Teaching inference and language analysis in the English classroom

 Using the iceberg analogy to improve students’ inference skills and language analysis.

 I have recently started teaching iGCSE and I have been pleased with the strong emphasis on inference skills. It is assessed in two out of three questions on the Extended Exam Paper, with ‘Some development… of supporting detail’ and explanations of ‘meaning/inference/attitude’ necessary in order to achieve the higher grades.

 The ability to recognise implicit meanings is essential in English across key stages 3-5. However, I have found that teaching it can often be a woolly business and simply relying on PEE is not enough.

IcebergAfter a recommendation by a visiting examiner, I  began to use the iceberg analogy. It is really useful when teaching inference and also as a stepping stone into teaching language analysis too.

 The premise is that only a third of an iceberg is above the water and the other two thirds are beneath the surface. I begin by getting my students to draw a cross-section of an iceberg and write the quotation we are working with at the top of the page. They then write the explicit meaning of the quotation in the top third (an explanation in their own words) and the implicit meaning beneath the surface (what else is suggested by the quotation).

 At this level, using the iceberg would work for the AQA What do you learn? question. And I have been using it most recently to help my students with developing their use of details from the text in the IGCSE Directed Writing responses.

However, it has the most mileage, I think, with developing responses on the Writer’s Effect. The layers of ice under the surface are a great visual analogy for the layers of meaning in word choices. I have been using the acronym ICE to stand for Implicit meaning, Connotation, Effect on the reader.

I have been very impressed by how my current class of C/D borderline boys has taken to this. It is easy for them to remember and it forces them to think about how language works in different levels. But most importantly it shows how those levels are connected to each other. And after all, those connections are what inference is all about: reaching a conclusion from logical reasoning.

So unlike their inspiration, the Inference Icebergs are hopefully building secure foundations for my students.

Naomi Hursthouse

Photo Credit – Uwe Kils http://www.ecoscope.com/iceberg

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