4 Ways to Teach Kids to Find Word Meaning in Context

When kids find word meaning in a text, comprehension improves. How can you facilitate this? First, use direct instruction to teach kids the strategies they need. Second, ask them to practice with targeted activities. Third, provide lots of mixed practice. Finally, ask students to use newfound metacognitive skills on texts they read every day.

Ms. Sneed Wants Students to Find Word Meaning

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat with her teaching partner, Mr. Frank. “You know,” she said, “my kids are struggling with unknown words in the text.”

“Same here. What can we do?”

“After a little research, I found four strategies.” She pulled her laptop around so Mr. Frank could see. “In this word meaning unit, the teacher explains each strategy. Then the kids practice it. They use:

  • Words set off by commas or parentheses: The Grand Canyon, a valley carved by the Colorado River, is located in Arizona.
  • Context clues: For thousands of years, Native Americans have inhabited the Grand Canyon. They built their homes in the canyon.
  • Word parts: Geologists believe that the Grand Canyon began to form more than 17 million years ago.
  • Related words: The Pueblo people made pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon.

“I like this,” said Mr. Frank. “It’s metacognitive. Students must think about their own thinking.”

“Yep.” Ms. Sneed nodded thoughtfully. “Let’s try this for the next week. We can report back at our next team meeting.”

Teaching Kids to Find Word Meaning

Day #1: Appositional Phrases

The following day, Ms. Sneed dug in with direct instruction. “This week, we’ll learn how to determine the meaning of unknown words in a text,” she told her class. “Today we’ll work on appositives. Also known as appositional phrases, these words are set off by commas or parentheses. The definition is right in the sentence!”

Ms. Sneed presented the first portion of the slideshow, which explained and modeled the process. Afterward, she asked kids to complete some targeted practice on the skill.

“This is really easy,” piped up one child.

“Sure it is,” Ms. Sneed responded, “once you know what you’re looking for!”

Appositives help kids find meanings of unknown words.

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Day #2: Context Clues

The next day, Ms. Sneed and her class tackled context clues. “Did you know,” the teacher asked, “that clues about word meaning are everywhere? If you put on your detectives’ hats, you can figure out just about any word.” Again, she showed a portion of the slideshow. Then the kids practiced their new strategy.

For this skill, Ms. Sneed noticed a little more struggle. She bent over one student’s desk to help. “Look beyond the sentence that the word is in,” she coached.

Teach kids to use context clues to determine word meaning.
Day #3: Word Parts

On the third day, Ms. Sneed addressed her class. “Another strategy for finding the meaning of unknown words is using word parts.” Once again, she showed a portion of the slideshow.

“This strategy will take some extra work,” she said. “We need to learn the meanings of new word parts. As you complete today’s worksheet, think about parts you already know.”

“I know the words outdoors and man,” one little voice said. “So I know what an outdoorsman is!”

Kids can use word parts to figure out the meanings of words.
Day #4: Related Words

“Today we’ll think about words that look or sound like the unknown word,” Ms. Sneed began. “You’ll be surprised with your success. Most words that look alike also have similar meanings.”

For the last time, she showed a portion of the slideshow.

A student in the back remarked, “I never knew there were so many kinds of volcanos!”

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Now let’s try the worksheet.”

The boy in the desk next to the teacher was already working. “Disastrous. Disaster,” she heard him say.

When kids consider related words, their vocabularies expand.
Day #5: Mixed Practice

“Yay!” Ms. Sneed said on the fifth day. “We’ve learned all four strategies for finding word meaning. Now you’ll do some mixed practice.”

Quickly, teacher distributed the worksheets. “You’ll notice a fifth strategy on this page: using a glossary or dictionary. Only use this if it’s absolutely necessary.”

Ms. Sneed circulated as her students worked.

“Hey,” she heard a girl say to her neighbor, “this is easy now that we know the strategies.” That famous teacher smile crept across Ms. Sneed’s lips.

After you teach strategies for determining unknown words, give kids some mixed practice.

Improving Vocabulary While Teaching

The next day, Ms. Sneed sat at the back table with her teaching partner. “High five to you,” said Mr. Frank. “My kids’ reading comprehension grew by leaps and bounds this week. Targeting strategies for word meaning really works.”

“You know,” said Ms. Sneed, “I’ve realized that mirroring these strategies while teaching will improve kids’ vocabulary.”

Mr. Frank looked thoughtful. “I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Please go on.”

“If, for example, I’m talking about precipitation, I can use appositional phrases to remind kids what it is. I don’t have to stop. Instead, I add the definition as I teach. I can say, ‘Precipitation, the rain and snow a place receives, affects the biosphere.'”

“Hmm. I see what you mean. Piggybacking off of that, you could go to the whiteboard, split the word biosphere into bio and sphere, and quickly explain.”

“Exactly. I really think teaching incidental vocabulary could improve our teaching. Are you up for a challenge?”

Mr. Frank gave an uncertain grin. “Sure. Let’s hear it.”

“Over the course of the week, we’ll consciously use strategies to find word meaning as we teach. Then next week, we’ll report back on our progress.”

“I think that’s called metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thought processes,” Mr. Frank laughed. “And that’s the beginning of my new teacher talk – in appositional phrases.”

“Gotta love sharpening the tools in that teacher toolbox.” Ms. Sneed’s eyes twinkled.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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