Teaching Vocabulary Development and Using Context Clues in Reading: Contextual Approaches to Learning

Updated on September 6, 2019
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Ms. Olivares is certified in special education. She works closely to promote the academic and social development of her son, who has autism.


Context Clues: Contextual Approaches to Learning

Understanding vocabulary is no longer just about memorizing words and meanings. Vocabulary development involves using context clues and word equations to assist you in analyzing and determining the meaning of the word. Most of us do not tote around a dictionary as we read. Although it would be good practice, it is just not common or practical. Regardless, whether you are a student or avid reader, you will eventually come across a word that is simply unfamiliar to you.

Teachers, parents, and students that practice the identification of context clues will greatly enhance their reading comprehension. However, it truly would not hurt for readers to memorize a few affixes, root words, and their origins.

Vocabulary Development Includes Word Equations

Word Equations (Prefix-Suffix-Root Words)

Let’s face it: Not everyone is a spelling bee champion with a memorized list of prefixes, suffixes, root words, and their origins. However, this knowledge will help with word equations. Let me give you a few examples.

1. Read the following sentence:

The stars are innumerable and no one has been able to count them.

2. Write the word innumerable separately on the board and ask a volunteer to divide the prefix, base word, and suffix with a line:

innumerable becomes in/numer/able

3. I would then explain the following through guided questioning:

  • the prefix in means not
  • the suffix able literally means able
  • the base numer means number

4. Take the responses above to form a sentence:

“not able to number”

This is basically the definition of the word; however, it lacks a bit of textual support. Let's take this a step further.

Vocabulary Development Includes Context Clues

Let’s look at the example again but with an additional approach.

The stars are innumerable and no one has been able to count them.

1. Ask the following:

  • What is the noun? The main subject? The stars.
  • What is the verb? The action? To count.
  • What is the conflict? The problem? No one is able to count them.

The responses to the questions ARE the context clues for the word innumerable. Plus, prior knowledge should tell you that there are many stars.

2. Now you simply form your response with your clues and word equation:

"not able to number" and "no one is able to count"—Why? There are too many.

3. So what does innumerable mean? Too many to count.

Although it may seem like a lengthy process, once you and your students get the hang of it, the thought process happens rather quickly. However, word equations may not always work, and there are various other approaches to using context clues.

Understanding Grammar Can Help You Identify Context Clues

Commas and Conjunctions

Another clue comes in the form of commas and conjunctions. These usually are a clue that the preceding or following word is a synonym. Sometimes you are given an example of what the word means instead of a synonym. Let me explain.

Take the comma clue for the word ghastly in the following sentence:

In other films, the space creatures are horrible, ghastly beings on a mission to destroy Earthlings.

The comma is a clue that horrible is most likely an example or synonym of ghastly.

Now look at the comma and conjunction clue for courteous:

You would expect your neighbors to be friendly, or courteous, when you first move in.

The comma and conjunction is the clue that courteous most likely means friendly.

More Examples

Look at the image below for an example of how a vocabulary question might be asked of a middle school student. Following the image, I will talk you through the thought process.

What Is the Context Clue for Fumed?

(The example above is a vocabulary question based on Gary Soto’s Baseball in April and Other Stories. The excerpt is from the “Marble Champ” chapter.)

Readers need to be able to identify context clues when reading text.

The Strategy

  • The reader must locate the paragraph, identify the word and determine the true definition.
  • The strategy I teach my students is to go back about 4 sentences or even a paragraph. I then instruct them to determine the character’s mood, motivation and actions.
  • Look at paragraph 4 and 5 in the example above. Analyze the character’s mood, motivation and actions.
  • The character seems to lack confidence in her physical or athletic abilities. “....had to use training wheels...” and “...couldn't swim...” and “...roller skating only when father held her hand...” and “...I’ll never be good at sports,”. Her motivation is to line the shelf her father made with awards. How is she going to add awards if she cannot do anything?(describe these scenarios and emotions with your student)
  • If you notice the character’s words you realize she is frustrated and fumes that she will “never be good at sports”. So what is her mood? Frustrated. Why? She is not good at sports. What does she want to do? Place awards on the shelf her father made.
  • Answer choices - The context clues have nothing to do with definition 1; perfume, definition 2; vapors, or definition 3; smoking. Upon analyzing definition 4; exhibit anger and irritation - you can deduce that this is the correct answer. It supports the context clues as well as the mood of the character. Therefore, the correct answer is D - definition 4; to exhibit anger or irritation.
  • By the way, definition 3; smoking is the trick answer. If the reader is thinking figuratively they may determine the answer as meaning smoking mad (idiom) as opposed to fumes that are literally smoking.
  • Remember, ALL the definitions in the answer choices mean fumed. The reader needs to realize HOW the word is used and then determine the correct definition.

Look at the next image for another example.

What Is the Context Clue for Glumly?

(The example above is a vocabulary question based on Gary Soto’s Baseball in April and Other Stories. The excerpt is from the “Marble Champ” chapter.)

The Strategy

  • The reader must locate the paragraph, identify the word and determine the true definition.
  • The reader should determine the correct point of view and realize that glumly describes the opponent NOT Lupe.
  • Who looked glumly? The opponent.
  • The context clues/Lupe’s POV; 1. Lupe is playing the winner of the boys division. 2. Lupe is a girl competing against a “winning boy”. 3. Lupe blasted and shattered the marbles. 4. She won
  • The reader should determine HOW the opponent feels based on the context clues.
  • The context clues/Opponent’s POV; 1. we can assume he is happy since he just won the boys division. 2. Suddenly a girl (Lupe) shatters and blasts his marbles. 3. He lost.
  • How do you think the opponent feels? Sad and defeated. Therefore, glumly matches answer choice A. sadly.
  • Trick answer choices. If the reader continues to look at this question from the main character’s point of view (Lupe) they will incorrectly choose answers H or J. Answer H; quickly is the possible synonym for blasted. Answer J; excitedly can also be a synonym for describing blasted.

Overall, you must train yourself to be intuitive and insightful. The clues are there—you just have to find them.

© 2011 Marisa Hammond Olivares


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    • missolive profile imageAUTHOR

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Lizolivia, thank you! It is frustrating, but hopefully this lesson shows that it doesn't have to be impossible to figure out the meaning of words. Thank you for your insight, reading and commenting.

    • Lizolivia profile image


      7 years ago from Central USA

      Useful and well written. It can be frustrating reading material that has uncommon words we're not familiar with. Articles are more enjoyable and easier to understand when the author takes this into consideration and includes commas and clues. The use of a thesaurus also helps for clarification.

    • missolive profile imageAUTHOR

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      7 years ago from Texas

      rebeccamealey, Hi Rebecca! Thank you! I totally agree with you. Context clues are terrific vocabulary builders. I absolutely LOVE teaching this skill. Commas and conjunctions are a MAJOR clue in most cases and seeing those AHA! moments is awesome. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment. I truly do appreciate it.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Great Job! I have always thought context clues to be a great vocab builder. When I write I try to add a definition to words that someone might not know by adding a comma and then the little word or, followed by a phrase to explain that word. That little clue....or, always helps me determine word meaning using context.

    • missolive profile imageAUTHOR

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      8 years ago from Texas

      bohemiotx - thank you very much. Somehow I missed your comment. Please know I do appreciate you coming by to read. Cognate awareness is very important - I'll check it out :)

    • bohemiotx profile image

      Joffre Meyer 

      8 years ago from Tyler, TX

      Another great looking hub that's informative. Check out my vocabulary hubpage about cognates awareness for bilingual after 5th grade.

    • missolive profile imageAUTHOR

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Kerlynb I'm glad you stopped by! Developing the skill of using context clues is wonderful - it will also make you more aware in your overall reading and writing. Happy Hubbing!

    • kerlynb profile image


      8 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      Thanks for this useful hub! I am actually trying to learn English as a Second Language as much as I can so hubs about vocabulary and context clues are just great for me. Thanks again!

    • missolive profile imageAUTHOR

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Thank you Teresa. I'm thinking of posting a 2nd HUB with more examples. Identifying context clues is a great skill for any reader at any age. Glad you stopped by. FYI - take a look at my "Teaching Voice" Hub - I think you'll find it useful as well. :)

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Always looking for something useful to use in the classroom. Excellent, informative article.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      8 years ago from Nepal

      English is my second language and I'm always willing to brush up my language skill. This is very useful article.


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