Context Clues: 5 Fun Activities to Boost Vocabulary Development

Context Clues: 5 Fun Activities to Boost Vocabulary Development
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by Catherine Demetros, M.Ed. 
Elementary Curriculum Specialist

In an effort to build students' academic language, educators are incorporating increasingly complex texts into their lesson plans. With College and Career Readiness standards emphasizing the acquisition and use of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, students are encouraged to find the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary by choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. One strategy is the use of a variety of reference materials, while another involves applying knowledge of the structure of words and parts of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Here, we'll focus on helping students develop the ability to use the context of an unfamiliar word—i.e. the text surrounding it—as a clue to the word's meaning.

Comprehension is an active process that involves purposeful interaction between a reader and a text. Strategic readers think about words in context, looking for meaning and sentences that frame an unfamiliar word. With this in mind, students are often taught to follow a series of steps when they come across a word or phrase they do not know:

  • Step 1: Reread and read ahead
    Stop and reread the words that come before and after the unfamiliar word.

  • Step 2: Identify context clues
    Think about the meaning of the words in the text that surround the unfamiliar word.

  • Step 3: Decide on a meaning
    Use what you know from the context to make an educated guess about the meaning of the unfamiliar word.

  • Step 4: Check that meaning in the context
    The meaning you decided on should make sense in the sentence and in relation to the main idea of the text.

Even if your students are aware of these steps and have used them successfully in the past, using context clues is a strategy that improves with practice. Try the activities here to give your students the boost they may need to make the most of their exposure to rich academic language.

1. Sentence Search

Display related sentences with blanks for missing—but not unfamiliar—words. For example: Raymond was the youngest ___ in his family. He had two sisters and one ___. The family ___ in a little house. Encourage students to suggest words that fit in each blank, and talk about other words in the sentence that helped them make their suggestions. Providing scaffolded practice with words that students can pull from their mental "word bank" builds confidence and proficiency with the strategy of looking for clues in surrounding text.

2. Silly Sentences

Write sentences that contain a fun, made-up word in place of a focus word. For example:  After dinner, I was so moozled from the day’s busy activities that I fell asleep two hours before my bedtime. I woke up feeling hungry the next morning and sebberly ate breakfast. Have students work in pairs to figure out the likely meanings of the made-up words and then replace the made-up words with a real word or words. Finally, ask students to explain how they used context to figure out the meanings of the made-up words. This activity, like the previous one, requires students to use the construct of the sentence to determine word meaning. Creating made-up words that mimic verb tenses (-ed) or parts of speech (-ly) reinforces the value of using more than one strategy (context clues and morphology) to determine word meaning. As a bonus, this activity can also be used to internalize newly learned vocabulary terms!

3. Chart It!

Work with students to create a Context Clue Anchor Chart. List and describe five common kinds of clues (direct definition, definition after a comma, antonym, synonym, and example) with an example of each. Then, have students suggest meanings for the underlined words in the examples. Discuss how they determined the meaning and what clues they found in the context. The process of creating the Anchor Chart helps students solidify their understanding of each kind of context clue. In addition, the chart itself can be used as a go-to reference before asking a teacher for help.

4. Partner Practice

Divide students into pairs or trios. Have them read passages from informational texts together, recording any challenging words and collaboratively applying the four steps of using context. Once students are finished, ask them to share the words they found and provide examples of how they used context effectively. This type of peer collaboration is a fun way to incorporate speaking and listening into the text-based process of looking for and using context clues to determine meaning.

5. Strategy Swap

Present other strategies that readers use when encountering a new word. Explain that in addition to context, readers can think about a word’s parts (prefix, root/base word, suffix) and use resources—such as a dictionary or thesaurus—to determine the word’s meaning. Present examples where context does not work effectively, and have students apply these other methods. By encouraging flexible thinking and persistence, you are helping your students develop habits of mind that will benefit them beyond the walls of the classroom. Exposure to vocabulary in context is critical to the development of language and literacy, yet empowering students to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words by using context clues is just one element of vocabulary instruction. Students "own" words that they can:

  • Read or hear in multiple and repeated rich contexts

  • Define and determine in relation to other words

  • Connect to known information or personal experience

  • Use and manipulate in expressive language activities

Every time you give your students an opportunity to identify and determine the meaning of unfamiliar words in context, you reinforce the value of reading as a portal to a world of knowledge. Even if students sometimes miss the target in assigning word meaning, they are increasing their awareness of and interest in words and their meanings. How do you create a vocabulary-rich classroom? Share your tips and celebrate your students' successes in the comments below!

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