How To Teach Context Clues With Nonsense Words

Being able to figure out the meaning of a word from context is one of the most important skills an emergent bilingual (EB) can learn. So how do we introduce the idea to our students in an engaging way? With nonsense words, of course! (But first, we’ll need a little Harry Potter magic.)


  1. After briefly explaining the idea of context clues, have a student read the above example. Invariably, at least one student will know what a Golden Snitch is, making the explanation more accessible and easier to grasp. When they give you the meaning, ask what key words or phrases led them to that answer, i.e. most important ball and win the game.
  2. Show students the next slide and have one student read the sentence: Let’s practice context clues with nonsense words because they don’t really exist. Without missing a beat, ask the student what nonsense words are. Most of the time, this will jolt the student into focus because they have to apply the skill for the first time. Remind them to look at the words that come before and after, guiding them to the words don’t really exist.
  3. Read through the examples and elicit the meaning of the nonsense words. Part of the fun of this activity is saying the nonsense word out loud, so you will want to call on individual students to read.
  4. Now it is time for the students to make up their own nonsense words! Give 2-3 minutes for everyone to create one nonsense word and put it in a sentence. When time is up, they read their sentence while the class guesses the meaning of the nonsense word.


So often, when EBs encounter a word they don’t know in a text they stop reading. This is harmful to the students development on many levels. First, and probably most important, it really saps the joy out of reading. Suddenly, instead of engaging with a text that is supposed to be interesting and relevant to their lives, they are bogged down in a long and laborious chore. As a consequence, they learn to groan every time they’re presented with a reading task. The battle is lost before it even begins.

Second, when students actively construct the meaning of a word from repeated exposure to it, they are more likely to remember the word. This speaks to the 3-step process of noticing, retrieval, and generating. So it could work like this: 1) students notice a word they don’t know in a text and use context clues to guess the meaning; 2) later, students encounter the same word and retrieve the meaning; 3) students generate a new and refined definition of the word based on their 2 exposures to it. And the more they encounter the word the stronger their definition becomes as well as their ability to remember it. Pretty cool!

Click below for a pdf of activity. Enjoy!

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