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Context Strategies

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary Through Context
Standards: RL4, RIT4, L3, L4, L6, W2, W3, W9, W10

Context as a Clue

From When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers

Beers makes a careful distinction between the common phrase, “context clues” and “context as a clue” and notes that often, discerning meaning from context requires a sophisticated understanding of text. Teach students to look for four kinds of clues in context:

  • Definition or explanation clues (“Cowboys often wore chaps, leather trousers without a seat…”)
  • Restatement or synonym clues (“The food was bland. In fact, everyone called it tasteless.”)
  • Contrast or antonym clues (“Chad is calm and quiet, but his brother is boisterous.”)
  • Gist clues: These are the most challenging and subtle because they require readers to infer meaning from the text (“John burst out of the woods and found himself at the edge of a precipice. Clinging to a boulder, he gazed down dizzily at the blue ribbon of river below”) (183-187).

Words in Context

Adapted by Sara Rice from Advancing Vocabulary Skills by Sherrie L. Nist and Carole Mohr

In adapting the work of Joan Sedita (The Key Vocabulary Routine: Content Vocabulary Instruction), RHS teacher Sara Rice provides students with sentences before they see formal definitions. Students read the sentences and highlight the context clues that help them to predict what the vocabulary word probably means:

Context Plus

Adapted from Janet Allen, “Mastering the Art of Effective Vocabulary Instruction.” Adolescent Literary: Turning Promise into Practice. Ed. Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Linda Rief. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007 (87-104).

1.     Teachers compile a manageable list of target words for a unit of study or text. One or two target words per week is reasonable. On day one, teachers read aloud the first target word to students and invite them to brainstorm what they know about the word.

2.     Teachers ask students what they associate with the word (images and/or related words).

3-4.         Teachers ask students to search for word parts they might recognize to see if those word parts can be associated with their background knowledge and result in a prediction.

5. Teachers add context by distributing or displaying the word as it is used in context, preferably in the classroom text students will be reading from.

6. Students construct, independently or in small groups, a definition for the word and share/compare their definitions prior to opening their textbooks.


Click here for the Context Plus graphic organizer template.


Natural Contexts

We truly know a word when we can effectively recognize and use it in multiple contexts. Though they may not think so at first, students often see and hear the unfamiliar words that appear on our vocabulary lists in many familiar settings. 


Adapted by RHS English teacher Sara Rice from The Key Vocabulary Routine: Content Vocabulary Instruction by Joan Sedita

Drawing from a list of vocabulary words they have been studying as they read A Long Way Gone, students must find at least two vocabulary words that fit in each category and be prepared to explain the connection:

Words that relate to being a teenager:

Words you might hear in a hospital:Words you might hear on the T:
Words you've heard on TV:

Words that are hard to pronounce:Make your own category. Find something that at least two words have in common!
Your Category: ____________

Parts of Speech: The Word Form Chart

Adapted by RHS English teacher Sara Rice from The Key Vocabulary Routine

A complete understanding and mastery of new vocabulary words requires that students can recognize and use a word not only in the way it was originally taught to them. One of the most immediate ways to broaden understanding of a word is to use the word as more than one part of speech. "Is it enough to only know the word 'support' as a verb and not know it as a noun?" RHS teacher Sara Rice asks her students. "Hint: the answer is no!"

The Word Forms Chart helps students to broaden their understanding of the words they are learning. They do not have to memorize all forms of the word but should be aware of them and be able to use them correctly in their writing. *An asterisk marks the form of the word as it was originally taught to them:

(names a person, place, or thing)
(an action word)
(tells how you do something; usually ends in -ly)
(describes nouns and pronouns)
     devote  *devoted
 acquaintance * X (there isn't one) 
  *support  supportive

Decontextualizing Vocabulary

Tier Two words are found across a variety of domains, and sometimes even highly specialized Tier Three words can be used creatively beyond the boundaries of a specific domain.

In this activity, RHS English teacher Mary Ellen Dakin challenges students to transfer the Character Vocabulary words they are learning in conjunction with their reading of William Shakespeare's Macbeth from the brutal context of war-torn Scotland to the context of a modern restaurant.

Welcome to the Vocabulary Café

Home of the Hostile Hamburger!

Use your Character Vocabulary list to create a restaurant menu using a minimum of 15 words from the list. Each meal description must give the reader a clue to the word’s definition. (For example, “Benevolent Beans – guaranteed not to give you gas pains!”)

Remember that a typical restaurant menu has:

  • a cover with the restaurant’s name and address, along with an eye-catching image or border
  • several Food Sections (Appetizers, Salads, Main Courses, Desserts)
  • a Drink Section (water, soda, wine, beer, coffee and tea)

This creative writing assignment requires:

A Menu Cover

Food & Drink Sections: 15 words from your Character Vocabulary list are used in different sections of the menu. Each menu item contains a clue or explanation for what the vocabulary word means.