Teaching Literal vs Inferential Questions in Speech


As speech therapists, we teach a wide range of skills. One of the skills that is the hardest for both speech therapists and classroom teachers to teach is inferencing. Most students can answer literal questions a lot more easily than inferential questions, so it takes explicit instruction on thinking skills to help our students learn how to answer inferential questions! 

We can help with this during speech time when we are working with students on goals and objectives relating to answering questions. Because speech instruction takes place in a small group or 1-1 setting, it can be the perfect opportunity to practice how to answer both literal and inferential questions. Let’s take a look at how to accomplish this. 

Literal vs. Inferential Questions- What’s the Difference? 

Literal questions are often the first types of questions that students are exposed to in a classroom setting. Also known as the Wh questions, literal questions ask the reader questions about who, what, where, and when things happen in a text. The answers to literal questions are concrete and are stated explicitly in the text. Answering literal questions requires students to either recall facts or find facts within a text. 

Inferential questions are trickier. Students must use context clues within the text in order to answer inferential questions. These types of questions ask students why or how something happened. Often, there can be more than one correct answer. Inferential questions require students to evaluate the text, find the context clues, draw on their own background knowledge or schema, and then form a conclusion. 

Why Teach These As Part of Speech Therapy?

Teaching students how to answer questions is the foundation of what we – and classroom teachers – do. Being able to answer both literal and inferential questions incorporates so many elements of speech therapy- memory, receptive language, vocabulary acquisition and usage, listening comprehension, and more. 

When we look at the goals and objectives of our students’ IEPs, we can see what types of questions our students need to work on. Perhaps some of our students are able to answer literal questions really well. Great! Then we know that we only need to work on how to answer inferential questions with them. 

From kindergarten on, students are expected to be able to answer literal questions about a text. Beginning in second grade, students are expected to “Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.1). Students will need help in figuring out how to answer literal questions first, to get a solid foundation before they move on to the higher-order thinking skills required to answer inferential questions. If we want to help support our students more in the classroom we can address how to answer literal questions during speech with our older students.

Tips For Teaching Literal and Inferential Questions

Because literal and inferential questions are so different, the way in which we teach students how to answer these questions needs to be different, as well! Because the answers to literal questions are concrete, we can use concrete things to identify the answers to these questions. These can include:

  • When asking a who or where question, giving three picture choices and letting the students select the answer based on pictures. 
  • Letting students draw the answer to a question.
  • Using a highlighter to highlight the nouns in the text. These will give us good clues about what the answers to the literal questions are. 
  • Teaching clue words. For example, if the question is asking where something took place, the students need to look for a location, and not a name or an object. Having a clue words chart demonstrating that who = a person, where = a place, etc., will help students understand what the literal questions are asking them. 

When faced with an inferential question, students need to understand that the answer will not be found right in the text. They will need to use their detective skills to figure out the answer. Inferential questions are less concrete, but there are still some concrete steps that we can take to help students answer them! 

  • Use clue words. When students see the words “probably”, “might”, or “think” in a question, they can assume that it’s an inferential question. Additionally, if the question is asking how a character feels, or why something happened, then it is most likely inferential. Students can even highlight these key words within a question to make it more clear. 
  • Once the student knows what the question is asking, then they can go hunting for clue words. These clue words can be found in the text, usually in the form of adjectives that describe the feelings of a character or a series of events. 
  • We can also use graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams and sequencing charts to allow the students to see why something happened, or how a person was feeling. 
  • Never underestimate the power of drawing! Students can also draw pictures to answer inferential questions. Making these drawings into something like a comic book or poster gives students a great visual for topics that aren’t as clear. 


If you want my free visual chart for your students to use that has a list of key words to look for when talking about literal and inferential questions, you can head on over here.


Need some more ideas on how to teach literal vs. inferential questions? I’ve got some fun, age-appropriate activities for older students on interesting topics over in my membership, SLP Elevate! I’ve also got you covered with these Boom Cards! Click the link to check them out.