Using cues – parts of a text (such as the title, font and images) which help the user to better understand the content.
A cue is like a clue. When we don’t fully understand something, such as a sentence with one or more unfamiliar words, we search for cues to help us make meaning. Cues provide information so we can fill in the gaps, often with a best-guess approach. Sometimes we can determine the most likely meaning of a word by looking at other words in the sentence. Cues to the text’s content and the meaning of words, sentences, themes and concepts can be found by examining the title, subheading, text type, genre, imagery, graphics, structure and layout, as well as our knowledge of the author. Children and adults frequently use cues without even knowing it – we regularly see and hear words for which we don’t know the meaning. Cues become a type of comprehension coping mechanism that people gradually develop over time.
Eventually, everyone learns to skip words that they don’t understand, to look at images or diagrams, to ask for help or to look up a word. Adults (due to experience) know when they can and can’t ignore meaning; sometimes meaning is essential, such as in an employment contract. In other instances (such as when reading a news article that we don’t really care about), a foreign word here or there is not a problem. Children don’t have these skills in many cases and 1 or 2 unfamiliar words can wreak havoc with their reading fluidity and confidence. The exception is avid readers who read well beyond their age level: these students have learnt to use cues swiftly and are confident enough to use their best guess based on the cues provided and their experience. Readers at this level have learnt through experience (largely by trial and error) that a best guess approach is usually enough. They learn when a word needs to be clearly defined and clarification is required, when it can be ignored, and when a hopeful best-guess will do (at least for now).
Cues provide information so we can fill in the gaps, often with a best-guess approach.
Unfortunately, many students come across unfamiliar words and automatically assume that they therefore don’t understand the whole sentence or paragraph. They often don’t know that it is possible to guess a word’s meaning based on cues such as the text’s title, topic-related vocabulary, images and diagrams, the author’s style and previous work, the genre and text type and other words in the sentence. Students should also be taught how and when to look up a word. Sometimes they can ask a more knowledgeable person such as a friend or a teacher.
Other times, they will need to search for the word in a dictionary. How to look up a word is not as simple as finding the dictionary definition. Definitions can confuse students and they often contain more unfamiliar words. Because of this, many teachers have students look up synonyms. Care should be taken to ensure that students don’t fall for the trap of looking up every unfamiliar word; this is the common over-reaction after learning to look up words. Looking up every word stifles the natural reading flow and promotes a surface level understanding of the text – it is however something of a phase that many students will go through. Passages that contain too many unfamiliar words are probably too challenging for a student and should be avoided by and large.
Some texts provide more cues than others. For example, the front cover of a book provides a wealth of information that can be used to make predictions and to prepare for a reading task. This is useful for students when reading texts that challenge and extend their reading abilities – the more information that can be gleaned from cues, the easier it is for a text to be read and comprehended. Cues make reading easier and the content more accessible. Teaching students to use cues is an important part of the teacher’s role, particularly in the literacy classroom.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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