Using Context Clues
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:

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:

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.

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):

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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