Learn What Works

Students learn most new words from context. They do this by looking at the words, phrases, or sentences around the target word. Many Tier One words are learned this way.

At times more sophisticated words can also be learned from context. Students need to be taught to look for the hints to word meanings provided by the author, such as definitions, restatements, examples, descriptions, appositives, synonyms, or antonyms. A contrasting thought or clause can also be utilized in context. These can come in a sentence before the use of the target word, right after the target word, or in subsequent sentences.

Examples of the word ‘migrated ‘ used in different contexts

  • Migration means the movement of a large group from one place to another.  Many rural workers migrated to the industrial North after the Civil War.
  • Many rural workers migrated, or moved, to the industrial North after the Civil War.
  • Many rural workers migrated north after the Civil War.  This means large numbers of farm workers left the South and moved into northern cities.
  • Many rural workers migrated north after the Civil War. Before the war, many Indian tribes had already migrated to the western plains, and settlers seeking more farm land had migrated to Oregon territory or California.
  • Many rural workers migrated north after the Civil War, while others remained in the South to continue sharecropping.

It is important to remember that not all word meanings can be learned from context. For example, students would have a hard time figuring out the meaning of the word macabre in the following sentence: Joey was a new student with a macabre sense of humor. In this sentence, the word macabre could mean hilarious, tedious, unusual, childish, boring, or high-brow. Context could not be used to understand the word meaning without more information.

It is also important to remember that a deep understanding of sophisticated words is usually the result of repeated exposures in various contexts. Students would develop richer understandings of the words migration and macabre with more intensive instruction.

See How it Works

Context Clue Data Set

There are two ways to develop understanding of vocabulary context clues. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model gently releases responsibility for vocabulary acquisition to the students. The Inductive Model is vocabulary acquisition through a more critical thinking framework. These can be used in tandem to create a rich, vibrant learning experience for students.

Gradual Release of Responsibility

In the gradual release of responsibility model, teachers first model the use of context clues with explicit instructin and a Think-aloud. Teachers would then engage students in a shared practice, where the teacher is guiding students through the process in a large or small group. Once most students seem to have the idea, then most can be released for collaborative practice, while others work in a small group with the teacher for continued guidance. Finally, students are ready to apply the skill independetly. and lead students in practice of this skill.

Inductive Model

“The inductive model is designed to accomplish some very broad purposes, but can be focused specifically as well. Some of the broader objectives occur over fairly long periods of time through many experiences with inductive processes; others can be accomplished quite quickly and efficiently.” [Joyce & Calhoun, p. 8] The inductive model of instruction trains students to think conceptually and to look for patterns. It teaches them how to learn by letting them grapple with new content and make meaning.


Type of Context Clue Example
Definition: Within the text, the author gives the definition of the word. Erosion causes mountain peaks to become rounded over time. Erosion means that something is slowly worn away by natural elements, such as changes in temperature, wind, and water.
Restatement: The author repeats an idea in easier words. The dog yelped in pain. The short, high barks drew the attention of the neighbors.
Examples: The author gives examples–and sometimes non-examples–of a target word. There are many rodents kept as pets, such as rabbits, hamsters, or gerbils.
Description: The author describes a scene or situation to explain the meaning of a word. The tenant walked into the dingy one-room apartment. Little light came through the small dust-covered window. The furniture was shabby and covered with cat hair. On the scarred wooden table were food crumbs and old newspapers. There was no rug on the stained wooden floor.
Appositives: The author further defines a new word by bracing it in commas following the given word. The Lincoln Memorial, a beautiful monument to our 16th President, stands stately in Washington D.C.
Synonyms: The word is further explained with a word or phrase of similar meaning. The gargantuan, or huge, pile of dirty clothes took all weekend to diminish.
Antonyms: The word is further explained with a word or phrase that means the opposite. The United States includes both arid deserts and tropical rain forests.

Do What Works

Planning Template (Modeling the Use of Context Clues to Understand New Vocabulary)
Planning Template (Inductive Model of Teaching)


Planning Template (Inductive Model of Teaching)

  • Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J.O. (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read.  Partnership for Reading.
  • Beck, I.L.,  McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Every Child Reads. (2005). Iowa Department of Education.
  • Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2008). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
  • Joyce, B. & Calhoun, E. (1998). Learning to Teach Inductively. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Readence, J. E., Bean, T. W. & Baldwin, R. S. (2000). Content Area Literacy: An Integrated Approach. Seventh Edition. Dubuque: Kendall / Hunt Publishing Company.
  • Vacca, R. T. & Vacca J. L. (2002). Content Area Reading: Literacy and Leaning Across the Curriculum. Seventh Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.