A more recent trend in vocabulary instruction is teaching students to use context to determine the meaning of unknown words. Nagy, Anderson, and Herman (1987) identified six types of context clues:
- Root words and affixes
Using context clues to figure out unknown words is a well-known vocabulary strategy. Graves and Graves (1994) make a distinction between teaching vocabulary and teaching concepts. Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels for familiar concepts. It's easy to teach new words related to a known concept.
Context alone cannot substitute for direct vocabulary instruction. Some words will need to be taught before readers can comprehend a text. Nagy et al. (1987) found that students who read grade-level texts under natural conditions have about one in twenty chance of learning meaning from context. Baumann and Kameenui (1991) agree that learning words through context clues is limited at best. They offer several cautions about word learning through context:
- Context clues are relatively ineffective means for inferring the meaning of specific words.
- Students are more apt to learn specific new vocabulary when definitional information is combined with contextual clues than when contextual analysis is used in isolation.
- Research on teaching contextual analysis as a transferable and generalizable strategy for word learning is promising, but limited.
Sometimes readers can figure out word meanings from the context or from their prior knowledge of the concept. Below are some strategies students can use to figure out the meaning of a word by using context clues.
- Read the sentence without the word. Can you figure out what word you know that would make sense in place of the unknown word?
- Look at the word in relation to the sentence and full paragraph. Can you figure out a meaning?
- Look at the page where the word is located to see if there is an illustration or diagram that helps with the meaning of the word.
- Ask a classmate if he/she knows the meaning of the word.
- Look the word up in a dictionary and see if any of the meanings fit the sentence.
- As a last resort, ask your teacher or other adult.
However, there will be times when there are few or no context clues in a passage or the students lack the background knowledge to make using context clues a useful strategy.
Traditionally, vocabulary instruction has been based upon grade level word lists. One problem with word lists (Nagy, 1988) is that they treat all words as having equal importance in a text. Brozo and Simpson (2003) suggest a four-step process for identifying vocabulary words to be taught during a unit of study:
Every teacher encounters more words than s/he has time to teach. Here is another way to help you decide which words to teach (Graves & Graves, 1994):
- Determine what you want your students to learn from the reading of the content; in other words, the theme of the unit of study.
- Identify key terms that are related to the unit's theme.
- Decide on appropriate strategies to introduce and reinforce the words (e.g., a graphic organizer).
- Identify the general words that are not necessarily central to the theme of the unit, but that lend themselves to various word-learning strategies that promote independence (e.g., modeling words in context).
- "Is understanding the word important to understanding the selection in which it appears?"
- If “No,” then you select other words that are more important.
- "Are students able to use context or structural analysis skills to discover the word's meaning?"
- If “Yes,” allow them to practice them.
- "Can working with this word be useful in furthering students' context, structural analysis, or dictionary skills?"
- If “Yes,” then focus on that.
- "How useful is this word outside of the reading selection being currently taught?"
- The more frequent a word is, the greater the chances that students will retain the word once you teach it.
Lastly, the best source of information about what words to teach is the students themselves. Informally assess what words your students know before you start introducing new words.
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