Teaching Context Clues: Simple Strategies That Work

Teaching Context Clues Simple Strategies that Work

Vocabulary has the power to make or break a student’s reading comprehension skills. Of course, we don’t have the resources or the time to teach students every vocabulary word they’ll ever encounter in their reading.

Plus, drilling vocabulary words and asking students to memorize long lists is an ineffective approach. So, what can we do to boost vocabulary and reading comprehension?

This is where context clues come in. Teaching context clues allows students to use words or groups of words to determine the meaning of an unknown word in any passage.

Here’s how to equip students with this powerful skill:

Teach types of context clues

We often advise, “Use context clues!” But most students, especially struggling readers, don’t have this skill unless we explicitly teach them how. Talk to your students about using context clues, and equip them with a variety of strategies by directly teaching context clues strategies.

Types of context clues include the following:

  • Example Clues: Specific examples sometimes provide readers with clues about the unknown word. Cued by the phrases “such as,” “including,” “consists of,” “like,” and “for example.” Ex: During a tornado, be aware of potential hazards, such as broken glass and sharp objects.
  • Synonym or Definition Clues: A synonym or definition of the word may be used in the sentence to help readers understand unfamiliar words. Ex: If you are in a tall building during a tornado, locate the nearest enclosure, or room, to seek shelter.
  • Antonym or Contrast Clues: Conversely, antonyms or contrasts are sometimes provided to give readers helpful clues. Ex: Sometimes tornadoes develop so rapidly that there is no time to send a warning. Other times, tornadoes develop gradually and there is more time to provide advance warning.

Students can also find clues in base words, roots, and affixes. Sometimes, the context of the sentence will help students determine whether the word is a noun, adjective, or verb. It’s helpful for students to gather as many clues as possible before making an educated guess about the word’s meaning.  For a FREE context clues file that includes anchor charts with this information, click here (you’ll enter your name and email address to gain access to this and many other resources).

Teach a process

It’s also important to teach students a process for finding and interpreting context clues:

  1. Stop and reread the sentence. Pay attention to the words that come before and after the unfamiliar word.
  2. Identify context clues. What clues can you gather to help you determine the word’s meaning?
  3. Make an educated guess about the word’s meaning.
  4. Check your guess in context. Read the sentence again, substituting your definition for the unknown word. Does it make sense?

Model with think-alouds

Once you’ve discussed the various types of context clues and a process to use them, model a few examples of each. Think aloud as you use context clues to determine word meaning, clearly demonstrating the thought process for students.

For instance, let’s look at the sentence, “During a tornado, be aware of potential hazards, such as broken glass and sharp objects.”

Read the sentence aloud. Then say something like, “In this sentence, we’re trying to figure out the meaning of the word ‘hazards.’ Let’s see if there are any clues before or after the word. ‘During a tornado, be aware of potential hazards…’ So, we know that hazards are something we may see during a tornado.

“Hmm…that’s helpful, but we still need more information. Let’s look after the word. ‘Such as.’ Remember, the phrase ‘such as’ usually tells us that we’re about to see some examples of the unknown word, and those examples are usually great clues! ‘Hazards, such as broken glass and sharp objects.’ That means ‘broken glass’ and ‘sharp objects’ are examples of hazards. What do broken glass and sharp objects have in common? They’re dangerous! I think ‘hazards’ means ‘dangers.’

“Let’s check that definition in context. ‘During a tornado, be aware of potential dangers, such as broken glass and sharp objects.’ Does that make sense? Yes, it does. We did it!”


Provide examples

As a class, work through several examples of context clues. Use short, complex texts in various genres and practice with different types of context clues.

For a fun and thought-provoking activity, replace real words with silly made-up words. Ex: Jessica’s day was so busy that she felt completely stroodled and fell asleep hours before her usual bedtime.

Have students come up with a definition, replace the made-up word with a real word, and explain what clues they used to determine their answer.  In this way, teaching context clues becomes a fun game.

Flip it

Individually or with partners, give students a challenging vocabulary word, its definition, and a sample sentence. Then, have them write their own sentence that includes context clues. Next, their partners (or the whole class) will guess the word’s meaning.

When students practice context clues, be sure to always ask two questions:

  • What does it mean?
  • How do you know?

Students must think through the process of finding and analyzing context clues and should be able to describe this process to others.

As you use these strategies, make it fun! Let your students know they are word detectives, gathering clues to crack the case. Some terms may cloak themselves in unfamiliar disguises, but your students will build the skills to unmask even the trickiest of words.

Do you need anchor charts and context clues practice for your students?  Shop context clues resources here:

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Grab your FREE context clues activities by clicking on the image below and entering your name and email address.  You will receive an email that contains the free resource.

I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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