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.