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The Perfect Fit: Learning Vocabulary in Context

Last updated 3 years ago

We read and hear new words all of our lives. The ability to learn new vocabulary is so important that the Common Core Standards require the teaching of these skills at every level.

Do you remember memorizing lists of vocabulary words in school? How much did you enjoy doing that? Most people find a word meaningful only when it has a context - when it is part of an idea expressed in a group of words.

Using the clues around an unfamiliar word helps us understand it and heightens our awareness of how language works.

Use context clues to develop lifelong vocabulary skills:

Get a general sense of meaning
When you see an unfamiliar word, try reading a sentence or two past it to see if its meaning is made clear by the overall passage. If not, look for clues.

Look for Synonyms and Antonyms
Writers often use synonyms (words that have a similar meaning) and antonyms (words that have an opposite meaning) to reinforce meaning. They can provide clues to the meaning of the unfamiliar word.

Here's an example: "Marty was really tired when night came, but he woke up energized and ready to start again." (If the unfamiliar word is energized, we can use the antonym tired and the synonym phrase ready to start as clues to its meaning.)

Check meaning in a dictionary
Develop the "Look it up!" habit. Finding a definition in a dictionary is empowering for kids. But remember, words have multiple meanings. If we look up a word as soon as we see it, we may not understand its context well enough to know which definition fits our reading. It's better to try other strategies first to be sure which meaning applies.

Merriam-Webster's Word Central is a good place to find a definition, synonyms, antonyms, and the parts of speech for your vocabulary word.

The Literacy & Language Center is a great resource for helping your child learn to master vocabulary in context.

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