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The Role of Context in Comprehension

Z. N. Patil* ( and Kiran Patil*(

Language is a key to communication. It works as an instrument in the communication process. Therefore, language skills are essential for any communication to be successful. Language skills include receptive skills and productive skills. Listening and reading are receptive skills, while speaking and writing are productive skills.

When authors write books or speakers deliver speeches, they use language creatively. This process requires an author or a speaker to employ their productive skills. The language produced is then delivered to readers or listeners in the form of a book or a talk. The author and the speaker are called ‘creators’ or ‘senders’ of messages encoded into language.

When a reader reads a story or a listener listens to a speech, they receive messages expressed in novel ways. So, the reader and the listener are called ‘receivers’ of messages dressed in language. The receiver then processes this language. This processing helps them understand the meaning of what is being said or left unsaid by the sender. This process employs the receiver’s interpretive skills.

There are many situations in which we utilize our receptive skills specifically for a reading purpose. Reading a story, a newspaper article or a script of a play are some ordinary examples. Similarly, there are many situations in which we employ our receptive skill of listening. Listening to news on television, to a debate or a speech delivered by a celebrity are instances of exercise of the receptive skill of listening.

The four language skills are important. Therefore, when we learn a new language, we must develop all the four skills. Usually, most learners begin learning a new language with the help of receptive skills and gradually start practicing their productive skills. Remember, extensive practice of receptive skills leads to improvement of productive skills. In short, the linguistic inputs that we receive through listening are stored in our minds for later use. This language is essentially utilized at a later point in time to produce new messages expressed in novel combinations of language elements. This reiterates the fact that one must first be a good listener or reader before one becomes a  a good speaker or writer. That is why they say that a good writer must be a good reader first and a good speaker must be a good listener first.

No doubt, speaking and writing skills are important. However, we cannot ignore the importance of reading and listening skills. The better you receive ‘new language’, store it and process it appropriately, the better you ‘create’ new language. Needless to add, the better you create your language, the easier it is for you to convey it to your addressees. This helps them to interpret it easily and effectively. This facilitates successful communication.

When a speaker or writer says something about people, places, objects, processes, events, situations, etc., s/he creates a specific context. The context may be explicit or implicit. Subsequently, listeners and readers reconstruct a context from what they hear or read. This process is called ‘reconstruction of context’. It depends on many factors. Therefore, many times it is convoluted and complex. If the sender fails to provide clear, complete and comprehensible context information in his/her message, the message can have multiple meanings. In such situations the receiver often misunderstands the message or interprets the message in a way that there is a mismatch between speaker’s/writer’s intention and listener’s/reader’s  interpretation.

There are different types of context: physical context, psychological context, and linguistic context. Physical Context relates to the activities that we perform. It illustrates the activities that are performed, the place where and the time when those activites are performed. As example, the sentence “I read a book.” offers information about the activity performed. However, the place and time information is missing from this sentence. On the other hand, the sentence “I read a book at the library every afternoon” has clearer contextual information. It instructs us about the activity performed (reading a book), the place where it is performed (the library), and the time when it is performed (every afternoon).

Psychological Context relates to our past experiences, moods and emotions. All of us have both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. These experiences influence the way we reconstruct the context presented to us. As the saying goes, if you have been bitten by a snake, you would be frightened by the feeling of a rope touching your legs the next time. On one hand, our unpleasant experiences prepare us to avoid going through the same experiences again. But, sometimes it rather unnecessarily influences the way we interpret a situation in a more negative manner. The opposite of this is true as well.

Linguistic Context or Verbal Context is demonstrated with the language that accompanies a specific piece of text. It includes the words, sentences, expressions, and other language clues. Verbal context facilitates the way we understand a specific text.

There are three types of linguistic context. In backward pointing reference, the context information is already provided to the receiver. The receiver merely has to recall the context information when the reference is stated. A simple example of this is when I wrap up the narration of my story with a statement “This is my story”. The sentence “This is my story” has a backward pointing reference to the story I have just narrated.


In forward pointing reference the context information is yet to be shared with the receiver. The sender keeps the receiver ‘on hold’ till the context information is provided. This “hold” can be intentional, for example to create a dramatic effect in a play. An example of this is when I begin with a statement “This is my story” and follow it by the narration of the story.  The sentence “This is my story” has a forward pointing reference. Since the story is still not being told, listeners are being asked to be on “hold” till the story is completed.

In outward pointing reference, the context information is not within the text but outside of it. The sender assumes that the knowledge of the context is already with the receivers. So, there is no need to share it again. An example of this type is a ‘Two Minute News’ programme on television news channel. The news reader announces “Sachin Tendulkar has hit another ton!” Here, the news channel assumes that viewers already have the context to this news and so there is no need to share it again. Therefore, the news is not surrounded by much context. Even with that, most of the viewers can easily understand what this headline means. However, imagine an American businessman who is on a short visit to India watching the same TV channel. He does not have background context. So, he will surely have difficulty understanding what this news headline means. Therefore, he must gather background context to understand the news. Only then could he understand the news. He may even have to get help from others to fully understand the news.

Contextual information is an essential element of listening comprehension as well. If the context information is not clearly provided the listening becomes ambiguous. So, quite often the conversation is difficult to follow. Let me share one of my experiences during my stay in Japan. This was when I attended my Japanese friend’s wedding. While I was having a talk with my other friends, I overheard a conversation. It was between two Japanese women. This was what I heard:

Yukiko San: Did you like it?

Shida San: Yes, of course. I enjoyed it a lot.

Yukiko San: Would you like to go for it again?

Shida San: Well, let me think about it.

What do you think Yukiko San and Shida San were talking about? Your guess is as good as mine. They may possibly be discussing any of the following things:

  1. An adventure ride
  2. A vacation trip
  3. A movie
  4. An evening walk
  5. A ballet dance

On another occasion, I heard the following stretch of conversation between Mrs. Joshi and Mrs. Pathak. Let me give you some background information. I was waiting for the lift on the tenth floor of a building in Mumbai. When the lift door opened and I entered the lift, I saw two women and heard them talking about something. I had no clue as to what they were talking about. I believe they had begun talking right on the first floor, perhaps even before they entered the lift. When I entered the lift on the tenth floor, this is what heard:

Mrs. Joshi: How did it go?

Mrs. Pathak : Not too bad, but I am glad it’s over.

Mrs. Joshi: Was it the last one?

Mrs. Pathak: Yes, for the time being.

What do you think Mrs. Joshi and Mrs. Pathak were talking about? Were they talking about a delivery, extraction of a tooth, an interview, an examination or something else? Is the context clear to you? Will there be only one correct interpretation in the absence of a context? If not, why?

Contextual information or shared knowledge plays a crucial role in comprehension. During listening and reading, we regularly encounter unfamiliar words. But, how many of us rush to a dictionary every time we meet an unfamiliar word and how often? The obvious answer is – not all of us and certainly not every time. Even though comprehension is a difficult process, we don’t always refer to the dictionary for all unfamiliar words. Over-dependence on a dictionary slows down the comprehension. An easier approach is to use context information. We must make use of words, expressions and sentences surrounding a particular unknown word. These cues help us to guess the meaning of that unknown word. Quite often the guesses we make are close enough to understand the central idea.

Let us look at this paragraph and try to figure out the meaning of a no-sense word. We will look at the paragraph one sentence at a time to arrive at the meaning of this no-sense word:

We see many international travellers buying zreastras from Duty Free shops inside departure and arrival terminals at airports. They buy zreastras for themselves or as gifts for their friends and acquaintances. In the past, zreastras were available in attractive and luring packets. These days, zreastras are available in packets, which bear horrifying pictures, because World Health Organization and governments have made it mandatory for zreastra manufacturers to have such terrifying pictures on zreastra cartons. Millions of people across the world are addicted to zreastras though they know zreastra consumption is injurious to health. However, because zreastra packets bear a statutory warning that zreastra smoking is injurious to health, that it causes cancer, especially lung cancer, it is a good sign that the number of smokers is decreasing.

The first sentence does not give us any clue to the meaning of the non-sense word ‘zreastra’. However, as we proceed, the word begins to reveal its meaning little by little. Towards the end of the paragraph, we can successfully figure out the precise contextual meaning of the word.

Thus the role of context is vital in a communication process, especially in communication, in encoding and decoding, especially in comprehension. As intelligent and experienced listeners and readers, we listen to words and read words; we also listen and read between words and beyond words. In doing this, context facilitates the process of interpretation.

(*Professor Patil is an internationally acclaimed ELT expert. He has delivered plenary/keynote talks in Bangladesh, China, Dubai, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand along with David Nunan, Rod Ellis, Rebecca Oxford, Keith Morrow, Ken Hyland, Andy Kirkpatrick, Roger Nunn and Thomas Orr, to name just a few legends. He is senior adviser to more than twenty international journals and has authored twenty five textbooks, four reference books and sixty articles in international journals.

*Kiran Patil specializes in mechanical and computer engineering. He worked as a software consultant to Pfizer pharmaceuticals in the United States for five years. Presently, he is a freelance teacher trainer and soft skills trainer. In addition, he teaches English at English Language Teaching Institute of Symbiosis, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)


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