Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tackling Vocabulary in Informational Text -- Part 1: Context Clues

Reading informational text offers a number of challenges to students. One of these challenges is dense, unfamiliar vocabulary. An otherwise engaging short reading that might be accessible to students in terms of style, syntax, and subject might have more than a dozen unfamiliar vocabulary words. And that can result in an instant turn-off

If on top of the vocabulary challenge, the text also assumes background knowledge that the students don’t have, we are looking at a Herculean teaching challenge.

All is not lost, however! We have some suggestions: 

  • Pick important words that are crucial to understanding the reading.
  • Use a mix of vocabulary activities.
  • Allow students to be creative in their vocabulary work.
  • Sneak ideas and information from the reading into your vocabulary work so that your students will be primed for the informational text.
Below, and in our next few posts, we will highlight some of our thinking about how to go about priming the vocabulary pump. The exercises are all taken from our unit (available for free to view and download at that puts an excerpt on rabies from a 1915 farm manual into dialogue with chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Context Clues
Vocabulary activities that focus on using context clues are a great way to begin because they highlight what the students already know and can figure out rather making them feel bad about their vocabulary knowledge deficit. Some multiple-choice exercises (2) are fine, but mix in questions that ask for a higher level of engagement and response (1). And following the sample questions released by PARCC, ask your students to think carefully not just about the right answer but about what in the context helps us to determine the meaning of the word in question (3). That way we reward thinking and not guessing.

1) The passage indicates that to prevent the spread of rabies, all dogs should be muzzled. Since we have learned that the disease spreads when one animal bites another, we can infer that muzzling an animal prevents those bites. Using that understanding, what do you think a muzzle might be?

2) She has a pleasant and sunny disposition; it is a rare day when you see her with a frown on her face. Disposition here means
a) nature
b) ability
c) frown
d) unwilling

3) Which word from the sentence in question 2 best helps the reader to understand the meaning of disposition?
a) rare
b) day
c) she
d) pleasant

In our next blog, we’ll discuss using vocabulary activities that move beyond context clues and focus on awareness of word forms and on dictionary skills.

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