Sunday 30 August 2020

Of Canesten, Context, and Comprehension

At the risk of sounding a little indelicate, I relate the following personal incident. As many of you would know Canesten cream is very useful and is effective for treating thrush and similar fungal infections. Similarly, Fisiocrem is a great product for bringing relief to sore joints, like your knees. It has a pleasant warming effect when applied externally to the skin. All well and good. All good that is until one needs to use both at the same time and, momentarily distracted, one mixes them up. This can be a disturbing, not to say alarming, experience. I leave the rest to your imagination ...


The point being that both products are very effective for their intended purpose but confusing the two can cause problems. Let’s look at what happens if you use the right product for the wrong job in another situation.


One of the major battle lines in the reading wars concerns the widely popular three cuing system advocated by whole language, latterly ‘balanced literacy’, enthusiasts to teach reading. Use of contextual clues is a key ingredient in this approach, usually to the neglect of systematic phonics instruction. So, is using contextual cues always ‘a bad thing’? Not necessarily, but it can be if used for the wrong purpose, just like Canesten or Fisiocrem. Balanced literacy proponents regard it as a means of learning to read words, to decode text in effect. For this purpose, it is woefully inadequate and mostly ineffective, for most children. 


So, do phonics enthusiasts ignore, or disdain, the use of context in learning to read? As an approach to teaching word recognition or decoding, the answer is yes. But that is not to say that using contextual clues is not helpful in another way, to make sense of a word that the child can decode but is unaware of what it means; perhaps what the object actually is after having successfully decoded its name using phonics. 


Take the following sentence from a cowboy story.;

“Seeing the rattlesnake was about to strike, Rusty quickly took his trusty pistol from its holster and aimed at the snake’s head.” 

The word ‘pistol’ is easy to decode but it is a relatively unusual word and the child may possibly not have heard it before. But the context makes it fairly easy to work out what it means. Rusty is a cowboy. Cowboys often wear holsters. Rusty is in danger and takes from his holster something to protect himself from the rattlesnake that is going to attack him, and he takes aim with it. It can only be a handgun of some kind, such as a revolver. So, a pistol likely means some sort of gun. The child has deduced and learned from context the meaning of the unknown word pistol, a type of handgun.

But if the child were not able to decode the word pistol and tried to use context to work out the word, it is highly unlikely that guessing the word from the context would result in pistol. More likely the child would have guessed at the word gun or revolver. 


And as Chuck Perfetti reminded us years ago, in the early nineties, Colgate is not the same word as toothpaste, however well it might fit the context of the sentence.