September 28, 2013

The Shouts and Whispers of Context Clues


           During a reading activity, I discovered something about my 4th graders.  Most of them had no idea what to do when they came to words that they didn’t understand.  This, to me, was very surprising.  Surprising, because I know that they did receive instruction, but because it doesn’t stick.  That’s what’s been bugging me so much about returning to the upper grades after a number of years away-why isn’t instruction sticking the way it used to!  How come kids are not independent on strategies when they enter the next grade?  I have a number of ideas as to what it is, but that’s not for now. Right now we are talking context clues-so back to the topic!

            While we were investigating how text features work through our science focus of the nature of science, I introduced key words.  Key words are usually bold face, italicized, and/or colored.  In this particular text, they were colored.  We recorded our text feature in our reading journal, talked about what to look for, focused on the fact that these words WILL show up on tests, and talked about how, in the content area they must retain them because they will be expected to know them forever without review.   Then I got back to focusing on what to do with them.  I informed them that I was going to read the information after the key word and they were to let me know what the definition of the word was.  I read, I stopped, and I heard crickets when I asked what the definition was.  Crickets, nothing but crickets.  Most were looking at me like I had asked the hardest question in the world!  INTERVENTION TIME!   So, I asked, “What context clue do you see here?”  Crickets, again!  MORE INTERVENTION TIME!  Being the wise owl that I am, I jumped into my large, and I mean large, supply closet (Oh, trust me, you’d be VERY jealous.  I’m very tempted to write a post on it, but I think I’d get hate mail!) and pulled out my context clue signs.


I’ve had these for years, and they are showing it.  We turned our page in our reading journals and began to record the information.  

The kids obediently did so.  We returned to the book, repeated the same, and….crickets. Yes, at this point, I couldn’t figure out what to do, and then it hit me.  There are two types of context clues-whispers and shouts. 

            Kids need novelty. Brain research says that it helps them to remember and learn.  For some reason, I realized that these obvious, right-there context clues shout at us.  So, I began to explain that there was a word from our list on the page, and it was shouting to us.  I would shout when I got to the word, and that would signal the definition.  Every time I said shout, I shouted!  In fact, since then, I shout when I’m talking about shouting context clues.  It’s driving them nuts-but it’s working.  It’s really working.  It’s helping them pay attention when we are reading materials that have key words in them.  This is what I mean by how context clues shout-they are right there, on the page, giving the definition. 

            Next we moved onto the whispers of context clues.  When Scholastic had their awesome $1 sale, I thought it was worth the risk of buying a set of books on direct reading topics.  I picked up this one:


What I did was I ran copies of the teaching page for my kids at 86% reduction, making it small enough to fit their reading journal. 

On the teaching page are the whisper clues for words they don’t know.  That’s what I called these, the whisper clues.  And I whispered.  The novelty is there, again.  Whisper when you teach them; shout when you teach the others.  So, whispering, we moved on to learn about how to handle these.  This starts with identifying a word you don’t know.  You see, I know up until now, most kids have been just skipping over the words they don’t know.  They are almost doing context clues in reverse.  They skip the word they don't know, and use the context to build understanding.  But that won’t continue to work on the harder texts that they are reading.  They need to begin to pay attention to words and what’s around them-and to use the clues to figure out the word.  Once we learned the whisper clues, we started to practice.  This book comes with 18 opportunities to practice the skill.  We have been practicing!  What’s great about this, is it will help kids to move to questions like this:

  1. Read the sentence below from pg. 25:
             “That man’s dotty!” muttered Grandma Josephine.
       In this sentence, what does dotty mean?

This question is styled like the FCAT 2.0 questions are written and, more than likely, how most of the Common Core assessments will be written as well.  This is a little sample of questions I’m working on for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  This is how the kids need to be able to handle context clues.   And, if you notice, the book also includes figurative language, and, yes, they are found on FCAT 2.0 and within the Common Core standards.  Is this worth the investment of time and effort to really teach and make the kids independent with-yes, it is!  Not just for FCAT 2.0 or other assessments, but because it’s a life skill for any reader!  Isn’t that what we are really striving for.  We might practice the style of question we need them to learn, but these skills are for life.  I want my students to walk away understanding that words matter, and to take the time to begin to understand them.   They need the shouts and whispers of context clues to do that! 

            How do you teach context clues?  I’d really like to have some additional ideas and resources that you use.  I know I will have kids I need to remediate this area in and would love some additional ideas.  Please leave me a comment about how you do context clues!



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