Teaching Inferencing with Images

Making inferences is all about paying attention to details, and that is why today we’re talking about teaching inferencing with images.

Do you ever stop to consider how many times per day you use your inferencing skills? It is probably in the hundreds of times if not the thousands.

When I walk by a couch with dog hair on it and pillows scattered on the ground, I use my background knowledge (schema) to quickly compute the situation. 

Schema: I know that dogs often shed during this time of the year. I know that my dog likes to get on the furniture when I’m not home. I know that the pillows had been on the couch before I left.

Inference: My dog was rolling around on the couch while I was at the store.

These little thoughts and considerations are all part of how we see the world and how we interact within it. Often as teachers, we consider inferencing only as a skill found in science or while reading, but in reality it is as real-world as you can get, and the skill of making inferences can be practiced in almost every context.

Honing the inferencing super power

With our elementary students, inferencing can sometimes seem like a super power they haven’t yet developed.

Some students seem to notice everything…you know the ones who notice that you got a new package of white board markers, or they see that Jimmy got 3 more Skittles than they did, and then they infer that you must like Jimmy better than you like them. They fail to notice that you are just scooping the Skittles out with a cup and you’re not particularly paying attention to how many each student is getting.

Then there are others who don’t seem to notice anything…not even when you literally say it out loud. 

Considering small details and accurately assessing situations based on those details is something that must become a habit for kids as they learn to read. That is where we come in. 

Inference as a Reading Skill

When we teach students to infer while reading, we are (quite literally) asking our students to guess at what someone else is thinking. That is a big ask for our young students, especially because students often struggle to focus long enough to pick up on key details or they make assumptions about the situation rather than actually thinking through the scenario all the way to the end…(like Jimmy and the Skittles).

That is why I like to teach inferences through photos. 

Teaching Inferencing with Images

Photos are a great starting point for making inferences because they narrow down a situation to a singular moment.

Using photos as we transition our inferencing skills toward reading is a great way to get students to think outside of themselves and their own experiences. Since the image and situation are stagnant, students have the time to consider them and thoroughly study the details. 

Take this photo for example…

Using this photo, we can ask students to first draw on their background knowledge and personal experiences (schema) to consider what is happening (or what happened just before or after this photo was taken).

Start by asking students to focus in on the details of the image and make a list of what they see.

Teaching Inferencing with Images FB Image with boy holding a book standing in front of a pile of photosWhat details do we see?

  • Sand
  • An imprint of someone’s booty
  • 2 pocket imprints with stitching
  • A line down the center

Then ask students to draw on their prior knowledge and experiences to make ‘I know…’ sentences about each of those details.


  • I know that sand is at the beach. 
  • I know that jeans have pockets with stitching patterns and belt loops. 
  • I know that some people like to relax at the beach.
  • I know that the line down the middle and two pockets would only show if they were sitting rather than laying on their side.

From those ‘I know…’ statements, students can then make an inference about what is happening (or what happened) in the photo.

  • Inference: Someone wearing jeans was sitting on the sand.

Using images to practice inferencing gives students a chance to focus visually on a particular situation or moment. Sometimes, as we begin transitioning students to inference with text, we have to ask them to stop and consider specific details conveyed by the author or maybe even draw them out in a picture form, so they can really think about what the author is saying.

Remember, the goal is to help students be intentional by considering all the details, using prior knowledge, and asking the right questions.

Start with small passages and ‘draw’ it out

Using a resource like this Making Inferences Digital Jigsaw to practice inference allows students to consider small sections of text as they learn about inferencing. 

Since the passages are relatively short, the students get a small snapshot (or picture) of what is going on. Before asking students to answer the question, take them through the process.

  • What are the details?
  • What is our background knowledge considering those details?
  • What can we infer?

Whole class variation with self-drawn images

Although this resource can easily be used with individual students, it can also be a very powerful activity for group practice as you develop the skill of making inferences.

Here is a step-by-step example of how you might use it during a full class lesson.

  • Step #1 | Start by putting only the reading passage on the board. I like to zoom in 300-400% so that ONLY the passage is showing. See the image to get a better idea of what I mean.screenshot of the Making Inferences Digital Jigsaw
  • Step #2 | Next, give each student a sheet of paper, and ask them to draw a picture that is as close to the passage as possible. Don’t add extra details or make assumptions. Just draw what they read.
  • Step #3 | Have students share their drawings with a peer, and ask them to look over the drawings for any missing details or extra details.
  • Step #4 | Now, ask students to flip the paper over and write down answers to each of the following questions. 
    • What specific details can you pull out of the passage?
    • What do you know about those details? What prior knowledge of those details do you have?
  • Step #5 | Lastly, ask the students to make an inference about the passage based on their answers.
  • Step #6 | One of the many great aspects of this resource is that for each question there is a box that looks like the image below. Once everyone has written down their inference, project the image, and ask students to use sticky notes to add some of their own “I know…” statements to the left side.
  • Step #7 | Review the new “I know” statements as a group. Then ask students if they want to make any changes to the inferences they wrote down based on this new information.
  • Step #8 | After everyone has reviewed their inferences, ask them to use the choices on the right to choose the inference that is most closely matched to the one they wrote down. Once everyone has chosen, reveal the answer. If any students don’t have the right answer, spend some time discussing what details would need to be present for each to be true.

Note: Looking for more ways to use your new digital jigsaw puzzles? Check out this post!

Finding photos for inferencing practice

When looking for images to use in your classroom, consider asking students to bring in images from vacations or activities. After you make inferences with the photo, give the student a chance to talk about what is actually going on in the picture and see if your inferences were correct.

If you want stock photos, you can use images found in Google Search or images from a stock photography site like Pixabay that you can project on the board to use for this activity.

Teaching inference through images is a great way to start teaching your students how small details can make a big difference in understanding what’s going on within the world the photographer is capturing or the the author is creating.


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