Three Strategies for Teaching Context Clues

Dear Dr. Mooney…

I have several students in my fourth grade class who are English Learners. We are learning about context clues, and I am finding it very difficult to give them the help they need. I have been using visuals, modeling and trying to break down the sentences. However, they are not very familiar with English vocabulary so context clues feel very difficult to communicate. 

Do you have any advice on how I could differentiate my lesson plans for them? Should I be translating the passages into their first language? I have an extremely fun project planned where they will need to use context clues, and I just want to make sure that my ELs can participate equally with their peers. 

Thank you for your advice!

Missing Clues in Fourth Grade’

These are great questions. It’s certainly challenging to teach context clues to students who know few English words!

Depending upon the English proficiency levels of your students, it may be that this is simply a skill they’re not ready for. As a caring teacher, you want everyone to be able to participate in class, and although that’s a worthwhile goal, it’s just not always possible. However, it is important to find ways for students to participate as much as they can. 

So, here are some things to try…

Use Native Language (if possible)

You mentioned translating the clues into their native language. If you have the capability to do this, it is worth considering. If you are not bilingual, perhaps there’s a paraprofessional or EL specialist in your building who would be willing to help. Google Translate is also an option. It’s not perfect, so realize there could be vocabulary or grammatical mistakes that might make the context clue undecipherable. However, writing them in as plain English as possible makes it more likely the app will translate it correctly. For students who know little English, but are literate in their native language, this is a good possibility.

Lean On Visuals and Modeling

Yay! You’re already using visuals and modeling. That is exactly what you should be doing! I would keep that up. As teachers, we’ve been using context clues for so long that it is sometimes challenging to remember how hard the skill can be to learn. For each clue, you could try including a picture or diagram that either gives a hint to the answer or helps explain other words they need to read and comprehend to get to the answer.

Always, always, always model a skill before asking students to do it on their own. Teachers know this, but many don’t follow through in a way that’s actually helpful to students. You’ll probably need to model even more than you think will you. You can model the use of context clues in other lessons or classroom interactions before you even get to the lesson focused on them. In these “pre-lesson examples”, I would recommend using everyday language to talk about the skill you’re demonstrating. For example…

“Ah, ha! I figured it out. I knew ____ and then I just heard about _____.
When I put those two ideas together, I figured out ______.” 

If you’ve done this a few times, when it’s time for the context clues discussion, you can remind students about those prior situations. 

Tell them, “When I was using different pieces of information to figure out something new, something that wasn’t actually said, I was using context clues.” It’s easier for students to comprehend a concept when they have some background knowledge and everyday language to which they can attach the new academic language.

An additional way to model is to pair your lowest level ELs with higher ELs. This way, the student with more English proficiency can model for their peer.  Partner work is an effective scaffolding tool, and it might be the best option for some of your students.

Tell A Continuing Narrative

One other idea to consider is using passages that tell a continuing narrative. If each passage students decipher is completely different than the prior one, there are that many more new words to figure out. However, if the passages are all about the same subject (plant growth, revolutionary war, types of rocks, or a fictional story), it might be easier for them to figure out the words in the passage and use the context clues. 

‘Missing Clues’ – Thanks for reaching out. You were already using several important strategies to help your ELs grasp this complex skill. Hopefully these additional ideas will make it possible for all of your students to participate in that fun culminating project you have planned!

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