Predicting Vocabulary from Context

I had a really nice worksheet that I liked to give to students to help them predict words from context. It forced students to actually write down the sentence that the word came from which I really liked. Using context to predict or infer the meaning of the word is an important skill. However, realizing that context is an important part of a word’s definition is also important. Remembering how  a word is used in a sentence helps students use it to—it gives the part of speech, spelling, collocations and topics, sometimes connotations.

I have long since lost the worksheet, which was copied out of a book I would happily give credit to if I had it. However, the activity went like this:

  1. As students read the book, they look for a word that they do not know.
  2. Students write down the word and the sentence they got the word from.
  3. Students then write down what they can glean about the word from the text. These guesses might be as simple as, “a kind of animal”, “it lives in Africa.” Or “adjective”, “something bad”. Nobody expects them to actually guess the word.
  4. After students have read the text or passage, ask them to reflect on whether their guesses were enough to read and understand or not. In other words, were they able to understand the rest of the story despite not getting this word or was there something that didn’t make sense because they didn’t know this word? This takes some reflection on the part of the student. A good example of a word that you don’t need to know exactly is jaguar in the following (made-up paragraph):

    The two hunters looked for the jaguar in the trees. They knew the jaguar was dangerous. It could easily kill them with its teeth and claws if they didn’t shoot it first. Suddenly, they saw its black fur against the green leaves. John fired his gun and the animal fell from the trees.

    A jaguar is a big, black scary animal. That’s enough to understand everything that happens in the story. On the other hand, you would need to know what Keynesian means in this passage:

    Keynesian economics has been proven correct a number of times. Its central tenets explain the Great Depression and the success of the recovery. However the current government ignores Keynesian economics in favor of supply-side economics.

    In this case, the writer is assuming you know what Keynesian economics is and is getting into nitty gritty details of it. It will probably only get worse as you read.

  5. Now have students look up the word in the dictionary.
  6. Finally students can go back and circle elements of the sentence that support the definition.
  7. Now students have a new vocabulary word with an example sentence and a definition!

This has really worked with me and my students.

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