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…)

New: GRE Word of the Day email program

New: GRE Word of the Day email program

If you’re studying for the GRE® and want to learn some words for which ETS has, shall we say, traditionally shown a strong predilection (i.e., proclivity, penchant, propensity, bent), the Critical Reader is now offering a Word of the Day email program.

One email with a top word, a GRE-level example sentence, and a list of must-know synonyms/antonyms, every day, direct to your inbox, plus periodic quizzes, every day for 100 days.

Click here to sign up.

(more…)

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

 

One of the things that often gets overlooked in discussions about standardized testing is that scoring well is often a matter of having strategies, plural, rather than a single strategy.

Different items may call for different approaches, even when they are the same type of question, and nowhere is this fact illustrated more clearly than on GRE sentence equivalences.

In some cases, you may be able to identify the answer almost instantaneously using a “shortcut” approach, whereas in other cases you may need to work through the sentence very carefully, circling key words, playing positive/negative, and dodging trick answers left and right.

The key is to know which strategy to use when. (more…)

Why a vocab app isn’t enough if you want to ace GRE verbal

A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve had chance conversations with people who were either preparing for the GRE or had recently taken it. 

Inevitably, the subject turned to preparation for the verbal section, and both times, the GRE-taker in question lit up when they mentioned using an app to study vocabulary. As one of them enthused, “it’s like a game! You get to compete against other users and everything.” 

I admit that my familiarity with GRE vocab apps is limited, but when I had the first of these conversations, my immediate inclination was to double-check that the student knew that the GRE had changed a few years back — that the vocabulary section was no longer based on straight-up synonym and antonym questions but was rather focused on testing words in the context of sentences and short passages.  (more…)

The war on language

The war on language

I’ve been following Diane Ravitch’s blog for a while now. I think she does a truly invaluable job of bringing to light the machinations of the privatization/charter movement and the assault on public education. (I confess that I’m also in awe of the sheer amount of blogging she does — somehow she manages to get up at least three or four posts a day, whereas I count myself lucky if I can get up that every couple of weeks.)

I don’t agree with her about everything, but I was very much struck by this post, entitled “The Reformers’ War on Language and Democracy.”

Diane writes:

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language. (more…)