Context Clues

Being able to figure out the meaning of a word from context is one of the most important skills a multilingual learner can have. One way to introduce this idea to students in an engaging way is with nonsense words.


The most important ball in a game of Quidditch is a Golden Snitch.  The Seeker must catch it to win the game.

What is a Golden Snitch?


Student reads 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 answer, ask what key words or phrases helped them, i.e. most important ball and win the game.


Say to students: Let’s practice context clues with nonsense words because they don’t really exist. Without missing a beat, ask what nonsense words are. This should jolt students into focus because they will 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.


Read through examples on powerpoint and elicit the meaning of the nonsense words. Part of the fun of this activity is saying the nonsense words out loud, so you will want to call on individual students to read.


Students make up their own nonsense words! Give 2-3 minutes for everyone to create one nonsense word and put it in a sentence. Finally, ask them to share the sentence while their classmates guess the meaning of their word.

Nonsense word examples can be downloaded by clicking below.

Noticing, Retrieving, Generating

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. (Mikulecky 2011) Ideally, the process works 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 two exposures to it.

The more they encounter the word the stronger their definition becomes as well as their ability to remember it. 

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