On the use of context in reading

With respect to reading, a denial of context is a denial that experience is applicable to learning.—Richard Frank, 1980

What is context?

Sometimes context has been conceptualized rather narrowly, as the words surrounding a particular word in question, within a sentence or phrase. In the last three decades, though, it has become increasingly evident that context means many things—even the context relevant to reading just an individual word. Context includes the grammar of sentences and the meanings of words; a paragraph; a whole story or other text. Context is also taken to include the reader's expectations and purposes for reading; various aspects of the location and situation in which the person is reading; and even the person's culture and times—in short, the reader's entire background of knowledge and experience (e.g. Brown, 1997). These various factors operate simultaneously for proficient readers; they usually operate quite unconsciously; and they can affect the identification of single words as well as the reader's understanding of an entire text. The automatic use of context—of multiple contexts—is a crucial part of the reading process, though most people don't realize it.

Considering and reconsidering arguments against the use of context

Recently it has been claimed, particularly in popularizations and simplifications of research, that proficient readers do not use context in reading. While virtually all scholars agree that a simple statement like this is a vast oversimplification, here are five points that are typically made in denying the use of context, with comments and contrary research:

The effective use of context in reading

Various research studies, and differing kinds of research, indicate that context plays a major role in reading:

Get a ball, Mary.
Everybody forgot to eat popcorn.
can ride
Who rides with Mike?
Carlo the clown ran up to Trixie.
I can't play with Jeff and Mary. I can play ball.
Bill the circus boy led
Penny the elephant into the circus ring.
[was corrected]

Adams, M. J., Treiman, R., & Pressley, M. (1997). Reading, writing, and literacy. In I. Sigel & A. Renninger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Volume 4: Child psychology in practice. New York : Wiley.

Ames, W. S. (1966). The development of a classification scheme of contextual aids. Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 57-82.

Artley, A. S. (1943). Teaching word-meaning through context. Elementary English Review, 20 (2), 68-74.

Baldwin, R. S., & Schatz, E. K. (1985). Context clues are ineffective with low frequency words in naturally occurring prose. In J. A. Niles & R. V. Lalik (Eds.), Issues in literacy: A research perspective (Thirty-fourth Yearbook of National Reading Conference, pp. 132-135). Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference.

Banks, W. P., Oka, E., & Shugarman, S. (1981). Internal speech: Does recoding come before lexical access? In O. J. L. Tzeng & H. Singer (Eds.), Perception of print: Reading research in experimental psychology (pp. 137-170). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brown, J. (1997). An integrated view of context: Implications of miscue analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Brown, J., Goodman, K. S., & Marek, A. M. (1996). Studies in miscue analysis: An annotated bibliography. Newark, DE: International Reading Assoc.

Dulin, K. L. M. (1969). New research on context clues. Journal of Reading, 13, 33-53.

Ehri, L. C. (1994). Development of the ability to read words: Update. In R. Ruddell, M. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 323- 358). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ehri, L. C. (1995). Phases of development in reading words. Journal of Research in Readings, 18, 116-125.

Ehrlich, S., & Rayner, K. (1981). Contextual effects on word perception and eye movements during reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 20, 641-655.

Erdmann, B., & Dodge, R. (1898). Psychologische Untersuchungen uber das Lesen, auf Experimenteller Grundlage. Halle. As cited in Huey, 1908/1968.

Frank, R. (1980). Context and reading acquisition. Journal of Reading, 24, 11-15.

Gates, D. D. (1979). The use of contextual information for word identification by elementary school children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. (University Microfilms No. AAC 8014695)

Goodman, K. S. (1965). A linguistic study of cues and miscues in reading. Elementary English, 42, 639-645. Reprinted in K. S. Goodman, Language and literacy: The selected writings of Kenneth S. Goodman (Frederick V. Gollsch, Ed.; Vol. 1, pp.115-120). Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Goodman, K. S. (1973). Theoretically based studies of patterns of miscues in oral reading performance. Detroit: Wayne State University. (ERIC: ED 079 708).

Goswami, U. (1986). Children's use of analogy to read: A developmental study. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68, 680-688.

Goswami, U. (1988). Orthographic analogies and reading development. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40, 239-268.

Gough, P. B., & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). Learning to read: An unnatural act. Bulletin of the Orton Dyslexia Society, 30, 179-196.

Huey, E. B. (1908/1968). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hughes, M. A. (1997). Word identification and comprehension in learning to read. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Hudelson-Lopez, S. (1977). Children's use of contextual clues in reading Spanish. The Reading Teacher, 30, 735-740.

Juel, C., Griffith, P. L., & Gough, P. B. (1986). Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 243-255.

Just, M., & Carpenter, P. (1980). A theory of reading: From eye fixations to comprehension. Psychological Review, 87, 329-354.

Krashen, S. (In press). Eye fixation research studies do not disprove the Goodman-Smith hypothesis. In P. Dreyer (Ed.), Sixty-first Yearbook of the Claremont Reading Conference. Claremont, CA: Claremont Graduate School.

Lefton, L. A., & Spragins, A. B. (1974). Orthographic structure and reading experience affect the transfer from iconic to short term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 103, 775-781.

Marcel, A. J., & Patterson, K. E. (1978). Word recognition and production: Reciprocity in clinical and normal studies. In J. Peguin (Ed.), Attention and performance VII. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

McCaughy, M. W., Juola, J. F., Schadler, M., & Ward, N. (1980). Whole-word units are used before orthographic knowledge in perceptual development. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 30, 411-421.

McConkie, G. W., & Zola, D. (1981). Language constraints and the functional stimulus in reading. In A. M. Lesgold & C. A. Perfetti (Eds.), Interactive processes in reading (pp. 155-175). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

McCullogh, C. M. (1943). Learning to use context clues. Elementary English Review, 20 (4), 140-143.

Miller, G. A., Bruner, J. S., & Postman, L. (1954). Familiarity of letter sequences and tachistoscopic identification. Journal of General Psychology, 50, 129-139.

Moustafa, M. (1995). Children's phonological recording. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 464-476.

Moustafa, M. (1997). Reconceptualizing phonics instruction. In C. Weaver (Ed.), Reconceptualizing a balanced approach to reading. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American educational Research Journal, 24, 237-270.

Nagy, W. E., Herman, P. A., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 233-253.

Nicholson, T. (1991). Do children read words better in context or in lists? A classic study revisited. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 444-450.

Rayner, K., & Morris, R. (1992). Eye movement control in reading: Evidence against semantic preprocessing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human perception and performance, 18,163-172.

Rayner, K., & Pollatsek, A. The psychology of reading. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schatz, E. K., & Baldwin, R. S. (1986). Context clues are unreliable predictors of word meanings. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 439-453.

Schwantes, F. M., Boesl, S. L., & Ritz, E. G. (1980). Children's use of context in word recognition: A psycholinguistic guessing game. Child Development, 51, 730-736.

Share, D. L., & Stanovich, K. E. (1995). Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences in a model of acquisition. Issues in Education, 1 (1), 1-57.

Smith, F. (1994). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. (5th ed). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stanovich, K. E. (1991). Word recognition: Changing perspectives. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamill, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2, pp. 418-452). New York: Longman.

Weaver, C. (1994). Reading process and practice: From sociopsycholinguistics to whole language (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weber, R. (1970). First-graders' use of grammatical context in reading. In H. Levin & J. P. Williamss (Eds.), Basic studies on reading (pp. 147-163). New York: Basic Books.

Wood, M. N. (1976). Amultivariate analysis of beginning readers' recognition of taught words in four contextual settings. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Texas Women's University, Denton, TX. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.ED 138 949).

Prepared by Constance Weaver and Joel Brown, for future printings of Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education by C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby. Portsmouth, NH; Heinemann, 1996. May be copied.

Next sheet | Previous sheet | Fact sheet index