Is guessing from context a load of XXXXXX?

Look at the following sentence, -what do you think the missing word is?

Juan’s teacher is always angry because Juan never does his XXXXXX

I’m sure many of us, myself included, have seen or taught a sentence like the one above to introduce the skill of “guessing from context”, or trying to infer the meaning of unknown words by looking at clues such as the grammar or context. The logic of this approach seems to be that students spend far too much time looking at dictionaries and not enough time XXXXXX listening. They shouldn’t try to understand every word but should just “guess” at the meanings. 

But is it even possible to guess the meaning of a word? and if it is, how good are students at guessing? Just for fun, here are two sentences to try. I’ve been reading “Going Clear” this week and luckily, I actually came across two words I didn’t know. I’ve included both sentences because you might know one of the words but probably not both, and so one can be a ‘cloze’ and one a real word. Let’s see how XXXXXX well you do at guessing:

Homes was an XXXXXX* with almond-shaped brown eyes.

The racist white cop who molests a tony upper-class black woman.

I decided to read the literature on “guessing” (so that you don’t have to!) and quickly discovered two things. Firstly there’s a XXXXXX lot of it, and secondly it’s XXXXXX messy. But before I get down to the details, it’s important to understand a key problem with this area. There is essentially a tension between the fact that humans must learn a huge amount of vocabulary by guessing/inferring, (after all, no one actively taught you most of the words you know) and the fact that in a large number of situations (like the two examples above) guessing seems almost impossible. The type of word trying to be guessed is clearly a factor. guessing the word “hammer” is probably a lot easier than guessing the meaning of the word “acknowledge”. But what do the experts think about ‘guessing’ and more importantly, what does the evidence say?

Paul Nation thinks it is a “a very powerful and useful strategy” and is “worth spending a few minutes on” every week (2009:55). Unfortunately, he offers no evidence to back this up. Walter and Swan aren’t so keen describing it as “the alleged ‘skill’ of guessing unknown words from context.” and adding that “research has shown, and it can easily be demonstrated practically that unknown vocabulary can rarely be successfully processed in this way” (2008:71) However a different Walters (note the S) has carried out a meta-analysis of inferring in which she concludes that “it seems clear from research that…drawing students’ attention to context when attempting to infer meaning of unknown words is worth the time effort in the language classroom.” (2004:250)

There were two other meta-analyses carried out on this subject, (though it should be said, mostly relating to L1 learners) which completely disagreed with each other. Kuhn and Stahl reviewing the literature conclude that “if these studies represent where the field is now, then we cannot recommend instruction in context clues.” (1998:135) but Fukkink and de Glopper disagree noting that “even a small improvement of the ability to infer the meaning of unknown words would result in a sizable number of words learned.” (1998:451)

One major issue is that the research seems a bit XXXXXX sketchy at times, with a lot of it coming from L1. Add to that small sample sizes, lack of control groups, difference in testing procedure etc and it’s not surprising that Kuhn and Stahl note “given the frequent recommendations that children be taught the use of context clues, the paucity of research evidence is quite disappointing” (1998:129) Almost 20 years earlier Nation described it as being “widely acknowledged as a useful skill” while pointing out that there was very little evidence to back that sentiment up. In 1994 Knight reiterated this noting “although in recent years, many researchers, teachers, and textbook authors have encouraged students to guess, to use inference as the strategy of first choice (30; 48; 49; 64), this advice appears to be based more on conjecture than on empirical finding” (Knight 1994:286)

But lack of evidece aside, are student any good at it? Well they certainly like it. Schmitt, refers to one study which “found that their university ESL students used inferencing in about 78% of all cases where they actively tried to identify the meanings of unknown words” (Paribakht and Wesche 1999 in Schimidt) and another study found students used it with 58% of unknown words (Fraser 1999 in Schmidt). However, despite their enthusiasm for guessing, students are not very XXXXXX good at it for example Grabe states:

Guessing meanings of words is not an efficient way of learning new words explicitly when it is used as a textbook or class exercises…In four studies Gough and Wren (1999) showed that when L1 students guess words from context they are accurate only 14 to 45 percent of the time.(Grabe 2009:73)

However he doesn’t write it off completely as a strategy, but notes a dictionary would yield better results. Incidentally, the results for dictionary use are clearer “subjects who used the dictionary not only learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than those who guessed from context” (Knight 1994:295) There was no evidence in other papers that guessing improved reading scores or that students were even able to remember words they guessed correctly.

The low rate of success for guessing is a common finding:

Nassaji (2003) found that of 199 guesses, learners only made 51 (25.6%) that were successful, and another 37 (18.6%) that were partially successful. This low success rate is similar to the 24% rate that Bensoussan and Laufer’s (1984) learners achieved. (Schmitt 2008:350)

Frantzen’s results (N11!) show students were only successful in about 30% of cases. She also reports Kelly’s (1990) findings that even when just one word was unknown in a text “Contextual guessing alone seldom allows the reader to arrive at the correct meaning”(1990 in Frantzen 2003:169)

Another problem is that it isn’t always clear what exactly people are talking about when they talk about this. When teachers “teach” this skill what exactly is it that they are doing? Likewise, what is actually being tested? Knight (1994) suggests that the huge disparity in results could be due to a disparity in researcher testing methods. For example some use XXXXXX (cloze) while others use made up words and others researchers use real words. Fukkink and de Glopper suggest that giving advice on best practice with regard to this method is hard because “the empirical evidence is not unequivocal and the theoretical foundations of instruction are sparse or even absent.” (1998:462) All of this adds to the confusion.

But generally speaking it seems, slightly effective. Experimental groups almost always seem to outperform those not taught anything. However these are largely the results of L1 studies and “research in L2 contexts however, does not provide such strong support for lexical inferencing” (Nassaji 2006:397) Another caveat to this is many L1 studies also show that mere “practice may be equally effective as instruction” (Fukkink and de Glopper 1998:452) that is where a “practice only” group was included they did just as well as those who were taught. Kuhn and Stahl suggest that “merely practising deriving words from context would be enough to make students better at deriving words from context.” (1998:129) 

There is however a very strong correlation between language ability and the ability to guess word meanings (Frantzen 2003). Nassaji (2006:394) adds that, being able to understand the text “as a whole and most of the words in it” is a good indicator of success in inferencing and this fits with Nations finding that students should know 94% of a text to be able to understand it. It’s perhaps not XXXXXX rocket science to suggest that guessing from context is tough when you have no idea what the context is.

Kelly (1990) and Laufer (1997) question the value of guessing on the grounds that texts do not always provide adequate information to facilitate correct guessing of words. Stein (1993:204) suggests that “part of the problem is that the contextual clues themselves are largely insufficient to narrow in on a word’s meaning. The language itself allows for many unavoidable possibilities in interpretation, often many more than wanted.” This view is supported by Grabe and Carrell who note that “what may appear to be transparent ‘guessable’contexts to native speakers are often incomprehensible contexts to native speakers”(in Schmitt 2002:240) So you might think it’s easy for your students but it XXXXXX isn’t.
Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself:

A biomic approach by integrating three independent methods, DNA microarray, proteomics and bioinformatics, is used to study the differentiation of human myeloid leukemia cell line HL-60 into macrophages when induced by 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate (TPA). (Juan H-F et al 2002)

Guess away!

What is slightly odd however, is students who presumably know how to do this in their L1 mysterious forget how to do it in L2. This should be something we don’t need to teach them. As Nagy (in Kuhn and Stahl 1998:133) notes “Learning from context is a natural process, as well as the way in which we have learned most of what we know.” Swan agrees:

Why should language students need training in making intelligent guesses?Are they less intelligent people, less good at guessing, than other groups in the population? Than language teachers, for instance? Is there any reason at all to suppose that they do not already possess this skill? And if they possess it, do we have any real evidence that they cannot in general apply it to learning a foreign language? And if we do not have such evidence, what are we doing setting out to teach people something they can do already?” (Swan 1985:8)

One suggestion is that lower-level students’ “processing power” is entirely taken up with trying to understand the language to the extent that when they improve they will be able to use this skill. “The ability to apply the skill is inversely proportional to the user’s linguistic competence. This, and all the other sub-skills and strategies, are things that the learners have mostly already got in their L1, but they can only progressively apply them to L2 as their linguistic abilities improve” (Stranks 2010)

So in short; students like it, but they XXXXXX suck at it. They can be taught it but the results aren’t much better than just practicing. and some words are just unguessable. The more words they know and the better their English is, the better chance they have of guessing correctly. All of which leads me to the XXXXXX astonishing conclusion that working on their English, rather than teaching them how to ‘guess’, might be a pretty XXXXXX good idea. 

*Ingenue: A naive, innocent girl or young woman
tony: marked by an aristocratic or high-toned manner or style

12 thoughts on “Is guessing from context a load of XXXXXX?

  1. Very funny and another well-argued position. While I agree that guessing completely unknown words from context is impossible in many cases, I have perceived value in getting learners to infer connotations of lexis they sort-of know from context.And as you say, students do enjoy it, and if this leads to them justifying answers, discussion, and eventually teacher clarification/learning new lexis, then I can't say it bothers me much. This is especially true if the teacher would have otherwise taught the words without any clear context or example.


  2. Some interesting observations and arguments here, and a topic all teachers ought to be engaging with! I think to get to the heart of the matter, there needs to be an explicit account of what it is we mean by \”context\” (as opposed to co-text in your Homes and white cop examples) and also a discussion of WHY we would want to help our students develop this strategy. The latter question really shouldn't, in my opinion, be answered by saying we want our students to guess the correct meanings of words, but we want them to be able to construct better meanings from the text. Many studies in this area measure the student's guess against the denotative meaning of the word, but as efficient readers, we all add a little to the meaning of a word each time we use it (unless it's a highly technical term). My first point: language and context are related in such a way that one has a direct influence on the other, and vice versa. This \”dialectic\” relation, again IMHO, screams out for language teachers to be teaching language in context and context of language use at every opportunity. And supporting our students in their efforts to work with unknown words in texts in context is one good way to achieve this. See my post at for a little more on this.


  3. hi!thanks for the comment.I absolutely agree that reading and reenforcing words they \”sort of know\” is very useful. This must help to strenghten connections in their brains. Guessing though…as something to \”teach\” or as a viable strategy is another story.


  4. Oh, another great article. (I'm having a great time catching up on this blog) A rather different topic but another one I have a beef with is 'preteaching vocabulary' where you see uncontextualised words listed in a teachers book with the instruction that they should be pre-taught. How I wonder. If you have a perfectly good example coming up in a text where the words appear in context, might it not make more sense to simply gloss them?


  5. Hi Vicki!Thanks for the post. 'preteaching vocabulary' IS very interesting isn't it? I hadn't even thought about it. I know Swan had a beef with comprehension questions after a text. I think he said \”what are the point of these questions\”


  6. Thanks for the comment and I'm REALLY sorry, but I missed it for months! I don't know how that happened!I think you're right that in order to sort out if this is useful we have to know what exactly it is we are talking about. It has a lot of names, -guessing, inferring, guessing from context etc etc, I'm never quite sure people mean the same things.Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.


  7. Thanks for this great piece. As a novice ESL Teacher this piece is eye opening. I love teaching new vocabulary and until reading your piece I believed that context can be very helpful in understanding new words.Do you think it would be helpful to give students definitions of words before they read a text and while they read have them try and match the definitions to words they don't understand?Thanks! C.R.P


  8. I don't think context is unhelpful per se. Just not as helpful as some would suggest. I think having definitions of words could be useful before they read. I suppose it depends on what you're actually trying to do in the lesson?


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