This post is a part of a series on teaching reading, part 1 explained how to use word clouds to introduce texts.

Everyday I took the bus from the northern part of Bogota to the center to work at a little office of Jesuit priests who were trying to help victims of human rights abuses. It was 1992, well before the internet took over the world, and well before the Transmilenio shuttled people around the city with speed and comfort. At this time we stopped and started and wound back and forth through crowded streets; the voyage took well over an hour each way so I had plenty of time to think, what with no podcasts or smartphones to fiddle with. I passed by the bank and the mall both coming and going and I saw the same word on both, ahorrar. It took me several weeks before the lightbulb went off in my head and I understood the word from context. What word would you see both at banks and at malls? Savings of course!! 

Why did it take me so long? Well, as it turns out, guessing words from context is hard! When you understand a word, nothing seems more obvious, but if you don’t understand it, trying to figure it out is anything but. Yet as a teacher I am guilty of telling my students to “try and figure it out from context” without giving them any tools to do so. I got a lot of blank stares.  

Then I questioned, is it even worth asking my students to try to figure it out from context, why don’t they just look it up now that it is so easy to do with a smart phone.

After some adjusting and experimenting with different ways to help students with unfamiliar vocabulary, I decided that it is worth teaching for a couple of reasons.  First, because fully engaging with a word, focusing on it and thinking about it helps students retain it better.  Second, they can’t always look things up.  For example, standardized tests, that can play a huge part in keeping English language learners from achieving their dreams, don’t allow students to bring phones or dictionaries in with them. It is also interrupts the flow of a text if you are constantly stopping to look things up and can interfere with comprehension. 

So, I came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was encourage my students to think about words before looking them up and giving them some tools that will help them guess words in a written text.

Tools to Help Students Guess Words from Context

1. What kind of word is it? Is it a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, something else? Knowing what kind of word you are looking at goes a long way to figuring out what it means.

Example: When you get back home, it is important to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. 
The doctor put on her scrubs before the surgery.

Knowing that the first use of scrub is a verb is super helpful because there are only so many things you should do to your hands for 20 seconds upon returning home so the possible meanings are really narrowed down.

Knowing that the second use is a noun helps especially when you stop to think about what doctors put on before surgery.  The options are really limited to gloves, a mask or the green clothes that they wear.  

2. Does the text define the word for you? Sometimes authors know that a word isn’t generally known so they tell you what it means right there in the text.

Example:  He looked in all of the local stores but there were no chanterelle (a kind of wild mushroom) to be found. 

3.  Does the text give you a synonym? This is a lot like giving you the definition. 

Example: I detest loud noises; in fact, I hate them so much I try never to go to noisy places.

4. Does the text give you an antonym? Sometimes, just to add clarity an author will give you a word that means exactly the opposite.

 Example: Everyone thinks she is very generous,  but really she is stingy.

5. Does the text give you examples? Sometimes the word is followed by examples that will help you figure it out.

Example: They found lots of flotsam on the beach, plastic water bottles, old rope, even a rusty boat engine.

6. Does the sentence itself give you an idea of the meaning?

Example: She did’t have breakfast or lunch so she is ravenous.

Even if you don’t know what ravenous means, you can imagine how you would feel if you hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and have a pretty good idea of what it means.  

Often the clues are too subtle or there are just too many unknown words to guess but this will at least give students a place to start.

Click here to get a free worksheet that will help your students practice looking for those 5 things to guess words from context.  

What do you do in your classroom to help students understand texts?  How do you help your students become better readers? Please leave me a comment below, I would love to hear about your experiences!

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