When children encounter an unfamiliar word in reading, they may make use of context cues, that is, information from pictures or from sentences surrounding the unknown word. One of the most misunderstood topics in reading instruction involves the extent to which children should be encouraged to rely on context cues in reading. In part, this confusion stems from the popularity in education of theoretical models of reading that do not reflect scientific evidence about how children learn to read. Another source of confusion is the failure to distinguish the use of context cues in word identification from the use of context in comprehension.
Using context in word identification
When children use context to aid word identification, they employ pictures or sentence context to read or decode an unknown word. For example, consider the following sentence from the Arthur series of books by Marc Brown:
“D.W. put baby powder on her face to look pale.” (The text is accompanied by a picture of D.W. with white powder on her face.)
Suppose a child is unable to read the last word of the sentence; he might look at the picture or think about the meaning of the sentence, perhaps in conjunction with the first letter or two of the word (p- or pa-), to come up with the correct word, pale. (For this strategy to work, the child also will need to have some oral familiarity with the word pale.) Although heavy reliance on context to aid word identification is common among unskilled readers — both normally-achieving beginners and older struggling readers — it is ultimately undesirable, because the child is guessing rather than attending carefully to all the letters in the word. Of course, teachers certainly want children to monitor meaning consistently as they are reading. This monitoring may be evidenced by certain behaviors during oral reading of passages, as, for instance, when a youngster attempts to self-correct after substituting a contextually inappropriate word (e.g., pole or pal vs. pale in the sentence above). Children who do not appear to monitor their own comprehension while reading should clearly be encouraged to do so. However, any instructional strategy that, implicitly or explicitly, discourages careful attention to the entire sequence of letters in a word will be maladaptive for an alphabetic language like English, where every letter counts, and where 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 different!
Scientific evidence strongly demonstrates that the development of skilled reading involves increasingly accurate and automatic word identification skills, not the use of “multiple cueing systems” to read words. Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification. Furthermore, many struggling readers are disposed to guess at words rather than to look carefully at them, a tendency that may be reinforced by frequent encouragement to use context. Almost every teacher of struggling readers has seen the common pattern in which a child who is trying to read a word (say, the word brown) gives the word only a cursory glance and then offers a series of wild guesses based on the first letter: “Black? Book? Box?” (The guesses are often accompanied by more attention to the expression on the face of the teacher than to the print, as the child waits for this expression to change to indicate a correct guess.) Even when children are able to use context to arrive at the correct word, reliance on context to compensate for inaccurate or nonautomatic word reading creates a drain on comprehension. This kind of compensation becomes increasingly problematic as children are expected to read more challenging texts that have few or no pictures, sophisticated vocabulary, and grammatically complex sentences.
Using context in comprehension
The use of context in comprehension refers to something quite different from the use of context in word identification. Returning to the previous sentence about D.W., now assume a child can read every word in the sentence, including the word pale; however, she does not know the meaning of this word. If the child looks at the picture or uses sentence context to infer that pale means whitish, she has used context as an aid to comprehension. Other uses of context to aid comprehension include understanding words with multiple meanings (e.g., fly meaning an insect vs. the verb to fly) and recognizing pronoun referents in a text (e.g., which character is being referred to when the word he or she is used). The use of context to aid comprehension should be consistently encouraged by teachers, although some contexts are more helpful than others for this purpose. (For example, a sentence such as “The mysterious stranger had black hair, brown eyes, and a long, pale face” is not particularly illuminating for determining the meaning of the word pale.) Use of context to determine word meanings also must be accompanied by a program of direct instruction in vocabulary, as use of context will be insufficient for many children to acquire all the word meanings they need and is often especially inefficient for the children who need it most (i.e., weak comprehenders).
Implications for children with learning disabilities in reading
Because youngsters with reading disabilities typically have problems involving poor phonological skills, they generally benefit from instructional approaches that provide highly explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics. However, if children are taught systematic phonics in one part of the reading program but are encouraged to use context to guess at words when reading passages, they may not apply their phonics skills consistently. Thus, the phonics component of the reading program may be seriously undermined. Also, children must be placed for reading instruction in books that are a good match to their word identification accuracy and phonics skills. If they are placed in reading materials that are too difficult for their current skill levels, they may be left with few options other than guessing at words.
However, like normally-achieving readers, children with reading disabilities do benefit from encouragement to use context as an aid to comprehension. This kind of context use can occur when children are listening to text as well as when they are reading. For instance, in reading stories to children, teachers can encourage the use of sentence context or pictures to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words by modeling this process aloud: “Hmmm, what can I do if I am not sure what the word pale means? Well, the sentence says that D. W. put baby powder on her face to look pale, so I can think about what baby powder looks like…” Because youngsters with reading disabilities usually have listening comprehension that far outstrips their reading skills, oral comprehension activities often are the best ways to challenge and develop their comprehension abilities.