Johnny Key

Commissioner of Education

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A Division of the Arkansas Department of Education

Using Context Clues

What are context clues? How can students use context to figure out what the word means? What are other strategies for determining word meaning?

What are context clues?

Context clues are words, phrases, or illustrations that give readers an idea of the meaning of other words. However, it is important to note that although these clues can prove to be very helpful, they may also sometimes be misleading. A student’s prior knowledge and experience plays an important role in using context clues effectively. If a student has a multitude of experiences, he or she can apply this experience and language knowledge to the context surrounding an unknown word, his or her chances of determining its meaning increase. And, conversely, if the student ossesses little or no schema, or prior knowledge, he ir she has only a small chance of using context successfully.

How can students use context to figure out what the word means?

The words in the sentence and paragraph in which the unknown word appears also make up context. For example, words in this sentence from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing may help a student define bawling.

 “Oh, Mrs. Hatcher!  How awful.  I’m sorry . . . I’m really very sorry,” Sheila cried.  “What will happen to him?”  
“He’ll be all right, Sheila,” my mother said.  “I’m sure it was an accident.  Nobody’s blaming you.”
 Sheila started bawling again.

The words, “I’m sorry,” and “I’m sure it was an accident,” may help the reader to connect to a time when he or she experienced an accident. Noting that the author wrote, “Sheila cried” is also a clue to the meaning of bawling

Grammar can also give the reader clues to the meaning of a word.  For example, “Nobody’s blaming you,” may prompt the student to think about the verb as a way of explaining Sheila’s state of mind.  Therefore, the verb bawling in “Sheila started bawling again,” would be a natural reaction to feeling blamed for an accident. When a reader combines that grammar knowledge with her background knowledge and experiences, it may alert her to the meaning of the word.

Context clues can also be found throughout the entire text. Clues about the word bawling may come from the larger context of things that make Sheila feel responsible, such as the fact that she wanted to be in charge of a toddler nicknamed Fudge while his mother ran an errand, but the accident occurred under her watch.

Context clues also include the situation or environment in which the reading occurs. A student may use different strategies when reading in school than when she reads at home, and may therefore, interpret words differently in each context.  At home, she may ask a parent or sibling to help her with a difficult word. At school, she may be asked to use specific strategies that the teacher has demonstrated. She also may interpret a word such as swallow differently if she reads it on a pamphlet at the doctor’s office rather than if she reads it on a bag of bird feed at the supply store.

Sometimes, context doesn’t have enough clues to assist the reader in determining the meaning of an unknown word. This may be due to prior knowledge and experiences being limited, pictures may be inaccurate or unavailable, or the sentence or paragraph may not contain helpful words. When context is unreliable, the teacher may want to focus on vocabulary-building activities. Some of these are included here  as well as on the following pages: How Words Are Learned, Using Word Structure, and Investigating Words.

When students come across unfamiliar words in their reading, they look for words or phrases that may provide clues or hints to the word’s meaning. They read the sentence that contains the word and look for additional clues in the sentences that come before or after the unknown word. Students should also notice any illustrations that might help determine the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Once they have gathered the clues, they determine what they think the word means. Finally, the students try using the meaning in the original sentence and check to see if it makes sense.

What are other strategies for determining word meaning?

Think, Share, Check

This strategy helps struggling readers of all ages rely on context clues and each other to learn new words. (Palinscar & Brown, 1988). The students are given a paragraph or short text to read, and each student is given sticky notes and encouraged to jot down any words they don’t understand. They then work in small groups to use context clues and think aloud as they brainstorm meanings of the words that are unfamiliar to them.  After the groups have brainstormed their thinking, they decide on what they think the meaning of the word is and write it on the sticky note with the word. Last, they compare their definitions to the dictionary definition and clarify any differences between their thinking and the dictionary.

Several Sentences Search

An author may provide some nonspecific clues to the meaning of an unfamiliar word, often spread over several sentences. When this happens, students can use details in the words or sentences surrounding the unfamiliar word, along with their prior knowledge and experience, to infer the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Example: There are many types of stringed instruments. The most common of these appear in the violin family. The violin is a small, stringed instrument played with a bow, which has strings usually made of horse hair. When the bow is drawn across the strings it creates a vibration. You can select what vibration the bow makes by choosing the note on the fingerboard. It is tuned with a peg.

Synonym/Antonym Hunt

The author may use another word or phrase that is similar in meaning or can be compared to an unfamiliar word. When a student finds an unfamiliar word in a sentence, he/she should look for these signal words:  also, as, identical, like, likewise, resembling, same, similarly, and too. These words let the reader know that there is a synonym for the word. Example: My cat, Snowball, sits in my lap every evening. My friend’s feline sits in his lap, too.

The author may use another word or phrase that is the opposite of, or is in contrast with, an unfamiliar word.  Signal words include: but, however, in contrast, instead of, on the other hand, though, and unlike.  These signal words let the reader know that the sentence contains an antonym for the word. Example: I thought the camping trip would be banal, but it turned out to be extraordinary!

Delineating a Definition

Sometimes the author will provide a direct definition of an unfamiliar word right in the sentence with the word. Some signal words that indicate a definition are: include, is, are, means, and refers to.  Example:  An ariel is a gazelle found in the Middle East and North Africa.

Another form or definition clue is the appositive.  An appositive is a word or phrase that defines or explains an unfamiliar word that comes before it. The most commonly seen signal word for an appositive is the word or;  however, punctuation is also important.  An appositive is set off by commas. Example: A bold innovator, Wassily Kandinsky creates unique and colorful abstract paintings.

Identifying Examples

The author may provide several words or ideas that are examples of an unfamiliar word. The author names things in the sentence or nearby sentences that belong to the same category as, or are examples of, the word they are trying to understand. For example, for instance, including, like, and such as can signal an example context clue. Example:  In the symphony, you will see many stringed instruments such as the violin, cello, and viola.

Word Gaps

Word gaps are vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to the reader. These gaps can occur when a word has multiple meanings, is a rare or technical word, a discipline-specific word, or one with a far removed antecedent.  The text may have obvious clues associated with the word gaps: the word is in italics, boldfaced font, or highlighted.  However, at other times, the author may follow a less-known word with the phrase “is like” to help the reader understand the meaning of the word.  For instance, she might write, “Plucking the cotton from the boll is like pulling stickers from your socks.” Sometimes, though, the greatest clue is that the reader is confused. (p.119)

“When you don’t know anything about what you don’t know, then realizing you don’t know it doesn’t actually help you know it.” (p. 170)  

Students may be so confused by rare words and technical words that reading completely stops. However, multiple-meaning words and figurative language are often just as confusing to students as rare and technical words. Struggling readers may also have difficulty using antecedents to make meaning for some words. If students can understand something about the word, it might enable them to keep reading. 

Once students notice a word that’s a problem for them, there are some questions they might ask themselves to figure out the word:

Do I know this word from someplace else?

Does it seem like technical talk for this topic?

Can I find clues in the sentence to help me understand the word?

Support for readers with word gaps:

  1. Identify the exact problem.  It’s easy for kids to say, “I don’t get it.”  When they say this, push them to be specific about what “it” is.
  2. Look at what is familiar. Students may recognize part of a word such as a prefix or root word. Other times, students may know what the word means in a different context. Often though, if students don’t know a word, they simply shut down.  
  3. Look for concrete examples that are often introduced with the words like this to help explain a complex topic.
  4. Try some fix-up strategies to get the gist of the word. (See How Words Are Learned)
  5. Use a dictionary or a thesaurus to help get a better understanding of a word. 

Even though many textbooks provide the meaning of a word at the point of use, and teachers may provide a list of words to define before students read a text, ultimately, it is important for students to learn to identify their own gap in understanding and ways to close that gap. It is students who must realize the problematic and significant words that will help them to understand a text and how to tackle them. After all, when students become adults, they will notice that real-life reading doesn’t have the words defined in the margin, and the teacher will no longer be available for word support.

The majority of the information on Word Gaps comes from Beers, K., & Probst, B. (2016). Reading Nonfiction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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