Confident and engaged readers manage a bunch of strategies as they read. We contribute to English learners’ reading comprehension and vocabulary growth by explicitly talking about these strategies and modeling what they look like in action. We model how to make connections between the text and our previous knowledge, explain how we visualize events as we read, and explain how to use evidence from the text to predict what is to come. We identify when we are confused by the text and show how rereading helps us revise our understanding. We model how to draw on language knowledge to determine the meaning of words within a phrase, sentence, and passage. And the focus of this blog: we model how to recognize and interpret context clues.
Teaching students to take advantage of context clues isn’t likely to be a complete lesson, but rather is woven into think-alouds and regularly pointed out when discussing readings. With practice, students begin to recognize the clues in their own “a-ha” moments.
A context clue is a hint found in the surrounding text that the reader uses to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. It may be a definition, a synonym, an antonym, an example, or a general inference clue. The author may provide a clue by further explaining the concept in the sentence or subsequent sentence(s) using synonyms, elaborating with details that explain the idea, using an appositive phrase (definition set off by commas), or contrasting the word or concept with another one.
Here are some adult examples to illustrate some different ways an author might clue a reader to the meaning of somnolent:
- She was feeling increasingly somnolent. In fact, she was so sleepy that she almost dozed off.
- Because her somnolence was so deep, she couldn't keep her eyes open and eventually drifted off to sleep.
- The worst side effect of the medicine was somnolence and drowsiness.
- The medicine caused somnolence, a deep sleepiness, that almost overwhelmed her.
- After being somnolent most of the afternoon, she perked up and was wide awake by dinnertime.
- In contrast to her friend, who was full of energy, she was somnolent.
Recognizing context clues might call on our understanding of cognitive functions, syntax, or morphemes (i.e., meaningful word parts, such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes). In discussions or think-alouds, we can point out how signal words serve as clues for the main cognitive function of the passage, such as description (e.g., in fact, such as, for example, another type of), compare and contrast (e.g., in contrast to, unlike), cause and effect (e.g., because of, caused), or sequence (e.g., after, eventually, then). Having this lens can be a great help in comprehending and constructing complex sentences. In the example, We forgot to water the plant, so it died, the word so signals cause and effect. We can point out that the meaning is the same if we flip the phrases – that is, put the effect first – using because: The plant died because we forgot to water it. This gives students insight for understanding what they read or hear, and for varying their communication when they speak or write.
Sometimes unpacking the syntax is recognizing the part of speech that is needed in the sentence: He muttered under his breath. Knowing a verb follows the subject of a sentence, we know muttered is a verb. Under his breath suggests it is a way of speaking. Another example is: She jubilantly danced out of the room. Because we know words that end in -ly are adverbs, jubilantly describes how she danced. And we dance when we are happy, so we can infer that jubilantly probably means happily.
We can also point out clues that help students access and build their knowledge of morphemes (roots or affixes) to figure out an unknown word. If we read the sentence People who study animals are experts in zoology, we would point out that -ology means study of. We also know that a zoo is where people can go to see different kinds of animals. So zoo + ology means the study of animals.
By sharing our thinking with students and giving them opportunities to practice and talk with each other about how they figure out unknown words and concepts, we help them learn to use context clues to better understand what they are reading and build their reading muscles.
Playing out use of context clues with a range of examples
When you read through the text to plan, pay attention to turning points and key ideas: those sections that move comprehension forward and potential barriers to comprehension that need to demystified. Are there words students may not know? Is there complex or unfamiliar syntax you need to unpack with students? In those high-leverage passages, notice if there are helpful context clues for determining the meaning of a word, phrase, or passage. Then notice how each clue is helpful so you are ready to explain and model to students how they can use it to make sense of what they read.
In the chart, there are examples of both expository and narrative text at different reading levels. The right-hand column calls out the helpful clue or clues, followed by sample tips for teaching. (Click the graphic to see the full chart.)
In summary, to equip students to use context clues as part of their journey to becoming fluent and confident readers, remember to:
- Model and practice ways to recognize different kinds of context clues.
- Point out the importance of reading on – the rest of the sentence, the following sentences.
- Show students the power of rereading – return to previous sentences and put clues together.
- Include tons of whole-class and small-group practice.
- Build students’ metacognitive awareness. That is, remind them of what they’ve learned and how they can apply that knowledge on their own, with any kind of reading.
When we prepare English learners to recognize context clues – and apply other reading comprehension strategies – in a context of explicit language instruction and ample interactive practice, we help them successfully grasp and integrate what they read. We can equip students to read with confidence and communicate their understanding, while we boost their dexterity in productive struggle as they push themselves to navigate challenging text.
Written by: Susana Dutro, co-Founder and CEO of E.L. Achieve
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