Making Inferences From a Short Story for ESL Students

If English is your second language, making inferences in short stories can be difficult. Making inferences is the ability to read a short story or another piece of writing and understand the basics of the story and the emotions behind it. It's the ability to know what the author is feeling without her having to say those exact words.

Reading for the Main Idea

Tell your students that the first thing they should do is read for the main idea of the short story. Answer the "wh" questions first: who, what, when, where and even why. They should take notes on a separate piece of paper. This will clear up any questions they have about the characters in the story, where they are, what they are doing and what the author's main point of the story is.

Answering Vocabulary Questions

Review the vocabulary words that they don't understand. If they can, have students write the definition right above the word in the book so that each time you review the story, students are learning and remembering new words. They may notice that some of the words, although they seem familiar, are used in a new or different context, and that they don't quite understand what the author is trying to say. This is a good point at which to introduce how to make inferences.

An Example

The short story "My Name" by Sandra Cicneros is about a young woman who, like many young people, does not like the name she was given by her parents. She tells the story of her grandmother, after whom she was named. Sandra describes her grandmother as a previously strong and willful woman but who, when she got married, lost her "spark" -- that special something about someone that makes them interesting to others. Sandra writes: "She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow."

The Author's Point

At first glance, this sentence may confuse students: who, after all, can sit on an elbow? Also, "sadness" is not an object that you can set down on a chair, elbow, or table, right? Here's where inferencing comes in. Try to have students act out what the author is describing. Tell them to sit at their desks and imagine they are sad, forced to be someone they are not for the rest of their lives. To demonstrate, rest your elbow on your own desk, and act disappointed. Let your chin fall against your hand, and see if students do the same. This gesture is a common way to show disappointment, and it is what the author is trying to convey by painting a picture with words. By acting out the sentence, it is no longer confusing, and students can clearly understand the deep sadness that Sandra's grandmother is feeling.

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