Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Inferring from context – agreeing with @EBEFL

I was interested in @EBEFL’s post on guessing meaning from context being a load of old XXXXX. Or the teaching of it at any rate. I’ve often been frustrated by student’s lack of ability to do this and had, experientially and judgementally, concluded that it was like common sense. You either have it or you don’t and there’s not much anyone can do to teach you it.


An anecdotal aside to show this in action. At summer school I’d written a list of places around the school that I wanted to be sign posted/labelled to help the students find their way around e.g. the way to the art room or a label showing drinkable water. The list consisted of locations and what the sign needed to show.

One of the items said: Dining Room Corridor      –> To Dining Room

The common sense challenged individual put a sign up in the middle of the corridor labelling it as Dining Room Corridor. I had to tell her, if it seems like a stupid thing to label, try thinking “Is this a sensible thing to do? Have I maybe misunderstood something?” I wonder if she ever internalised this process and developed common sense. Just like I wonder, as @EBEFL does, about whether you can really teach guessing meaning from context.

It does seem, from what I’ve seen, that students with high ability can often work something out because they understand everything around it. I gave the below task to a very fluent NNS to see if it was something guessable or not. He either knew and, subsequently was able to guess, every single meaning of ‘get’. I gave the same task to Upper Int students and they went into rabbits in headlights mode which suggests that if they knew more English they too could have guessed.

I think though, that the reason the first guy’s English is so good  is that he’s largely self taught. So, he is the type to see language as a code he can crack and in cracking it, has developed a lot of strategies to do so. My Upper Ints rely on 2 hours a week of conversation classes and do nothing outside of that to improve their English.

I would be interested** to give this passage to varying levels of Upper Int to Advanced and see if there is a level where the passage becomes clear. Other than that, I imagine the understandability lies in the percentage of the passage that’s already known – a critical mass of 94% as Nation states perhaps – but it’s not that easy to find out what was fully known, what was unconsciously inferred, what was guessed and then immediately confirmed so as to almost seem to the reader to be previously known and what was true guessing from context.

TASK:Without looking anything up, at all, how much meaning do you extract from this?

(Earlier in the story was a mission the character was supposed to have accomplished but didn’t.)

‘Did you get it?’ he asks dangerously.

I shake my head, unable to form the words to explain what went wrong.

He slams the table top with both hands, making me jump.

‘You didn’t get it? I don’t get it!’ he shouts. ‘Where do you get off coming back here empty handed? You think you can get round me with this puppy dog face of yours? Maybe I didn’t get it across to you yesterday but there’s no get out for you here. None at all. You get me back that card or I’ll get to you somehow! Do you get me? Do you?’

I search for words but can’t think what to say.

‘I’m not letting you get away with this. You’re going to get it, big time. Get me that card or you’ll get what’s coming. Got it?’

** When I say interested, can you infer that I mean, can’t be bothered to do it myself but do idly wonder about?


One comment on “Inferring from context – agreeing with @EBEFL

  1. Ebefl
    March 7, 2013

    Get is an interesting word as well because students will claim they “know” it. But so they know all the meanings? Research suggests they often overestimate their own knowledge.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2013 by in Learning English, Teaching English and tagged , , , .
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