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Teaching Context Clues

Context clues are the words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pictures,

and other text features that give clues to the meaning of an unknown




to determine

an unknown


is highly

recommended as an effective word learning strategy (Blachowicz

2005; Graves, 2006). Teaching context clues involves good planning,

explicit instruction, and opportunities for students to practice

and receive feedback using the gradual release of responsibility

(Blachowicz 2005; Pearson & Gallagher, 1983).

According to Baumann (2010), context clues are important to teach


• The


of the


is sometimes


in the


or sentences before or after the unknown word.

• There


be clues
in the


or sentences


or after

the unknown word.

• Some





of the





overlook it.

• The







in the




students do not recognize these hints.

• Some



be misleading.



to take


initiative and ask, “Does this meaning make sense in this


There are many different kinds of context clues. To help students

become familiar with using context clues, teachers can create an

anchor chart outlining the clues students can use to unlock the

meaning of words (see picture in the Teaching Context Clues

vignette). The Word Detective strategy can be used to teach context


How to know a word, Knowing a word involves a skill that proficient readers take for granted—
the ability to recognize the word, both through how it sounds and what it looks like. Typically,
knowing a word also means knowing its definition. But knowing a word’s definition is not the
same thing as being able to use the word in speech and writing or to understand the text
in which the word appears. Dale and O’Rourke (1986) identify four levels of word knowledge:1. I
never saw it [the word] before.2. I’ve heard of it [the word], but I don’t know what it [the word]
means.3. I recognize it [the word] in context—it [the word] has something to do with...4. I know
it [the word].Nagy and Scott (2000) describe the process of knowing a word as happening over
time as students come in contact with the word in various contexts. The more exposures students
have with a word, the more sophisticated their understanding. Sophisticated understanding
translates into deeper conceptual understanding, a broader knowledge base related to the
multiple meanings a word can convey based upon context, and an enhanced ability to make
connections to the subtleties of language found in riddles, poetry, colloquial speech, and puns
(Johnson, Johnson, & Schlicting, 2004). The goal of vocabulary learning is to have students store
the meanings of words in their long-term memory and to use these words to construct meaning,
comprehend text, and understand content they are studying.

Students who are living in an English-speaking country are often happy learning what
difficult words and phrases mean through their everyday study or work lives, but for
the majority of students, learning a language is a slow and painful process, and we
must try to do something to accelerate the pace of learning. My students should, I
believe, benefit from the teaching procedures I've described in this article. If they
learn words and phrases in this systematic way in class, they are not only likely to
achieve more communicative success in class but also to become more aware of how
they learn and the knowledge they need to acquire to learn words more successfully.

teachers aren't alone, however, and they are facing a challenge shared by teachers
across the country. We know that for school-age students, academic language is
crucial for school success (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006). In
addition, research allows us to state with a fair degree of confidence that English
learners best acquire English when language forms are explicitly taught and when
they have many opportunities to use the language in meaningful contexts
(Goldenberg, 2008).

Yet while the explicit instructional support that ESL and bilingual teachers provide is
essential to English learners' academic language development, English learners
receive a majority of their instruction from general education and content area
teachers who may not have experience teaching academic language development.

The question becomes then: What do general education classroom teachers need to do
in order to support the academic English development of language learners, especially
when English learners are one of many types of students they serve?

Planning for Language Objectives Planning language objectives isn’t always a simple,
straight-forward process—in fact, you could say that it takes a bit of detective work.
With the English Language Development standards in hand, try answering these
questions to help guide the development of overt language objectives: What
language forms are students struggling with? What language functions do they need
to access content learning? What gaps most need to be filled? What will increase
their fluency? What will help prepare students for thenext proficiency level?A
language objective for an intermediate student might be to read sentences aloud,
correctly identifying and pronouncing all verb tenses. In the lesson plans developed
by teachers in the English Learner Collaborative, language objectives are framed in
what they’ve termed the SWBAT format—that is, Students Will Be Able To
... Describe a photograph using adjectives.

In any endeavor, if you do not understand what others expect from you then you will
have a much greater likelihood of failure. However, many teachers fail to let students
know exactly what they expect of them. One key to success in getting students to
succeed is being completely transparent with them about expectations. However, it is
not enough to simply state them at the beginning of the school year. Following are
some ways that you can not only communicate but also reinforce expectations to
students each and every day.
Post expectations around the room

From the first day of class, the expectations for academic and social success should be
publicly visible. While many teachers post their class rules for all to see, it is also a
great idea to post the expectations. You can do this through a poster that you create
similar to the one you might use for class rules, or you can select posters
with inspirational quotes sayings that reinforce your expectations such as:

High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.

Give students space

Students need opportunities to show what they already know and can do. Before
scaffolding a lesson, check for prior knowledge.

Even when students experience the discomfort of not knowing, they are learning how
to deal with productive struggle. They need to become more comfortable with
working through problem-solving so they will have the chance to experience the
personal satisfaction of coming up with a solution.

You should avoid the desire to jump right in and help a struggling student by simply
providing them the answers to their questions but instead lead them to find the
answers for themselves.

Create a written dialogue

A great tool to make sure that students feel connected and empowered is to create a
written dialogue tool. You can either have a periodic assignment for students to
complete or an ongoing back-and-forth journal.

The purpose of this kind of communication is to have students write about how they
feel they are doing in your class. You can use their comments and your own space to
personally guide them while reinforcing your expectations.

Have a Positive Attitude

Make sure that you do not harbor any specific biases towards student learning.

Develop a growth mindset by helping your students believe that their most basic
abilities can be developed, and improved upon. Use positive feedback by saying
phrases such as:
 "Show me more."
 "How did you do that?"
 "How did you figure that out?"
 "That looks like it took a lot of effort."
 "How many ways did you try it before it turned out the way you wanted it?"
 "What do you plan to do next?"

Developing a growth mindset with students creates a love of learning and a

resilience. Try to always maintain a positive attitude. Your language must support
students and help them believe that can and will learn.

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Get to know your students

A positive teacher-student relationship is a wonderful thing to inspire students to

learn and achieve. Here are steps to take at the beginning of the school year to set the

 Take the effort to learn students’ names by the end of the first week.
 Connect with families in the first few weeks of school.
 Share academic and social goals for the year.

If you allow students to see you as a real person, and you can connect with them and
their needs, then you will find that many will achieve simply to please you.

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Remain in charge

Very little can happen when you have poor classroom management. Teachers who
allow students to disrupt class unchecked will find that their classroom situation will
quickly deteriorate. Always remember that you are the teacher and the leader of the

Another trap for many teachers is trying to be friends with their students. While it is
great to be friendly with your students, being a friend can lead to problems with
discipline and ethics. In order to have students meet your expectations, they need to
know that you are the authority in the class.

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Be clear
It is very hard, if not impossible, for students to know your expectations on behaviors,
assignments, and tests if you do not clearly express them from the beginning. Keep
directions short and simple. Do not fall in the habit of repeating directions; once
should be enough. Students can understand what they need to learn and do to be
successful at any point in time.

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Cheer Your Students On

You should be a cheerleader for your students, letting them know as often as possible
that you know they can succeed. Use positive reinforcement whenever you can by
appealing to their interests. Know what they like to do outside of school and give them
a chance to share these interests. Let them know that you believe in them and their

CONCLUSION While good instruction-giving is an essential part of an effective lesson

and an important part of classroom management, it is a skill that is often overlooked
in teacher-training programs and in classrooms. An otherwise strong lesson
sometimes fails because instructions were not properly delivered. It is not enough to
assume that giving good instructions is a naturally acquired skill. Both preservice and
in-service teachers need to be attentive to good instruction-giving practices and
become aware of their own methods of delivery and how they can be improved.

Allow Revisions

When students turn in an assignment that is poorly done, you may allow them to
revise their work. They may be able to turn work in for additional points. A second
chance allows them to demonstrate how their skills have grown. You are looking for
students to demonstrate final mastery of the subject.

Revision promotes mastery learning. In revising their work, students may feel as
though they have more control. You can provide them with additional assistance as
needed on the way to their achieving the objectives you have set for them.