TIP #5 Use context to recognize, understand, and interpret literal and metaphorical language.
Historical, social, cultural, and biblical contexts are essential for understanding literal and metaphorical elements in speech and writing. Accurate understanding should come before interpretation!
A cropped photo automatically demands interpretation, zeroing in on details the user wants to emphasize while excluding others. In a close-up of young children searching the ground, viewers might wonder what they’re doing, Is someone making them work? Have they lost something?
The full view shows a pumpkin patch, revealing that what could have been a scene for concern is actually a fun seasonal activity as they retrieve their rings for the Bottle Toss.
Interpretation occurs everywhere humans communicate, with family and friends, social media, neighborhood, church, or workplace.
Language and human experience are inextricably connected. Within a culture, people share many common reference points: history, background, arts, stories, symbols, celebrations, beliefs, and values. Yet misunderstandings or differences of opinion occur frequently. Some produce laughter, others confusion, hurt feelings, angry outbursts or even violence. The more important a subject, the more problematic differences of interpretation become.
EXAMPLES from children’s stories
You Are Special (Max Lucado) presents a message popular in many children’s books today, with one critical difference. Secular authors tell children their self-worth is based on themselves: “I’m enough as I am,” says Charlie Mackesy in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. While this sounds comforting, the claim has no underlying foundation. Lucado’s message based on Christian context adds the missing element: “You are special because I [God] made you. And I don’t make mistakes.”
In Ramona the Pest, Ramona’s mention of “The Dawnzer Lee Light” song seems ridiculous to her fifth-grade sister. But in kindergarten context, misunderstanding the words of the national anthem is perfectly understandable.
Connections to children’s real lives
Stories describing war offend some adults. Some reject historical acts or attitudes that don’t fit their 21st-century ideas. We may want to shelter children from harsh realities. The truth is that many children today face dysfunction, even violence. Stories about love, safety, and God’s provision are important. We also want to bring children the message that God is real, good, and loving even if their environment lacks love, safety, or basic needs.
Context is essential. Stories about ideal families, neighborhoods, or schools may not seem genuine to kids who experience conflicts in those settings. What is our audience for the specific message of a book or article? Real readers meet our characters and situations, hear their voices, and imagine themselves in these worlds. Our own imagination unconnected to real problems in kids’ worlds may offer escapism – but not the gospel truth calling us to be “in the world but not of the world.”
Writing, reading, and interpreting stories
Some teach that “art” has no right or wrong meaning – a song, poem, story, or picture means whatever the audience thinks or feels. In matters of personal taste, we may agree that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Leaving a work’s main theme open to any interpretation is another matter.
A story portraying sibling rivalry(or differences) may include unkind comments, plots to undermine one another, jealousy, adults’ favoritism, and trivial or tragic consequences. It might encourage readers to change their own attitudes and behavior even if an offending person does not. Missing context, however, might lead readers to negative interpretations:
- leave the story believing only their sibling needs to change
- side with one character against the other, wishing the story ended with revenge
- miss applications to their own relationships from the culture or time period described
- fail to empathize with characters, their motivations and feelings
- miss hints that characters aware of problems, but not directly involved, may need to help
- internalize and magnify pain portrayed in the story, to the point of harming themselves
[For stories with contrasting depictions of a brother’s attitude and actions toward an older or younger brother, see Much Bigger Than Martin, by Steven Kellogg and There’s Nothing to Do, by James Stevenson.]
Building context clues
We can’t control what readers take away from our stories. However, without preaching or too much “telling,” authors have tools for providing important context.
- Characters (fictional or historical) may discover more about their own situation, finding old photos, records, previously unknown facts. Encourage readers to look beneath the surface.
- Figurative language – narrative patterns, rhythms, sound devices, and tone — show connections between situations and characters’ feelings.
- Symbols, analogies, and sensory description — promote awareness and empathy.
- Irony, pathos, or humor — illustrate problems, encourage critical thinking, or help relieve tension
- Literary, biblical, or cultural allusions — show constructive comparisons.
- When misinterpretations or lies bring negative consequences, people and events let characters recognize their mistakes. Help readers examine their own interpretations.
- Characters struggle with conscience as they say, do, or plot wrong responses. Help kids reconsider their own thoughts and actions.
- Characters find “kindred spirits” who turn out to be false friends. Show the need to test before trusting.
- Feelings of hopelessness (no choices or power) change as characters find resources like supportive people, faith in God, or hear another person’s story of escape.
- Situations where restitution and reconciliation can begin may help readers consider these steps.
- Characters who accept or reject good advice can remind kids to consider opinions besides their own.
- Real or fictional stories featuring “lemons to lemonade” approaches can help kids look for options.
Interpretation occurs in all forms of communication. To avoid misinterpreting (and responding wrongly), we should check our first assumptions about what another person has written or said. Do we understand correctly, or are we interpreting through a flawed lens of our own experiences without recognizing theirs? How can we improve our own interpretive skills as well as help young audiences we write for develop theirs? Writing and reading thrive as we become good communicators and audiences of literal and figurative language. We’d love to hear your stories of context and interpretation in comments below or on our social media: Facebook Write2Ignite Conference page, Twitter, and Instagram.