by Joan Sedita
January 10, 2023
An important strategy to help students build their vocabulary is use of context – i.e., using the clues or hints provided in the text that surround an unfamiliar word to help guess the meaning without depending on a dictionary. This can include words, phrases, or sentences that appear before, after, or close to the word. It can also include visuals or headings embedded in the text – basically anything that helps a reader understand the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Expository, non-fiction text tends to offer more context clues than narrative text.
The main goal for developing students’ ability to use context is to aid comprehension, not to teach words in-depth. When students encounter and “stumble” over unfamiliar words that are essential to making meaning of a passage, their comprehension suffers. If the context provides clues to the meanings of these words, comprehension is aided.
Use of context does not come naturally to many students. It takes time to become proficient with this strategy — students benefit from explicit instruction and guided practice. Studies have shown that when students are taught to use context clues they become better at figuring out the definitions of words compared to students who are not directly taught this skill (Kuhn & Stahl, 1998). The first step is helping students recognize when they don’t know the meaning of a word and the need to make reasonable judgements about how to address that lack of knowledge.
Types of Context Clues
There are categories of types of clues that are useful for teachers to know, described below with examples from classroom texts. Knowledge of these types of clues benefits the teacher in terms of finding examples in text to use for explicit instruction and practice. However, it is not helpful to expect students to identify the type of clue provided in text. Shanahan (2022) points out that the research synthesis noted above by Kuhn and Stahl determined persuasively that students benefit from instruction for use of context, but it was not category training that helped, only the actual practice in figuring out word meanings from context.
Instruction Using Classroom Text Examples
Rather than using contrived examples on worksheets to practice use of context, instruction works best when explicit instruction and guided practice is provided on a regular basis using examples from text that is already being used in the classroom. Teachers should review text and be on the lookout for examples where context clues are provided prior to assigning text for student reading.
Graves (2006, p. 99) suggests teaching students the following four-step strategy for inferring words from context:
Context Doesn’t Always Provide Clues
It is important to emphasize with students that use of context doesn’t always work! Research shows that sometimes when readers attempt to derive the meanings of words in context they may get them wrong (Pressley et al., 2007). This may be because the student does not have enough prior knowledge to make sense of the clues in the text, or it may be that the clues are misleading. Contexts vary in how much information they provide a reader. Sometimes the context provides a direct explanation of the meaning of a word as shown in the examples of types of clues above, and in this example where the meaning of photosynthesis is directly stated in the previous sentence:
Sometimes the context provides some information about an unfamiliar word, but not enough for the student to be aware of its full meaning, as shown in the example below where the student may guess that a vaccination has something to do with preventing disease, but there is not enough information to discern just what a vaccination is.
Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) identified some text as “misdirective” (i.e., leading to a misunderstanding). Here is an example of a misdirective from their book Bringing Words to Life where the students might wrongfully assume that Ginny admired Sandra’s dancing:
Shanahan (2022) suggests including examples sometimes from real text where words can’t successfully be figured out from context, rather than using contrived examples to avoid what he calls “over consistency”. He points out that this is being realistic with students about how use of context really works in most reading situations.
Using Word Parts
Another strategy for determining the meaning of an unfamiliar word is to use knowledge of meaningful word parts (roots, prefixes, suffixes), which is the subject of a blog post I wrote in 2018 titled Using Morphology to Teach Vocabulary. Carlisle (2007) maintains that incidental word learning through contextual clues and morphological analysis is the primary means through which students acquire new vocabulary. Frey and Fisher (2011) suggest teaching students to “Look inside the word and outside the word to see what you know.” When used in tandem, use of word parts (inside the word) and use of context (outside the word) can be very helpful.
Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy, a literacy professional development organization based in MA. Joan has been in the literacy field for over 40 years as a teacher, administrator, and teacher trainer. She has authored multiple literacy professional development programs, including The Key Comprehension Routine, The Key Vocabulary Routine, Keys to Beginning Reading, Keys to Content Writing, Keys to Early Writing, Understanding Dyslexia, and Adolescent Literacy. Reading. Joan is also the creator of The Writing Rope framework for writing instruction. Beginning in 1975, she worked for 23 years at the Landmark School, a pioneer in the development of literacy intervention programs. As a teacher, principal, founder of the Landmark College Preparation Program, and director of the Outreach Teacher Training Program at Landmark, Joan developed expertise, methods, and instructional programs that address the literacy needs of students in grades K-12. Joan was one of the three lead trainers in MA for the Reading First Program and was a LETRS author and trainer. Joan received her M.Ed. in Reading from Harvard University and her B.A. from Boston College.