Teaching Context

One of my biggest challenges with my students is getting to use context. In China, English grammar is the focus in schools. Conversation is less important. That means that I have a lot of students who know a ton about, for example, the passive voice. But when it comes to speaking and understanding, they get lost easily. They treat every conversation like a puzzle to solve. The problem with puzzles is that they can’t be solved without all the pieces. My students get lost if they think they are missing a piece.

But language isn’t like a puzzle. Even as a native speaker, I don’t know every word or understand everything people say. Understanding comes not just from vocabulary, but also from things like nonverbals and context. I don’t speak any Chinese, but I can still pick up a lot from context and knowing just a few words. My students have trouble with this, though, both in speech and writing.

That’s why I taught a lesson on context. I didn’t invent this one: Kenneth Beare wrote it on esl.about.com. I’ve modified it a little to fit my needs. It’s a great tool for getting students to use context to pick up meaning when they don’t know a word. Using this as a guide, teachers can also create their own material. For more advanced students, consider using “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. 

Aim: Increased awareness and usage of contextual reading clues

Activity: Awareness concerning the use of contextual clues, followed by worksheet practicing contextual reading

Level: Intermediate – upper intermediate


Write this example sentence on the board: “Tom decided that he desperately needed the glockum if he were to solve the problem”

  • Ask students what they do if they are reading an English text and do not understand a specific word.
  • Ask students what they do if they are reading a text in their native language and do not understand a specific word.
  • Ask students what ‘glockum’ means.
  • Once students have established that they don’t know what a ‘glockum’ is, ask them to guess at what it might be.
  • Ask students what part of speech a ‘glockum’ is (i.e. verb, noun, preposition etc.)
  • Have students explain how they arrived at their guesses, which clues did they use?
  • Explain the concept of reading in “chunks” i.e. looking at the text surrounding the unknown word for clues.
  • Point out that by usingall of these clues (i.e. “chunking”, part of speech, logical deduction, vocabulary activation), students can arrive at a much fuller understanding of difficult texts – even if they do not understand each word

Have students divide into small groups and complete worksheet.

Reading Clues 

  • Deduction– What does the sentence concern? Which words does the unknown word seem to relate to?
  • Part of Speech– Which part of speech is the unknown word? Is it a verb, noun, preposition, adjective, time expression or something else?
  • Chunking– What do the words around the unknown word(s) mean? How could the unknown word(s) relate to those words? – This is basically deduction on a more local level.
  • Vocabulary Activation– When quickly skimming through the text, what does the text seem to concern? Does the layout (design) of the text give any clues? Does the publication or type of book give any clues to what the text might be about? Which words can you think of that belong to this vocabulary category? Make logical guesses about the meaning of the unknown words in the following paragraph. 

Jack quickly entered the didot and cleaned the various misturaes he had been using to repair the wuipit. He had often thought that this job was extremely yullning. However, he had to admit that this time things seemed to be a bit easier. When he finished, he put on his redick and went back to the study to relax. He took out his favorite pipe and settled into the beautiful new pogtry. What a fantastic schnappy he had made when he had bought the pogtry. Only 300 yagmas!

  • What could a ‘didot’ be?
  • What part of speech is ‘misturaes’?
  • If Jack used the ‘misturaes’ to repair the ‘wuipit’ what do you think the ‘misturaes’ must be?
  • Which synonym could be used for ‘ yullning ‘?
  1. Fun     2. Difficult     3. Expensive
  • What type of things do you put on?
  • Based on the above question, what kind of thing must a ‘redick’ be?
  • Is a ‘pogtry’ used inside or outside?
  • Which words let you know that the ‘pogtry’ was cheap?
  • What must ‘yagmas’ be?
  1. Clothes     2. Cigarette type     3. Type of money

… For more advanced student…


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

–Lewis Carroll


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