Inference, Empathy, & Erasure or Overthinking?

I recently attended professional development focused on guided reading, specifically how to teach young children to make inferences about characters’ feelings. It was great PD! The presenter gently pushed us out of the comfort zone of our school colleagues and embedded multiple opportunities to work with children. The goal was clear. Make children aware of the cognition in which they engage when making inferences by teaching them a simple, three-step strategy:

  1. Retell what is happening to the character.
  2. Think about whether or not you have been in a similar situation and how you felt or speculate about how you might feel if you were in a similar situation.
  3. Make an inference.

Easy peasy. I had no complaints. If I’d filled out an evaluation, I would have given the presenter (I love them!) 5 stars and lots of praise for providing teachers with meaningful, tangible PD that they could use the very next day to nudge children along the continuum of skill development.

But I’m Aeriale. I overthink everything. And I just couldn’t let go of a thought that came to me in the middle of the day. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, every day, for nearly a week:

What if the character doesn’t feel how you felt or might feel? Should there be an additional step that asks children to confirm their inferences with text evidence (the character’s behavior, dialogue, facial expressions, etc.)? If there is little or no evidence, do we teach children how to think about other possibilities or tolerate the ambiguity? And, finally, the question I really can’t let go of: What are we teaching children about empathy if we tell them that they can make inferences about a character or a real live person’s feelings based on their own experiences and interpretations? Is making inferences really this simple or am I, as I’m wont to do, overcomplicating this?

Empathy. It’s one of the laudable character traits our school teaches — and uses to select students of the week and month — based on Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz’s phenomenal book, A Mindset for Learning. Well, most of us teach it. I don’t. (No shade thrown. I have talked with Kristi about this. I love her, too!)

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me over the last few years knows what I’ve come to believe about empathy. It’s a feeling. Furthermore, it’s a feeling rooted in assumptions because it does not require interaction. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes doesn’t have too much of an impact if you don’t have to walk alongside anyone and you get to trade in said shoes for your own at the end of the journey. Empathy can easily become a form of erasure.

I have begun teaching children to embody compassion instead. Compassion was derived from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. Empathy sees injustice and thinks, “How sad! I’d be so broken-hearted if that happened to me.” Compassion shows up in the middle of the storm, remains long after it has passed, and centers the individuals having the experience, giving them space to identify their own feelings and solve their own dilemmas, be their own heroes.

We talk so much about how nurturing young readers helps raise up better human beings who are fully prepared to engage in our democracy. I wonder if this, too, is not a bit more complex than:

  1. Teach skills.
  2. Read books.
  3. Make a better human.

Teaching children the skills of reading — decoding and comprehension — is critical. Reading skills are, after all, thinking skills. If they master the strategies we teach them, children will indeed be readers who get it — inferences and so much more — “right” much of the time. But will those strategies lead them to be the kind of citizens whose life lives, and ultimately those of others, are galvanized by their reading lives if we fail to teach them to dig deeper and see beyond themselves to other possibilities and move beyond empathy to compassion?

In an interview with Education Week’s Larry Ferlazzo, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad talks about the equity framework in her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy and in it, I found my answer. About Part Four, Criticality, she says:

“Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression. I define oppression simply as any wrongdoing, hurt, or harm. This can be racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or any other oppression. In my work, I discuss the difference between lower case “c” critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. It is helping youths to be “woke” socio-politically. Criticality calls for teachers to connect their teaching to the human condition and to frame their teaching practices in response to the social and uneven times in which we live. This means helping students understand content from marginalized perspectives. As long as oppression is present, students need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change. This will support students toward being critical consumers and producers of information. It will also help to build a better humanity for all. With each lesson or unit plan, teachers should ask, How does our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression?” 

When we teach children to read with criticality, we help them understand how power works. Empathy has long been used as a tool of oppression, a way for the haves to wield power over the have nots by “helping” while maintaining control of resources and perpetuating erasure. In fact, many components of the US school system are built exactly this way and, often, for this very purpose.

If we want our children to build a new world order, we have to teach them to consume, ideate, and create with criticality. This doesn’t begin once they learn to decode or when we adults deem them ready. They are already doing it right now, as they read the world and the word.

So let’s ask children to retell, yes. And they should think about how they felt or might feel in a similar situation. But after that, let’s ask them about what they are noticing in the text that might confirm why the character might have the same feelings. Let’s help them ponder what other feelings the character might have. (They might even get these ideas from their peers who have divergent thoughts about the same character.) Let’s talk to them about who has the power to decide how the character, their friend, their family member feels and what happens when we make these decisions for others. And, finally, let’s think alongside them about how the inferences people make, sometimes with false information and biases, impact the past, present, and future.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking. . .



5 thoughts on “Inference, Empathy, & Erasure or Overthinking?

  1. Love this post. I have been worried about the “personal connections” as reading strategies for years as it takes kids out of the story and away from the character. I have never realized why it bothered me so much, but your post today helped me to think about it more deeply. As an intermediate teacher, I see this manifest in ways that a reader has often come to learn (by 4th and 5th grade) that her opinion and personal connection carry more weight than what is actually in the text, what the author actually tells us , what we know about the character from the text. You are definitely not overthinking…


  2. You are NOT overthinking!! As readers, we connect with text, but not always through our own experience. When we lead with our own experience we center on our own lives and leave a lot of space for misinterpretation. This line: “And, finally, let’s think alongside them about how the inferences people make, sometimes with false information and biases, impact the past, present, and future.” is so important. Our reading experiences need to have a “what” (retell), a “so what” (inference) and a “now what” (learning/action/reflection/growth). Thank you for this post – it is one I will reread again and again.


  3. Been worried as well about variations on the “It says, I know, and so” strategy for inferring for years because, I fear, it’s simply too simplistic. Also, think we read not just to see our own feelings in a book (though as your post on Matt Pena’s book Love demonstrates, that can be incredibly powerful), but also to broaden our understanding of the human condition. I think that means considering possibilities for why characters do & feel things that you, as a reader, may have never experienced yourself – and to do that, you probably have to keep on reading & thinking, rather than just grabbing a single line of text & making a connection in order to practice the skill of inferring. On the other hand the kids reading Love weren’t practicing a skill but were inferring up a storm. Some of that may, indeed, be because emotionally & metaphorically they’d found themself hiding under a piano themselves. But they also noticed lots of details to arrive at a deep and complex understanding of what was happening in that house that they may not have arrived at book was being used to practice the skill of inferring. And I guess all that means that I, too, don’t think you’re overthinking this at all!


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