Many often think of reading very simply as the act of recognizing words and understanding sentences within paragraphs. If that is as far as we get in our understanding of the intricate process of reading, we’ll probably get by in life. But, without high-level reading skills, including both inference and conceptualization, many doors will remain closed.

Without applying inference and conceptualization, we can miss the big picture and perhaps the whole point of the text. We may be able to repeat or regurgitate the facts for a quiz, but we not be able to remember or apply the author’s concepts.

Inference is Like Reading Between the Lines

Many think that an inference is an educated guess, when in fact, an inference is the process of adding evidence to reach a conclusion, based on what we think we already know (i.e. past experience or societal norms). When you read or hear someone speak, you infer a meaning by pulling information together from past experiences that can be added to the new information presented. Then, you can come to a conclusion or infer what the new information means.

Inferences are used during a typical classroom discussion to stimulate learning. This is where teachers encourage students to think so that they can piece together information for applying to new information. It may appear that guessing is going on, but in reality, students are making new connections from what they already know.

Lemonade Theory: Inference in Disguise

The Lemonade Theory means this: Take water, squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and ice cubes. Put them in a jug. What do you have? Based on society’s norms, we have lemonade! It’s a concrete image that shows how added evidence (the components) end up with a solid result that everyone knows, understands, and agrees upon. Based on our past experience with these items that are put together, we can assume or infer that the result is lemonade. What other possible conclusions could there be?

The Difference Between Lemonade and Assumption

Let’s take another example. Say we have chocolate chips, flour, sugar, butter, baking soda, and eggs. We can’t assume that we are making chocolate-chip cookies, because those ingredients can also make up a number of other baked products. Therefore, we can’t assume or infer anything unless we have all the information necessary to come to a definite conclusion.

What Does Lemonade and Baking Have to Do with Reading?

Every paragraph is like lemonade; all the pieces, including words and sentences, add up to one concept. If you read without looking for the concept in each paragraph, your understanding will be, pardon the pun, half-baked!

When we add up the pieces and the concept is so unquestionable that it can’t be anything else (e.g., lemonade), it demonstrates the Lemonade Theory. But if you don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle, like in the chocolate chip example, you don’t know if you have ingredients for chocolate-chip cookies, muffins, pancakes, cake, or even a non-baked good. In this case, we can only add up the information and we only know that they are baking ingredients.

What’s the Point?

Two children played outside all day in the scorching hot sun and by nighttime they couldn’t sleep on their backs. What can you infer about why they couldn’t sleep on their backs? Add the hot weather, all day, playing in the extreme sun, plus painful backs, and you get sunburn. That follows the Lemonade Theory because it couldn’t add up to anything else.

However, if we know only that the kids played outside yesterday and came in with sore backs, we must wait for the author to provide more information; if no other information is given, then the sum of the information would not be sunburn, and it wouldn’t fall under the Lemonade Theory.

As far as we know, the kids could have hurt their shoulders doing push-ups or lifting heavy packages. We can’t infer or assume from information that we don’t have. The lesson here is to add up all the known information available in the paragraph to form one concept. But if we don’t add up all information, we may miss the concept or important point.

Why Infer?

Inferences provide information that can be pieced together for the vivid concept. A sentence or part of a paragraph will not suffice. Speed reading and skimming will not work. Reading all the words to discover connections for the overall paragraph or concept through inference is how reading becomes effective learning.

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