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Are You Nailing Context?

The recent efforts of whole language proponents to undermine the progress we have made in the areas of reading instruction have left me feeling a frustrated.   The strawman argument of “all reading should be meaning centred” was particularly frustrating.  As if meaning isn’t important to those of us who embrace the Science of Reading. I resent the suggestion that to teach structured literacy means that everything is taught in a piecemeal, decontextualized fashion with soulless experiences imposed on our children. 

It occurs to me that ‘explicit teaching’ is so very often associated with decontextualised, ineffective ‘drill and kill’ lessons. This is simply not the case.  In fact, good explicit teaching enables children to experience context. It gives the model of what ‘good performance looks like’ and then provides the opportunity for students to develop skill and understanding in a scaffolded way that supports their cognitive load.   Good explicit teaching provides context in a way that does not set children up for failure by asking them to do things that they have not yet learned to do.  Context is where the meaning is made.

This might make perfect sense, but then the question remains, “What does this look like in my classroom?”   Consider the model below.  The Gradual Increase of Context Model that I have developed, outlines very clearly what the role of context is in a given situation.

Let’s consider writing:

Context is key when it comes to writing.  Teaching grammar/syntax in the context of rich text across the curriculum is an idea well regarded in research.  For example, context in both understanding and construction of sentences provides students with the foundation to make the learning meaningful.  However, there is a place for decontextualised learning when we introduce a concept and practice getting the nuts and bolts right.  The context embedded and discrete learning happens side by side, not sequentially. Of course, we need to ensure that children have the requisite competence to engage in a skill in context.  Let’s have a look at an example below:

There is so much context embedded work here that it is just unthinkable that anyone would say that explicit teaching does not include meaning making.  The column to the right is where children practice the skills, over and over to build them to mastery.  The context embedded column in the centre is where we look at the knowledge and skills through the lens of a whole text or concept and put those skills into action.

Context is important for all learning. Knowing how much context to provide and when to do so will help you achieve the balance between meaning making and discrete skill development that will give your students well-rounded learning experiences to set them up for success.

You can download the Gradual Increase in Context Model Graphic below:

If you would like to learn more about teaching oral language and writing in the context of rich picture books, you can find out more and book your place at my upcoming Teach Along here.

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