Using Nonsense Words Activity for Teaching Context Clues

Using Nonsense Words Context Clues Teaching Activity

I walked through the school’s front office and noticed a swarm of students outside the nurse’s room. “We need more band aids!” shouted the school nurse, “and we need them now!” The local news team rushed through the main doors.

“Excuse me, do you work here,” the ambitious news woman asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you know anything about the epidemic of paper cuts?” I stood bewildered. That’s when the police rushed in, handcuffed me and hauled me off to jail. Apparently, all my students had paper cuts from looking up words in a dictionary. I avoided prison time, but the judge ordered me to start teaching vocabulary context clues lesson plans or I’d be visiting again soon. He gave me a context clues challenge lesson plan to get started and gave me some vocabulary context clues information pages.

I came up with this using context clues to figure the meaning of nonsense words on my own but was fired before I could use it.

ELA Common Core Standards Covered

Here are some common core standards that apply.

  • 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.9-10.4b Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).
  • L.9-10.4c Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology.
  • 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.9-10.5  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Context Clues Activity Procedures

One of the problems in assessing how well students use context clues to determine word meaning is to know whether they already know the word’s meaning. That’s why nonsense words are useful.


  1. If needed, review the different types of context clues and strategies for unlocking word meanings.
  2. Recreate a passage from a literary work (one that’s in the public domain, so you can just copy and paste).
  3. Replace words in the text with nonsense words and number them (There’s an example below).
  4. Instruct students to define the nonsense words by the context. This can be done as an individual or group practice activity or as an assessment.
  5. Options include creating nonsense words from common foreign roots. This forces students to use different forms of context to determine word meaning, which is the ultimate goal of a vocabulary context clues lesson plan.
  6. By the way, don’t forget the parts of speech.

Context Clues Activity Passage

This passage comes from the “Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924, Collier’s Weekly). Any passage will do.

Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle when Rainsford sighted the lights. He came upon them as he turned a crook in the coast line; and his first thought was that be had come upon a (1) skanaslok, for there were many lights. But as he forged along he saw to his great 2) herskimadoo that all the lights were in one enormous building–a 3) goonle structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the 4) nackwalm. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial 5) kicknspur; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.

“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no 6) tingpert, he found, when he opened the tall spiked iron gate. The stone steps were real enough; the massive door with a leering 7) hankshank for a knocker was real enough; yet above it all hung an air of 8) hooshslendoo.

He lifted the knocker, and it 9) mankled up stiffly, as if it had never before been used. He let it fall, and it startled him with its booming loudness. He thought he heard steps within; the door remained closed. Again Rainsford lifted the heavy knocker, and let it fall. The door opened then–opened as suddenly as if it were on a spring–and Rainsford stood blinking in the river of glaring gold light that poured out. The first thing Rainsford’s eyes discerned was the largest man Rainsford had ever seen–a gigantic creature, solidly made and black bearded to the waist. In his hand the man held a long-barreled 10) hoklumb, and he was pointing it straight at Rainsford’s heart.

Key – This key has the replaced word. Student responses may differ.

(1) village; (2) astonishment; (3) lofty; (4) gloom; (5) chateau; (6) mirage; (7) gargoyle; (8) unreality; (9) creaked; (10) revolver

The Ultimate Nonsense Words Reading Passage

Just in case you don’t feel like copying and pasting and replacing, Lewis Carroll’s done the work for you.

The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

  • `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  • Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
  • All mimsy were the borogoves,
  • And the mome raths outgrabe.
  • “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  • The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
  • Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  • The frumious Bandersnatch!”
  • He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  • Long time the manxome foe he sought —
  • So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  • And stood awhile in thought.
  • And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  • The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
  • Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  • And burbled as it came!
  • One, two! One, two! And through and through
  • The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
  • He left it dead, and with its head
  • He went galumphing back.
  • “And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  • Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
  • O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
  • He chortled in his joy.
  • `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  • Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  • All mimsy were the borogoves,
  • And the mome raths outgrabe.


Ideas for using “The Jabberwocky” for teaching context clues include the following:

  • Create a multiple choice test with a definite correct answer.
  • Create a multiple choice test with multiple correct answers.
  • Create a short answer test, requiring justification for correct answers.
  • Instruct students to write their own poem using 10 nonsense words.
  • Create an advertisement selling tickets to a bandersnatch battle or an advertisement selling jubjub birds.
  • Pretend the words in the poem are actual words and look on in astonishment as your students ask what they mean.
  • Whatever you choose to do with nonsense words, make sure the focus is on context reliance.

Teaching Context Clues

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

Last Updated on March 7, 2014 by ELAAdmin

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