Redefining Context for Unseen Texts


Most of us can work out what ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ mean and can even make a few inferences about what they suggest.

Better still, most of us can dig a little deeper when we put those words together – offering ideas about weakness, vulnerability and someone in need of aid.  What happens though when these words are used in a text to describe a highly successful headteacher working in a deprived area? ‘Small’ and ‘hungry’ no longer mean weak and vulnerable but could mean tenacious, formidable and not to be underestimated.

This example from AQA Language Paper 2, November 2017 clearly highlights misconceptions that arise when students grab at language in unseen texts. In the example above the words ‘small, hungry’ are attributed to Sister Brendan, the headteacher of the school. Under her watchful eye, the visiting School Inspector is met by endless happy, smiling children eager to show him their work. Her ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ mannerisms, along with several comparisons to birds, firmly establish her character as instinctively and fiercely protective of the children in her school.

The most important job we have as English teachers is to teach students about the cumulative effect of language and what words mean in context. A student rushing to respond to ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ with their well-learned structures would miss the point altogether and fall very short of understanding the text – regardless of what writing frame they use (PEE, PEAL, PETAL, SPEED). These frames are often criticised for being formulaic – and rightly so. However, even a beautifully crafted analysis, using the less restrictive What? How? Why? would account for little if it bears no resemblance to the meaning of the extract.

Equally, I would argue that this is not a vocabulary issue. Understanding the words alone is not enough, neither is developing a large and impressive vocabulary for the response. Although vocabulary will unlock the subtleties and nuances of a text, this means nothing if those subtleties are missed in the first place.

The issue here is reading.

We labour over writing. We create scaffolds and sentence stems to ‘get them going’ only to find that when we approach another extract – nothing has stuck and we need to do it all over again. We write blogs about writing. We argue over paragraph structures and those that constrain or liberate young and struggling writers. We write books about writing and it still seems that sometimes, some things work for some students. So, the debates roll on.

It’s unlikely that this focus on writing is addressing the real problem – poor comprehension of unseen extracts. Writing is the articulation of thinking and understanding – so, the issue here is reading.

Maybe it is time we stop our obsessive focus on writing and went back to reading. When students have read an extract in depth they usually have plenty to say. That’s not to say sentence stems won’t help, but students are less likely to be stuck immediately after copying the words on the board.

They’ll have ideas, they’ll have examples, they’ll have an understanding of the causes and effects at play in a text. No acrononymised paragraph structure will fix this. Ever. Most importantly, they will have a rock solid understanding of the context of the text, so are highly unlikely to describe the ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ human tornado that is Sister Brendan as weak and in need of help.

Reading for Context

In order to help our students read with context in mind, the first thing to address is how we define the term. Often our definitions of context are a little blunt and are frequently limited to ‘anything relating to the social, political, cultural and historical background of a text’. Instead, we should teach students early on that context is any element (inside the text and outside of the text) that gives the reader additional information to support their understanding. Analysing texts ‘in context’ will point students towards noticing the genre, the narrative arc, the subject matter, as well as the more familiar political and social aspects for pre-studied texts.

Modelling reading with a visualiser is probably the most effective way to keep reminding students to read in context. Allow students to see everything you pause on, everything you notice. For example, there is often a wealth of information to be found in the exam board introductions of unseen texts. Even simple details such this from the AQA Language Paper 1 June 2017 telling us that Rosabel was ‘on her way home’ can be used to build up a familiar and recognisable mental model of what is typical: tiredness, a desire to get home, reflecting on the day – all of this prior to reading the text. Modelling reading in this way can also show how you respond to the cumulative effect of language (images build on images, language on language) and demonstrate the small adjustments you make to create meaning as you read.

Ask powerful questions that will develop students’ ability to read in context, such as how would someone feel in this situation? In this job? In this place? How would you feel? What evidence can you find of how the writer or characters feels? Is it the same or different to you? These kind of questions will remind students to consider language in context and not ‘dislocate’ it from the intended meaning. A focus on context and a few carefully considered questions could even help students unlock the bane of teachers’ lives: alliteration. Are the alliterative sounds harmonious? Discordant? How does that fit the context? Is the action harmonious? And so on.

Build context into your essential ingredient list for close language analysis. Alongside methods and evidence, students need to unpick the connotations of a word or phrase in relation to the contextual information they have: why this word, in this context, with what effect? This should lead to analysis that is sharp, focused and confidently asserted.

Finally, using strategies from reciprocal reading students can move from your modelling through to effective independent reading – the I do, we do, you do model. Using a consistent, routine approach demonstrating how to question (why did the writer choose the verb ‘roared’?), predict (A mountain like Everest is probably dangerous/Teachers probably work very hard) and summarise the ideas (the text is mainly about how hard life is for the girl) will support students in embedding these strategies for themselves.

So, the next time your students struggle with the unseen texts on the language paper, don’t rush off to build yet another resource with sentences starters and word banks. Go back to the reading. Check that, as novice readers, they have grasped the fundamental importance of reading in context.