Help! My Students Can’t Define Words Using Context Clues!

My middle school students struggle daily with the task of identifying unknown words. Students who don’t spend a lot of free time reading are especially at risk for lacking vocabulary knowledge, and there is only so much time in the school day to teach all of the words students should know.

I like to share this image with my students at the beginning of the year to show them how important independent reading is for their vocabulary. If a middle-of-the-road reader adds just 5 minutes per day of reading, they will read more than 282,000 words each year. If they add 10 minutes of reading, they will read more than 859,040 words per year.

Reading and Vocab

While reading independently is the best way to learn new words, it’s also important to teach strategies for determining the meanings of unknown words in context.

I start by introduce the four main types of context clues students will encounter:

  • definition/explanation clues
  • synonym/restatement context clues
  • antonym/contrast context clues
  • inference context clues

I start with showing them examples of each of these types used in real sentences. We discuss the target word and how the sentence helps to reveal its meaning. Many students benefit from this explicit teaching, as it increases their metacognition around words.

Introducing types of context clues–explicit teaching and examples

Typically when teaching vocabulary, I pick words from our in-class novels. Learning vocabulary in context is key, and seeing the words in the novels makes them even more relevant. When I notice that students are particularly low in their vocabulary use, I think it’s a good idea to supplement that with more practice.

I chose vocabulary words to supplement my students’ learning from the lists “100 Words Every Fourth Grader Should Know” and”100 Words Every Middle Schooler Should Know” from the American Heritage Dictionary. These are Tier 2 words that are likely to get “high mileage,” and be used across several content areas.


Next, I have students read short paragraphs with 4-5 possibly unknown words. The paragraphs work better than single sentences, as there is more of an opportunity to get context from reading the sentence before and after the word in question.

This is a great strategy as test-prep season is upon us. How are you supporting the vocabulary needs of your students? Let me know in the comments!

  • Need resources for grades 4-6? Click here.
  • Need resources for grades 6-8? Click here.

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