In the previous lesson, students made inferences about events and characters’ emotions portrayed in brief skits. In this lesson, they will use their inferencing skills to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words based on context clues.
I open the lesson by telling students that I was reading an online magazine article about smog in China and encountered a confusing word. I project the article on the whiteboard and read aloud the first sentence in paragraph three—"Northern China experiences year-round air pollution from factory emissions and the huge number of vehicles on the road"—and ask for their help in figuring out what it means. I reread the phrase "factory emissions" two or three times while looking confused. Then I l ask if anyone knows what emissions means?
I tell them that it makes me frustrated when I read something but don't understand what it means because of an unfamiliar word. I ask, “Have ever read a word you didn’t know? How did that affect your understanding of what you were reading?” and call on volunteers to share responses. Then I ask students to share strategies they can use to understand an unfamiliar word. (looking at the pictures, rereading, reading the rest of the passage/sentence, asking a question, using a dictionary)
I tell them that examining the pictures and reading the rest of the article to look for clues to the meaning of emissions sound like good strategies to me. Then I reread the third paragraph from the beginning.
I restate their strategy suggestions in a “think aloud”: "I see thick smoke or smog in the picture and read about cars and factories making the problem. I remember seeing smoke coming from a factory when we drove to ________ last week. I think emissions means smoke."
I tell students that I’m going to reread the passage and substitute the synonym I chose to see if the sentence makes sense. I reread the sentence, substituting smoke for emissions. (This is a helpful strategy in general and a great test-taking strategy. In this case, students will have learned the sort of academic vocabulary that CCSS puts emphasis on.) I continue thinking aloud: “That makes sense! Now I can see the whole picture of what the author was trying to tell me.”
I finish the warm-up by stating the purpose of the lesson. I point out that as readers we can miss an author’s meaning when we don’t understand key vocabulary. Authors know this and often use context clues or clue words within a passage to help readers understand unfamiliar words and terms. Discovering the meaning of an unfamiliar word can be like putting together clues to solve a puzzle.
Now I share a story with the class. I explain that recently I went to dinner with my friend, Sara. I felt excited as we walked to the restaurant, and I began talking about how nice the weather has been and how the flowers are all growing so beautifully in my neighborhood. I told her all about the gardens at each house I passed on my walk that morning. Suddenly, she turned to me and said. "Why are you talking about such superficial things when we haven't seen each other for such a long time?" Superficial? What does that mean, I thought? I didn't know if I should be offended or if Sara had made a joke. She just kept on walking, and she didn't look mad at all. I thought about what I had been talking about and realized I had been babbling on and on about those silly flowers. I made a connection to what Sara had said: she seemed to want to talk about more important things than flowers. I realized that superficial must mean "silly or unimportant."
I then write the following formula on the board: clues (facts) + schema (prior knowledge) = inference.
I tell students that they are going to use the formula to decipher the meaning of some unfamiliar vocabulary words in short reading passages.
I project the Vocabulary Text Clues worksheet on the white board and read the first passage aloud. I ask, “How can we determine what the word inundate means? Are there any context clues in the text that can help us?”
I tell students to reread the passage silently to themselves and signal with a thumbs up when they have identified a context clue. Some students may be uncertain about expectations here and need assistance from a peer to gain understanding, so I have students share their context clues with a partner. Then I ask volunteers to share with the class and add responses to the worksheet on the whiteboard.
I do a “think aloud,” saying, “I know the prefix in- can mean “into”—like a lot of things going into his mind or into his to-do pile. If we combine the meaning of in- with the context clues, what would bea good inference for the meaning of the word inundate?” (bury, swamp, flood, pour down on, overload)
I reread the passage, replacing the word inundate with synonyms from students’ responses and ask the class to evaluate which response makes the most sense.
I usually work through one or two more items with the class. This is a great way for them to practice this strategy before applying it independently.
Note: This activity can be really challenging for students if they don't have any connections at all with the target vocabulary. I circulate around the classroom and help with some leading questions where needed. I note the words that cause difficulty so that we can cover them in a subsequent lesson or in guided reading groups.
I distribute the student worksheets and explain that they should read the a passage, underline context clues for the meaning of the word in bold, circle the letter next to their answer, and write an explanation of how the context clue(s) helped them understand the word.
Students can complete the worksheets independently or in small groups, depending upon the level of understanding you identified in guided practice. I usually have advanced students work by themselves and monitor a group with struggling readers and ELL students.
As I circulate around the classroom, I watch for misconceptions. Students often have difficulty with the word priceless. They know that the suffix -less means “without” and infer the meaning as “without a price.” This leads them to the literal meaning “no value” rather than the correct “great value.”
I close the lesson by bringing the class together to share responses, including the context clues that led to answer choices, to the worksheet items.
I then refer back to the lesson objective and the context clue formula—clues (facts) + schema (prior knowledge) = inference—and ask, “How can making inferences help us when we read?” (We can make inferences about the meanings of unfamiliar words.) "What do we use to make inferences about word meanings?" (context clues in the text and what we already know)