When children first learn to read, they read each word separately, as if it existed alone without any relationship to words that came before or after it. As children become more sophisticated and experienced readers, however, they begin to read words as parts of sentences, in context. They probably don’t even realize they are no longer focusing on each word individually but instead on the way words relate to each other within sentences. They will begin to appreciate the shades of word meanings within their existing vocabulary. They will also add new words at a faster pace because they will be able to decode the meaning of unfamiliar words based on the rest of the sentence.
What Third Graders Should Know
Third-grade students are fluent readers who understand that the sentence as a whole should make sense. Third graders can read out loud with expression and cadence because they are reading words in their context. The ability to read words in context also means that when a third grader comes to a word he does not know, he should be able to puzzle out its meaning based on the surrounding words in the phrase or sentence. And each time this happens, he adds yet another word to his vocabulary. As his vocabulary grows, the third grader is able to read more and more difficult books, which expands his vocabulary even more.
What You and Your Child Can Do
Reading to your child—and having him read to you—will increase his vocabulary skills at an amazing rate. When he reads to you, if he comes to a word he doesn’t understand, have him stop and see if he can puzzle it out from the context of the sentence. Let him see how the words within the sentence relate to each other.
Have Fun with Sentences.
While you’re waiting to be served in a restaurant, try to work on context this way: Give your child a sentence with a word missing. See how many words he can think of that would fit in the blank and still make sense. Talk about which ones seem most logical.
If your child stumbles over a word when reading out loud, have him go on to finish the sentence. Then have him go back to the word to see if he can figure out what it means.
If your child asks you to define a word for him, don’t automatically provide the definition. Instead, use the word in several sentences to see if he can work out the meaning on his own.
CHILD : What does bigot mean?
PARENT : Well, let’s see. What do you think it means in this sentence: “Only a bigot would judge a person based on the color of his skin.” Or “Only an intolerant bigot would refuse to hire someone of a different religion.”
Play Context Cross-out.
The next time you’re in a restaurant that gives children take-home menus, try this game: Cross out every fifth or sixth word. See if your child can figure out what word you crossed out by looking at the context of the sentences. You can also try this activity with a children’s magazine or catalog.
Let your child see you going back to reread a sentence or two if you don’t understand a particular word. Your child needs to understand that this strategy is often used by experienced readers.
Have your child ask himself “What would make sense?” when he comes to a word he doesn’t understand.
A good way to work on the idea of context with your child is to read Lewis Carroll’s wonderful nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass. It begins: ’Twas brillig and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimbel through the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves And the mome raths outgrabe. Discuss the meaning of this poem, and help your child to see how he could somehow figure out a meaning despite all the crazy words. Help him write his own nonsense poem.
What Tests May Ask
Most standardized tests will assess your child’s ability to understand the meaning of words as they are used in particular contexts. The tests will offer a sentence and ask the child to fill in the blank with the word that makes the most sense. This requires a child to understand what words do and do not fit into a sentence given a sentence’s meaning and also requires that he understand that a word may have more than one meaning.