A letter to the teachers of English: 44Enable your learners to infer the meaning from the context while reading [Archives:2004/714/Education]

February 23 2004

Dr..M.N.K.Bose ([email protected])
Associate Professor of English,
Faculty of Arts, Ibb.

Dear Fellow teachers,
I have written in my earlier letters about developing reading skills in your learners; I have stressed that reading is an important skill for the Yemeni learners of English, perhaps, the most important skill, in my opinion, especially because the opportunities for them to read English are more in their lives, not only as students but later as professionals and skilled workers. It is, therefore, the responsibility of all the teachers of English, both at the school and the college levels, to help them to develop reading skills in English using appropriate activities, some of which I have pointed out in my letters.
I am taking up another skill, a component of the reading skill, in this letter and discuss how it can be developed in your learners. This skill needs to be developed as early as possible, at the early reading stage. This is 'inferring the meaning from the context', without referring to the dictionary. Most of our learners have this skill in their mother tongue, because this skill is employed to get the meaning of new words a learner faces and helps him/her to develop his/her vocabulary (the stock of words one can use) in his/her mother tongue. Developing this skill in English, therefore, may not be very difficult.
Look at the following three sentences, each of which has a strange word for you to infer the meaning from the context. (Don't try to refer to a dictionary, because you will not find it in any dictionary.)
1. She poured the water into a trisspo.
2. Then, lifting the trisspo, she drank.
3. Unfortunately, as she was keeping it down, the trisspo slipped from her hand and broke.
4. Only the handle remained in one piece.
You can guess the meaning of 'trisspo' now, but think how you are able to infer the meaning with the help of the sentences; when you read each sentence, the meaning of the word becoms clearer gradually. Each sentence adds something to your inferring of the meaning, and the meaning becomes complete only after you have read the fourth sentence. When you teach your learners the skill of inferring, you can choose an exercise like this and ask them to read the first sentence first and guess the meaning of the new word from it; then show the second sentence and ask them to read it; now they will get a little more clear picture of the word; then, the third and the fourth sentence, till they get the complete picture of the word. It is a very useful and interesting activity suggested by Christine Nuttal, who has written a useful book 'Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign language'.
If you are innovative, you can think of your own material; the idea is to enable your students to guess the meaning from the context in which the word is used. This skill is important for any reader, young or adult, of any language; when we read a newspaper or a magazine, for example, we don't refer to a dictionary for each word that is new and we use this skill to infer the meaning of it from the context, don't we? This word becomes a part of our vocabulary if we come across the same word often in the same or similar contexts or when we have an opportunity to refer to that word in a dictionary. Try this technique with your students. Good luck.
Yours fraternally,