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How to Teach Context Clues Strategies

Grades 4-8 Comprehensive Vocabulary

Comprehensive Vocabulary

Students learn context clue strategies to problem-solve the meanings of unknown words. But wouldn’t it be more precise to use the dictionary? No. The dictionary is a fine tool and should be used to look up words that are critical to the comprehension of any reading. However, the dictionary is not a practical tool for reading at the 5% unknown words reading level. Often, the definition frequently does not fit the connotative meaning of the word as used in the reading passage. Additionally, there are often multiple definitions—which one fits? Context always determines meaning. Also, looking up one in every twenty words adversely affects comprehension. Time spent looking up words is reductive. The few minutes it takes to look up and internalize the definition could be better spent reading more text, because the more words read provides more exposure and practice—the keys to efficient vocabulary acquisition.

So, learning and practicing context clue strategies makes sense. Context clue strategies can be internalized with sufficient practice and can be flexibly applied by skillful readers to figure out the meaning of many unknown words without adversely impacting comprehension. The best way to apply context clue strategies is to learn the problem-solving strategies detailed in FP’S BAG SALE. When readers come to an unknown word, they apply the relevant steps of the FP’S BAG SALE strategy to get a good clue about the meaning of an unknown word. Download this strategy and two accompanying worksheets with answers.

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Flexibility is key to using context clue strategies. Multiple strategies provide multiple ways of problem-solving. Good readers learn to quickly sort through the options and select the strategy or strategies that works best. They also accept the fact that context clue strategies don’t always work and that understanding every single word is not necessary for the purpose of reading—effective meaning-making.

Initially, readers should follow the steps of the FP’S BAG SALE context clues approach in order to problem-solve the meanings of unknown words. Then, through teacher modeling and guided practice, students should learn to efficiently “hunt and peck” for clues to meaning by applying the individual steps.


Finish the sentence. See how the word fits into the whole sentence.

Pronounce the word out loud. Sometimes hearing the word will give you a clue to meaning.

Syllables–Examine each word part. Word parts can be helpful clues to meaning.

Before–Read the sentence before the unknown word. The sentence before can hint at what the word means.

After–Read the sentence after the unknown word. The sentence after can define, explain, or provide an example of the word.

Grammar–Determine the part of speech. Pay attention to where the word is placed in the sentence, the ending of the word, and its grammatical relationship to other known words for clues to meaning.

Synonym–Sometimes an unknown word is defined by the use of a synonym. Synonyms appear in apposition, in which case commas, dashes, or parentheses are used. Example: The wardrobe, or closet, opened the door to a brand new world.

Antonym–Sometimes an unknown word is defined by the use of an antonym. Antonym clues will often use Signal Words such as however, not, but, in contrast Example: He signaled a looey, not a right turn.

Logic–Your own knowledge about the content and text structure may provide clues to meaning. Logic clues can lead to a logical guess as to the meaning of an unknown word. Example: He petted the canine, and then made her sit up and beg for a bone.

Example–When part of a list of examples or if the unknown word itself provides an example, either provides good clues to meaning. Example clues will often use Signal Words such as for example, like, such as Example: Adventurous, rowdy, and crazy pioneers all found their way out West.

How to Practice Context Clue Strategies

Select passages from the textbook or literature that contain unknown words. Demonstrate how to problem-solve the meaning of the unknown words by doing a “Think-Aloud” of the FP’S BAG SALE strategies. Select words that can be specifically determined by each step of the process. Also, select words that have no helpful context clues to show how the process is not fool-proof.

Select passages from the textbook or literature, scan into a word processor and delete every twentieth word, skipping articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. This is known as a CLOZE passage. Then have the reader use the FP’S BAG SALE strategies to guess the meaning of the deleted words. Compare reader answers with the original words and award points for correct answers. Of course, synonyms are fine and will promote rich denotative and connotative word discussions.


For full-year vocabulary programs which include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), Greek and Latin morphology with Morphology Walls (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0), check out the assessment-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Comprehensive Vocabulary.

Get the Grades 4,5,6,7,8 Vocabulary Sequence of Instruction FREE Resource:

Get the Greek and Latin Morphology Walls FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Academic Language Assessment FREE Resource:

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