I like to open the lesson by telling students that I found a strange-looking object. (For this lesson, I use odd thrift store finds and things from home—odd tools, things with batteries, wooden shoe removers, hair clips, etc.) I ask students to make inferences about what the object is used for and call on volunteers to share their conjectures. Most recently, I used a hand-cranked apple peeler, and students guessed correctly.
I tell students that, in making their inferences, they used what they already knew—their schema—along with evidence presented by the object. They used logical reasoning and the clues that they saw to make an informed guess.
Then I tell them that they are going to get the opportunity to examine different objects and determine their uses by using their schema and evidence to make inferences.
I present another unfamiliar object to the class. I like to use an old-fashioned coffee grinder with a turn crank. I have to mask the smell with room freshener! Students work in groups and share evidence and schema to make inferences about its use.
When the timer goes off after a few minutes, I call on student groups to share some of the clues they used to draw their inferences. I do a quick drawing of the object on the board and add inference clues as they are stated. The visual is helpful particularly for struggling learners. As a class, we evaluate responses and rate them as “stronger evidence” or “weaker evidence.” I erase the weaker clues, leaving us with a final idea map that includes all the stronger clues.
After this I tell students that I’m going to show them another clue to the object’s use. I compare this clue to the context clues authors use in texts to help readers understand difficult words or phrases (this is the topic of an upcoming lesson). I show them a few coffee beans and ask them to consider how the beans and the object might be related? I field responses and then ask a student to demonstrate the use of the grinder so that all students are able to see the object’s use clearly. Then we follow the same procedure with a second object. (Note: I keep the objects from this lesson in the classroom for a month for students to explore.)
I close this part of the lesson by reiterating the big idea: We use our schema—what we already know—and the clues we pick up from the world around us to better understand the things we see. In the same way, we can make inferences when we read.
I tell students that they will now have the opportunity to apply the inference skills we just practiced together to determine the purpose of other unfamiliar objects. Using the word inference repeatedly in context helps students build an understanding of its meaning.
I distribute the Unfamiliar Objects Activity worksheet and tell them that they are going to use the pictures and their background knowledge and connections (schema) to determine what the use is for each of the objects. This could be an individual activity, but I usually have students do it in small groups to encourage discussion and debate about clues.
I bring the class back together and we review the inferences they made and the schema and evidence supporting each one. I like to give students one final challenge and have often used a candy or treat from another country that doesn’t look familiar or edible. It’s funny to see their faces when I smell it, taste it and then eat it!