Proficient readers use context clues to help them understand unknown words.
Students try to make connections to other words in a sentence or paragraph to make sense of new words. Or they may read ahead or reread text to help them learn more about a word's meaning, structure, and use. These strategies can help students meet standards in the Vocabulary Acquisition and Use strand, as well as directly addressing K–5 Foundational Reading Skills.
Struggling readers need to be able to draw upon multiple approaches to using context clues to understand new words. This may include direct instruction, choice of reading materials, or options to interact with new words. They may also need lots of opportunities to experiment with using context clues. No one approach can address all of your students’ needs. In keeping with UDL principles, you will want to provide your students with flexible and differentiated strategies to ensure their success.
See the Slide Show Introduction to Context Clues
Teach students how context clues provide information about how a word fits in with the ideas around it.
Use a variety of differentiated strategies to help students identify context clues—words or phrases in the text that help with the understanding of the new word.
Students need to have a clear understanding of what context clues are, the different types available, how to use them, and why they are important.
1. Explain the six different types of context clues.
Examples of different types of context clues
- Root word and affix: People who study birds are experts in ornithology.
- Contrast: Unlike mammals, birds incubate their eggs outside their bodies.
- Logic: Birds are always on the lookout for predators that might harm their young.
- Definition: Frugivorous birds prefer eating fruit to any other kind of food.
- Example or illustration: Some birds like to build their nests in inconspicuous spots—high up in the tops of trees, well hidden by leaves.
- Grammar: Many birds migrate twice each year.
2. Explain what you mean by context clues by using an excerpt from an authentic text (e.g., Africa Is Not a Country).
We were all ecstatic to have visited the Serengeti, but were disappointed that we did not get a chance to see three of Africa's best-known lakes, which also happen to be in Tanzania. Lake Victoria in the north is the largest lake on the continent and one of the primary, or main headwater, reservoirs of the Nile. Lake Tanganyika in the west is the longest and the second deepest freshwater lake in the world. It also forms Tanzania's border with Zaire. And Lake Malawi (previously Lake Nyasa), in the south, is the third largest lake on the continent.
- Context clue for ecstatic: The signal word "but" shows contrast and hints that ecstatic is the opposite of disappointed.
- Context clue for primary: Show how the surrounding words or main help to define the meaning of primary.
3. After you explain and demonstrate using a variety of materials, have students explain the use of context clues in their own words and show how they would apply the strategy in their own way.
Students differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know by speaking or writing. Action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, Use an online dictionary or thesaurus to model how to look up new words and analyze the definitions to determine which definition fits the context. [See UDL Guideline 2: Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols.]
1. Apply tools such as graphic organizers, online visual thesaurus, word walls, or visual representations of words to illustrate the multiple meanings of words in context, and have students practice with these tools. [See UDL Guideline 5: Provide options for expressive skills and fluency.]
2. Model a self-questioning strategy to help students understand a word's context.
Examples of questions to ask to understand a word in context
- What is the overall intent of the text? For example, is it about science or history?
- Is the text factual or a work of fiction?
- What is the genre?
- What other words in the sentence or paragraph can provide information?
- What clues does the punctuation provide?
Engage students with varied opportunities to use context clues to determine word meaning. Provide ongoing support and opportunities for peer collaboration to encourage student development and independence in practicing the strategy.
1. Post reminders and examples of types of context clues, so students can refer to them whenever they read.
2. Have students work in pairs to read unfamiliar text on the computer, highlight unknown words, find context clues to hypothesize the meaning, and then check the meaning against a dictionary.
Engage in ongoing formative evaluation of students’ use of context clues.
Examples of ways to engage in formative assessment
- Record your observations of students’ use of the strategy
- Make a list of words students marked as unknown, and discuss meanings
- Have students reflect on how, why, and when they used the strategy
Mr. Williams' Grade 6 class has been studying the Middle Ages as part of the social studies curriculum. Now the class is starting a section on Humanism. They'll be exploring the impact that Humanists had on society. To begin this section, Mr. Williams wants his students to read a short text about Leonardo Da Vinci in the course textbook. He knows that most of his students will understand the text. But he wants to make sure that his three struggling readers—one who has recently arrived from Korea, one with significant learning delays, and one with a moderate reading disability—can keep up.
- Haneul recently arrived in the U.S. from Korea. She has rapidly picked up English, but she is still learning the language.
- Sam has very significant learning delays and cannot read most of the texts assigned in class on his own. He has a fairly good vocabulary and can participate in discussions, and his participation has been improving.
- Christie has a moderate reading disability. She is keeping up with the class, but she struggles to understand the textbook.
Goal: Mr. Williams' approach draws upon the Grade 4 Common Core Standards for reading literature and foundational reading skills:
RL 4.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean).
RI.4.4 Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.
RF.4.4 Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
RF 4.4c Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.
Technology Tools: Visual Thesaurus, online dictionaries used on the Smart Board, Online context clues exercises.
Assessment: Formative assessment including informal check-ins, a mini-assessment, and ongoing tasks.
Previously, Mr. Williams explicitly taught students about the different types of context clues. He explained that authors use context clues to help readers understand the text. And, he gave students examples of techniques that authors use (providing an example or definition for the word, a synonym or antonym, and/or descriptions of experiences associated with the word). In this lesson, he wants students to practice using these clues to understand words in context. He decides to have the whole class continue to work on their context clues skills. Before reading about the Middle Ages, he has scheduled time in the computer lab to visit a website that provides three levels of practice with context clues. There will be a level of practice that is appropriate for each of his students.
The first level has very simple multiple-choice cloze sentences where students select the correct word to complete the sentence based on context:
Later vocabulary words are more complex. Students use the context to select correct words and they may also draw on their word analysis skills:
Today the students will be reading about Leonardo Da Vinci. The focus of the social studies content is Humanism. The core concept Mr. Williams wants students to understand is that thinking at the time changed society. As a first step, he helps students build background knowledge. He knows that the more students know in advance about the topic, the more likely they will be to make use of the context when trying to figure out word meanings during reading. (Mr. Williams focuses on Guideline 2.1 Clarify vocabulary and symbols to help students understand their text and learn how to negotiate words they do not know.)
Mr. Williams displays a short passage on the SmartBoard:
“Leonardo Da Vinci
1452 – 1519
“Leonardo was born in Vinci, Italy, to a peasant woman named Caterina. Shortly after Leonardo's birth, she left the boy in the care of his father. At a young age, Leonardo showed extraordinary skills in many areas. He was very musical, had a beautiful voice, and quickly learned to play the lyre. He often drew animals and plants and was talented in mathematics. By the time Leonardo was 15 years old, his father knew his son had amazing, artistic talent. He arranged for Leonardo to become an apprentice to the famous painter Andrea del Verrocchio.
“By 1472 Leonardo had become a master in the painter's guild of Florence. He worked in Florence until 1481, and then he went to the city of Milan. There he kept a large workshop and employed many apprentices…”
He carefully pairs students so that those who struggle have a partner. (By thinking carefully about the pairs, he reduces barriers for many of the students who might find the assignment too challenging if left on their own. For more examples, see Guideline 7.3 Minimize threats and distractions.) After the pairs have had a chance to read the passage, he asks students to come up and highlight words that were unfamiliar. The first word they highlight is lyre. He reminds students about using context clues to help define new words and asks them to think about the surrounding text to see whether they can make sense of the word. Students work with their partners and get ready to share their thinking. One pair suggests that it is a musical instrument since the sentence is about music and says that Leonardo learned to play the lyre. They explain that the author used the words music and play to provide the sense of what lyre means. (By asking students to explain their thinking, he supports Guideline 6.2 Support planning and strategy development as students become more cognizant of the strategies they need to use to maximize their learning.)
Mr. Williams asks for a show of hands and learns that most of the students agree. He then asks them to confirm their thinking and gives them a choice of looking the word up in a print dictionary or an online dictionary. Most students use the online dictionary since they can hear the definition and how the word is pronounced. In addition, some of the students go to Google images to see photos of lyres.
The second word students choose is apprentice. Mr. Williams has students decide which clues could help them determine the meaning of the word. They think that maybe they could figure out the word using logic: What kind of person would Leonardo employ in a large workshop? Does it have something to do with painting? But, they decide they don't have enough information. They need to consult a tool.
Mr. Williams opens the program Visual Thesaurus:
He types in the word, and students look over the definition, related words, etc. They discuss the most relevant meaning according to the context.
He then has students continue reading the remainder of the unit section. Some use the books, some e-books, and some laptops. He has them highlight or underline all of the words they "stumble over" and need to use context clues to understand.
After reading, the students identify the words and explain how they figured out the meanings. Mr. Williams prompts these "think alouds." He continues to point out the types of clue to emphasize what students are saying about how they were able to make meaning. This self-paced activity gives Mr. Williams a chance to move around the class, helping students, and discussing their questions. He can determine who will need additional support during reading.
Mr. Williams asks students to choose a new partner and discuss at least two ways to learn the meaning of a new word. When the pairs finish their work, he creates a list with their suggestions and posts the list in a visible location. He adds two more items to the list: looking things up in the dictionary and looking words up online (like Google Images, Wikipedia, or Ask.com). During future lessons, when the class comes across a new word, he will direct them to the chart and talk about which method they want to use to figure out the word's meaning. This is one type of informal assessment that Mr. Williams prefers. He lets them know that next they will learn how to use word analysis to help them make meaning of new words.
Mr. Williams paid close attention to each student's participation during discussions and activities. Now, he reviews the notes he took as students were working and thinks about how the lesson went. Overall, he feels the lesson was a success. He met his goals for students. The class had several great discussions, and the pair work was productive. Mr. Williams noted that students saw the benefit of using context clues when reading their social studies texts. They were motivated to dive right into practicing the strategy. Students remembered many of the types of context clues. And, most of them seemed to be more confident in using the strategy to attack new words. The website and visual thesaurus are great tools, and he'll keep encouraging students to use them. Still, there are a few things Mr. Williams wants to strengthen. Haneul, Sam, and Christie will need a lot more support before they internalize the strategy. He realizes the whole class will benefit from more explicit instruction and modeling, and he plans to build that into the next lesson. He will also remind students to keep using the strategy so it can become part of their reading skills repertoire. Mr. Williams records these reflections in his PowerUp Planner.
- Adolescent Literacy: What's Technology Got to Do With It? Resource Type: Info Brief/Article Category: Reading-Vocabulary Learn how technology tools can support struggling students and those with learning disabilities to acquire background knowledge and vocabulary, improve their reading comprehension, and increase their motivation for learning.
- Literacy iPad Apps for Educators Resource Type: Info Brief/Article Category: Writing A list of literacy apps for elementary, middle, and high school grades. Both free apps and apps with minimal fees.
- Eye on Idioms Resource Type: Interactives Category: Reading-Vocabulary This resource can be used to engage students in the study of idioms. After viewing the literal representation of each idiom, students are asked to complete the sentence by selecting the correct idiom from the list. Using context clues from the sentence, students can then determine the metaphorical meaning of the idiom. As a final step, students are asked to use the idiom in a sentence to show their understanding of its meaning.
- Flip a Chip Resource Type: Interactives Category: Reading-Vocabulary Effective vocabulary instruction requires active and positive student participation. In this online activity, students flip two chips to mix and match four word parts and make four words. Students then insert the four words into a paragraph, using context clues to determine where each word belongs. After each exercise, students can print their work to check whether they placed the four words in the paragraph correctly.
- Fun English Games Resource Type: Interactives Category: Reading-Vocabulary Helps students learn the English language through interactive games and activities (covering spelling, punctuation, and letter writing). The site also has videos, and even quizzes to test students' knowledge.
- 12 Ways to Learn Vocabulary with The New York Times Resource Type: Lesson Plan Category: Reading-Vocabulary Here are 12 quick, easy, and engaging ways to learn and practice new words by reading, viewing, or listening to NYTimes.com.
- Context Clues Lesson Plan Resource Type: Lesson Plan Category: Reading-Vocabulary The All About Reading website hosts a lesson plan that teachers can use to introduce the concept of context clues to students.
- Apthorp, H. S., (2006). Effects of a supplemental vocabulary program in third-grade reading/language arts Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary The study examined the effectiveness of Elements of Reading: Vocabulary on improving the vocabulary outcome of third-grade students. The year-long intervention utilized a randomized controlled trial to assign teachers in Title I schools to treatment and control conditions. Teachers in the treatment condition taught Elements of Reading (EOR) which utilized explicit vocabulary instructional strategies such as semantic mapping and context clues along with other effective vocabulary development elements (e.g., oral instruction, personalization and active engagement, ample practice). Journal of Educational Research, 100(2), 67-79.
- Baumann, J. F., Edwards, E. C., Boland, E. M., Olejnik, S., & Kame'enui, E. J., (2003). Vocabulary tricks: Effects of instruction in morphology and context on fifth-grade students' ability to derive and infer word meanings Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary The study assessed the effects of morphemic and contextual analysis strategies embedded within subject instruction on students' ability to learn word meanings and comprehend text. Students in the treatment group received instruction in morphemic and context analysis for vocabulary instruction. The comparison group received business-as-usual instruction (i.e., textbook vocabulary instruction). American Educational Research Journal, 40, 447-494
- Clay, K., Zorfass, J., Brann, A., Kotula, A., & Smolkowski, K., (2009). Deepening content understanding in social studies using digital text and embedded vocabulary supports Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary This article discusses a strand of research conducted by the Education Development Center, Inc. in collaboration with the National Center for Supported Electronic Text. The research investigated the use of an online vocabulary support tool, Visual Thesaurus, for middle school students with and without disabilities. Data were collected from 10 eighth grade inclusive classrooms using a randomized control trial to compare the impact of Visual Thesaurus and Merriam-Webster OnLine on vocabulary and content knowledge from two social studies textbook chapters. Data analysis revealed significant posttest gains for students in both conditions, but no significant difference between the two treatments. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(4), 1-16
- Harris, M. L., (2007). The effects of strategic morphological analysis instruction on the vocabulary performance of secondary students with and without disabilities Resource Type: Research Category: Reading-Vocabulary This study tested the effects of an intervention which taught high school students with and without learning disabilities, in general education English classrooms, to predict word meaning using a word analysis strategy. The study randomly assigned six intact classrooms into two treatment conditions: the Word Mapping condition for learning the word analysis strategy, or the Vocabulary LINCing condition for learning a mnemonic strategy. Three other classrooms were selected as the test only control classrooms. The word mapping condition utilized the Word Map, a graphic device which prompts students through the steps of the Word Mapping Strategy. The Vocabulary LINCing Strategy group used a set of cognitive and behavioral steps that helped students memorize and recall word meanings. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 68(4-A)
Technology Tips for Teaching Context Clues
- Expose students to online dictionaries and thesauruses. These online resources will help them find word meanings and other reference material as they use context clues to help them define words.
- Try out the CAST UDL Book Builder to facilitate individualized learning. Tools like the Book Builder support struggling readers by allowing you to embed vocabulary and strategy supports.