Friday, March 27, 2009

Keith Stanovich on Context Clues

I am opening my blog with a selection from Keith Stanovich, whose research and writings about reading inspired the name of this blog.

Which do skilled readers use more to read unfamiliar words: context clues or graphic clues (i.e. the letters)? Here is Stanovich in his work, Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers (The Guilford Press, 2000):

Theorists [such as Ken Goodman] who developed top-down models of
reading consistently derived the prediction that skilled readers would rely less
on graphic clues and more on contextual information than less-skilled readers.
Smith's (1971) well-known hypothesis was that good readers were especially
sensitive to the redundancy afforded by sentences, were particularly good at
developing hypotheses about upcoming words, and were then able to confirm the
identity of a word by sampling only a few features in the visual array. . . .
These were the predictions that Rich West and I went on to test with
reaction-time techniques derived from cognitive psychology. To our surprise, all
of our research results pointed in the opposite direction: it was the poorer
readers, not the more skilled readers, who were more reliant on context to
facilitate word recognition. I write "to our surprise" because we embarked on
these studies fully expecting to confirm Smith's (1971) views. . . . In real
science one is eventually influenced by
the evidence, regardless of one's initial bias. (p. 6)

It was the
less-skilled readers who were more dependent upon context for word recognition
(West & Stanovich, 1978; Stanovich, West, & Feeman, 1981). The reason
for this finding eventually became apparent: the word recognition processes of
the skilled reader were so rapid and automatic that they did not need to rely on
contextual information. Over ten years later [Blognote: now 28 years later!]
this finding is one of the most consistent and well-replicated in all of reading
research. It has been found with all types of readers, in all types of texts,
and in a variety of different paradigms. . . . Perhaps understandably, at the
time our initial findings were published they were not warmly received by
researchers invested in the context-use theory which the results falsified.
Today, however, the implications of these results have been incorporated into
all major scientific models of the reading process. . . . Scientifically, the
results are now uncontroversial. However, they are still not welcomed by some
reading educators who would pertetuate the mistaken view that an emphasis on
contextual prediciton is the way to good reading.
It should be noted here
that the findings I have referred to concern the use of context as an aid to word recognition rather than as a
mechanism in the comprehension process. (pp. 394-395).

Do the ed schools still instruct teachers to encourage their students to rely on context clues (and picture clues) to determine unfamiliar words? MANY still do. Perhaps about 85% still do. The National Council on Teacher Quality reported in 2006 that only 15% of the nation's schools of educations provide "even minimal exposure to the science of reading" for future elementary ed teachers. Take a look at your school's curriculum framework, if there is one. Does it state how your school teaches a child to read unfamiliar words?


John said...

I think Stanovich is an excellent way to begin a new blog. I am always quoting this particular bit of research to trainees on my courses.
Without gaining access to lots of schools and doing a Jeanne Chall (sitting in the classrooms and observing what actually goes on), it's very difficult to answer the question you pose at the end of your posting. I suspect you're right. Bonnie Macmillan certainly agreed in her book Why Schoolchildren Can't Read but that too was published more than a decade ago.
What I do know from some of the young children I teach privately is that they are told to look at the pictures, guess the word from the context of the sentence, etc, etc. What is absent is the systematic instruction required to teach children to become proficient readers and spellers from the start.

Jennie said...

Thanks, John, for writing the first comment on this blog.

Yes, I see variations of the 3-cuing system in classrooms and literacy support rooms. The cues have apparently grown in number, up to 5 or even 10 in one case. "Use Picture Clues" is almost always at the top of the list.

What texts are required reading in your courses?