Use context to find word meaning

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Teaching strategies

Using context cues to figure out a word’s meaning is like being a detective. The reader comes across a mystery—an unknown word—and has to use clues to solve it. The clues might be words before the mystery word, after it or even in the following sentence. It requires careful thinking, rereading and fact checking.

Here’s one theory one how to use context clues:

“To Use Context Clues

  1. Look for clues, or hints, around a word you don’t know.
  1. Use the clues to guess a meaning for the word.” [1]
  1. That author has a think aloud on how to model using context clues.

Scott Greenwood and Kevin Flanigan came up with a mnemonic to explain the steps:


Look-before, at, and after the new word

Predict-quickly predict the word's meaning, remembering that a wrong prediction is often a good start

Reason-think more carefully about the word's meaning, trying to be as precise as the context clues permit

Resolve-recognize that you may need to take other steps (e.g., look it up, ask someone)

Redo¬-go through the steps again if necessary” [2]

There are a variety of types of context cues. Some people contend that there are four types, five types or even six types. Here is a quick summary of some different types of cues:

  • Definition–the word is defined directly and clearly in the sentence in which it appears.
    • The arbitrator, the neutral person chosen to settle the dispute, arrived at her decision.” [3]
    • Signal words: “is, are, or, means, refers to” [4]
  • Antonym (or contrast)–often signaled by the words whereas, unlike, or as opposed to.
    • Unlike Jamaal’s room, which was immaculate, Jeffrey’s room was very messy.
    • Whereas Melissa is quite lithe, her sister is clumsy and awkward.” [5]
    • Signal words: “but, however, although, not, dispite, some, but others, on the other hand, unlike whereas, yet” [6]
  • Synonym (or restatement)–other words are used in the sentence with similar meanings.
    • The slender woman was so thin her clothes were too big on her.” [7]
    • Signal words: “also, as like, same, too” [8]
  • Inference–word meanings are not directly described, but need to be inferred from the context.
    • Walt’s pugnacious behavior made his opponent back down.
    • The man gigged the large fish, but he needed his friend to enlarge the hole to drag it out of the frigid water.” [9]
  • Explanation : The unknown word is explained within the sentence or in a sentence immediately preceding.
    • The patient is so somnolent that she requires medication to help her stay awake for more than a short time.” [10]
    • Signal words: “for example, such as, include, because, commas or dashes that separate an explanation or example” [11]
  • Example: Specific examples are used to define the term.
    • Celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, are governed by predictable laws.” [12]
    • Signal words: “for example, like, such as, including” [13]

Helpful Questions to Ask Students:

  • ”You said ___, does that make sense?
  • You said ___, does that sound right?
  • It could be ___, but look at ___.
  • Can the rest of the sentence help you?
  • Try that again and think about what would make sense.
  • Try that again and think about what would sound right.
  • How did you know it was ___?
  • Try that again.” [14]

Classroom activities

  • “"What's the word?" - Read a story with omitted words. These omitted words are placed on index cards and given to the students. While the teacher is reading the story, the students focus on the comprehension of the story. When the teacher stops at the blank, the students supply the words that make sense. The students read their words to complete the sentence.”Ginger Snaps Treats for Teachers Activating Strategies for Teaching Context Clues

  • Trent Lorcher’s Lesson on Bright Hub is a fun way to bring group work into context clues. The teacher breaks the class into teams and gives each team the same handout with 10 words and the page number in the book that they are found on. Students have to come up with the definitions using only each other and the book. The teams then compare their answers.

  • Beacon Learning Center’s Using Nonsense Words to Teach Context Clues is a great, ready-to-go lesson. At the bottom of the page is an attachment of a story about manatees with a bunch of nonsense words. Following the story is a worksheet that asks students to try to find synonyms for the nonsense words. The story is about second or third grade level.

  • The poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll also makes for some excellent context clues lessons as most of the words are made up. Have students try to come up with possible meanings for the words in the poem.

Cyber activities

Context pearson lewis.JPG
| Pearson Access Lewis and Clark is a upper elementary and above level activity. The students read a passage about Lewis and Clark and then use context clues to figure out what all of the words mean.
Context scc.JPG
| Los Rios Context Clues is more of a lesson than an activity. The first few slides explain what context clues are and then the slides become interactive, having students figure out the meanings of words from context and checking their answers.
Context toon.JPG
| Toon University Words in Context Game is pretty entertaining. Students have to figure out what a word means. If they get it right, they get to knock over ducks.
Context rags.JPG
|Quia’s Rags to Riches Words in Context Game is a take off of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? When students get the answer right, they get money. When they get it wrong, they go broke.
Context bbc wordmaster.JPG
| BBC’s Wordmaster Game is pretty challenging. Students are given a sentence with a vocabulary word missing and have to guess what the word is. There are clues and three levels of the game, but it is still a middle school level game.
Context sadlier cows.JPG
| Sadlier Oxford Cows focuses on inference. Students are given a sentence and then asked to make an inference about the vocabulary word in it. The game is pretty dry.
Context quia.JPG
| Quia’s Words in Context Game is also pretty dry. Students read a sentence and then choose the meaning of the bold word from a drop down menu. The program keeps track of their score but there are no animations at all.
Context manatee.JPG
| Manatee K12’s Tutorial goes through how words like is, such as and or help tell what something means. They explain how each phrase helps and then offer practice problems.
Context abs longman.JPG
| AB Longman Vocabulary has three interactive worksheets on using context. Definitely not a game.
Context els.JPG
| English Zone Words in Context is also a collection of interactive worksheets.
Context cloze 1.JPG
| ESLUS Context Clues Cloze is a CLOZE passage with key vocabulary words missing. The students have to use context to choose which vocabulary words fit the passage the best. Middle school level.
Context cloze 2.JPG
| ESLUS Context Clues Cloze 2 is a CLOZE passage with key vocabulary words missing. The students have to use context to choose which vocabulary words fit the passage the best. Middle school level.
Context 411.JPG
| TV411 Words in Context Lesson is similar. It starts with several slides that explain how context clues help and then has students figure out word meanings.
Context study zone.JPG
| Study Zone Context Clues has a cute metaphor of a detective, but absolutely not interactive elements. The students read the story, try to figure out the meaning of the words in red, and check their answers

iPad apps

Free worksheets

  • TLS Books Context Clues is a re-teach worksheet. It explains how to use context clues at the top and then has practice questions on the bottom.

  • Marion K12 Context Clues Worksheet has students read a passage on the Civil War and then asks the students to use context clues to figure out the meanings of vocabulary words.


Context video.JPG
| The You Tube Video of Context Clues from Comprehension Upgrade is short (one minute twenty seconds) and entertaining.

At home

Helpful links

  • Sidebook Context Clues is a 49 slide power point with sound effects that covers all of the different types of context clues, signal words and practice questions.

Product reviews

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