Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teaching Students How To Use Context Clues

[Note: I am being vexed by formatting issues in Blogger. Please forgive the sudden font size changes.]

I have switched from teaching 1st graders basic reading skills to working with high school seniors who are trying to pass a reading exam which is required for graduation. Like most such tests, vocabulary questions play a leading role. We all know that one must use context clues to ascertain the meaning of an unfamiliar word, but how often do we think through exactly how that is done?

I recently ran across a line in my copy of Wiggins and McTighe's "Understanding by Design" that resonated with me in regard to how we teach a skill that we perform intuitively, like using context clues. In a different context, the authors write that when we achieve understanding, "something that once required a chain of reasoning to grasp hold of no longer does: We just 'see it.'"

Well, if I am to help my students start "seeing" context, I must first understand the chain of reasoning that lies behind that skill and devise a way to show my students how to apply it. I decided to try and find out if anyone had done this before.

My first impulse was to go to Curriki.org, which I featured in these pages a year ago. The first resource I found is this worksheet contributed by Robert Lucas and designed to make explicit the thought process students should use when confronted with a new word. It isn't exactly what I was looking for, but it might be a useful way to give learners plenty of "at bats" with using context. Here is the simple process Lucas has his students use:

Sentence in the story:
My guess for what this word means:
Why I think my guess makes sense:
What the dictionary says:
Was the guess right or wrong?:

Quite simple, to be sure, but it would help impress upon the students that the sentences containing the "mystery word" often will hold the key to deciphering its meaning. Also, it compels them to explain their rationale for their guess and provides an opportunity for metacognition at the end. All in all, I think it would be a decent way to introduce this strategy.

Unfortunately, that was the only context clue-specific resource yielded by Curriki. I have read about the use of "signal words," which are words that reveal the relationship between different parts of a sentence. Come to think of it, these are basically prepositions or prepositional phrases.

For example, signal words for comparison include also, both, than, too, resembling, akin to, etc. There are also signal words for contrast, definition, and examples.

Update 6/9/10: I posted a request for context clue teaching ideas to my Twitter list and BOTTURArodrigo, an ESL and Reading teacher in Sao Paolo, Brazil, kindly responded. His term "glue words" is a clever rebranding of the "signal words" concept. He says, "I like to use 'the glue is the clue.' [Students] infer the meaning my using words like 'and' or 'but.'"

BONUS QUESTION: What grammatical role does "for example" play in a sentence? Is it a prepositional phrase? Since I am saddled with a degree in the humanities, I have absolutely no idea. English geeks, can you help?

Update 6/9/10: See the comments below for an answer to the bonus question.


  1. I am more of a lit geek than a grammar geek, so I asked Mrs. Carson. She says that "for example" is indeed a prepositional phrase--"for" is the preposition and "example" is a noun--the object of the preposition. So there you go! :-)

  2. Thank you, Jolene! And Mrs. Carson! The two of you have just officially made yourselves Literacy Log's go-to grammar consultants. Consider yourselves warned. :)