What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

What does it mean to understand words “in context”?

In the course of my recent research on the phonics debate, I came across an idea that in retrospect should have seemed obvious but that nevertheless seemed entirely surprising when I encountered it—namely, that a reliance on context clues is a strategy employed primarily by poor readers.

Consequently, when schools teach young children to use context clues as a decoding aid, they are actually encouraging them to behave like weak readers. Strong readers, in contrast, rely primarily on the letters themselves to figure out what words are written.

According to Louise Spear-Swerling, professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University:

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.) (more…)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

Caveats and misgivings (not all vocabulary can be learned in context)

As I was categorizing the reading questions from the new tests in the 2020 edition of the Official SAT Guide, I noticed something a little odd about question #47 from the October 2017 exam.

The question, which accompanies a passage about the search for new types of antibiotics, reads as follows:


In line 79, “caveats” most nearly means

A) exceptions
B) restrictions
C) misgivings
D) explanations


Now, the answer, C), was correct in the most technical sense. Among the answer choices, “misgivings” obviously made the most logical sense when it was plugged into the passage, and it was perfectly consistent with the list of drawbacks the author provided in regard to a particular drug.

But when I thought about it, something about the question kept nagging at me. (more…)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

The three-cueing system and its misuses (or: the biggest problem in reading you’ve never heard of)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference on the science of reading held by John Gabrieli’s lab at MIT. It was, if nothing else, an eye-opening experience—not always in good ways, but certainly in ways that laid bare the problems involved in implementing broad changes to how reading is taught in the United States.

At the reception after the conference, I happened to be introduced to Nancy Duggan, one of the founders of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, an organization that advocates for screening and support for dyslexic students. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned one of the stranger reading problems I’d seen among my students—namely, that they had trouble making their eyes follow a line of text from left to right. Instead, their gaze seemed to dart randomly around the page. “Oh,” Nancy said promptly, “that’s the three-cueing system. Kids are supposed to look at just the beginning of the word and then look at the pictures for context clues.”

I was vaguely familiar with the term, but I had never made the connection between it and the reading difficulties I had witnessed in teenagers. I also confess that I did not know that children were actually taught to read in quite this bizarre a manner, or that the three-cueing system had anything to do with it. (more…)

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

If you live in the New York City area, you might have heard about the recent student protests against cuts to the arts programs at LaGuardia High School (aka the “Fame” school).

I don’t normally focus on local news, but in this case, I think the real story is much larger than what’s getting reported; in fact, I think that it’s getting overlooked entirely. I happen to have some insider knowledge of the school (colleagues, former students), and although it’s unique in many regards, some of the changes it’s undergone are actually reflective of a much larger trend involving the creeping privatization of public education.

In case you haven’t been following the events, here are the basics: (more…)

Commas and subordinate clauses

Commas and subordinate clauses

Considering that a large part of my job revolves around grammar, I’m somewhat more laid-back about certain rules than one might expect. Or rather, like most people who traffic professionally in the English language, I have a set of rather idiosyncratic preferences that may or may not align with what most people imagine a member of the grammar police would take people to task over.

If, for example, someone assures me that they would never, ever end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, my response is, well, “meh.”

One of my biggest pet peeves, however, involves dependent clauses—specifically, ones begun by subordinating conjunctions—and commas. Or rather, the lack thereof. (more…)

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

The Critical Reader Conversation with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Photo credit: Tricia Koning Photography 


For this interview, we are happy to present Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein Graff, professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They are the authors of They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, one of the most widely used college composition texts in the United States. In addition, their work has had an incalculable influence on both the original version of The Critical Reader and the AP Language and Composition edition of that book. We are enormously grateful for their participation in this series.


Gerald Graff, a Professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago adn 2008 President of the Modern Language Association of America, has had a major impact on teachers through such books as Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, and, most recently, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

Cathy Birkenstein, who first developed the templates used in They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, is a Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD in American literature and is currently working on a study of Booker T. Washington. Together Gerald and Cathy teach courses in composition and conduct campus workshops on writing. They live with their son, Aaron, in Chicago.



How did you come to write They Say/I Say? Did it develop organically from your teaching over an extended period, or were there specific incidents that inspired you to write it?

It was more of a slow process that developed over time in the 1990S as we compared our experiences as college teachers. What struck us most vividly at this time was our students’ widespread confusion over how to write an academic paper. To us, this confusion seemed largely unnecessary since, in our view, academic writing follows a rather conventional, elemental pattern that students could readily learn. As we thought about our own struggles with writing, and about what successful writers do, we came to believe that, despite its many moving parts, academic writing has one big constant: the move of entering a conversation, which is usually done by summarizing what other people have said or are saying about your subject and then using that summary to launch your own view, whether to agree, disagree, or some combination of both. (more…)

The College Board puts a number on adversity

The College Board puts a number on adversity

Over the last few days, chatter about the release of the College Board’s new “adversity index”—a number designed to encapsulate the amount of socioeconomic disadvantage applicants have faced—has finally eclipsed talk of the college admissions scandal (well, mostly).

As the NY Times reports:

The College Board announced on Thursday that it will include a new rating, which is widely being referred to as an “adversity score,” of between 1 and 100 on students’ test results. An average score is 50, and higher numbers mean more disadvantage. The score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood.

I think I may be the only person having this reaction, but honestly, I think that this is a whole lot of fuss over what is in some ways a nothingburger. Not a complete nothingburger, mind you—there are some genuinely concerning implications—but also a smaller deal than many people are making it out to be. (more…)

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

Dipping my toe gingerly into the “whole language vs. phonics” debate again. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day when I came across an image that made me stop and do a double take (and not in a good way):

Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in reading pedagogy for young children, but even I can tell that there’s something wrong with this picture.

It seems obvious that is should be treated as a sight word because, well, it’s one of the most common words in the entire language and because it follows a semi-irregular phonetic pattern that most beginning readers won’t have mastered.

Had is a different story altogether. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s super common, but the differences end there. There are a lot of words that end in -ad and that follow the exact same phonetic pattern:


To name just a handful.

If teachers are actually requiring students to memorize had without ensuring that they master its component sounds, they are passing up an opportunity to help children identify scads (!) of common words—on their own, even without obvious context clues.

To me that just seems like common sense.

Now, to be fair, in a blog post for Scholastic, veteran kindergarten teacher Brian K. Smith makes the point that a teacher might choose to initially treat certain more complex phonetically regular words as sight words in order to help students read slightly more challenging texts. He advises, however, that teachers make clear to students when they are doing so, and why, because otherwise:

Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow.

That strikes me as an entirely reasonable approach, one that an experienced teacher can adapt to the particulars of the students involved. But that is a best-case scenario, managed by someone who knows how to look at the whole picture and head off problems before they begin. Suffice it to say that an increasingly small number of teachers have the expertise for this kind of global thinking.

Moreover, in this case the logic doesn’t hold up: had is far too simple to get treated as a sight word for the sake of pushing students ahead. Furthermore, -ad is a such a high-frequency ending that children probably aren’t at the point where they can really read books independently at all until they know it.

I actually wonder if there’s a sort of categorization problem going on here with teachers, similar to something I used to observe in my ACT students.

Let me explain: one of the most commonly tested errors on the ACT involves the incorrect placement of a comma before a preposition. In order to identify this error securely—as opposed to just thinking “that sounds weird” or “you don’t need to pause there”—it is of course necessary to know what a preposition is.

I didn’t learn much grammar in elementary school, but one of the few things I did learn was what prepositions were: “location” or “time” words. To figure out whether a word was a preposition, we were encouraged to place it before the tree, e.g., in the treeon the tree, around the tree, etc. Using that little trick, I was able to form an abstract category called “prepositions” and easily determine whether new words fit into it, without ever having to memorize long lists of words individually.

When I started tutoring, however, I quickly discovered that many of my students (though not all) had an inordinate amount of difficulty with that task: they did not seem able to form a general category for prepositions. As a result, I was forced to spend ridiculous amount of time drilling them on individual prepositions.

I really disliked doing this, and it struck me as a hideously inefficient way to teach, but because they could not reliably apply a big-picture, conceptual understanding of prepositions to terms we hadn’t explicitly discussed, or had discussed in another context, it was the only way I could get them to correctly answer questions involving commas and prepositions. (Luckily, most such questions involved only 10-12 or so common examples. But still.)

The difficulty, from what I could eventually gather, lay in the length of the words. Prepositions were usually short, but then again, so were other kinds of words, like, say, conjunctions. You could say to the tree, but you could also say and the tree. So why wasn’t and a preposition? To make matters worse, some prepositions also doubled as conjunctions. Trying to recall an abstract categorization like “position” when differentiating between to and and was too much of a strain on their working memories, given how many other new concepts they were also trying to digest.

Essentially, they had difficulty distinguishing between appearance and function.

I suspect that something roughly comparable may be going on with teachers and sight words.

One website I looked at pointed out, for example, that “oftentimes the terms sight words and high-frequency words are used interchangeably.”

If that’s in fact the case—and I’m going to assume it is—then there’s a real conceptual muddle being promoted. Essentially, “short and common” is being confused with “phonetically irregular.” But those are two completely different things.

In any case, if new teachers are writing in to random education websites asking what sight words are, then it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot of really, really poor training going on. (Balanced Literacy in practice, not theory.) And if teachers are selling/buying sight-word worksheets with had on Teachers Pay Teachers, that’s a very concerning sign. Curious about this, I checked with Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, and he confirmed that yes, things are actually are that bad.

One of the things I eventually learned to do as a tutor was to focus on concepts that could be transferred to the greatest number of other questions, and to more or less ignore those that applied only to the particular question at hand.

For example, I spent a huge amount of time going over questions that tested things like subject-verb and pronoun agreement (concepts that, once mastered, could be used to answer many new questions) and almost no time on questions that tested things like idioms (you either know them or you don’t, and there’s no way to transfer the knowledge).

I would also regularly ask students to explain to me how else a question might have been asked, the point being that could be tested in many possible ways and that they were responsible for understanding the underlying ideas well enough to apply them regardless.

When I trained tutors, however, I almost invariably noticed that they had a tendency to get caught up (over-)explaining questions with very low general applicability. The result was that they wasted a lot of time on material that could not be transferred to other situations, or explained answers in ways that did not emphasize their applicability to other questions. The entire discussion remained focus only on the particular question at hand.

I confess that watching this drove me positively up the wall.

It would not surprise me in the least if novice kindergarten/first-grade teachers—and probably some more experienced ones as well—were falling into a similar trap. They’re looking at individual common words but not thinking about what else students can get out of learning them.

So, words that are short and common may be phonetically irregular, like one or door were, but they may also be perfectly regular, like sad or mad. However, it may not even occur to an inexperienced teacher that the question when determining what should count as a sight word should not be, “Is this word short and common”? but rather, “Will learning this word help students learn lots of other words”? (Or, more simply, “Is this word phonetically regular with lots of rhymes”?) They may not even realize that the question needs to be asked.

And if they don’t, children are essentially being asked to treat phonetically regular words—easily decodable words—the way my former students treated prepositions: as discrete, isolated units, disconnected from the larger universe of sounds and words.

What exactly is Summit Learning? (And why can’t billionaires pay for their own materials?)

A couple of days ago (4/21/19), the New York Times ran an article about a Kansas community’s rebellion against the Summit Learning platform, a controversial ed-tech initiative funded in large part by the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation.

Normally, I try to hold myself at as much of a distance as possible from the ed-tech world, but in this case, I seem to have acquired an inadvertent stake in things: last school year, while looking at my analytics (see, I’m data-driven!), I suddenly noticed that I was receiving regular traffic from summit.org and that, moreover, the number of daily referrals from that site corresponded almost exactly to the number of hits on my “how to use a dash” post.

Obviously, a link to the piece had been incorporated into the Summit platform.

When I first discovered this, my curiosity was piqued, and so I spent some time on the main Summit website trying to figure out where my blog was linked to. (Is it just me, or is the ransom-note motif not positively creepy?) Predictably, aside from a handful of vague, weak sample lessons that could be downloaded, I was unable to access anything more substantive. Still, I assumed that more real lessons—even really poorly constructed ones—had to exist…right? At that point, I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to investigate further.

Then, as I was reading the Times article, I came across this:




I recently came across an Atlantic article by the child psychologist Erica Christakis, in which she discusses a concept she terms “adultification”—that is, the attribution of adult traits and behaviors and ways of thinking to children. On its surface, the article—which focuses on active shooter drills in elementary schools, of all things—seems very far removed from things like test prep and college admissions; however, as I read through the piece, I couldn’t help but notice a link. I think Christakis really nails this phenomenon in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. As she writes: (more…)

The impossibility of “authenticity” in college admissions

The impossibility of “authenticity” in college admissions

In the social sciences, there is a principle known as Campbell’s Law, which states the following:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Or, said more simply, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Although selective colleges assess applicants holistically rather than according to strict numerical metrics, I think that a modified version of this rule is in fact very relevant to the admissions process. (more…)

Interview with a tutor: Larry Krieger

Interview with a tutor: Larry Krieger

Tell us about your company.

My company is named LarryPrep. It consists of just one person – me!

How did you get started in tutoring and what is your favorite part about it?

We have to turn the clock back to 1992 in Edison, New Jersey. At that time I was the Social Studies Supervisor for the Edison Public Schools. Dr. Kresky, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, called an emergency meeting of all supervisors to develop an action plan to counter the decline in district SAT scores. The other supervisors blamed a variety of factors ranging from harsh scoring scales to unmotivated students. Finally, I volunteered to teach an after school “Crash Course.” That afternoon I drove to nearby Princeton and bought a number of SAT prep books including a College Board book with 10 real SATs. I spent the next week poring over the books. I then created a series of after school lessons focusing on vocabulary and critical reading. Verbal scores rose an average of 40 points! As the expression goes, the rest is history. Soon Dr. K scheduled me to teach a Crash Course at both high schools and during the summer. I love the challenge of working with students to achieve a common goal of mastering a difficult test. I especially enjoy working with high school students. Their energy and commitment are contagious! (more…)

Spring admission: a new trend?

Spring admission: a new trend?

One of the side effects of the Harvard Admissions lawsuit has been a greater public awareness of the Z-list, a program in which certain candidates—primarily ones whose families can afford full tuition, as well as many legacies—who don’t quite make the regular cut are given the option of entering the following year. Similar practices, involving both year- and semester-long deferrals, exist at other highly selective schools. Cornell and Brown are among the other universities also known for these schemes, but they are quietly carried out at many additional schools.

One of the primary benefits of this arrangement is that it allows colleges to lock in a certain number of full-pay students without having to include them in official freshman admission statistics, thus lowering the officially reported acceptance rate. (It does, however, have the side effect of reducing the number of spots available in the following year’s class.)

In the past, this practice has been largely associated with elite private colleges, but the other day a colleague who teaches high school happened to mention to me that, for the first time she could recall, students were only being offered spring admission at their state flagship—an excellent school although not quite elite, and one that’s making a play to hoist itself into the next tier up.

So I’m wondering: in addition to encouraging applications from far too many students who don’t stand a remotely realistic chance of admission, is deferred admission going to be the next big thing in working the rankings? (more…)

Notice regarding SAT Grammar books sold on Amazon (3/22/19)

Notice regarding SAT Grammar books sold on Amazon (3/22/19)

Update (3/28/19): The Critical Reader received the books purchased from third-party sellers and confirmed that they were in fact counterfeits. A complaint was filed with Amazon, and the offending sellers now appear to have been removed. 

3/22/19: If you are planning to purchase The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 4th Edition, from Amazon, please be aware that the main listing is being periodically given to third-party sellers who may be exploiting the Fulfilled by Amazon option to sell illegally printed copies of the book.

As a result of changes in 2017 to Amazon’s selling policy, The Critical Reader no longer supplies to most wholesalers or third-party Amazon resellers. As a result, there is no legal way for Amazon resellers to obtain our books in large quantities. (To read about my ongoing battle with Amazon over the Buy Box, click here.)

My colleague Michael Cerro, author of For the Love of ACT Science, recently had his Amazon account hijacked this way; the books sold were clearly reproduced from scans. I am waiting to see to see whether this is the case for my books as well, but in the meantime, if you want to guarantee receipt of an authentic book that contains the most up-to-date content, please make sure that the seller is listed as Amazon or The Critical Reader.  

At this time, only the main grammar guide seems to be affected; Amazon is still listed as the main seller for the grammar workbook and the reading book.

In the meantime, if you plan to purchase this item from Amazon, please take the extra 30 seconds to check that Amazon is listed as the main seller. If it isn’t, go to”More buying choices,” click on the “New” link and select either Amazon or The Critical Reader. You can also purchase directly from The Critical Reader via the Books page.


On the college admissions scandal

On the college admissions scandal

Since the whole rest of the world has by now weighed in the college admissions-bribery scandal involving, among others, the children of Felicity Huffman and former Full House star Lori Loughlin (aka Aunt Becky), I’m going to throw in my two cents as well. Actually, it’s more like a dollar, but you get the point.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, a number of extremely wealthy parents have been implicated in a scandal involving passing their children off as athletic recruits to a variety of prestigious colleges (including USC, Yale, NYU, Stanford, and Georgetown) in order to guarantee their admission. The scam also involved procuring extra time for standardized tests and then falsifying test results (either paying a third party to sit for the exam or enlisting a proctor who changed incorrect answers).

At the center of the scandal is William Singer, a college consultant in Newport Beach, CA, who bribed athletic department members in order to place students—who in many cases did not even play the sport they were supposedly being recruited for—onto the coach’s list, an act of fakery that at its most absurd involved photoshopping students’ heads onto pictures of athletes’ bodies. The various admissions offices subjected the applicants to no real scrutiny, and the ploy was only uncovered by chance, as part of an unrelated investigation. (If you’d like a complete rundown of the players involved, The Daily Intelligencer has compiled a very helpful list.)

Now, for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with how cutthroat the elite college admissions process has become, none of this should come as any surprise. Any loophole, no matter how small, will eventually be exploited by those savvy and rich enough. But aside from that, permit me some additional thoughts. (more…)

Interview with a tutor: Richard McManus (The Fluency Factory)

Interview with a tutor: Richard McManus (The Fluency Factory)


Richard McManus is a committed behavioral executive who has designed and delivered training programs for executives, managers and teachers. His mission is to increase the ability of USA schools and teachers to teach reading to all students.

Richard  founded The Fluency Factory after 20 years of dreaming, thinking and planning. He is and always will be committed to serving all students — both struggling students and high achieving students. He created a system of fluency charts to measure skills and build the love of learning. The charts provide a direct measurement that can be communicated immediately to the student. They can see their learning from minute to minute, day to day, week to week, in clear, graphic terms. Seeing this progress gives the student the confidence that he or she can do more, and that learning does not have to stop, or be bound by present skill deficits (more…)

The politics of conjunctions

The politics of conjunctions

Back around 2013, when I was writing the original edition of The Critical Reader, I happened across research showing that one of the primary differences between teenagers’ writing and that of adults lies in the use of concessions—words like however and nevertheless and until, which are used to signal the introduction of an objection or a conflicting point. The adult writers used these types of words consistently, but they were largely absent from the students’ papers. I’ve thought about the implications of that fact in a general way before, but as I’ve recently come to realize, I’ve never really thought them through. This post is my attempt to do so. (more…)