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Instruction in Inference Making: Benefits for Executive Functions?

As noted previously, it is plausible that instruction in comprehension strategies that require higher order processing, such as inferencing and comprehension monitoring, could result in enhancement of EFs. How might this occur? Some have suggested independent use of strategies might enhance EFs (Borkowski et al., 2000; Chevalier & Blaye, 2016) by providing practice in task-specific application of EF skills. Evidence indicates that although training in general (non-reading-specific) EF skills typically does not enhance reading comprehension (Jacob & Parkinson, 2015; Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013), reading-specific tasks, which provide students with practice in coordinating various elements necessary for successful reading, enhance students’ reading comprehension and reading-specific EF (Cartwright, 2002; Cartwright et al., 2017, 2010; Garcia-Madruga et al., 2013; Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013). Thus, it is reasonable to assume inference training may afford similar EF benefits. For example, one instructional activity used in training studies on inference making involves teaching students to identify clue words and using those clue words to infer such information as the setting of a story or the consequences of a character’s action (McGee & Johnson,

2003; Yuill & Joscelyne, 1988; Yuill & Oakhill, 1988). For example, here is a story used by Yuill and Joscelyne (1988) to introduce students to making inferences:

Tommy was lying down looking at a reading book. The room was full of steam. Suddenly Tommy got some soap in his eye. He reached wildly for the towel. Then he heard a splash. Oh no! What would he tell his teacher? He would have to buy a new one. Tommy rubbed his eye and it soon felt better.

(Yuill & Joscelyne, 1988, p. 156)

After reading the story, children were guided in solving the “puzzle” of Tommy’s location and of what happened to the book by a trainer who helped them identify clue words in the passage and make inferences based on those words. For the question of Tommy’s location, the clue words were lying down, steam, soap, towel, and splash. Such activities may tap into students’ use of the core EFs in multiple ways. For instance, to answer the question regarding Tommy’s location, the reader must keep several, if not all, of the clues about the location in mind together and integrate them with their background knowledge to deduce that Tommy was in the bath, thus invoking working memory. At the same time, inhibition is likely entailed as the reader must ignore other associations conjured by the statement that Tommy was “lying down looking at a reading book,” such as that he was stretched out on his bed. Cognitive flexibility is required throughout the activity as the reader must shift not only from decoding the words to identifying key (clue) words, but also from reading the passage fluently to strategically making local and global inferences. Local inferences involve linking separate ideas in text, whereas global inferences require that the reader use their prior knowledge to fill gaps in text meaning (Cain & Oakhill, 1999).

Two studies evaluating the effectiveness of inference training have included instruction in using clues to make inferences in concert with instruction in generating and answering “wh” questions (e.g., “who?,” “where?,” “why?”) about a passage and predicting the content of “missing” sentences within a passage (McGee & Johnson, 2003; Yuill & Oakhill, 1988). In these studies, training took place in small groups that met for 6-7 sessions of 20-45 minutes. Yuill and Oakhill (1988), who studied 7- and 8-year-olds, found that those with RCD who received inference training gained 17 months in their comprehension on the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability, compared to 14 months for those who practiced answering comprehension questions orally and 6 months for those who trained in rapid decoding. In their study of 6- to 10-year-olds, McGee and Johnson (2003) found that both inference training and comprehension practice benefited students with RCD, with much greater improvement associated with the former. Additionally, Elbro and Buch-Iversen (2013) found that teaching children, via a visual support, to coordinate their prior knowledge with text elements enabled them to make inferences and improved their reading comprehension after eight 30-minute sessions.

Even shorter-term efforts appear to pay off for poor comprehenders. Yuill and Jos-celyne’s (1988) study provided 7- and 8-year-olds with individual training in identifying clue words and using them to solve the “puzzle” of missing information in a story, as described above, in just one session including two training stories. Notably, the stories lacked titles and pictures, which ordinarily provide indication of story meaning. Immediately after training, children were tested with eight similar story puzzles and comprehension questions. Students with RCD answered 85% of the test questions correctly, significantly outperforming their counterparts who were not given such training, who answered 72% correctly. These activities would likely strengthen students’ EF skills by providing explicit strategies and practice identifying relevant elements (i.e., clues) in text and ignoring irrelevant elements (inhibition), holding multiple relevant elements of text in mind (working memory), and switching between finding missing information and attending to multiple text elements (cognitive flexibility).

Altogether, these training studies suggest that inference making is a malleable skill, especially for students who specifically struggle with reading comprehension. Further, training in higher order strategies appears to entail practice in - and thereby strengthening of - multiple EFs, thus suggesting that inference training may be a fruitful means of promoting reading achievement, as well as the development of EFs, which may itself have far-reaching benefits. How might cognitive strategy instruction facilitate EFs? As others have suggested (Borkowski et al., 2000; Chevalier & Blaye, 2016), independent use of strategies may strengthen EFs. However, students need particular kinds of instructional supports to achieve independence in strategy use (e.g., Brown, 2008), as we discuss in the next section.

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