Context Clues

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Language Arts
Reading Comprehension

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Context Clues

Context Clues and Nonsense Words to Support Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Decoding

Position Statement

Nonsense Words


Support for PositionMahmoud, 2016Twenty first-year engineering students from Saudi Arabia were assigned to two groups, even in size and pre-test reading comprehension ability. The control group was pre-taught certain vocabulary items. The experimental group had the same vocab words replaced with nonsense words and were asked to discover the meaning through contextual clues. The experimental group (who was taught context clue skills instead of being pre-taught vocabulary words to understand the text they were about to read) scored significantly higher in reading comprehension upon post-test.

Teaching context clues skills with nonsense words is more valuable than front loading individual vocabulary.

Mahmoud, S. S. (2015). How Contextual Clues and Nonsense Words Facilitate Reading Comprehension. Journal of Language Teaching and Research JLTR, 7(1), 88. Retrieved January 26, 2016.On the role of context in first- and second-language vocabulary learning. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2016, from

Context clue categories:SynonymSynonyms appear in apposition, in which case commas, dashes, or parentheses are used. Includes definitions.Example: The wardrobe, or closet, opened the door to a brand new world.AntonymAntonym clues will often use signal words (e.g. however, not, but, in contrast).Includes comparisons and contrasts.Example: He signaled a louie, not a right turn.LogicLogical clues and one’s own prior knowledge about the content and text structure may provide clues to meaning.Includes associations and cause & effect.Example: He pet the canine, and then made her sit up on her hind legs and beg for a bone..

How This Can Be UsedStudents should be taught the skills to determine the meanings of words in the context of a sentence or paragraph. (See context clue categories.) These skills can then be practiced with nonsense words (words that truly have no real meaning) to make sure students are actually using clues and not and outside sources or knowledge to determine the meaning.As shown in the 2016 Mahmoud study, using nonsense words and contextual clues to discover the meaning of new words should be prioritized in classroom vocabulary instruction over the traditional approach to vocab teaching - memorization or association of meaning with one word at a time. .

How Context Clues Connect to Reading ComprehensionThe students in this study were in my sheltered class with 100% being considered LEP (less than English Proficient. Context clues helps boost student self-esteem in reading more difficult texts and identifying new vocabulary words. Nonsense context clues also helps set purpose for students to use strategies to break down unfamiliar words. "However, evidence can also be found that shows the limitations of decontextualized forms of vocabulary learning (e.g., studying word lists, memorizing definitions). Though wide reading cannot be viewed as a panacea, there is good reason to consider it a necessary condition for large reading vocabulary. Context remains an important source of information for readers." (Nagy, 1995) .


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