Context Clues

Last week I read What Really Matters for Struggling Readers:  Designing Research-Based Programs by Richard L. Allington.  I highly recommend it as an addition to your teacher library.  Here’s what is taught about context clues and focusing attention on words:

“Beers (2003) provides four types of clues that readers might use to figure out the meaning of an unknown word.

  1. She begins by looking at the definition clue.  Authors often introduce a new word and then define it.  For example, an author might write, ‘Cowboys often wore chaps, leather trousers without a seat, over their pants to protect their legs from thorns.’
  2. Authors also provide restatements of information, typically using a more common vocabulary.  For instance, ‘The soldiers looked haggard after the long march from Fredericksburg.  General hooker decided that these soldiers were too tired to begin an assault that day.’
  3. Another strategy authors use is to provide a contrasting, but more common word to help explain the new word: ‘ General Lee was fastidious about his personal appearance, but General Grant was something of a slob.’  Here students need to notice but, a signal for the contrast.
  4. Finally authors provide gist clues to help with unknown words.  Readers have to use the sense of the passage and their prior knowledge to figure out new word meanings.  For example, ‘They had marched on dirt roads for three days straight with the sun, the hot July sun, beating down on them.  Each man was carrying not only his weapons but supplies as well.  This 60 pounds of extra weight made the marching even more difficult.  And this arduous journey was not yet over. . . . Here, the reader has to put together a variety of pieces of information–the heat of the summer sun, the dirt roads, the weight of the baggage each carried . . . in order to infer the meaning of arduous” (2012, p. 138-9)

Context Clues Part 4


My class this year struggles with vocabulary.  As part of working with context clues this week, I typed up a sheet using one of our spelling words (base) for them to work with the concept of multiple meanings of words and how to determine which meaning the author intends using context clues.  You’ll not that when I typed up the sample dictionary entry, I left out portions and definitions that I thought might confuse my students.  Here’s the pdf:  Context Clues Word Meaning

Context Clues Part 3

Photo from
Photo from

The first step in teaching context clues is to make students aware of the different types:

  • Look for a synonym.  Sally and Susie often get into little skirmishes, but they don’t let these little arguments spoil their friendship.
  • Look for an antonym. (Compare and Contrast) Nicho tried to conceal his actions, but his face showed that he was reading another book at his desk.
  • Look for the definition.  Babushka lived in a dacha, a small house in the Russian countryside.  An addendum to this:  Some students need to be taught that the word or in a sentence can signal a definition as in, Babushka lived in a dacha, or small house, in the Russian countryside.
  • Look for words that appear in a series.  The dulcimer, banjo, and the fiddle are popular instruments in the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Look at cause and effect.  My husband infuriates me when he throws away papers that are important to me.
  • Look at general context.  He reminded me of Yin.  Yin was a king in China during the 1500’s whom I had studied about in school.)

Context Clues Part 2: Determining Importance at the Word Level

Photo from
Photo from

One of the first questions Dr. Goodreader asks is, “Do I need to know the word for the text to make sense?”  Many of my students this year are struggling readers and writers.  Many of them had no idea if they needed to understand a word for the text to make sense.

Determining importance is important at every level of life.  The other night my husband and I were visiting friends.  “Oh, I watched the best movie last night,” our hostess said. “Would you like me to tell you what it was about?”  A half an hour later I was blankly nodding as she continued her narrative.  I have no desire to ever watch this movie after being regaled with such a lengthy retelling by someone who can not determine what is important.

”Proficient readers make decisions about what is important in text at three levels:  whole text, sentence, and word level.  While they are reading and after they read, they evaluate what was most essential to understanding the text.  So, strong readers are constantly re-evaluating meaning and importance.  (Keene and Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought p. 87)

I sweated a lot, trying to work this out.  I finally came up with the following ideas.  Since these are not time tested, I’m presenting them solely in bullet form instead of full-fledged mini-lessons.

  • It is helpful for us to use the words “relevant” and “irrelevant” throughout our teaching day when teaching on determining importance.  We can give directions, throwing in an aside, and then remark, “But that’s irrelevant.  That’s not important.  What I want you to focus on is this.”
  • One way to teach determining importance at the word level would be through “Think Alouds”.  During the think-aloud we can model determining importance at all levels: text, sentence, and word level.
  • We can explicitly teach certain skills.  For example, in non-fiction the first and last lines in a paragraph are often the most important.  Also cue words are often followed by particularly important information – for example, “And finally…”  Also in non-fiction, text structure and text features (such as bold or italicized print, figures, and photographs) can help students distinguish important from unimportant information.
  • Text coding forces students to think about what is important.  We can have students code VIP’s – Very Important Points.  They can mark them with three arrows.
  • One of our teachers, Mark Valentine, uses student’s love for highlighters to great effect in his classroom.  For example, if he’s teaching transitional words, he has them highlight every time they used a transitional word in their writing, or perhaps when they see one in their reading.  In this case, students could be given a short passage of reading and highlight the very-most-important words/sentences.
  • When I read in Spanish, I usually only use a dictionary if the word is repeated a few times in a few pages.  I figure that repetition is a good indicator of word importance.
  • I would think that it would be quite important to understand the majority of nouns and verbs in a text, although I have to admit that descriptors can also be important.  “’Yes,’ he snidely said,” has a totally different meaning than “’Yes,’ he said.”
  • Determining importance is greatly related to our background knowledge.  Ideas that are most closely connected to the reader’s prior knowledge will often be considered most important – even when they’re not.
  • Although more on the sentence level, my class and I spent weeks, slogging through non-fiction articles copied from the History of US by Joy Hakim.  These articles are not as “dense” as textbook reading but gave us a lot of practice filtering out what was important from what was interesting.  Sometimes we worked as a group. Other times we worked in student pairs, and occasionally I sent home an article for homework.  Students would highlight what was important in one color and what was interesting in another color.  They had to support their decisions in a written “think-aloud” in the margins.

Context Clues Part 1

Sign of the Beaver
Sign of the Beaver

As we’ve gone through Dr. Goodreader this year, I’ve stressed the importance of context clues with my students.  I read the other day that each time we read a word in context we learn 10% more about it.  (I wish I could remember where.  It was in a myriad of books that I skimmed in preparation for a presentation on reading workshop that I’m giving on Monday.  My very first time using Prezi!  What a great presentation tool.  Check it out on   I liked  how you can stick your thoughts up and then organize them.  I think in mind maps, so this worked for me.)

I’ve always taught about context clues, but had a brain flash this time.  I decided to use our read aloud (Sign of the Beaver) to teach about context clues and also prepare assessments.  All I do is discuss various words that I think may be problematic in context and dog ear pages to mark sentences that I can use on assessments.  I’m doing the same with an easier read-aloud, Shiloh.

I have to say, it was eye-opening to learn the wide-range of abilities that my students have with this skill.  Part of beginning the teaching year is getting to know your students and their needs.  Mine seem to do a decent job with visualizing, but struggle with vocabulary.  So context clues will be a major focus for us for a while.