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Strategies for Unlocking Word Meanings: Using Context Clues

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

We've talked about context clues. We know they're important. Why aren't my students using them?

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    Remember when you asked your eighth grade teacher what a word meant and she inevitably answered, "look it up in the dictionary." What I didn't realize was "look it up in the dictionary" was code for "I don't know what the word means either, so I'll save face by making an appeal to the dictionary."

    A more appropriate response would have been "Gee, let's use context. First we'll examine the different types of context clues. After looking at examples of context clues in context (followed by a slight chuckle acknowledging the pun), we can apply it to what you're reading and figure out what the word means." Not only would that have sent a powerful message on the importance of context clues, it would have motivated me to look the word up in a dictionary next time.

    Here are the types of context clues my teacher should have bored me with.

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    Definition and Restatement

    Sometimes a writer will directly define a word that is probably unfamiliar to the reader. For example, the following sentence contains the word (isn't it amazing how you can never think of a word when you're writing a silly little example. Of the 10,000 words in the English language, it took me seven minutes to think of...) encomienda.

    • Spanish noblemen lived in large estates called encomiendas, or
    • Spanish noblemen lived in encomiendas, estates given to Spaniards in the new world beginning in 1503.

    Writers don't always state the definition directly. Often he or she will restate the word in a less precise form with other types of context clues mixed in.

    • Juan de Valdez de Ortega de Ramone governed his large estate magnanimously from the third floor of his mansion as natives worked the fields and scrubbed the high walls. His encomienda was the cleanest in the country.

    Words signaling definition or restatement include or, which is, that is, in other words, also known as, also called.

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    Example and Comparison

    Writers often provide examples that unlock the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The following sentence contains the word infamous followed by several examples of infamous people.

    • Comparing Barry Bonds to infamous figures such as Al Capone, Benito Mussolini, Sadaam Hussein, and Art Modell is a bit extreme, don't you think? All he did was cheat in a baseball game.

    Words signaling examples include like, for instance, this, including, such as, other, these include, for example, these, especially.

    Another type of clue is comparison. Writers often place difficult words with other, more familiar words. By noting similarities between words described unlocks word meaning. The following sentence uses my favorite word, troglodyte. Its association with like words make it's meaning easy to infer.

    • Whether you call him a caveman, troglodyte, neanderthal, or barbarian, I don't care. Just don't call him on my phone.

    Words signaling comparison include like, resembling, also, identical, related, similar to, in the same way, as, likewise.

    *I strongly recommend teaching context clues using the context clues challenge lesson plan. This is easily the most effective method I've seen for context clue instruction.