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Using context clues effectively: not as easy as it sounds!

As adults, we have a fairly good vocabulary and often a pretty good intuition about what unknown words mean. We know which words are important to our understanding and which words are not so necessary. We an tell if a word has a positive or negative connotation from reading around it and gathering clues about the tone. We do lots of things naturally that help us not only figure out the meaning of unknown words, but understand how they relate to the words around them.
Kids…. not so much.
When we ask a child to use “context clues”, most of the time they have no clue what we’re talking about. Really take a minute and ask your students, “What are context clues?” and see what they say. It’s enlightening and depressing all at the same time.

If kids are going to perform this very complex and sophisticated task of determining the meaning of unknown words, we have to help them understand a few things about how words relate to each other in a sentence, and how to use that to determine word meaning.
Introducing the Strategy
This is why I put together the Four Questions.

1. What job does the word do in the sentence?
Does it describe another word? Show you how something is done? Name an object?

2. What part of speech is the word?
If it names an object, it’s a noun. If it describes a noun, it’s an adjective. If it shows an action, it’s a verb.

3. Which other words tell you about the word?
If the word is describing something, what do we know about that thing? If it’s a verb, what is happening?
4. What word has a similar meaning to the word?
Are there words that would match the meaning of the word in that sentence, and relate to the other words in the same way?
There are a few variations of these questions, depending on what kids need. But as we worked with kids on using these four questions, we realized that something was missing – the big picture. In order to help students get a better idea of the context of the paragraph or story/article, we decided to zoom out and sketch what was happening at the time that word was introduced. We required the kids to use exact details in the paragraph.
One of my fifth grade teachers created this context clues mat to help students use the questions and a quick sketch to determine the meaning of unknown words.

The sketch really helped students determine the actual context of the word. If the word is “brush” and the context is describing a park with trees, bushes, and grass, the word “brush” is probably not going to mean “a tool with a handle and bristles”. It’s going to match the context, and mean “a clump of bushes.”
Partner Practice & Guided Practice
To support this idea, and give kids practice with using context clues purposefully, I created some tools, such as task cards. One of my colleagues used them in her fourth grade classroom and really liked the focused, repetitious use of the strategy.

Students were placed in partners or threes to use the task cards.

After they read the paragraph on the card, they used a recording sheet with the questions on it to help them determine the meaning of the unknown word.

The hardest part was identifying the part of speech – this is unfortunately a difficult skill for our students. Relating it to the job the word does in the sentence was especially helpful.

While other students were working in teams or three, or partners, the teacher pulled over a small group of students who struggled with this skill and coached them through using the cards to practice their context clues.

Application to Test-Taking
Isn’t this the hard part? We can have kids who verbalize and write about words very well, but when it is applied to a test-taking situation, they don’t know how to transfer that learning. One of my fifth grade teachers made this chart with his students to reinforce the use of thinking through context clues in order to answer context clues-type test questions.

Using released tests and passages, the class identified three types of context clue-type questions. 
1. Figure out the meaning of the unknown word.
2. Match the dictionary meaning of a multiple-meaning word
3. Find a synonym or replacement word.
By isolating the questions they will see and how to use the strategy, students will be better prepared to use context clues in real reading as well as test-taking. 
If you’d like to try out the context clues task cards with your kids, just visit my TPT Store: Buzzing with Ms. B and check out the Reading Skills Pack: Context Clues.

What do you do to teach context clues?
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