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The role of context in conversation by Dr. Norm Erber

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What is context?

Context refers to everything that happens before, during, or after someone speaks. The current situation often influences what people say. Each spoken word is usually associated with other words, phrases, or sentences that precede or follow it (for example, “When Jan broke her leg, she rode to the hospital in an ambulance.”). Context helps a child clarify the meaning of a spoken message.

Why is context important?

Your child’s ability to interpret what you say depends on more than the speech sounds and mouth movements you produce. Your child may not understand if you speak a new word, if a sentence is too long and complex, or if the situation is new to the child. Your child may discover the meaning of what you said by referring to the context in which you spoke. It is common for children to learn in this way, when they experience unfamiliar words, expressions, or concepts in familiar contexts.

Some common types of context include:

  • Situation (location, setting, what is happening, background information: “Grandma lives on this street. Can you remember? Where is Grandma’s house?”)
  • Simultaneous activity (looking, listening, pointing, showing, making: As Mother held the toothbrush, she said, “Now brush up and down like this…”)
  • Nonverbal (posture, gesture, facial expression: “When I hold my hands like this, it means, Throw the ball to me!”)
  • Interpersonal (relationship between the speaker and listener: The teacher told the children, “When you have finished writing your stories, you may go outside to play.”)
  • Linguistic (word order, word relationships, story structure: “Harry is a dog. He was very dirty. The family gave him a bath. Now Harry is clean.”)
  • Conversational (what one person says often influences how another person responds: “Where’s your sister?” “She’s at school!”)

How can you help the child learn?

Where you are, and what you are doing, can contribute to your child’s understanding of what you say. Sounds and images often provide clues that can clarify the meaning of spoken messages. Show your child how to recognize important details by carefully listening and looking. What’s happening now? Describe it to your child. Provide background information. Routinely say the same (or similar) words in a particular situation. Summarize what has often happened before. Explain what probably will happen next.

Examples include:

  • description (“It’s raining outside, so you can play dress-up inside.”)
  • particular situation (putting on socks: “This little piggy went to market…”)
  • predictable phrases or sentences (before bedtime: “It’s time to put your toys away!”)
  • voice quality or intonation (you are happy/excited/angry/surprised)
  • cues from a nearby activity (water filling the bathtub; a loud knock at the door)
  • a person’s appearance (the person in a white uniform is the school nurse)
  • facial expression (a friend is confused about how to play a game)
  • “body language” (Daddy is lying on the couch. He is tired)
  • what might happen again (“If you forget about the toast, it will burn.”)
  • routine (“Where’s the door key? You didn’t put it on the hook!”)