Determining a Word’s Meaning from Context Using Different Types of Context Clues

Lesson Plan: Types of Context Clues

My legions of fans (my three year old son, my dog, and my goldfish) have been asking for a follow up article on using context clues to determine word meanings (Here’s the amazingly popular original context clues lesson plan). The day has finally arrived.

ELA Common Core Standards

After teaching different types of context clues to my classes, I felt good. They were able to identify examples of definition and restatement, example, and comparison. But it wasn’t enough. They still lacked skills with three different types of context clues: contrast, cause and effect, and inference from general context.

Here are the ELA Common Core Standards covered.

  • L.9-10.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • L.9-10.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • L.9-10.4d  Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • L.9-10.5b  Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

Types of Context Clues: Contrast

Context may reveal the meaning of a word through contrast as in this example:

Example. Unlike the apoplectic parent shouting imprecations at the administrator, Mr. Wallaby stood still, enjoying the unexpected entertainment.

  • In this sentence, the word unlike signals a contrast between stood still and apoplectic. Even if the reader does not know what apoplectic means, he or she can figure out the parent was moving wildly, uncontrollably.

Other signal words for contrast include:

  • but
  • although
  • on the contrary
  • on the other hand
  • dissimilar
  • on the other hand
  • in contrast to
  • however

The skill of sing contrast to help determine word meanings becomes more important with the proliferation of standardized testing.

Types of Context Clues: Cause and Effect

The cause of an action may be stated using an unfamiliar word. However, if the effect is stated in familiar words, the reader can infer its meaning.

Example 1: His lack of sagacity caused him to make one stupid decision after another.
Example 2: The intrepid warrior led the assault on the well guarded fortress.

  • The word sagacity may be unfamiliar to many readers. Understanding that the lack of it causes one to make stupid decisions, a discerning reader quickly infers that sagacity means wisdom. Knowing the intrepid warrior led an assault most would not dare helps the sagacious reader infer that intrepid means fearless.

Words signaling cause and effect include

  • because
  • since
  • consequently
  • therefore
  • when
  • as a result.

Practicing this skill will help students when taking standardized tests.

Lesson Ideas

Use these lesson ideas for teaching context clues.   

  • Make identifying the type of context clue part of the context clues challenge.
  • Instruct students to write new vocabulary words with different types of context clues.
  • Have students identify types of context clues on standardized tests.

Not all clues are as obvious as the ones we’ve discussed, nor can they be tested with simple questions. Often, readers must read more than just the sentence or two surrounding the word. Sometimes a group of words several sentences away may unlock the meaning. Sometimes the supporting details in a paragraph must be examined together to help the reader infer the meaning of a particular word. This is called inference from general context.

A continuation of this lesson can be found by clicking on Examples of Context Clues a few inches below.

Context Clues and Other Lessons

There are many ways of teaching vocabulary that don’t involve a dictionary.

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