Teaching Students to Use Context

  • vocabulary context analysis
  • 15 October, 2022

I’m writing this blog because of the disarray I see over the topic of context instruction and the poor instructional practice that it seems to manifest.

One confusion is already well recognized, but merits some mention here. The other befuddlement usually goes without remark, and yet it, too, has unfortunate consequences for young readers.

Let’s dispatch the first problem forthwith. This one I’ll refer to as the three-cueing problem. Research found that when students err in reading a word, they often try to use various kinds of information to resolve the difficulty. Essentially, when something goes wrong, readers try to make things work one way or another. They don’t try to read the word as much as to get it right anyway possible. They turn to context – trying to guess the word by the meaning of the other words, the pictures, the syntax. Whatever it takes.

That fooled some authorities into encouraging the teaching of those solve-it-at-all-cost strategies, instead of teaching them to read. A bad idea, since poor readers are more likely to turn to semantics, pictures, and syntax to guess words, while better readers rely on the letters and sounds. Why teach kids to read like poor readers?

Context does have a role in the decoding process, but as an evaluation check rather than a word reading tool. Meaning (or the lack of it) reveals the success of decoding. If decoding worked, the reader keeps rolling. In cases of failure, the reader must look at the word again to decide among the decoding alternatives (“maybe this is a schwa sound and not a long vowel?”). Even when the meaning has said, “try again,” the next try depends upon letters and sounds not, context.

Okay, no context in decoding.

RELATED: Won’t Student Motivation Be Damaged If We Teach with Complex Text?

What about in meaning?

Everyone seems to agree that context can be quite helpful for determining the meaning of words and phrases. And yet…

I spent a lot of time this week reading research on context and meaning. For the most part, I was disappointed.

My take? The research community has been spinning its wheels. Most of their questions have been decidedly academic (in this context, academic means useless for any practical purpose).

Older research usefully revealed that poor readers were not efficient or proficient in deriving meaning from context (McKeown, 1985). Studies also showed that students gain a lot of word meanings just by reading and using context (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987).

The practical outcomes from such studies have largely been limited to the development of context-taxonomies with little practical value in real reading. Research continues to emphasize various types of context clues (e.g., definitions, antonyms, synonyms, comparison and contrast, examples, lists, cause and effect, inferences).

I use context a lot in my reading, and never try to identify or classify the types of contexts that is available. I can’t imagine that categorizing context clues would improve my reading.

Nevertheless, these schemes have attracted and continue to attract research. Their results – despite all logic – may even persuade some of their pedagogical value.

Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed on this one, even if those cooler heads are too often ignored. A research synthesis (Kuhn & Stahl (1998) determined persuasively that students benefited from context instruction. However, it found that it wasn’t the category training that helped, only the actual practice in figuring out word meanings from context.  

Maybe curriculum designers could employ those frameworks to generate a diverse set of practice items. The students could then engage in practicing making sense of context but would need have no explicit truck with the categories themselves.

I have more basic issue with this research. I think it focuses on the wrong learning outcomes. The researchers emphasize how well the students learn the word meanings, testing their later knowledge of those definitions. That seems wrongheaded to me.

The real purpose of using context is to comprehend the text, not to learn word meanings. Context use also improves efficiency and reduces the burden of having to look up so many words. If we teach context use effectively, then reading comprehension, and perhaps, reading rate, should improve. Students may also end up knowing more words than they would without such teaching, but that would be a secondary outcome, not the primary one.

Context instruction should be aimed at facilitating reading, rather than as a delivery system for explicit vocabulary teaching.

When I confront an unknown word in text, I first determine whether it matters. imagine I come to the following sentence:

There are many serious diseases of the stomach and duodenum, including gastritis, gastroenteritis, gastroparesis, non-ulcer dyspepsia, peptic ulcers, and gastric cancer.

 I don’t recognize all those diseases. But I’m not in medical school and given my reading purposes, ignorance of gastroparesis won’t diminish my understanding. In this case, it’s enough that I recognize that these are diseases, so I keep reading.

When do we teach that kind of vocabulary conscience – both the importance of recognizing when we don’t know the meaning of a word and the need to make reasonable judgements about how to address our ignorance most appropriately?

I set out to understand a text – not to memorize the author’s words.

The only context studies I could find with a focus on comprehension were older studies that focused on fill in the blanks in cloze exercises. Cloze may be an index of comprehension, but it is one overly aligned with context training. Context use should improve the ability to answer questions about a text or to write a summary of it.

Most context instruction emphasizes whether kids can arrive at the right definition of a word from sentence or paragraph context. For example,

John was so hungry that he didn’t leave a particle of the muffin on the plate. Define particle:

 Such exercises are common, and they do offer some context practice. I’d challenge such work in terms of its “over consistency.” Such exercises never include any words that can’t successfully be figured out from context. Not exactly how it really works in a reading situation.

As I looked around the room desperately, the teacher started handing out the papers. Define desperately:

 I think it would be a good idea to mix in items like that one in context exercises. Kids need to recognize when context could help and when it is not likely to.

I suspect that such consistency just teaches students that such training has little to do with reading and that it can safely be ignored.  Rarely are the sentences in authentic texts written to, so obviously, reveal the meaning of a word.

Teaching word meanings has a deserved place in the curriculum. Teaching context is something different from that. In the earlier example that I gave, the one with the word particle, I would prefer it if the student were trying to interpret the sentence rather than the word. Crumb might be a good synonym for particle in this case, but so would the word anything. Admittedly, anything is a lousy definition for particle, but such a response would show that the student had been able to interpret the author’s meaning – even when they could not articulate a definition for particle.

While it is apparent that we could improve context instruction by dropping the categories, adding some items in which context fails to help, and by focusing on comprehension rather than vocabulary instruction, there is something even more basic that could and should be done.

Reading lessons usually begin with pre-reading vocabulary introduction. Teachers spend a lot of time familiarizing students with words that will come up in the text they are about to read. This is supportive of comprehension – kids are more likely to understand text when they already know all the words they’ll need. That might be a good idea if teachers plan to continue on with their students into later life, anticipating any words they may need just in time to read each text. I’d rather try to make students more independent than that – you know, teach a man to fish…

There should be less pre-teaching of vocabulary. Let’s end the pre-reading introduction of any words that can reasonably be determined from context. The words should become targets of the post-reading questioning. If students can’t answer such questions, then go back and help them figure those words out. Over time, they should improve in those abilities.

That means context instruction should be a daily experience for kids – not a semi-annual worksheet.

Context is not the best avenue to decoding, but it can play an important role in comprehension – if we teach it as avenue to that rather than to vocabulary learning. Focus such instruction on sense making, not word learning.

READ MORE ARTICLE HERE: Shanahan On Literacy's Blogs


Baldwin, R.S., & Schatz, E.K. (1985). Context clues are ineffective with low frequency words in naturally occurring prose. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 34, 132-135.

Baumann, J.F., Edwards, E.C., Boland, E.M., Olejnik, S., & Kame'enui, E.J. (2003). Vocabulary tricks: Effects of instruction in morphology and context on fifth-grade students' ability to derive and infer word meanings. American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 447-494. doi-org:10.3102/00028312040002447

Baumann, J.F., Font, G., Edwards, E.C., & Boland, E. (2005). Strategies for teaching middle-grade students to use word-part and context clues to expand reading vocabulary. In E. H. Hiebert, & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 179-205). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Blachowicz, C.L.Z., Fisher, P.J.L., Ogle, D., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2006). Vocabulary: Questions from the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(4), 524-539. doi-org:10.1598/ RRQ.41.4.5

Dessenberger, S., Wang, K., Jordan, E., & Sommers, M. (2022). Lexical inferencing as a generation effect for foreign language vocabulary learning. Memory & Cognition.  doi.org:10.3758/s13421-022-01348-5

Duffelmeyer, F. A. (1984). The effect of context on ascertaining word meaning. Reading Research and Instruction, 24(1), 103-107.

Fukkink, R.G., & de Glopper, K. (1998). Effects of instruction in deriving word meaning from context: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 68(4), 450-469. doi.org/10.1111/0023-8333.00162

Fukkink, R.G. (2005). Deriving word meaning from written context: A process analysis. Learning and Instruction, 15, 23-43.

Hafner, L.E. (1965). A one-month experiment in teaching context aids in fifth grade. Journal of Educational Research, 58(10), 472-474.

Kuhn, M.R., & Stahl, S. A. (1998. Teaching children to learn word meanings from context: A synthesis and some questions. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(1), 119-138.

Nagy, W.E., Anderson, R.C., & Herman, P.A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24(2), 237-270.

Schatz, E. K., & Baldwin, R. S. (1986). Context clues are unreliable predictors of word meanings. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 439-453.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jennifer Greene Oct 15, 2022 02:50 PM

As I looked around the room desperately, the teacher started handing out the papers. Define desperately:
However ineffective, this is exactly what students will see on standardized testing- that is the know all and tell all for teachers and students. (Insert sarcastic smirk here.) I completely see the relevance of your article and study focus, but teachers will see the numbers crunch. Teaching to a test format that is designed with this type of Q&A takes away the real-life focus of reading-to comprehend!

Joan Sedita Oct 15, 2022 03:58 PM

Teaching students how to use the context to try and determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word is often referred to as a "word learning strategy" -- in my work training teachers I sometimes note that it more aptly might be called a "word figuring-out strategy" although that doesn't sound very smooth. Use of context is also referred to as trying to find clues outside the word. Efficient readers not only look at these "outside" context clues, but they combine this with "inside the word" clues -- i.e., use of morphology to recognize meaningful units within a word. I agree completely with your suggestion that the goal of helping students become better readers is best served by giving them guided practice to become adept at using context. Let's also keep in mind what Isabel Beck pointed out years ago that we should teach students that not all contexts are helpful. In her book "Bringing Words to Life" she noted that context can vary from enough information to be able to determine the meaning, to context that provides some information about a new word but not enough to determine its full meeting, to what she called "misdirective" -- i.e., misleading clues about a word. She offered this example of a misdirective for the word "grudgingly": "Sandra had won the dance contest, and the audience's cheers brought her to the stage for the encore. 'Every step she takes is so perfect and graceful,' Ginny said grudgingly as watched Sandra dance." (p.4) Part of providing guided practice for students in use of context (and word parts) should be pointing out that it doesn't always work!

Dr. Jo Hawke Oct 15, 2022 04:05 PM

Would you recommend backing away from front-loading vocabulary with even multilingual learners? This is, of course, an element of the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) Model for teaching students who are learning English.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 15, 2022 04:26 PM

Yes, I would. Students who are learning a language need to learn to deal with context too. Very much what I said above: if there are important words that you think can't be determined from context and/or morphology, and the words are important-- feel free to front load. Even better with most kids, would be to provide them with a glossary of those words.


Timothy Shanahan Oct 15, 2022 04:29 PM

That kind of a test is trying to find out if the students know the meaning of words like desperately. Teaching context in no way reduces the needs/benefits of teaching word meanings explicitly -- a different issue from using context.


Heather Oct 15, 2022 09:04 PM

I really liked this blog. Ive been teaching 6th 7th and 8th . I think time can be wasted on too much pre-teaching vocabulary. Really agree practice of just subbing in what makes sense is most practical but yes not always helpful. I’m seeing glossaries embedded now in some of the HMH curriculum I’m using which is useful. I have focused more on teaching students how to use a dictionary with multiple -meaning words. Close analysis of unit words like deceive for example - is worthwhile. Beers and Probst have Word Gap signpost for nonfiction reads which is just a kind of prompt to - hey look up the word if you think it matters! I will never forget how reading Nancy Drew series when I was little taught me the meaning of the word “assets” - so dated and biased now but I figured out what it meant because it kept reappearing with every novel.

Richard Curley Oct 15, 2022 09:29 PM

What about having students try to determine which words they are struggled with in the reading? I have had some success with this. I am getting many students who have been taught to skip unimportant words but not how to determine if it's important.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 15, 2022 10:44 PM


I'm a big fan of that. There isn't much research on that, however. When a student identifies such a word, the teacher then has to decide how best to respond -- tell the definition, or guide use of context and morphology.


Dr. Gwen Lavert Oct 16, 2022 08:58 AM

This was great processing. I like the way that you drilled it down from research to explicit examples of what could/should happen in the classroom. I am still seeing traditional teaching of words in classrooms.

Lori Anne Dennis Oct 16, 2022 02:52 PM

Marie Clay was right all along (suprise suprise...NOT) and her work still relevant today.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 16, 2022 10:00 PM


No, Marie wasn't right. She thought that readers used all of those systems to identify words... but good readers rely mainly/mostly/ totally on decoding. She underemphasized that--perhaps because of the teaching at that time in NZ schools. I think the students she was seeing initially were those who knew phonics but still were not reading. In any event, what she concluded based on her narrow observations was misleading. Three cueing is not the right way to go.


Patrick Sutton Oct 17, 2022 01:07 PM

dont leave out connotation--------------

Timothy Shanahan Oct 17, 2022 09:21 PM


What a great point. I sure missed the opportunity on that one. Connotation is one of the great reasons to teach context use.



Drew Oct 18, 2022 02:01 PM

This is an interesting topic that I am afraid state standards may complicate even further.... Take for instance the following Common Core and my own state Oklahoma

Use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

OAS 3.4.R.2: Students will use context clues to clarify the meaning of words.

These two standards clearly indicate that the goal of using context clues is to determine the meaning of a word/phrase.
words. Which will inevitably result in teachers focusing on word level meaning in their instruction and assessment regarding this standard. Is it the standards that lead us to prioritize learning the words regardless of comprehending the text? Both are obviously helpful, but there is a need to help educators prioritize text comprehension over word knowledge. Perhaps in the future standards writers should consider adding phrases into standards like these such as "...in order to increase comprehension of the text.?"

Katie Oct 19, 2022 01:49 AM

Thank you so much for this post - as a middle school teacher who has taught in various high-need schools, I cannot tell you how often our struggling readers are being subjected to worksheets that ask them to categorize context clues. I'm thankful you're spreading the word that this type of activity has very little benefit, because in struggling schools, these types of activities and worksheets are pervasive, and are often given in place of real reading ("inference practice" with random sentences is another culprit). Our older struggling readers' time is incredibly precious, and most of our kids would be much better served with explicit instruction in phonics, morphology, vocabulary, and fluency. Thanks for spreading the word so we all can continue to grow.

Gaynor V. Chapman Oct 20, 2022 12:16 AM

You are much too generous to Marie,Timothy. She was blinded by her single minded attachment to developmental psychology and badly flawed subjective observational science . Her aim in life ,as she admitted herself was not to be known as 'the reading lady' but to advance developmental psychology Vygotsky flavoured into NZ. This she succeeded in doing . One of her devotees in this doubtful science is now the government's main science advisor and preventing progress in structured literacy in this country.
She was marinaded in constructivism and child-centred education as from Dewey's progressive education , which specifically shone an unfavourable light on phonics and reading in general. In her writings her dictate was no student ever needed explicit phonic instruction and dyslexia was a myth.
Under her influence in the1970s, the NZ education department purged and consigned to landfills all traditional reading materials from schools. Some were in perfect condition . This included spelling ,comprehension exercises and look and say readers . This was in preparation for her predictable readers of the 1980s . There was a marked decline in NZ reading standards with their arrival.
My mother Doris Ferry, already mentioned in a previous blog , 'Me and Reading Recovery' taught failing reading students beginning in 1970s and continuing on in 1980s and 1990s and the year 2000.
Marie was doing her research in late 1960s to 1970s. Phonics was being frowned on in this era by the department and much less was being taught than in the 1940s. The NZ 1960s phonics was certainly not intensive phonics,as Doris taught.
The majority of Doris's students were deficient in phonic knowledge eg not knowing even the short vowels. It is true some of her students were from middle school and had fluent reading but lacked comprehension which she provided along with spelling and written work which were both universally poor.
How did Marie not see this lack of grapho-phonemic knowledge? Is it mean to suggest she did not want to?
All the time Doris taught her 1500 students,for three decades she received shocking persecution of herself and students from the NZ education establishment . They wished to stamp her out . But she just had far too many students and was too successful.
This persecution is well recorded in many media including a 15 minute Canadian 20/20 programme in 2000 and mention in 'The Los Angeles Times' . Teachers risked losing their jobs if they visited her as did some journalists. Phonics had become a dirty word .
But to get back on track of context. Doris was very grateful to the US , since she achieved her results using , for comprehension, the Ginn 100 basal readers and workbooks countering their too slow phonics and too much emphasis on sight words with Arthur Heilman's excellent intensive phonic workbooks which had an abundance of revision so necessary for the struggling reader. They were also used for spelling practice .She also had a plentiful supply trade readers , phonic readers, phonic dictation games , colour reading charts for drills , comprehension from US,'Practice Readers ' etc.
Analysing a Ginn workbook, I notice of 90 pages ,one quarter are dedicated to context activities while 30% are on phonics .
While Doris saw her weekly 100 students, for only one half hour per week, she relied on the parents to do daily lessons from the workbooks . Some parents were semi-literate. The workbooks were superbly suited to this teaching situation. I do believe workbooks have a place for a busy classroom teacher, new to phonics and with struggling students . Involving the parents is invaluable. Ring them up ,invite them to ring you if they have problems . Get friends, neighbours ,older siblings or extended family if parents are not suitable . However, I don't like loose worksheets . The workbook must be very well structured with reinforcement consolidation and revision . Poorly done pages should be done again and checked yet again later .
Hopefully this is adds to the discussion on workbooks.

Thank you Timothy for your amazing blogs . I do agree with almost everything you write and learn many new ideas .

Timothy Shanahan Oct 20, 2022 03:53 PM

Drew makes a fair point about standards. Clearly, the first one she cites is in a section on vocabulary learning, so it clearly is about the words and not the ideas. The second is in the reading section (which would more properly be labeled the reading comprehension section), so we could say that one is at least a little ambiguous.


Christine Anselmi Nov 16, 2022 05:10 PM

True, solving a word based on context clues isn't "reading" the word, but even with young children, reading each word isn't always necessary, and worse, stunts the reading process, thus contributing to struggles with comprehension. I don't need to "read" (decode) every word in this sentence: When given the new assignment, I got to work right away. It doesn't really matter and won't really help me to sound out "assignment", but it will help me as a reader if I use context clues to understand what I'm reading. Let's look at another sentence that a first grader might come across: He told a joke and I laughed. Structured phonics lessons galore and that 6 year old still won't be closer to solving "laughed". However, as a teacher, I want the student to 1) feel like a successful reader/thinker, 2) use a variety of strategies to solve words (like all readers do!), and 3) maintain and use comprehension of the sentence/text to support success and understanding. Why would we thwart the process of showing children that reading words and understanding what you read are the two pillars of reading by separating the two practices? Why would we teach teachers that reading the words (decoding) is "true reading" and if a child is not doing that with every single word they are not "real" readers? As an Educator of young children I am so bothered and confused by this new practice. I understand the nuanced logic that using phonics (in all its components) is the true test of whether someone is "reading" a word, but that is just not how people (including children) should think of reading. Right now in Education, teachers are believing and teaching phonics and comprehension as separate entities. NO! Phonics instruction is important, high level comprehension (through complex texts not at a student's level) is important, but instruction in the combination of those two pillar is essential!
I am eager to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to explore this with me.
~Christine Anselmi
10+ year Early Childhood Educator

Timothy Shanahan Nov 16, 2022 07:41 PM


The idea that expecting kids to read every word "stunts the reading process" is nonsense. Sounds more like an excuse for not teaching than anything that is in accord with what research on reading or teaching tells us. You may not "need to read' every word in a sentence, but proficient readers do just that as scads of studies have shown. Unlike you, I don't want kids to "feel like a reader," I want them to be able to read. You are incorrect in the idea that readers use several strategies for recognizing words... neither the pedagogical or the neurological research supports that silly idea. There is no question that when reading breaks down, people engage in that kind of guessing behavior, but teaching that as a form of reading instruction would be akin to, in a driver's ed course, teaching students how to call Uber or where the walking paths are to the market. The reason that you would teach students to decode every word is because that is what proficient readers do. The students who do not read well (not the good readers) engage in the behaviors that you are advocating. I assume in arithmetic you teach students that 2+2 = 3 so they can feel like they are doing math and they will be able to engage in the math behaviors in which the poorest math students engage. I assume that you teach students to wipe their noses on their sleeve (since many impolite children do it that way and it certainly does the job almost as well as a handkerchief or a Kleenex would).


Christine Anselmi Nov 16, 2022 10:06 PM

It is just not true to say that readers read every sound in every word. That would make the reading process painfully slow and drudgery especially for young children. You don't do that. I don't do that. Children need concentrated instruction in phonics, but even they should not be expected to sound out every single word they come across. I NEVER make excuses for teachers who don't teach effectively. I have an excellent track record in reading instruction with actual children in front of me making significant progress and embracing reading as a chosen activity. I engage in continuous self-initiated professional development, which is how I came across your work. I am curious to learn. I want the conversation. And my experiences in the classroom deserve to be taken seriously. You are right to differentiate between cognitive research and instructional practice, but you might want to also look at the psychology of learning and motivation theory in the learning process. I want children to read just like you do, but feeling successful is part of that. Students who feel like they are not readers because we are telling them they must read every single sound or sound combination in word to "qualify" for the title of reader is not okay.
What you are proposing and how it is being interpreted in schools seem to be two different things. Schools are paying big bucks for curriculums with company-produced decodables that are nonsensical and uninspiring. Then we are encouraged to teach comprehension with high level texts, read by the teacher who then steams a line of rigorous questions their way. In schools, the two pillars of reading are being separated and this new approach is proving (in my experience with actual children) to be confusing to children.
I encourage further dialogue. Thank you for your response.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 16, 2022 10:19 PM

No, you are correct that proficient readers are not sounding out each letter and letter combination... that sounding out stage is fairly brief phenomenon that happens when kids are getting started. Phonics instruction is teaching kids to look at every letter when they read (eye camera results show that is what good readers actually do) and it teaches them to recognize visual patterns and how to store these words in memory so that when they seem them they can recognize them as sight words. It sounds great that you are paying attention to the students' motivation, but if you have that right (and are really understanding what kids find motivational) then how do you explain the fact that large numbers of studies with large numbers of kids repeatedly find that explicit phonics instruction gives kids a clear learning advantage? -- they do better than the kids who get the methods that you describe. I've been working with young children off and on now for more than 50 years and I think kids can tell the difference between when they are really reading and when the teacher is just trying to make them feel good that they can't read yet.


Christine Anselmi Nov 17, 2022 01:06 AM

Hmm. I don't mean to take up this much of your time, but I'm trying to figure out where in lies the disconnect between my successful practice and the professional development teachers are currently being provided that claims so much undeniable research backing. I do not imply a child is a reader when they are not. I don't pump kids up as readers for a feel good moment. If anything I'm critical of their proficiency and spend much energy dissecting the weaknesses in reading proficiency in each individual student. I go deep into phonics to parse out the difference between students' reading struggles when, on paper, two students look like they have the same gaps.
Of course a reader's eyes scan each letter and, yes, proficient readers are able to do that very quickly, but that should not be confused with quickly running through all letter sounds and sound combinations in your head to solve a word. If we want to stick children in decodable land and hope they just love the continuous activity of blending sounds, then, I guess we should be emphasizing the indispensability of phonics for all words. But we have to move kids away from that approach as soon as they are ready. We have to give them instruction in other word solving techniques (beyond phonics) that aid in fluency and comprehension (and I mean comprehension at the child's level of understanding with actual books with actual stories that a child can relate to, as opposed to highly sophisticated texts that require a teacher read aloud and guided inquiry). It is clear you are an excellent thinker, researcher, author, and guide on the subject of literacy. It is why I have been spending my free time pouring over your writing and trying to figure out what I'm missing. But, I continue to be confused because what we are being taught (i.e., Science of Reading defined to teachers as purely phonics and comprehension accessed through a teacher, all year!) and the ridiculously sub-par reading programs being provided to us are not producing in the classroom the interest or success I've been getting from my students for the past 10+ years. I have a feeling the disconnect comes from the misinterpretation by curriculum companies, professional development facilitators, and administrators, but nonetheless, that is the information classroom teachers are given. Most teachers aren't going to dig so deeply into the research to get to the essential nucleus of the researched findings and then implement effective change as a result. We don't have time to do that. It seems like once researchers do their job and curriculum companies misinterpret and simplify the findings, teachers are left with really bad information, guidance, and materials. It is painfully frustrating to intelligent teachers who take early childhood education and child development seriously. The research might be sound, but there is a problem happening somewhere between findings and implementation that is not working for teachers of young children or students.
~Christine Anselmi

Timothy Shanahan Nov 17, 2022 04:16 PM


I trust your motivation and as far as I can tell from your letters, you seem like a deeply committed teacher and a decent person with a seriousness of purpose. But, I think you are looking at this issue from the wrong angle. You are trying to make judgments or evaluations that you can't possibly make -- no one can. What I mean by that is that any of us as practitioners suffer from a phenomena referred to as "opportunity cost." We look at how our kids are doing and assume that they are doing as well as possible -- that we have done a good job and have served them well. However, because we were in that experience we have no opportunity to consider the alternatives. That is, we can't see what might have happened had we done things differently.

That's where research comes in. By comparing performance across variations in practice, we can figure out what is most likely to advantage learners. The shifts that concern you are moves to adopt practices that have been proven repeatedly to give kids learning advantages -- they learn more from those methods -- something that can be determined in studies, but that none of us as individuals can see based on our experiences.

No matter how sound the research may be, you are correct that it can be implemented badly. I obviously can't possibly evaluate how well it is being implemented at your school at this distance. However, I would cautious before deciding that is the case. I remember when Head Start increased literacy teaching and many Early Childhood experts claimed that effort would be disastrous, that it might improve literacy performance, but that instruction was sure to harm the children in terms of motivation, social-emotional development, etc. We now know that not only did that kind of instruction enhance the early literacy skills of those children but their social-emotional functioning improved simultaneously. (There are also studies showing that young children tend to prefer books that they can actually read over the kinds of books that educators were so sure that children must want read--the kind you noted earlier). In other words, give the reform a chance to work.

good luck.


Christine Anselmi Nov 17, 2022 05:40 PM

Thank you for all your responses, Tim. I will continue to explore literacy acquisition through research-backed theories on all sides of this debate. And, if we think this should not be considered a debate and that we are effectively done figuring out how children read, we need to look at our legitimacy as a scientist and curator of knowledge. I will also continue to cultivate in my classroom essential phonics learning, extensive vocabulary acquisition, developmentally accessible and high-level comprehension, as well as access to and instruction with books that engage children in their individual pursuit to become a reader. (It is actually pretty easy to tell which books engage students because they ask for them and go back to them and read them and talk about them with their friends. Rarely have I found a student that continuously asks for or dialogues with a friend about that decodable with sentences like, The pig bit a kit to sit next to a pin. (even if they can "actually read each word"), because it is nonsensical and not interesting.)
I appreciate your time. I will continue to follow your work along with the work of many other scholars, researchers, teachers, and Education professionals.

Virginia Rector Mar 10, 2023 07:42 PM

Please share your thoughts/expertise on cultural pedagogy or cultural literacy and its impact on students with disabilities

Timothy Shanahan Mar 10, 2023 10:37 PM

Viriginia --
These two ideas, cultural pedagogy and cultural literacy, are very different things. What they share is that neither has a strong research base showing that using such approaches improves achievement. Cultural pedagogy refers to teaching that is respectful of and attentive to a students' race or ethnicity (or, in some circumstances, religion or language background). The types of pedagogy that these folks recommend are things like using texts about the African American experience by African American writers. It makes sense that such texts may be a valuable source of pride and that they might be particularly motivational to students who are often marginalized. Whether that transfers to improved reading achievement is an open and unanswered question. I would not hesitate to use such text materials (and writing assignments) with such children, but I would not do so if the texts didn't conform with what was needed for teaching reading (since I am a reading teacher). Encouraging pride while limiting a students chance to gain power through gaining more advanced literacy skills is a lousy trade, and one that I don't think you need to make.

Cultural literacy refers to the cultural knowledge that each of us brings to bear on whatever we do (including reading). Of particular interest to folks who promote the importance of cultural literacy are those parts of knowledge that are academic in nature (that come from science, social studies, literature, etc.). The idea is that reading comprehension depends upon knowledge (readers connect what they are reading to what they already know) and so it argues for greater emphasis on developing academic knowledge among our students. Some folks go so far as to argue that reading should disappear or be minimized in the curriculum once decoding is accomplished, with the idea that foregrounding courses in science and social studies would do more than explicit reading instruction for building reading comprehension. There is no research supporting that idea, nor are there examples in the research of teachers building up students' cultural knowledge in ways that generalize to improved reading comprehension on subjects not studied. But again, I can see no reason why reading teachers cannot focus instructional reading and practice reading opportunities on texts that have valuable content. Likewise, I can't see why we wouldn't be willing to devote a small amount of time in our lessons, to making sure the students gain and retain the content of what they read.
Despite the lack of direct research, the cost of encouraging cultural sensitivity and empowerment and building cultural knowledge within reading lessons is so small that I see no reason not to encourage these.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Teaching Students to Use Context


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.