When our child asks us what a word means, our automatic response is to, simply, tell them the answer. Unfortunately, your child is not learning anything by doing this. They will not learn the definition or know what to do when they come across another difficult vocabulary word.
As a reader, your child needs to be using context clues to uncover the meaning of a difficult word. Context clues are the clues in the sentence(s) that reveal the meaning of the vocabulary word. Using context clues helps your child learn problem solving skills as a reader and is a lifelong reading skill.
At first, some kids struggle to even find the context clues. It takes practice. You will need to show your child the clues in the beginning.
For this activity, your child will need their book, a hi-lighter, pencil, and sticky notes (or the FREE graphic organizer you can download at the bottom of this post!)
I am using The House at Pooh Corner as an example. Your child may do this activity with any book, short story, article, etc. they may be reading.
So, what kinds of clues should your child be looking for when trying to uncover the meaning of a difficult word?
Synonyms – words surrounding the difficult word that have the same meaning
Example: “‘There was a heap of sticks on the other side of the wood,’ said Piglet. ‘I saw them. Lots and lots. All piled up.” (pg. 10, The House at Pooh Corner)
Based on this clue, we know that a heap means a pile, since Piglet uses this synonym to describe the sticks.
Antonyms – words surrounding the difficult word that have the opposite meaning
Example: “‘It’s still snowing,’ said Eeyore gloomily…’yes,’ said Eeyore. ‘However,’ he said brightening up a little, ‘we haven’t had an earthquake lately.'” (pg. 11)
With this clue, we know gloomy means said, since Eeyore “brightens up” when he mentions there hasn’t been any earthquakes lately.
Definitions – Sometimes, the definition is within the sentence! Score!
Example: “An introduction is to introduce people..” (pg. 1)
This clue makes the job quite easy for the reader. The use of the words “is to” helps the reader connect that introduction means to introduce. Simple!
Examples/Explanations – uses examples of the difficult word to help the reader understand the meaning
Example: “‘Worraworraworraworraworra,’ said Whatever-it-was…’What can it be?’ he thought…It isn’t a growl, it isn’t a purr, and it isn’t a bark…” (pg. 22)
From the list of growl, purr, and bark, we know that “Whatever-it-was” must be an animal that is making a strange noise. Depending on the story, sometimes your child will need to use context clues to figure out the meanings of made-up words for the story. This example, is a cute one. 🙂
General Context/Inference – Based on what is going on in the story, the reader is able to figure out what a word means
Example: “‘You’re just in time for a little smackerel of something,’ and he put his head in the cupboard.” (pg. 5)
Since, Pooh is putting his head in the cupboard and he described a smackerel as “little,” we know that “smackerel” probably means a taste or a small snack.
As your child, uses context clues to uncover the meaning of vocabulary, they should hi-light the context clues they see and write their definition on the sticky note and place it by the difficult word.
VERY IMPORTANT TIP: Your child should only use a dictionary to check their own definitions. Dictionaries should not be used to find a definition. The goal is for your child to synthesize a definition that makes sense. It does not need to be the exact definition from the dictionary!
Click here to download a FREE graphic organizer to use to help your kiddo with context clues!