Context Clues

Daryl and I were checking off the spices in our kitchen that we found on his “Products of the Rainforest” checklist for school the other morning. Hal had followed us into the kitchen and was making a menace of himself. I needed to be at work early so was trying to conduct the search as efficiently as possible. Several times, I told Hal, who was a considerable distraction, to go cuddle with his Daddy. But he stayed.

I had set the box of “Christmas” spices on the dining room table in front of Daryl and I was searching the lazy susans in the cabinet. “Where’s the ginger?” I asked. “I know we have some ginger. Where is it?”

Hal called out from the table, “Here it is!”

I kept my sigh internal. I also refrained from trying to send him from the room yet again. Somehow I also resisted pointing out to him that he doesn’t know how to read. Instead, I adopted a patient mother face and walked toward him to see which spice he was holding. I had just enough good grace stored up to sweetly tell him that it wasn’t ginger, but thanks for trying to help.

Instead, I saw that he was, indeed, triumphantly holding the ground ginger above his head. I did not hide my surprise well but turned it into joyful praise.

“Way to go, Hal! That is the ginger! High five!” I raised my hand and he slapped it with his. “How did you know it was the ginger? Was it the little gingerbread man and gingerbread woman on the front?”

He nodded that it was and just beamed with pride.

I thought about this throughout the day that followed. I was reminded of how my older kids have been taught in school to look for context clues when they read. It’s actually something they have to teach kids.

Yet the average preschooler does it all day long. He knows the building is McDonald’s because of the golden arches. He can recognize a Wal-Mart in another town. He can even make out what is a restaurant vs. a gas station vs. a store. He can figure all these things out without reading… all the way down to finding the ginger in a box full of spices.

It made me wonder if we get a bit lazy once we learn to read. If, by reading, we come to expect the words to clearly tell us what we need to know. If a dry cleaners didn’t have the words “Dry Cleaning” above the windows, who would recognize the place for what it is first? Me or my child? Ok, bad example. We never go to the dry cleaners.

My point remains though. I’m so busy looking for the words that tell me what a thing is that I fail to look at the other indicators. I will see them eventually, maybe, but I look for the words first. I think this is why adults who never learned to read can do such an excellent job of hiding their deficiency from the rest of us. They never lost that ability to interpret the context clues quickly and accurately.

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