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.)

What struck me most about this passage is that Spear-Swerling’s description of a struggling young reader giving “a cursory glance” at an unfamiliar word and then guessing is how closely it matched what I had observed in some of my SAT students, right down to the expectant look on their faces. (In fact, I spent years perfecting my poker face after some of my early students complained they could tell whether they had the right answer based on my expression.) And that in turn got me thinking about the (over-)emphasis that the ACT and now the SAT place on context clues as a tool for approaching vocabulary.

To be sure, the term “context clues” has a different meaning for high school students than it does for beginning readers. Whereas five- and six-year-olds are encouraged to use pictures and/or the surrounding text to figure out what a word literally says, sixteen-year-olds are encouraged to use the surrounding text to determine what common words used in alternate definitions are intended to mean.

In addition to the neglect of actual college-level vocabulary, something about this “second-meanings” approach to vocabulary has been nagging at me for a while… But it’s only now that I’m beginning to be able to elucidate the problem. It’s pretty subtle, so bear with me while I try to explain this as clearly as I can.

Essentially, it involves two things:


1) The mistaken belief that formal skills can serve as an adequate substitute for knowledge

2) A misunderstanding of one of the factors involved in proficient reading


Let me back up here and start with the fact that when young children, even ones who are strong decoders, encounter familiar words used in unfamiliar ways, they tend to get very confused.

In an interview, the cognitive scientist and reading specialist Marilyn Jäger Adams described this scenario as follows:

For example, we have [an example] where ‘The lions were walking up and down and switching their tails.’ And the kids, the weaker second grade readers, have to sit there and figure the whole word out. And they can read — even the ones who have words like switch — just take forever because they don’t get a full duplex on it. ‘Switch your tail, switch, switch? Switching what?’ But the good readers just plow right through it. ‘The lions are walking up and down and switching their t—‘ And then they go right back and go, ‘That can’t be right. Switching their tails with whom?’

Adams’s example caught my attention because it’s a classic instance of a second-meaning. I’d actually be pretty surprised if it hasn’t shown up on a standardized test somewhere.

Presumably, some children who are strongly attuned to context and know something about how zoo animals behave will eventually be able to figure out that “switched” means “swished,” and that the passage is talking about lions moving their tails back and forth—even if they’re caught off guard at first.

From a testing perspective, a question centered on this type of word is purportedly assessing whether a child can use context clues to determine the meanings of familiar terms used in unfamiliar ways. In a broader sense, the presumption underlying the creation of these questions is that a general, abstract skill called “Using Context to Determine Meanings” exists, and that once mastered, it can be transferred to any sort of context, helping the student comprehend a broad range of texts.

Now, because general high school-graduation/college entrance standardized tests (as opposed to, say, subject-specific tests such as SAT IIs or AP exams) cannot be overtly linked to specific bodies of knowledge beyond a very basic level for what are essentially political reasons, there is no set list of terms students can be held responsible for mastering. To reiterate a point from my previous post, one of the major selling points of the redesigned SAT was the elimination of the moderately challenging college-level vocabulary spun as “obscure words.” As a result, testing second meanings of common words is the primary way in which vocabulary can currently be assessed.

The belief that the ability to use context clues is a generalizable skill does have somewhat of a grounding in reality, in the sense that strong readers—that is, ones with good decoding skills, vocabularies, understanding of different types of syntax, broad background knowledge, etc.—are able to use their knowledge to make logical assumptions about the definitions of common words used in less-common ways.

However, what happens when a child—even one who is a strong reader—encounters these types of terms and what happens when an adult who is a strong reader encounters them is not really the same thing at all. Even if a child is an excellent decoder, his or her knowledge of words and the various ways in which they can be used is simply no match for an educated adult’s. It’s not even a contest.

While thinking about the testing of second meanings, I happened to recall an incident in which I was training a tutor, and we happened to be looking at a question testing an alternate definition of the word curious. Before we had even finished reading the question, she identified the correct meaning as “odd,” without even needing to look at the passage.

Why? Because she already knew that “odd” was a common alternate meaning, plus it was the only option that made sense. The answer was apparent to her instantaneously not because she had mastered the proper strategy for working through the question, but because she had read enough nineteenth-century British literature—that is, she had enough background knowledge—to recognize instinctively what had to be going on.

In the most literal sense, she was indeed using “context”; however, her approach to the question had basically nothing in common with the careful process that a middling high-school reader would need to be trained in to work through it.

As I reflected on that moment and then mentally ran through my own comprehension process, I had a sudden insight: strong readers are strong readers not only because they can use context clues to figure out alternate meanings; they are strong readers because they already know what the potential alternate meanings are (most of the time, at least).

These readers may use contextual information to select the most logical definition from several possibilities, but the likeliest options are already there in their minds—the surrounding information merely allows for the correct connotation to be plugged in on the fly rather than carefully worked out from scratch.

As a result, expert adult readers can simply plow through text that would force children to stop and try to make sense of what’s going on. (Most adult readers would know that “switched” means “swished” not only because that’s the logical definition, but also because they’ve seen that usage enough times over the years to be familiar with it.)  And because adult readers integrate pre-existing knowledge and context seamlessly, they have much more mental space available to think about what texts are saying.

Furthermore, the difference between this type of reading and the careful step-by-step method used by weaker readers is not linear; it is of an entirely different order.

One does not become an expert reader by practicing formal strategies in isolation over and over again—one comes to absorb meaning instinctively that way by reading a lot, for years, and gradually gaining enough exposure to the various definitions of terms that it becomes unnecessary to spend time or mental energy consciously and laboriously constructing meaning. In this regard, strong readers acquire knowledge of second definitions in a way that is not dissimilar to how they acquire knowledge of more advanced, less common vocabulary.

On the flip side, this model of reading also misconstrues one of the major reasons for which weak readers are such. From what I’ve seen, students scoring below the 25th-30th percentile or so on the old SAT (low 400s) often cannot even tell when they are misunderstanding words. The problem is not so much that they cannot tell what words used in alternate definitions mean as that it does not even occur to them that a term can have multiple definitions.

Because poor readers do not generally read extensively on their own (both a cause and an effect of weak reading skills), they are less likely to encounter common words used in unexpected ways. Consequently, when they do come across alternate meanings, they may not realize that second or third definitions are involved; indeed, they may not even be aware that such uses exist. (I’ll never forget when a student of mine scoring in the 300s announced that there was a mistake in his textbook when he saw the verb to found—he thought only find could be an infinitive.)

And because their knowledge base as well as their self-monitoring/metacognitive skills tend to be very weak, such students may not notice when the most common definition of a word does not make sense in context; they simply keep going, without any inkling that they are fundamentally misunderstanding things.

Crucially, this situation cannot be remedied merely by teaching strategies such as self-monitoring or questioning strategies. (“Does this meaning really make sense here?” “What might make more sense?”) The root of the problem is a lack of background knowledge, including vocabulary, which impedes commonsense understanding. In a vicious circle, weak readers’ deficiencies prevent them from being able to monitor and assess their comprehension effectively.

Moreover, because these readers often have poor memories and attention spans, they are also unlikely to retain the thread of a narrative if they are constantly stopping and trying to figure out whether their interpretation makes sense (something that in any case they may not know enough to determine). It is one thing for such students to sit with a tutor and get walked carefully through a text; it is something else entirely for them to try to work things out on their own.

So having said all that, back to SAT and ACT. In terms of these tests, the now more or less exclusive focus on alternate definitions of common words implies that being a good reader is only a matter of knowing how to stop and work out meanings. But the reality is very nearly the opposite: good readers have already seen common words used in alternate ways so many times that they don’t need to work much out at all, whereas weak readers are so lacking in background knowledge that formal strategies are of little use.

Yes, there is a substantial group in the middle who can be trained to look at the surrounding text for key words, play positive/negative, eliminate options that don’t make sense, etc.; however, no amount of practicing those types of strategies can compensate for a lack of actual college-level vocabulary of the sort the SAT has traditionally tested. It’s intellectually dishonest—though extremely profitable—to pretend otherwise. (Recall that for a long time, many elite colleges did not even accept the ACT.) And when you consider that it is necessary to know around 95% of the words in a text in order to understand it… Well, it’s not hard to foresee an increasingly large percentage of college students struggling to complete reading assignments, followed by pressure from administrators to inflate grades (particularly for adjuncts, whose jobs are more likely to depend on student evaluations), followed by an inevitable further lowering of standards.

But if testing companies’ purpose is to advance the idea that comprehension is fundamentally about mastering the right strategies, and that the systematic teaching/acquisition of vocabulary (or indeed of knowledge in general) is therefore unnecessary, then this approach makes perfect sense.

The fact that it downplays—if not outright dismisses—the importance of concrete knowledge is precisely what makes it so appealing. The goal is to propagate a fantasy concept of education in which the systematic acquisition of basic knowledge can simply be skipped over in favor of “higher order thinking skills,” and pretty much everything can be figured out or looked up on the spot (because the Internet and twenty-first century skills).

The assumption is that since technology has advanced, the basic architecture of the human brain has abruptly been updated along with it (it hasn’t). It’s a seductive belief, though, and one that the College Board in particular has been more than happy to exploit for the sake of market share and its bottom line.