My pet hate

Published on 12th May, 2011 in Teaching Tips by Frances Watkins

This week the focus is on deducing words from context – a sub-skill of reading which is sometimes misunderstood. For this reason, it has become a pet hate of mine! Here are some typical problems.

The wrong words
To make this focus worthwhile, it is essential that the words selected are in fact deducible from the surrounding words: in the following mini-context, the precise meaning of the nonsense-word ramazo is unclear, so this is a poor choice of word: I put the ramazo on the kitchen top. It looked nice so I was happy. Compare it with this much clearer example: I put the ramazo on the kitchen top, next to the sink to remind me to water it (a logical guess = a [type of] plant). Non-deducible words should not be selected for this particular focus.

The wrong position
It makes sense to put this reading-strategy focus after students have read for understanding, so after comprehension tasks and typically towards the end of the lesson.

The wrong approach
The approach to this empowering strategy can often be unhelpful and hasty. To merit a focus, provide sufficient time and break down the task into mini stages:

1  Students first locate the word in the context.
2  They decide independently on the wordclass. Then, by looking at the surrounding context, guess what the word does and doesn’t mean. They should underline key related words which give them hints.
3  Students discuss their opinions in pairs.
4  Ask students to give feedback to the class on their assumptions and to elicit responses from others to their guesses, supporting their suggestions with reference to the context.
5  Students refer to a dictionary to confirm their hypotheses.
6  From time to time remind students of the purpose of the task – it is not primarily designed to teach lexis, but to develop a useful reading strategy.