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.
There is only so much time in the school day to teach all of the words students should know. If kids can get better at using context clues, they will become stronger readers. This skill is one of the foundations of reading comprehension.
Hook Your Students:
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.
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.
Emphasize the importance of context clues:
Explain to your students the significance of context clues in understanding unknown vocabulary words. Share real-life examples and showcase how context clues can be found in everyday situations, such as conversations, advertisements, or social media posts. Encourage students to recognize context as a powerful tool for word discovery.
Explicit instruction in context clues
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.
Which words should I teach?
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.
More ideas for improving student vocabulary
Encourage collaborative learning by having students work in pairs or small groups. This allows them to discuss context clues, share insights, and learn from one another’s perspectives.
Create word walls:
Develop word walls in your classroom, displaying challenging vocabulary words along with context clues and their meanings. Regularly update the word wall to keep it relevant and engaging.
Expose kids to a variety of highly engaging reading materials, including books, articles, and poems, to encounter diverse vocabulary. This exposure will expand their understanding of different words in various contexts.
Have students perform a script based on a piece of literature. Reader’s theater often involves challenging and expressive language, exposing students to a rich variety of words and phrases. It is also fun and interactive!
How are you supporting the vocabulary needs of your students? Let me know in the comments!
Resources for teaching context clues
My context clues worksheets are some of my most popular downloads. Teachers love how they are ready-to-use and provide lots of opportunities for practice.