As a teacher, something you often use in the classroom is likely a context clue.

Students will frequently encounter context clues in texts, and you may prompt them to use these to work out what a word or phrase means. Using context clues is an excellent way for learners to understand more complex and varied texts and find broader meanings. To do this, they must understand what context clues are since not having this skill puts them at a disadvantage whenever they encounter a new text.

When you ask a student to use context clues, you must also have taught them what to look for. Using context clues is a skill that learners need to be equipped with to understand texts on their own, and it is up to you to inform them of how writers might use these techniques. Your goal when teaching this is to equip learners with the skill to detect these clues and recognize hints that writers leave in texts when they come across such things.

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Strategies for using context clues in reading

There are a series of strategies that can help your students to understand and pick up on context clues. Being aware of ways that you can pick up on context clues is one of the first steps to being able to understand different and more complex texts. As your natural reading comprehension improves, you may not have to think about it so much, but once you have learned these techniques, they will help you decipher new information. Even after you stop noticing it, these strategies are essential, so it is key to impart this knowledge to your students early on. The sooner you can use these strategies, the sooner they will become natural and a kind of second nature when it comes to unfamiliar texts. Here are the main things you can teach students to do that can help them with this even when they don’t understand some words

1. Word parts

One of the easiest ways to understand an unfamiliar word is to break it down into smaller parts and see if you can understand any of them. The base word, which is the root of the word, could help offer clues about the meaning of the word. Prefixes or suffixes can similarly be used to indicate the word’s meaning. An example is a word ‘discrimination’. The first part of the word, dis, means the opposite of or not. The second part, ‘crimin’ means judgment of verdict. Finally, ‘tion’ tells you that the word is a noun.

2. Definition and explanation

You can usually deduct the meaning of the word from the whole sentence. Using the words surrounding the difficult one is one of the simplest ways to understand its meaning, and reasonably often, the sentence explains the word in itself.

3. Synonym

Sometimes you will find that words near the unknown one could be synonyms. For example, a text might read, ‘discrimination or prejudice can cause harm.’ In this circumstance, the word or is connecting two synonyms, meaning you may be able to deduct the meaning of the words that are close together.

4. Example

Sometimes, an example is used within the text to help you understand the word. A sentence may read ‘vulnerable people, such as the elderly or young children’. The listed examples tell you what vulnerable means as you can piece together the definition from how the word is used and what other words or things it describes.

5. Antonym and contrast

If the text mentions the opposite or a contrasting idea with words like as opposed to, different, you can use these words to establish the meaning of the one you don’t understand. For example, if a text reads, ‘alternatively to discrimination, fairness for everyone leads to a healthier community,’ you can use your understanding of fairness to understand what discrimination means.

6. Analogy

If the world is used alongside an analogy or metaphor, you can use this to establish the meaning of the world. For example, suppose a text compares vulnerable people to being fragile like glass. In that case, you can assume the meaning of the unknown word from the descriptors ‘fragile’ and ‘glass’, which tell you much about vulnerability. Any metaphor, simile, or analogy can be helpful in this way.

7. Appositive

You can look for ways grammar indicates meanings, such as embedded clauses signified by a set of commas. Punctuation like this can hold definitions, synonyms, or examples that can help to describe the word and are signposted by the sentence’s grammatical structure.

Consolidating the knowledge

Once you have taught these techniques to your students, you will need to find class and homework activities that can help to consolidate both these techniques and the target language that they are struggling with.

One way you can suggest for students to retain their new knowledge is to fill in an organizer with sections for them to fill in. They could identify the context clue and the definition it has led them to. Pictures of symbols are a great way to make students create long-lasting connections and remember the meaning of words. You could also encourage them to include examples of how the word is used, which will be useful if they come across the word again but are also great for helping the learners to incorporate new words into their writing by developing preset sentences which include them. This allows you to correct or improve their use of new words and phrases.

An excellent resource for your students to use if they struggle to find definitions or synonyms is vocabulary.com. This site offers explanations for words and examples of how they can be used so that students have a clear understanding and a frame in which the word can be used.

How context clues can help your students

Context clues may not always be used since writers often assume that their readers know most words. On the occasion that context clues are used, having the tools and knowledge to use them and learn from them is pivotal to your students and will enable them to understand much more complex and broader areas of texts. Giving your students the ability to learn and understand more texts puts them in a better position to further their studies and learn more, meaning it is something that can’t be undervalued on ignored.