The Use of Context Cues in Reading

By — LD Online
Updated on Apr 11, 2011

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.

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