Context Clues: Start with the Basics

Why Context-Clues Are Challenging

I’ll be honest here: I’ve never been a great lover of context clues.  While we often write goals for correctly inferring a word’s meaning from context, this is much less black and white than it sounds.  I have heard students come up with definitions that I think are perfectly reasonable given the information they have to go on in the sentence, even though the definition is flat-out wrong.  At times like these I will often say “good guess” and “I understand how you would think that given the information” but still have to tell them their definition is incorrect.

What’s more, locating the perfect context clue sentence is a nightmare.  I don’t know exactly what word my students do or don’t know- at least not all of them! Sometimes I select a sentence with a word they already know, and then they totally neglect to use their context clues skills.  Other times the word is so long and the sentence so elaborate that they basically are overwhelmed with trying to decipher it.  So what is the perfect, “baby bear” middle ground?

Using Nonsense Word Context Clues

Well, I decided it would be nonsense word context clues.  Nonsense word context clues are similar in concept to the nonsense words we ask students to decode in order to truly measure decoding and blending skills.  Nonsense words are present in reading assessments like the Dibels precisely because they isolate the skills of decoding and blending phonemes while eliminating the confounding variable of a student’s sight-word recognition (in other words, we know the nonsense word assessment is measuring only decoding/blending and not the student’s visual recall of a word previously read).  In the case of teaching context clues as opposed to decoding, I use a totally made-up word and put it in a sentence with the type of context clue I am teaching.  These made-up words eliminate the confounding variable of prior word knowledge or exposure and allow my students to focus exclusively on using their pre-taught context clue skill.

Definition and Example Context Clues

We work on just one type of clue at a time such as the definition clue or the example clue rather than trying to use all clues at once; this gives the students a chance to master one type of clue at a time.  I also warn the students I am using  made-up words for these sentences and they should not try to learn or remember these words for later.

Let’s say I am working on definition clues.  Although the most basic of context clues and less of a clue than a straight answer to the question of word meaning, I find the vast majority of my students have had trouble locating the definition given in a sentence when it is between commas, dashes, or parenthesis.  So I might give then a sentence like this:

The mermat, or giant squid, was in the aquarium.

I would then ask the students to say, write, or underline the definition of the word “mermat”.  You’d be surprised how many students guess “mermaid” due to the word sounding similar or who guess any number of unrelated words.  Sometimes they might guess “aquarium”.  I explicitly teach, model, and have students practice finding the definition between the commas, dashes, and parenthesis.  The pre-teaching and the drill I think is very important.  We often launch right into having our students practice skills without teaching exactly what the student needs to do to be successful.

If I am teaching an example context clue, my sentence might look like this:

Teedlies, such as violins and harps, make for very popular instruments.

I make sure first that they realize this is an example clue and not a definition clue: we see key phrases like “such as” (or like, for example, including) telling us we are getting examples between the commas rather than a definition of the word.  I then ask students to think about what the examples have in common.  What word or description would fit for both the items in the sentence? Many of my students guess “instruments”, but I point out “the sentence already says they are instruments and “Instruments such as violins and harps make for very popular instruments” doesn’t really make sense and is redundant (telling us the same information twice).  While I expect students to come up with a definition like “stringed instruments”, I keep an open mind to other interpretations that would make sense given the context clues.  This is because in many sentences with this type of clue the student will not be able to pinpoint the precise definition; they can only make a reasonable inference based on the examples and information given.  I give positive feedback to any reasonable inferred definition, noting what is a reasonable inference and what is not.

Free Nonsense Word Context Clues

While it is fairly easy to create a worksheet with nonsense word context clues on your own, I have attached a free one here for you to use! Feel free to add more examples to it or modify the difficulty level of the sentences.  Enjoy your nonsense word context clues!