That’s Not Fair! Reading Between the Lines

My seventh graders finished reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders the week before winter break. The Lexile Framework for Reading puts The Outsiders squarely at a seventh grade reading level, which is perfect for some of my students. For others, it is way to high.

To help my struggling readers get through the text, we often listened to the audio version (available on while students followed along in their books. This is an imperfect solution for many reasons, but I wanted students to have the experience of reading a whole book–for some of them the first of their lives. While we read we focused on certain reading skills–

  • Paraphrasing key quotes
  • Using context clues to figure out the meaning
  • Making inferences

One day we were reading together and we came across the following passage:

     So that was what had been bugging Soda all afternoon. And I hadn’t even  bothered to find out. And while I was thinking about it, I realized that I never had paid much attention to Soda’s problems. Darry and I just took it for granted that he didn’t have any.

     “When Sandy went to Florida… it wasn’t Soda, Ponyboy. He told me he loved her, but I guess she didn’t love him like he thought she did, because it wasn’t him.”
     “You don’t have to draw me a picture,” I said.
     “He wanted to marry her anyway, but she just left.” Darry was looking at me with  a puzzled expression. “Why didn’t he tell you? I didn’t think he’d tell Steve or Two-Bit, but I thought he told you everything.”

I stopped the audio recording, and asked, “What happened here?” My students looked up at me expectantly. No hands raised. I continued, “What is Darry saying? What about Soda?” Again, my students just looked at me.

Undeterred, I tried again: “OK, let’s read this passage again. There’s a secret here. About Soda. Who can figure out the secret.” We re-read the passage. I waited. “Anyone figure out the secret?”

One student raised his hand. When I called on him, he said, “Maybe Soda’s girlfriend cheated on him?” The class giggled at this.

“Why do you think that?” I asked the brave student. 

He said, “Well, she had to go to Florida because maybe she was…and it says ‘it wasn’t him.'” The other students continued to laughing nervously.

I congratulated my brave reader because he found the secret and he cited evidence to prove his idea. Making a big deal about it, I said, “Yep! He got it! He has found the secret. Can you believe it?”

The class gasped. I heard one student mutter, “It’s not fair when they don’t just tell you.”

We continued reading the chapter, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what that last student said: “It’s not fair when they don’t just tell you.” I know what he meant. He isn’t used to having to figure out something like that while he’s reading. On the other hand though, I’m sure he is constantly having to make inferences in real life. If it were his friends or family having that conversation, wouldn’t he be able to gather what they were talking about? Why is it when we are reading fiction, some of my students forget the life skills they use all the time?

Maybe we should start making inferences based on non-print texts like movies and art. Making the skill explicit, students could use frames like–

  • I see / hear _________. This makes me wonder _______.
  • Maybe this means __________. My evidence is _____________.

Those frames need some work, but my idea is to take them from literal text-based meaning to questioning to making inferences. Once students are comfortable with the concept of making inferences from non-print texts it may be easier for them to do it with print. I believe they are already making inferences in their regular lives. I just want them to have the confidence that they can do the same thing when they are reading something for school. I want that connection to be visible to them.



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