Context Clueless

January 2005

One more way prevailing "Whole Language" reading instruction keeps kids in the dark
Charles R. Lewis
Article published on the website of the US Freedom Foundation at

I recently started tutoring the 13-year-old son of a long-time acquaintance. His mother is one of the many immigrants from Latin American countries whose English proficiency has been greatly stunted by the easy accessibility of Spanish services and media here. After eleven years in our culture, she speaks its Mother Tongue only on a rudimentary basis. Similarly, she reports comprehending less than half of the words she hears when watching American TV.

The son, on the other hand, arrived here before he could speak and has no memory of the land of his birth. He's attended conventional government schools, where he's been dutifully passed along. And he's a poster boy for functional illiteracy. When reading material of his supposed grade level aloud, he errs on approximately one out of every three or four words.

It occurred to me to question who's more lost - the mother when watching a program on which she picks up on only a minority of the words in the dialogue, or the son, who "gets" up to 75% of the words he reads. That's easy, and very sad - it's the son by a landslide.

The mom, of course, has the advantage of the visual props inherent in a video production. But it goes far deeper than that. You see, when the mother misses a word or phrase there are two divergent possibilities. Occasionally, I've seen her misinterpret what she thinks she hears and jump to a conclusion that leads to a confused perception of what's going on in the plot. But in the vast majority of such occasions, the speech goes right by her and she simply wonders what was said. In these instances she has the benefit of at least knowing that she doesn't know.

The son (as I've seen with countless government-school products) can avail himself of no such ameliorating factor. He never has an awareness of his ignorance. When he gets a word wrong, he never realizes it.

He doesn't generally pause over a word he doesn't recognize and try to decipher it. Instead he blithely says it incorrectly - often mouthing a word that has no phonetic relationship to the one in front of him, and nearly always coming up with one that has a meaning so different from that of the correct word as to inexorably throw him off the track of the story's drift. [Other times he simply skips the word as if it weren't there.] This grave defect is reflected in his general lack of comprehension in many academic areas, and especially his non-existent writing skills. (When one has nothing that one understands upon which to model one's writing, how can this be otherwise?)

But the reason the lad blissfully "reads" himself stories that have virtually nothing to do with the intents of the authors (as do so many others with whom I've worked) has little to do with specific inherent incompetence on his part. It's all about official pedagogical policy in this nation's schools, under the general heading, "whole language instruction," an infernal invention that relegates phonics to a minor role as one among many "strategies."

The "strategy" at play here is known as "context clues." As opposed to carefully sounding them out based on phonetic principles and sub-principles (as I teach), pupils are taught to guess unfamiliar words in the context of the words around them. I can tell you that the average child-to-adolescent has about as good a chance of improvising a Chopin piano concerto as of successfully pulling off such a task over the course of a complete, meaningful reading assignment; even if he does, he's done so in a fortuitous contextual vacuum, having learned nothing he can transfer to the next situation.

A youngster's only recourse in the "context clue" universe is his own as yet undeveloped logical and imaginative skills. The mandate to look at a whole word rather than its component letters and their juxtaposition generally negates any cursory familiarity with phonics the would-be reader might bring to the table. When listening to attempts at reading, I quite often hear words that sound a little like the correct ones, but this similarity can easily be ascribed to the fact that pairs of whole words that look somewhat alike tend to sound somewhat alike.

When a student makes a mistake on a difficult word, what he says should only on the rarest of coincidental cases be a bona fide English word, but rather a nonsense sound based on the application of literal "first tier" phonetic rules to a word that obeys "lower tier" rules (or one that is simply a scofflaw). One might hear "pree - ten - tie - owz" for "pretentious" or "ling - er - I" for the problematical "lingerie."

At such points, deeper probes into the many layers of English phonetic anomaly can familiarize the individual with classes of words that misbehave in the same way or in similar ways and thereby allow for internalization of a completely new structure. I know this from experience, as my work in teaching reading has led me to develop a massive compendium of avenues for such probes.

What one should not hear is a word whose pronunciation could not possibly fit the given spelling. An aural diet of the likes of "I found him preparing" (for "I found him pretentious") and "She worked in London" (as opposed to "She worked in Lingerie") should be enough to convince one of the futility of context clues versus phonics.

A young adult trained, in effect, to re-invent what's before him rather than read it is a much more difficult "phonics teach" than, say, a three or four year old beginning reader, as my work with nonsense-syllable tests has shown convincingly. "Whole Language" has done damage that is undone only with the utmost of difficulty. It has countless millions of Americans living in literary "Matrix" worlds of their own haphazard contrivance.

Charles "In the Trenches" Lewis