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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Voices: The Teacher / Context Is Everything

      A long time ago, when I first started teaching 1st grade, we were still stuck in the Dick and Jane readers. A boy in my class named Jonathan was having a hard time reading. He struggled with Dick and Jane and Spot and “run run run,” and he couldn't remember how it all went together.
      In those days, I wasn't supposed to help him, and I certainly wasn't supposed to read the story to him first so he would be interested in it! So we both struggled through Dick and Jane, and one day Jonathan said to me in despair, “You know, I could read this if I knew what it was about!”
      Now, we recognize that children will read if they know what the story is about. In fact, most children learn to read with something that has been read to them a jillion times. Knowing what it's about, knowing the context of those black squiggly combinations of letters called words, knowing the context is everything.
      Practically every child in America knows what the letters S-T-O-P mean when they are big and white on an octagonal field of red attached to a slender metal pole at a street corner. Sometimes, children will even remind you as you whiz around the corner that you didn't do what the sign said to do. But it is rarely true that a preschool or kindergarten child will be able to identify the word stop if it appears in the small black print of a newspaper, or even in the story Where the Wild Things Are, when the naughty boy's mother tells him to.
      STOP, the white word on the red sign, is identified and read (or named) because its context is clear. It is always in the same place used the same way.
      Most children learn to read in just such contextual ways. If I had read the story of Dick and Jane to Jonathan, he would have known that certain words wouldn't make sense in the context of the story, and he would have learned to trust his judgment about what makes sense. He would also have learned the individual words in the story, because he would have been able to make meaning from them, just as a child makes meaning from STOP as the car slows down.
      Children can also use the context of their own lives to learn to read. Andrew, a 1st grader, has his own key words and sentences to read every day: Mommy, stegosaurus, Bart Simpson, puppy, Jason, Mrs. Johnson, I like Seth, Dinosaurs are extinct. He can read all of these because they make sense to him in the context of his own life, at home and at school.
      It is very possible that Andrew is remembering the words or memorizing them, and it is certainly true that most of these words do not jump out at him in other kinds of print. But he can tell what these words say in their context, and isn't that more than he could do before? It is a huge beginning step to reading. As he acquires an ever-larger collection of identifiable print in his life, he's learning that the black squiggly letters combine to make sense to him.
      Lucky Andrew. Jonathan never had it so good.

      Katie Johnson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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