Teaching Children to Use Context

Tim Shanahan

I’m writing this blog because of the disarray I see over the topic of context instruction and the poor instructional practice that it seems to manifest.

One confusion is already well recognized, but merits some mention here. The other befuddlement usually goes without remark, and yet it, too, has unfortunate consequences for young readers.

Let’s dispatch the first problem forthwith. This one I’ll refer to as the three-cueing problem. Research found that when students err in reading a word, they often try to use various kinds of information to resolve the difficulty. Essentially, when something goes wrong, readers try to make things work one way or another. They don’t try to read the word as much as to get it right anyway possible. They turn to context – trying to guess the word by the meaning of the other words, the pictures, the syntax. Whatever it takes.

What about in meaning?

Everyone seems to agree that context can be quite helpful for determining the meaning of words and phrases. And yet…

I spent a lot of time this week reading research on context and meaning. For the most part, I was disappointed.

My take? The research community has been spinning its wheels. Most of their questions have been decidedly academic (in this context, academic means useless for any practical purpose).

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