Teaching Children to Use Context Cues While Reading

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When kids encounter an unfamiliar word in reading, they may utilize context cues, that is, info from pictures or sentences surrounding the unknown word. One of the most misunderstood topics in reading instruction involves how kids should be encouraged to rely on context cues in reading. This confusion stems from the popularity of theoretical reading models that do not reflect scientific evidence about how kids learn to read. An additional source of confusion is the failure to distinguish context cues in word identification.

Using context in word identification

When kids utilize context to aid word identification, they employ pictures or sentence context to read or decode an unknown word. For example, contemplate the following sentence from the Arthur series:

“D.W. put baby powder on her face to look pale.” (An image of D.W. accompanies the text with white powder on her face.)

Suppose a kid cannot read the last word of the sentence; they can look at the picture or ponder the meaning of the sentence, perhaps in connection with the first letter or 2 of the word (p- or pa-), to come up with the correct word, pale. Reliance on context to assist in word identification is common among poor readers, both normally-achieving beginners and older struggling readers. It is undesirable because the kid is guessing rather than attending to each of the word’s letters. Of course, educators certainly want kids to monitor meaning frequently as they are reading. Specific behaviors may demonstrate monitoring during the reading of passages.

Children who do not monitor their comprehension while reading should be encouraged to do so. However, any teaching strategy that discourages attention to the complete sequence of letters in a word will not be successful for an alphabetic language like English. Every letter counts, and learning new words is greatly facilitated by close attention to individual letters. The words pale, pole, and pile each differ in only one letter, but their meanings are entirely distinct!

Scientific evidence demonstrates that the development of skilled reading involves increasingly accurate and automatic word identification skills, not the utilization of “multiple cueing systems” to read words. Good readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification because they can read many words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode some unknown words quickly.

It is the poor readers who tend to be dependent on context to make up for low word recognition. Many struggling readers guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by encouragement to utilize context. Some teachers of struggling readers have seen the typical pattern in which a kid who is attempting to read a word (say, the word brown) gives the word only a passing glance and then offers a series of guesses based on the initial letter: “Black? Book? Box?” (The guesses are often accompanied by attention to the expression on the teacher’s face rather than to the print, as the kid waits for this expression to change to indicate a correct guess.)

Even when kids can utilize context to arrive at the correct word, reliance on context to compensate for inaccurate word reading creates a strain on comprehension. This type of compensation becomes increasingly problematic as kids are expected to read challenging texts with sophisticated vocabularies and grammatically complex sentences.

Teaching context along with comprehension

The use of context in reading comprehension indicates something quite distinct from the utilization of context in word identification. The use of context to assist comprehension should be consistently encouraged by educators, although some contexts are more helpful than others for this purpose. Use of context to decide word meanings also must be accompanied by a program of direct vocabulary instruction, as utilizing context will be insufficient for many kids to acquire the word meanings they need and is incredibly inefficient for the kids who need it most.

More considerations

Because youngsters with reading disabilities usually have poor phonological skills, they generally benefit from teaching approaches that provide explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics. Nevertheless, suppose kids are taught systematic phonics in one part of the reading program but are encouraged to utilize context to predict when reading passages. In that case, they may not apply their phonics skills consistently. The phonics part of the reading program may be compromised.

Also, kids must be placed in reading instruction with books that match their word identification accuracy and phonics skills. If they are placed in reading content that is too difficult for their skill levels, they may be left with one or two options other than guessing at words.

Like normally-achieving readers, kids with reading disabilities benefit from encouragement to utilize context as an aid to comprehension. This type of context use can happen when kids are listening to text as well as when they are reading. Because youngsters with reading disabilities typically have listening comprehension that far outweighs their reading skills, oral comprehension activities are often good ways to challenge and develop their comprehension capabilities.

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