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7: Noting Word-Level Cues

Mature readers rely on a variety of strategies to read words (Ehri, 1995; Ehri & McCormick, 2004).  Experienced readers recognize most words on sight having approached them through various other channels such as decoding or word roots and affixes.  Dechant (1991) characterizes this process of recognizing words on sight as instant recognition.  Less experienced readers and experienced readers who encounter a new word may decode a word; that is, readers associate sounds with letters and letter clusters and reproduce the pronunciation for a word.  Readers may also employ analogies to compare unknown words with known words based on spelling patterns.  A fourth strategy for reading words is prediction based on initial letters in the words, the words that occur before and after it in the text, and perhaps based on the pictures that accompany the text (refer back to Cognitive Strategy 1 for more about picture cues).

Analogies, as we pointed out in section one, have predictive uses.  A reader who knows several words by sight including “talk,” “walk,” and “chalk” can apply the knowledge, by analogy, to a new word even replicating the silent “l” in “balk.” Readers who know many words by sight are able to learn more words through analogy, adding flesh to the argument that we learn to read by reading.

Syntax and semantic information also are useful as predictive tools for readers encountering a new word.  One study found that fifth grade students who were taught context analysis skills could generalize those skills to other texts when the texts were similar in nature, but that students didn’t necessarily employ the use of context cues in more generalized reading situations (Baumann, Edwards, Boland, Olejnik, & Kame’enui, 2003).  The researchers further taught students about five types of context cues (see Figure 7.1) which rely on semantic cues; the authors of this text added one which relies on syntactic cues.

[Insert Figure 7.1 about here.]

Learning to Predict

Baumann et al. (2003) taught the fifth-grade students in their study a two-pronged approach to attack a new word for meaning.  Our adaptation asks students to:

  1. Read the words and sentences around the unknown word for clues to meaning,
  2. Then look at the word parts for root words and affixes that are familiar,
  3. Finally return to the words and sentences around the target or unknown again to see if the readers had come up with a word meaning that fits the context. See Figure 7.2.

[Insert Figure 7.2 about here.]

Applications and Examples

Elementary Classroom.  Teacher Rita Hanson wants her first-grade students to use context cues and the initial letter to make sense of a poem.  Her lesson can be found in Figure 7.3.

[Insert Figure 7.3 about here]

Secondary Classroom.  Chad Semling approaches vocabulary in a unit on economics using a strategy called Crisscross Challenge (Chapman & King, 2003, p. 102). In economics, students encounter terms that have new meanings for words they already recognize (words like “bond,” “demand,” and “depression”) and new words students have never seen before (words like “dividend,” “entrepreneur,” and “gross domestic product”). In this example, Mr. Semling has students employ the glossary in the social studies textbook his seventh graders use along with context cues from the sentence where the target word is located in the text itself (Figure 7.4)

[Insert Figure 7.4 about here]

Chapman and King suggest that the Crisscross Challenge pits student teams against each other.  The teacher posts a word, which the partners then locate in the text and glossary.  When both are pointing to the location of the word in their respective sources, they shout “Crisscross” together.  The partners read their information to the class and points may be accumulated for each team.   All students could then use the glossary definition and context of the sentence or paragraph to explain the meaning of the word to each other.

Figure 7.1  Definitions

From The Literacy Dictionary, 1995.

Syntactic cue: Evidence from knowledge of the rules and patterns of language that aids in the identification of an unknown word from the way it is used in a grammatical construction (p. 249).

Semantic cue: Evidence from the general sense or meaning of a written or spoken communication that aids in the identification of an unknown word (p. 229).

Figure 7.2  Using Context Clues

  1. Definition of context clues: the author gives you a definition for a word right in the sentence.
  2. Synonym context clues: The author uses another word that means about the same as the word you are trying to understand.
  3. Antonym context clues: The author uses another word that means the opposite or nearly the opposite of the word you are trying to understand.
  4. Example context clues: The author gives you several words or ideas that are examples of the word you are trying to understand.
  5. General context clues: The author gives you some general clues to the meaning of a word, most often spread over several sentences.
  6. To this, the authors of this book add word order clues: The order of the words can tell you if a word is a noun, an adjective (description), and so on.

Adapted from Baumann, J. F., Edwards, E. C., Bolan, E. M., Olejnik, S, & Kame’enui, E. J., 2003, p. 465.

Figure 7.3  In her own words: Rita Hanson, Hanson School District, Alexandria, South Dakota.

Title of Lesson:  Using the beginning letter

Subject: Reading/ 1st grade large group

Literacy Objective: The children will use the beginning letter of a word in their reading to help them determine an unknown word.  The lesson will also focus on using context clues to make sure words look right and make sense as they are reading.

Materials and resources: A large copy of the poem Falling Up written on chart paper big enough for the all the students to see.

Anticipatory Set:  Boys and girls, today I need your help reading the poem on the board.  Someone has covered up some of the words in the poem.  I was wondering if you could help me try to figure out those words that are covered up.  Remember how when we read we have to make sure the words we are reading make sense and look right.  Word detectives are you ready to get to work?

Instructional Input:  We will read the poem together using context clues to determine the covered word.  I will use large sticky notes to hide certain words in the passage.  The children will make attempts at the hidden words by using context clues.  I will read the passage to them saying “blank” to signify the unknown words.  The children will guess possible words that would make sense in the paragraph.  The class will reread the sentence after each guess to make sure it makes sense and the word is about the right size.  After four to five words have been attempted I will uncover the first letter of the word.   I write all the attempted words on the board for them. We will discuss as a class what words can be eliminated because they do not have the correct beginning letter.  The students will be given another opportunity to generate additional word possibilities (three to four) for the hidden word.  I will uncover the covered word at this time to show the children the correct word.

Modeling: I will read the first sentence with the covered word.  I will model for them through a think aloud how a good reader thinks about what makes sense and looks right as they are reading.

Figure 7.4  In his own words: Chad Semling, Menomonie Middle School, Menomonie, Wisconsin.

This strategy involves a pair of students working together to accomplish a common goal, finding the term(s) both in the chapter and the glossary.  Once the students find the locations, they read aloud the information they found.  I feel this strategy serves a number of different purposes.  First, it reinforces the idea of using a textbook’s glossary.  Second, the students see first hand not only a term’s definition but also its contextual use.  Literacy objectives met here would be:  reading to perform a task and expressing ideas that build off the ideas of others.  This may take modeling on my end, but students end up discussing the differences/similarities between what is in the glossary and what is in the chapter.

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