Lexical Inferencing

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.
San Diego State University

The purpose of this webpage is to explain a case where the Science of Reading (SoR) Movement is using false arguments and misrepresentations of legitimate and valid research from multilingualism and second language acquisition research to bolster their case for the “science of reading.” Several journalists, most notably, Emily Hanford of American Public Media have made a frontal attack on an approach or strategy they call the “three-cueing approach.” The argument against the “three cueing approach” is a straw man argument intended to discredit ways of teaching and assessing reading and writing that they claim do not fall under the umbrella of “science.”

Proponents of SoR have basically invented an “approach” in an attempt to discredit Ken Goodman, Frank Smith and Whole Language, along with the entire miscue analysis research base. Efforts to discredit a research base and basically get it banned through legislation and policy initiatives are highly prejudicial and counterproductive. There is a vast body of research in second language acquisition and second language reading research on what is termed “lexical inferencing” that addresses how L2 learners use context (in both listening and reading) to make meaning, build vocabulary, etc. The research points out that L1 readers who are reading in their L2 have an advantage because they have already developed the metacognitive strategies for meaning-making that they can apply to both word form and semantics in comprehending unfamiliar words.

Theoretical Framework for Lexical Inferencing

In her review of the research on second language lexical inferencing, Haastrup (2009) describes the knowledge base of this theoretical construct as a significant research area with implications for both reading theory and vocabulary acquisition:

“Here, we provide a synthesis of shared findings from mainly descriptive empirical studies of lexical inferencing undertaken in the 1990s and early 2000s, organized around factors influencing different parts of the process and its outcomes. These include learners’ decisions to attempt inferencing, factors promoting successful determination of appropriate word meanings and factors relating lexical inferencing to retention of new lexical knowledge.”  (p. 4)

Teachers of literacy to biliteracy learners and second language learners must recognize how the question of “cueing” in word recognition and comprehension is termed and discussed in the research from the perspective of second language acquisition (SLA), second language reading, and biliteracy teaching/learning. The term in these fields of research is “lexical inferencing” and it is treated in the research literature as a valuable and practical skill/ strategy that is both metalinguistic and metacognitive that enhances comprehension and is transferable from L1 reading to L2 reading for bilingual readers (Haastrup, 2009; Nagy, 1993: Ke, et al., 2023).  According to the Ke and colleagues (2023) in their meta-analysis of research on metalinguistic awareness in second language reading development, lexical inferencing is the skill that links phonological awareness, morphological awareness and vocabulary knowledge (semantics) in the process of reading comprehension.  Haastrup (2009: 5) describes lexical inferencing this way:

“Effective inferencing ability will enhance not only their reading fluency but will also support their academic learning. While a reader’s primary purpose in attempting to comprehend a given word meaning is to aid in understanding the larger text, successful identification of a previously unknown word meaning may also lead to retention of new knowledge about that word. The process of reading comprehension and of lexical inferencing is in many ways similar for readers in their L1 and an L2; however, studies comparing L1 and L2 reading or lexical inferencing consistently show a marked advantage for L1 readers. This native speaker advantage appears to relate to L1 readers’ more efficient language processing skills in the text language as well as to their richer and more established linguistic, especially lexical and cultural knowledge. Such knowledge and abilities are reflected in measures of reading proficiency and vocabulary knowledge in the text language. The persistence of such an advantage even when L2 readers have very high levels of proficiency suggests that subtle L1-related factors may continue to influence L2 users’ performance over many years.” (p. 5)

The theoretical framework for the metalinguistic approach describes the contribution of each of four salient language subsystems to reading comprehension: phonology, morphology, semantics and syntax. For example, Nagy et al. (2014:3) present this finding from their review of the research literature on lexical inferencing:

“The contribution of morphological knowledge to reading comprehension has been found to be significant when other variables have been controlled for (e.g., Jeon, 2011; Nagy et al., 2006; Roman, Kirby, Parrila, Wade-Woolley, & Deacon, 2009). Though the amount of unique variance accounted for by morphological knowledge is sometimes small, this is in part due to the high correlations between morphological knowledge and other predictors of comprehension; the unique variance accounted for may underestimate its relevance for instructional practice.”

Lexical Inferencing as a Reading Comprehension Process

Haastrup (2009) states that language comprehension and vocabulary development are intertwined with lexical inferencing. Children learn the meaning of new words in their L1 through frequent exposure to these words in oral language contexts. Lexical inferencing is a sub-type of the more general inferencing process that operates at all levels of text comprehension.

“Reading comprehension in one’s L1 involves ongoing inferencing at different text levels. At the word level, due to the existence of homonyms and homographs and because many words have multiple meanings, even fluent L1 readers must continually make semantic inferences to determine which meaning of a familiar word is contextually appropriate or to infer an unknown additional meaning. Information from individual words interacts continuously with information from the larger context, the former contributing to construction of textual meaning, while the latter is necessary for accurate selection of the precise contextual meaning of a given word. In L2 reading, orthographic and underlying phonological word forms themselves may be unfamiliar, so that the reader must process the word form in addition to attempting to identify an appropriate meaning for it in the given context. In some cases, even the concept(s) underlying the word’s meaning may be unknown to the L2 reader, particularly if the word has no lexical or phrasal equivalent in the reader’s L1.” (p. 4)

“While the reader’s primary goal is comprehension, attention to a particular word form and an effort to determine its intended meaning in the given context may also lead to retention of new lexical knowledge by initiating or pushing forward the lengthy, incremental process of learning that word. It is for this reason that lexical inferencing is seen as operating at the core of the relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary development and is crucial to ‘incidental’ (non-intentional) word learning while reading.” (p.4)

Much of the research on lexical inferencing that comes from second language acquisition and second language reading studies coincides with recent research focused on what is termed “word solving” using strategies collectively referred to as the Interactive Strategies Approach (Scanlon & Anderson, 2020). The research base for lexical inferencing supports the notion that the larger context of text contributes to the construction of contextual meaning, where word meaning operates at the core of the relationship between reading comprehension and word learning. Scanlon and Anderson describe the importance of these interactive strategies in literacy learning. From this description we may conclude that the Interactive Strategies Approach and “word solving” are other labels for the construct of lexical inferencing.

“Some, noting the critical importance of phonics instruction in learning to read in an alphabetic writing system, take the position that students should attend only to alphabetic information in word-solving attempts. However, long-standing theories of the development of word-reading skills support the value of teaching students to use both alphabetic and contextual information in word solving in interactive and confirmatory ways. The authors contend that using both phonics and context-based information facilitates the ability to build sight vocabulary, which in turn enables readers to turn their attention to the most important goal of literacy learning: meaning construction.” (p. 519)

Lexical Inferencing’s Contribution to Multilingual Learners Research 

What is defined as the Science of Reading encompasses many fields of research and research methodologies that contribute to educators’ knowledge base for the selection and implementation of approaches to literacy instruction. The key to effective literacy instruction for multilingual learners is for teachers to formulate a coherent, evidence-based theoretical orientation toward literacy and biliteracy instruction. We dual language educators must be aware of the negative impact of any initiatives to discredit methods, approaches and strategies that have a solid empirical base in the multidisciplinary research in psycholinguistics, second language acquisition, second language reading and sociolinguistics. These language-focused methods and approaches are utilized to support language learning as foundational to literacy learning.

“Identifying an appropriate meaning of a word in context involves finding useful cues from the word and the surrounding text and drawing on previous knowledge to generate an informed guess. An appropriate inference enhances the accuracy of text comprehension and interpretation, whereas a wrong inference may lead to miscomprehension. Readers who verify the contextual accuracy of their guesses, often passing through several cycles of trying and rejecting possible meanings, are more likely to arrive at appropriate meanings (Haynes, 1993). Lexical inferencing ability can be a particularly important tool for readers who are studying through the medium of an L2 and thus face many more unfamiliar words than their fellow students reading in their L1. Effective inferencing ability will enhance not only their reading fluency but will also support their academic learning. While a reader’s primary purpose in attempting to comprehend a given word meaning is to aid in understanding the larger text, successful identification of a previously unknown word meaning may also lead to retention of new knowledge about that word.”

A study from 2022 by Kenn Apel from the University of South Carolina, Columbia titled “A different view on the Simple View of Reading” confirms that reading comprehension requires that readers are able to apply metalinguistic skills to derive meaning from text. 

The SVR model adequately represents the process of reading comprehension. In this article, I propose a common thread that links those diverse measurement tasks: all the tasks measured students’ metalinguistic skills. In fact, the findings from these studies mirror those found from investigations directly measuring the influence of language awareness abilities on reading comprehension. I conclude the article with the theoretical and educational implications of taking a different view of the second component of the SVR model.” (p. 434)

“The key point here is that there is no need to change the direction of investigations of the SVR or related models to consider how spoken language, the simultaneous use of all five language components to communicate, contributes to reading comprehension. Instead, it is important to acknowledge the true nature of those consistently identified contributors to reading comprehension… That is, a new SVR framework is not necessarily needed; rather, researchers need to identify accurately what their measures of that the model’s second component are assessing (i.e., metalinguistics). In doing so, that will allow two separate lines of research to be joined. By recognizing the two common lines of research, it likely brings us closer to determining effective instruction and intervention approaches for improving reading comprehension.” (p. 441)

Click here to learn more about the straw man attack against legitimate L2 strategies from proponents of the science of reading.


Apel, K. (2022). A different view on the Simple View of Reading. Remedial and Special Education, 43(6), 434-447.

Haastrup, K. (2009). Research on the lexical inferencing process and its outcomes. In M. B. Wesche & T. S. Paribakht (Eds.), Lexical inferencing in a first and second language: Cross-linguistic dimensions (pp. 3-30). Multilingual Matters.

Ke, S. E., Zhang, D., & Koda, K. (2023). Metalinguistic awareness in second language reading development. Cambridge University Press.

Nagy, W. E., Carlisle, J. F., & Goodwin, A. P. (2014). Morphological knowledge and literacy acquisition. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(1), 3-12.

Nassaji, H. (2003). L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 645-670.

Raudszus, H., & Segers, E. V., Ludo. (2021). Use of morphological and contextual cues in children’s lexical inferencing in L1 and L2. Reading & Writing, 34, 1513-1538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-021-10122-z

Scanlon, D. M., & Anderson, K. L. (2020). Using context as an assist in word solving: The contributions of 25 years of research on the Interactive Strategies Approach. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S19-S34.

Wesche, M. B., & Paribakht, T. S. (Eds.). (2009). Lexical inferencing in a first and second language: Cross-linguistic dimensions. Multilingual Matters