Facts
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:

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

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