5 Tips for Defining Unknown Words Using Context Clues

Students encounter unfamiliar words all of the time, but few slow down to think about what they can learn about those unfamiliar words based on how they are used. The ability to define unfamiliar vocabulary is a life skill that teachers need to teach explicitly. We cannot assume that students will know how to do this without instruction and practice. Below are five strategies I encourage students to use when they encounter new words in a text.

  1. Look at the parts of the word. Are there any roots in the word? Does the word sound like another word you know?
  2. Break down the sentence. What can you learn about the word based on the information in the sentence?
  3. Hunt for clues. Are there definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or punctuation that provide clues about the word’s meaning?
  4. Think about connotative meaning (ideas, feelings, or associations beyond the dictionary definition). Does the word have positive or negative connotations?
  5. Once you have a guess, substitute your word or phrase for the unfamiliar word to see if it works.

These tips may not work every time, but they give students a place to start. Below is a video tutorial I created to provide students with a concrete example of what it looks like to use these tips while reading an excerpt from The Giver in StudySync.

Not only will students who use these strategies to define unfamiliar words develop vocabularies more quickly, but it will help them be more successful on high stakes exams, like the SAT. All of the vocabulary on the new SAT is used in context, so students will need to be comfortable navigating a challenging text with unfamiliar vocabulary.

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