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Taking Aim at Comprehension: Inferring Main Ideas and Cause and Effect. Michael C. McKenna University of Virginia. Sharon Walpole University of Delaware. Take Two. Here is the lead paragraph of a newspaper article:

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taking aim at comprehension inferring main ideas and cause and effect

Taking Aim at Comprehension:Inferring Main Ideas andCause and Effect

Michael C. McKenna

University of Virginia

Sharon Walpole

University of Delaware

take two
Take Two

Here is the lead paragraph of a newspaper article:

While wicked weather will not return to the nation early next week, arctic air will make a comeback across the Northeast. After a seasonable day today and Monday, frigid air from the north Tuesday will send temperatures back to the brutally cold values of this past February.

What headline do you think appeared above this story?

slide3

To compose a headline, a journalist must be able to infer the main idea of a story. This is not always a simple task, even for a good reader. It is critical, however, because it is the basis of crucial comprehension abilities, such as monitoring one’s understanding and summarizing. Inferring main ideas is one of two inferential elements we’ll consider today.

slide4

To compose a headline, a journalist must be able to infer the main idea of a story. This is not always a simple task, even for a good reader. It is critical, however, because it is the basis of crucial comprehension abilities, such as monitoring one’s understanding and summarizing. Inferring main ideas is one of two inferential elements we’ll consider today.

Oh, yes, the headline was …

Brutal Cold Returning to Northeast

today s goals
Today’s Goals
  • Review the role of inferential thinking in reading comprehension
  • Examine research-based approaches for teaching children to infer main ideas
  • Examine research-based approaches for teaching children to infer cause-and-effect relationships
  • Select from among these approaches and apply them to a chosen text
  • Consider instructional resources available through the Teacher Academies
back at school
Back at School
  • Work with teachers at one grade level as they plan to apply one or more of these approaches to trade books and/or core selections.
  • Follow up with individual teachers to see how it went.
  • Make plans for the other three grades.
slide8

c. Generates questions

to improve comprehension

f. Makes judgments and inferences about setting, characters, and events and supports them with evidence from the text

i. Makes connections between texts and/or personal experiences

c. Generates questions

to improve

comprehension

g. Summarizes

text content

p. Recognizes the

author’s purpose

b. Makes predictions

from text content

c. Generates questions

to improve

comprehension

g. Summarizes

text content

Identifies and infers

cause-and-effect

relationships and

draws conclusions

Recalls explicit

facts and infers

implicit facts

Identifies and infers

main idea and

supporting details.

why is inferential comprehension so important
Why is inferential comprehension so important?
  • When students infer as they read,
    • they link facts presented explicitly in the text,
    • they link facts in the text with prior knowledge,
    • they process the content actively, which helps them understand and remember it better.
key gps inferential elements
Key GPS Inferential Elements
  • Inferring facts
  • Inferring main ideas
  • Inferring cause-and-effect relationships
key gps inferential elements11
Key GPS Inferential Elements
  • Inferring facts
  • Inferring main ideas
  • Inferring cause-and-effect relationships
what does this element involve
What does this element involve?
  • The reader must start with an understanding of a paragraph or larger segment of text.
  • The reader makes judgments about which facts are important.
  • The reader “shrinks” the content into a single complete thought, which can be expressed as a sentence.
why is it important to infer main ideas while reading
Why is it important to infer main ideas while reading?
  • It is important in summarizing. In summarizing, main ideas are linked across paragraphs.
  • It is important in comprehension monitoring. Unless a reader is attuned to the importance of ideas while reading, all of the facts and events will be given equal importance. This is not true, of course, and leads to a limited, superficial understanding of text content.
what exactly is a main idea
What exactly is a main idea?

A main idea is a statement that captures the most important thought represented in a paragraph or longer text segment.

A main idea can be expressed as a complete sentence.

A main idea is not the same as a topic, which can be expressed in a word or phase.

Main ideas are usually associated with information text rather than narrative.

two types of main ideas
Two Types of Main Ideas

In their classic book on teaching comprehension, Pearson and Johnson suggest two basic kinds of paragraph main ideas:

Label-List. The paragraph content falls into a category.

slide16

Example of a Label-List Main Idea

––––––––––––

Robins build nests in trees. Pheasants build nests in bushes. Eagles build nests in rocks. Birds build nests in a variety of places.

––––––––––––

The first three sentences can be grouped under the last.

two types of main ideas17
Two Types of Main Ideas

In their classic book on teaching comprehension, Pearson and Johnson suggest two basic kinds of paragraph main ideas:

Label-List. The paragraph content falls into a category.

Rule-Example. The main idea is a rule and the paragraph content provides one or more examples.

slide18

Example of a Rule-Example Main Idea

––––––––––––

In Alaska, it is important not to be caught out in the cold. Motorists keep their gas tanks full in case they get stranded. They also keep blankets and food in the trunk.

––––––––––––

The first sentence states a general rule, and the rest of the paragraph provides an example.

slide19

Topic Sentences

In both of these examples, the paragraph has a topic sentence that captures the main idea. In the first example, the topic sentence comes at the end. In the second example, it comes at the beginning.

Research shows that paragraphs that begin with topic sentences are easier for young readers to comprehend (Winograd & Bridge, 1986).

When an author places the topic sentence at the end of the paragraph – or does not include one at all – it creates an opportunity for a teacher to step in and conduct a think-aloud. How would you help students reason their way to the main idea of the following paragraph?

slide21

Snakes don’t have arms or legs. They don’t have wings or fins. But some snakes can climb trees or swim in water. Others can dig underground. Some even jump off branches. They flatten their bodies so they fall slowly and land safely.

slide22

Task 1

Try your hand at writing a topic sentence for this paragraph. To do this, you must first infer the main idea!

slide23

Teacher Think-Aloud: No Topic Sentence

There are many paragraphs like the preceding one without topic sentences. A teacher can conduct a think-aloud that guides students in inferring the main idea.

Choose a paragraph without a topic sentence in a core selection, a trade book, or a read-aloud.

Infer the main idea yourself.

Plan your think-aloud.

Make sure you involve students when you deliver it.

Let’s revisit our snake.

slide24

Snakes don’t have arms or legs. They don’t have wings or fins. But some snakes can climb trees or swim in water. Others can dig underground. Some even jump off branches. They flatten their bodies so they fall slowly and land safely.

The teacher might say, “Let’s see if we can put all these facts together. The author tells us about some things snakes can do. We also learn that they can do them without arms or legs or wings or fins. How can we put that in a sentence? …

slide25

Everything in the city rushes and races and roars – everything except a bright patch of green. It is a park, a place where living things of all kinds can escape the noise and crowds.

In the park, trees cast their shade while birds and animals go about the business of living. Human visitors come, too. Sometimes they sit quietly and close their eyes for a short rest. Other times they look around to find a whole world hidden from the city beyond.

These paragraphs are oddly structured. The last sentence of the first paragraph serves as a topic sentence for the next paragraph. The teacher might say, “This part seems to tell us some ways that living things can escape the noise and crowds of the city.”

slide27

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 1

Where do we begin to teach young children how to infer main ideas? Pearson and Johnson (1978) argue that determining a main idea involves realizing a thought that runs through sentences and links them like a thread. They suggest starting with lists of related words and helping students infer a category label that describes all of the words. Try your hand at this:

birds states trees

robin Georgia oak

eagle Florida maple

pheasant Ohio pine

duck Maine elm

slide28

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 1

Where do we begin to teach young children how to infer main ideas? Pearson and Johnson (1978) argue that determining a main idea involves realizing a thought that runs through sentences and links them like a thread. They suggest starting with lists of related words and helping students infer a category label that describes all of the words. Try your hand at this:

birds states trees

robin Georgia oak

eagle Florida maple

pheasant Ohio pine

duck Maine elm

slide29

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 2

Jim Baumann (1986) suggests that the next step should be helping students reduce a long sentence to its basic idea. Here’s an example:

Susan, the girl who lives down the street in the

blue house, goes to Girl Scouts every

Wednesday afternoon.

How can we “shrink” the sentence to eliminate details?

slide30

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking

Level 2

Susan, the girl who lives down the street in the

blue house, goes to Girl Scouts every

Wednesday afternoon.

Susan goes to Girl Scouts.

– Baumann (1986)

slide31

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 3

The third level is to recognize a topic sentence. We have seen how this might pose problems because topic sentences are not always the first sentence in a paragraph and because sometimes they are not present.

Be alert for paragraphs structured like this one:

Robins build nests in trees. Pheasants build nests

in bushes. Eagles build nests in rocks. Birds build

nests in a variety of places.

Then guide students as they recognize the sentence that expresses the main idea.

slide32

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 4

The fourth level involves paragraphs without topic sentences. Here, the main idea cannot merely be recognized. It must be inferred. Teaching students to make such inferences (once they’re ready) might involve activities like these.

Provide a paragraph with the topic sentence removed and ask students to write one. Compare their sentence with the original. For instance, you might start with:

Robins build nests in trees. Pheasants build nests in bushes. Eagles build nests in rocks.

slide33

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 4

The fourth level involves paragraphs without topic sentences. Here, the main idea cannot merely be recognized. It must be inferred. Teaching students to make such inferences (once they’re ready) might involve activities like these.

Provide a paragraph with the topic sentence removed and suggest some possible topic sentences. Lead a discussion about which is best. For instance:

a. Birds build nests.

b. Birds do things.

c. Birds build nests in many places.

slide34

Note that a favorite test item

on group achievement tests presents

students with a short passage and

then asks them to choose the best title.

Doing so requires them to infer the

main idea!

slide35

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 4

The fourth level involves paragraphs without topic sentences. Here, the main idea cannot merely be recognized. It must be inferred. Teaching students to make such inferences (once they’re ready) might involve activities like these.

Link main idea thinking to writing. Teach students to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Doing so will make them more attentive to they topic sentences they encounter while reading.

How can you help facilitate transfer to reading?

slide36

Four Levels of Main Idea Thinking: Level 4

The fourth level involves paragraphs without topic sentences. Here, the main idea cannot merely be recognized. It must be inferred. Teaching students to make such inferences (once they’re ready) might involve activities like these.

Construct a semantic map with students. Write a detail at the end of each spoke. Then, with the help of students, write the main idea in the center of semantic map.

slide38

Task 2

Choose a paragraph in a trade book or core selection that lacks a clearly stated main idea.

Plan a think-aloud that would model for children how a good reader might infer the main idea.

Prepare to share!

key gps inferential elements39
Key GPS Inferential Elements
  • Inferring facts
  • Inferring main ideas
  • Inferring cause-and-effect relationships
key gps inferential elements40
Key GPS Inferential Elements
  • Inferring facts
  • Inferring main ideas
  • Inferring cause-and-effect relationships
take two41
Take Two

Here is the opening paragraph of a novel called Mischief by British writer Ben Travers:

One night after they had been married only about six months, Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Bingham went to Ciro’s. Mr. Bingham had never been to Ciro’s before. His surprise, therefore, on seeing his wife there was considerable.

Why was Mr. Bingham surprised to see his wife at Ciro’s?

slide42

Adult readers are generally so good at inferring cause-and-effect relationships that it’s difficult to find an example where they have to apply themselves!

When you finished the paragraph, your first impression might have been that it didn’t make sense. You might then have tried to speculate (that Mr. Bingham was a bigamist, etc.). But in fact, you were intentionally misled by Travers. He knew that you would assume that when newlyweds go out, they go together. But this isn’t always the case, and you had trouble inferring a cause.

Children can experience similar difficulties, though the result can be confusing, not amusing.

what does this element involve43
What does this element involve?
  • The reader begins with an event in the text.
  • The reader may consider earlier events that could have caused it.

OR

  • The reader may look ahead for the effects caused by the event.

How can teachers foster this ability?

slide44

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Now let’s create a timeline to capture the sequence of events.

slide45

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Some of the events in the sequence are not causally related.

Peter eats Peter eats Peter feels Peter looks

lettuces radishes sick for parsley

and beans

slide46

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

But these two events cause the next event in the sequence.

Peter eats Peter eats Peter feels Peter looks

lettuces radishes sick for parsley

and beans

slide47

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Peter’s feeling sick is the effect of his overeating.

Peter eats Peter eats Peter feels Peter looks

lettuces radishes sick for parsley

and beans

slide48

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

But Peter’s feeling sick then causes him to look for parsley.

Peter eats Peter eats Peter feels Peter looks

lettuces radishes sick for parsley

and beans

slide49

Understanding Cause-and-Effect Inferences

Consider these events from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

So what will happen next? Will Peter find some parsley?

Peter eats Peter eats Peter feels Peter looks

lettuces radishes sick for parsley

and beans

let s review what we know about cause and effect
Let’s review what we know about cause and effect
  • Many sequences of events are not causally related.
  • Cause-and-effect is a special kind of sequence since causes always come before effects.
  • Causes have effects, which can then become causes themselves in cause-and-effect chains.
  • Prediction is a special kind of cause-and-effect, in which we know the cause but the effect lies in the future.
  • Children will be better at inferring cause-and-effect relationships when they realize that such relationships depend on sequences.
  • Children will be better predictors if they realize that predictions are based on cause-and-effect.
slide52

Of course, Beatrix Potter could have saved us all this bother by being more explicit. Here’s what she might have written:

First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes. Because of eating so much, he felt sick. Therefore, he went to look for some parsley because he knew that eating parsley might make him feel better.

Words like because and therefore signal causal relationships in no uncertain terms. In these cases, the reader does not need to infer. But good writers often imply rather than state directly, leaving it to the reader to make connections. Young readers may need support in learning to do this.

slide54

Method 1

Graphic Organizers:

Sequence and Cause-and-Effect

The time line used in our Peter Rabbit example could easily be sketched on a white board as a teacher guides students through a story.

This graphic organizer makes the time order visible and helps students infer causal links and to predict outcomes – both of which depend on time.

slide55

Method 2

Teacher Questioning:

Cause-and-Effect

A teacher can help students infer causal relationships by asking questions.

You may need to ask some “set-up” questions that get relevant events into the discussion.

Use questions that focus on the sequence of events.

Ask “why” questions to get at cause. These are very effective (Menke & Pressley, 1994).

Ask children to predict beyond the end of a story. (“What will happen … ?”)

Ask children to predict by changing an event in the story (“What if … ?”)

Expect children to support their predictions.

slide57

Teacher: What did Peter eat first?

Child: Lettuces and beans.

Teacher: Right. What did he eat next?

Child: Radishes.

These are literal questions because of the key words, first and then. They allow the teacher to set up the inferences to come.

slide58

}

Teacher: Why do you think Peter

felt sick?

Child: Because he ate so much.

Teacher: I think so. Do you know

what parsley is?

Child: No.

Teacher: Parsley is a plant, like

radishes and beans.

Why do you think Peter

went to look for some?

The teacher asks the child to infer a cause-and-effect relationship. Note that we can’t really be certain about this relationship. It is merely probable.

slide59

Teacher: Why do you think Peter

felt sick?

Child: Because he ate so much.

Teacher: I think so. Do you know

what parsley is?

Child: No.

Teacher: Parsley is a plant, like

radishes and beans.

Why do you think Peter

went to look for some?

The teacher suggests that this conclusion is merely probable and then asks a question to assess prior knowledge.

}

slide60

Teacher: Why do you think Peter

felt sick?

Child: Because he ate so much.

Teacher: I think so. Do you know

what parsley is?

Child: No.

Teacher: Parsley is a plant, like

radishes and beans.

Why do you think Peter

went to look for some?

After filling this gap in prior knowledge, the teacher asks a question requiring the student to speculate about a cause.

}

slide61

}

Teacher: Maybe! I’ve heard that

parsley is good for a

stomach ache. Do you

think he’ll find some?

After reinforcing the child’s speculative inference, the teacher asks for a prediction. Remember that this is really a type of cause-and-effect question.

slide62

Teacher: Maybe! I’ve heard that

parsley is good for a

stomach ache. Do you

think he’ll find some?

Child: I think so.

Teacher: Why do you think he will?

Child: I’m not sure.

Teacher: Well, he’s in a garden …

Child: And parsley might be

growing there!

}

The teacher asks the child to support his prediction.

slide63

Teacher: Maybe! I’ve heard that

parsley is good for a

stomach ache. Do you

think he’ll find some?

Child: I think so.

Teacher: Why do you think he will?

Child: I’m not sure.

Teacher: Well, he’s in a garden …

Child: And parsley might be

growing there!

}

The teacher prompts such support.

coach s corner
Coach’s Corner
  • The approaches we have reviewed today are summarized in a quick reference sheet.
  • Review the list to make sure you are comfortable with each approach.
  • What questions do you have?
back at school69
Back at School
  • Work with teachers at one grade level as they plan to apply one or more of these approaches to trade books and/or core selections.
  • Follow up with individual teachers to see how it went.
  • Make plans for the other three grades.
references
References

Almasi, J.F. (2003). Teaching strategic processes in reading. New York: Guilford.

Baumann, J.F. (1986). The direct instruction of main idea comprehension ability. In J.F. Baumann (Ed.), Teaching main idea comprehension (pp. 133-178). Newark, DE: IRA.

McKenna, M.C. (2002). Help for struggling readers. New York: Guilford Press.

Menke, D.J., & Pressley, M. (1994). Elaborative interrogation: Using “why” questions to enhance the learning from text. Journal of Reading, 37, 642-645.

Paris, S.G., Wasik, B.A., & Turner, J.C. (1991). The development of strategic readers. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (vol. 2, pp. 609-640). New York: Longman.

Pearson, P.D., & Johnson, D.D. (1978). Teaching reading comprehension. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Raphael, T.E., & Au, K.H. (2005). QAR: Enhancing comprehension and test taking across grades and content areas. The Reading Teacher, 59, 206-221.

Willingham, D.T. (2006-07). The usefulness of brief instruction in reading comprehension strategies. American Educator, Winter, 39-45, 50.

Winograd, P.N., & Bridge, C.A. (1986). The comprehension of important information in written prose. In J.F. Baumann (Ed.), Teaching main idea comprehension (pp. 18-48). Newark, DE: IRA.