Teaching Context Clues

Teaching Context Clues

Teaching context clues can be fun. It can be frustrating. It can be rewarding, and it can seriously help students develop reading skills and background knowledge.

Ultimately, teaching context clues is about vocabulary development.

In this post, I'll share:

  1. Results from teacher survey on Word Meaning and Vocabulary
  2. One thing NOT to do when teaching context clues.
  3. Four types of context clues
  4. Two fun activities to boost vocabulary development.
  5. Answer your questions.
Teaching Context Clues - Enlarge Your Vocabulary PIN

Word Meaning and Vocabulary Survey Results

At the time of writing this article, a teacher survey has been collecting responses for less than 24 hours. Already, the results are overwhelming!

We asked one simple question (you can also respond by clicking here), What are your top 2 needs with vocabulary?

What do teachers need when teaching vocabulary? Teaching Context Clues - Top Two Needs for Vocabulary Survey

This is great to know!

Our newest warm-ups will be developed around the top responses, which are:

  1. Using Context for Unknown Words
  2. Multiple-Meaning Words
  3. Figurative Language
  4. Synonyms/Antonyms and Greek/Latin Roots

I'm sure the results will continue to come in, and we'll adjust as you give your input.

So, let's talk about teaching context clues, since that's the biggest need.

Teaching Context Clues, Don't Do This!

There's a constant debate in reading instruction where some say you shouldn't teach specifics of word knowledge (i.e. phonics, decoding skills, etc.) like we do in the free Decoding Fluency warm-ups and Spelling warm-ups.

Instead, they suggest using context clues to guess at words you might not know how to decode.

The other side of the debate says you shouldn't allow students to struggle with words and texts without knowing how to actually read them.

Instead, they suggest using context clues to guess at word meanings.

Regardless, of which end of this spectrum you fall on or which study you use to support your viewpoint, one thing is sure. Vocabulary development is not about simple rote memorization.

There are times when you must teach/tell/explain to students what a word means. That's fine!

But that's different than simply asking students to memorize random lists of words and definitions.

Teaching context clues is about empowering students to solve problems as they read. Young readers, struggling readers, and fluent adult readers always face problems while reading:

  • The word is strange and unfamiliar.
  • The word is too long to read fluently.
  • The word or sentence doesn't make sense.
  • The word is from a different language.
  • The word doesn't connect to anything the reader already knows.

So let's talk about what to do when teaching context clues.

Teaching Context Clues - Vocabulary is a strong indicator of how well they will learn PIN

Four Types of Context Clues

It might be simplest to think of the different types of context clues (More tips here). Here are four of the most common:

  1. Synonyms & antonyms
  2. Descriptions
  3. Syntax (i.e. is the word a noun or a verb in this sentence?)
  4. Word parts (morphology)

Understanding these four types of context clues can help you as the teacher know what to help students with.

These four types of context clues can also help students understand how unknown words or multiple-meaning words fit into the context of the sentence they're reading.

Now, let's circle back to the larger topic of vocabulary development, which is the ultimate aim of teaching context clues.

Teaching Context Clues - Determined by vocabulary PIN

Fun Activities to Boost Vocabulary Development

Vocabulary simply is the group of words we "know". Teaching context clues is simply one way to help readers, writers, and learners expand their vocabulary on their own.

Here are two fun activities you do to boost vocabulary development.

1. Context Sentences

This activity builds proficiency with words that students already know. It also helps them practice using context clues.

  • Display sentences that have blanks for words that students should already know.
  • Example: Sean needed to ___ to the house. Luckily, he had his sneakers on, because they make it easier to ___.
  • Allow students time to read silently.
  • Then prompt discussion about the context by asking what's happening in these sentences?
  • Ask students to share what belongs in the blanks.
  • Then discuss what other words could fill in the blanks.

2. Silly Sentences

This activity is similar to Context Sentences. It's different in that there are no blanks. Instead, there are made up words.

  • Display sentences that have a fake word in them. The word must be spelled with grammar in mind (i.e. verb tense, plural conventions).
  • Example: Sean needed to run to the honka. Luckily, when he made it to his honka, he was able to relax on the couch and play games.
  • Ask a student to read aloud. Some giggling may be involved. 🙂
  • Then ask students to figure out the word that best fits in place of the fake word.
  • Without knowing it, students are practicing using context clues!

What Are Your Thoughts?

We're in the process of developing the much awaited free Word Meaning Warm-Ups! How can we help you?

Leave us a comment below sharing your thoughts about teaching context clues. What are your questions about the new warm-ups? We'll answer you below.

Also, what did you like in this blog post? What strategies do you like to use? What struggles do your students have with vocabulary development?

Share below.


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