To most intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers, teaching context clues means helping students consciously identify and apply strategies to figure out the meaning of unknown words through hints in the surrounding text. These hints include pictures, syntax, text format, grammatical context constructions, mood or tone, mechanics, and surrounding words that provide synonym, antonym, logic, or example clues
Many of these teachers would also label the structural analysis of the unknown word itself as a context clue. Using morphemes (meaningful word parts, such as Greek and Latinates), syllabication strategies, grammatical inflections, and parts of speech also can help students figure of the meaning of unknown words. Some teachers would also include using hints outside of the text, such as prior knowledge or story schema in their definition and application of context clue strategies.
Teaching context clues for vocabulary development is widely accepted and practiced. However, there is another application of context clues that is not as widely accepted and practiced. This use of context clues is highly controversial and stirs up intense debate about how to teach reading.
Because the initial task of teaching students to read largely falls upon the shoulders of primary teachers, these teachers tend to be more familiar with this debate than their colleagues who teach older students. However, the underlying issues of this debate are just as relevant to intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers who teach “reading to learn.”
The issues of this debate involve whether context clues should be used as the primary strategy for word identification. Word identification generally means the process of pronouncing words by applying reading strategies. Word identification should be distinguished from word recognition, which generally means the ability to recognize and pronounce “sight words” automatically, without applying reading strategies. The role of context clues in word identification is the crucial issue behind the Reading Wars.
On one side of the battle are the “Phonic-ators.” These “defenders of the faith” believe that teaching phonemic awareness and phonics should be the primary means of teaching word identification. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the graphic cueing components of reading, that is the alphabetic code, syllabication, and spelling, than do those on the other side of the battle. The “Phonicators” de-emphasize the use of context clues to “guess” the meanings of words and teach students to decode words in and out of context. These graphic cueing folks are easily identified by their sound-spelling wall posters, their phonics and spelling worksheets, their assessment data matrices, their spelling workbooks, and their decodable paper-book stories. Their file drawers are filled with Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams, and Keith Stanovich article summaries.
On the other side are the “Whole Language Junkies.” These “defenders of the faith” believe that extensive shared, guided, and independent reading teaches students to read as the readers gradually acquire the reading strategies (with a heavy emphasis on context clues) to identify words in the context of reading. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the semantic (meaning-making) cueing components of reading, such as the use of context clues, than on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic) components of reading. These folks are nowadays less easily identified, because their side is currently re-trenching in today’s “No Child Left Behind” educational environment. But, you usually can tell who they are by their CLOZE procedure worksheets, their vast collection of miscue analyses, their personal class library of over 1,000 books (crowding out the spaces set aside for spelling and grammar workbooks), and their signed wall posters of Ken Goodman, Margaret Moustafa, and Stephen Krashen.
Although the generals argue over tactics, the strategic goals of both sides have much in common. Both believe that their tactics should lead to independent meaning-making, that is, reading comprehension should be the objective. Both agree that reading automaticity (fluency) is important and that their teaching methodologies, that is, the sound-spelling connections for the “Phonic-ators,” and the “psycholinguistic guessing games (Goodman)” for the “Whole Language Junkies,” will best lead to efficient, accurate, and “unconscious” word recognition. Both believe that reading is a complex and interactive process, in which prior knowledge and cognitive ability are important variables to actively address.
So, having identified the two uses of context clues, that is vocabulary development and word identification, is using context clues for word identification a bad thing? My view is that it can be when it is taught as the primary strategy for identifying words. I personally tend to lean on the research that proficient readers rely more on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic clues) as their primary strategies for word identification, while struggling readers tend to rely on context clues as their primary strategy for word identification. Kylene Beers, in her book When Kids Can’t Read, summarizes the problem of using context clues for word identification: “… discerning the meaning of unknown words using context clues requires a sophisticated interaction with the text that dependent readers have not yet achieved.” The proof is in the pudding: if good readers do A, and bad readers do B, then teachers should teach A more than B.
It does makes sense that readers need to learn a variety of strategies for word identification so that when one method fails, they have other back-up methods to assist. Explicit graphophonic instructional strategies should serve as the first line of attack and semantic instructional strategies, using context clues, should serve as back-ups.