often so much, that it can be hard to articulate. We read a word, a phrase, a whole sentence, and this collides with our knowledge. Not just our knowledge of words, but our knowledge of the world, our history as readers, as well as any contextual knowledge about the text which is the subject of our scrutiny. The outcome of this collision, is our inference: the meaning we make from this chain of simultaneous thought processes.

With all this going on virtually unthinkingly, it can be difficult to make the process explicit to students. Contextual knowledge plays a significant role, as does knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. But, one idea I’ve been toying with recently, is trying to model as explicitly as possible how words change meaning depending on subtle shifts in context. Specifically, how I might help students become more aware of the ‘typical’ context of a word, so they can use this understanding to explore words in new contexts.

Teaching Ideas

I used the following ideas with my year 11 classes, both preparing for the Cambridge iGCSE. For question two of this paper, students have to pick unusual and interesting words and images, and describe the writer’s reasons for using them. My classes were hard-working, dedicated and bright, and often produced excellent answers. There was something missing though.

Take the following phrase:

She noticed its pricked, tufted ears and its short, coarse, raven-black coat, before it turned, raising and waving its curved snake of a tail as if making a victory salute

This appeared in a mock paper my students completed a few months before the exam and describes the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor.’ My students analysed it fairly well, mostly focussing on how ‘black’ might have negative connotations and how ‘victory’ is about power. What I was surprised with, however, is how few people commented on the image provided by ‘raven-black’ or ‘snaked’. The lesson after I marked the papers, I distinctly remember asking them what snakes are like, and what ideas are connected with ravens. In isolation, they could discuss ravens as creatures connected with death and foreboding. They could discuss snakes as sly and deceptive. Why then, could they not make the connection between the typical associations of these words and how this might influence the writer’s decisions to use them? Why also, did no-one explore the word ‘salute’ in connection to soldiery and battles?

Now, back to the lesson ideas.

I started a lesson giving the students images of different animals. I wanted them to explore the typical associations of these animals, so that later we could explore how these typical associations might help us make inferences. Why animals? I think there is a pattern of animal imagery being used in the iGCSE papers – but also there are many examples in Literature where animal imagery is crucial to interpreting characters.

Here are some of the ideas we came up with:

  • Bears: Strong and fierce. Large. But an odd contrast with the ‘teddy bear’ image of cuddly and soft.
  • VulturesScavengers. Hunters that prey on weakness and watch you from a distance. Cruel and wicked.
  • Snakes/serpents: Deadly. Sly. Poisonous. Deceptive
  • Eagles: Majesty. Power. Isolated hunters – who prey on the weak and take advantage of their viewpoint.

This led to some questioning of the students, with me trying to be as explicit about contexts as possible.

  • If vultures are typically like…… why might I describe someone as a vulture when they….?
  • If snakes are typically like…… what do we think of ……?

I chose these animals deliberately, so that we could explore these animals relating to characters in extracts from these texts:

  • Of Mice and Men (focussing on Lennie’s ‘bear’ descriptions)
  • The Speckled Band ( Dr Roylott’s ‘bird of prey’ description)
  • The Tell Tale Heart (extract focussed on the narrator’s description of the old man’s vulture eye)

(Students had already read the Of Mice and Men and The Speckled Band – I treated them to a one man re-enactment of The Tell Tale Heart before they worked with the text)

When reading and responding to these texts, the focus remained on the animal discussed earlier. I wanted students ti question why the writer might have chosen these specific animals, with their well-defined ‘typical’ meanings, and how this affects our inferences in these new contexts. How do bear-like descriptions capture Lennie’s character? What sort of villain is Dr. Roylott if he is a ‘bird of prey’? Why does Poe choose a man with a vulture eye? Why not the eye of a mouse, a kitten, a lion?

I used the following sentence structures to help model writing about these texts:

  • Typically, vultures/bears/eagles are associated with…
  • Bears/eagles/vultures are normally seen as….
  • In this context, the word ‘…..’ evokes the idea of…
  • By referring to this animal, the writer creates a sense of…
  • The writer uses this animal imagery deliberately to…

My hope was that working with these texts, with these specific sentence structures, might help my students understand more explicitly how inferences not only depend on understanding the typical associations of words, but also the ability to compare these typical associations with the text they are reading at the time. Most importantly, my hope was that students would understand that when writers make choices, they do so deliberately, fully aware of the semantic baggage carried around by their darlings.

This explicit modelling became a regular feature of subsequent lessons in the month leading up to the exam. We looked at individual words, defining their typical meanings. We looked at words relating to the weather, words relating to artwork, words relating to battles and warfare, all the while focussing on how these words stubbornly cling on to their typical associations when moved to a different context. From what I observed after a few weeks, I think there were three main benefits of this strategy:

  1. The language of ‘typical contexts’ became part of our shared language leading up to the exam, helping students write more accurately.
  2. Our understanding that writers might make choices based on these ‘typical’ meanings become more explicit.
  3. Our ability to select evocative words became sharper, based on those that seem unusual or out of place in specific contexts.

I’m hoping that this strategy, born out of exam-based frustration and year 11 desperation, might bear fruit used with other classes.

Thanks for reading.

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