Skip to content
Shop Bilingual at Home - $4.95 flat-rate shipping for online orders!
Shop Bilingual at Home - $4.95 flat-rate shipping for online orders!

Six context clues strategies to figure out new words in authentic texts - Part 1

We emphasize the benefits of using authentic texts, works originally written in the same language that the child is reading them.  These books are not translations or adaptations.  Instead, the author’s original, authentic voice is communicated in every word, every nuance.  The power of authentic literature lies in the fact that it’s rich in vocabulary, and filled with cultural references.  At the same time, these authentic texts present authentic ways to develop autonomy in learning new words.  

Authentic literature is rich with new vocabulary and figurative language students often have not been exposed to.  This includes language from other variations of Spanish, French or English that are unknown to them.  Teaching students to use context clues is a way of building independence in the search for comprehension of new words and expressions.  Today’s post demonstrates three strategies to help students tackle unknown words in authentic literature.

I like to teach about contextual clues by explaining what they are.  Context clues are little bits of information that are in or around the unknown word. 

In this blog post, I will be referring to Celia: La niña que cantaba con las manos by Juan Francisco Bascuñán, a Chilean author.  Celia is deaf, and moved from Colombia to Chile, where she lives with her uncle and aunt.  Writing in epistolary format, Celia shares with her mom who still lives in Colombia anecdotes of resilience and inclusion in her new school.  We learn about how Celia and her family advocate for her, while the school director finds ways to include her in learning and socializing at school.  The book Celia is full of tier 2 vocabulary.

Students in second grade and above, as they become more fluent readers, come across less frequent vocabulary.  They can usually decode these words perfectly, but they lack the linguistic background to fully grasp the meaning of each one.  While some words really need to be taught explicitly, such as sordo and sorda in the case of Celia so that students know the word for “deaf”; other words shouldn’t be given to students.  Some new words are a perfect opportunity to remove scaffolding, to take away some of the assistance we usually provide.  They’re a great next step or area of productive struggle.   These next few strategies equip students with tools they will use for a lifetime to figure out words they do not understand.  


1. Read a little before and a little after

In Celia’s first letter to her mom, she says “Espero con ansias que puedas viajar a fin de año junto a mi hermanito James.”  Many students will not understand what “con ansiasmeans.  However, we can show them how readers can infer the meaning of new words by reading a little before and a little after. They pick up on as many clues as possible to help them figure out these new words.


Clue #1: At the top of the letter is the date “12 de enero.” It’s early in the year.  
Clue #2: I see that Celia is writing to her “Mamá.”  She must miss her.  
Clue #3: Right before con ansias is “Espero,” which I know means “I hope” or “I wait.”  
Clue #4: If we read past con ansias, we’ll come across the words “a fin de año.”  That’s in a long time. 

Inference about the meaning of “con ansias.”  

When I put all of these clues together, I can infer that Celia will not be seeing her mother for quite some time.  That’s why I think she must really hope to see her soon.  “Espero con ansias” must mean that she’s waiting a little impatiently for her mom to come. 

Is it important for students to know the exact meaning?  Students do not need to get the exact meaning.  Tier 2 productive struggle words should be words that enrich but do not deter comprehension.  Words that are essential to comprehension (such as sordo.a in the case of Celia) must be presented explicitly.  The actual meaning of “esperar con ansias” is to “look forward to.”   I don’t give them the definition when I model.  Instead, I let students see how I seek to understand what the words might mean by using multiple context clues.  


2. Look at the illustration or photo

A little bit later, Celia writes “Con los tíos fuimos a un cerro que se llama San Cristóbal y vimos la ciudad completa.”  “Un cerro” is a geographical term some students may not be familiar with.  The illustration offers ample visual support to understand the meaning of the word.  If I layer on the “reading a little before and after” strategy, I’ll be able to understand the general meaning of this word.  It’s always a good idea to encourage students to infer the meaning of new words by looking closely at the illustrations or photos.  

Clue #1: It says that the family went to un cerro (“Con los tíos fuimos a”).  So, un cerro must be a place, a location.   
Clue #2: In the picture, I see that there are lookout binoculars.  She seems to be in a place that’s higher, where you can see views. 
Clue #3: In the text, it says that they could see the whole city (“vimos la ciudad completa.”)  
Clue #4: When I look back at the illustration, I notice that she’s taking a selfie, with the city and mountains as background.  So, this place must have been high enough for them to take a picture of the landscape.

Inference about the meaning of “un cerro.”  
Looking at the illustration and the words before and after, it seems like un cerro is almost like a lookout, a place that’s higher where you can take good pictures.  

Notice how it doesn’t matter whether I say “un cerro” is a hill or “un cerro” is a synonym for “una colina.”  No, what matters is that I’m showing that I’m understanding what this new word means without needing to know its exact definition. 


3. Examine parts of the word

On the next page, Celia tells her mom that she went to her uncle’s hair salon, which is in the Franklin barrio.  “Allí hay una feria callejera donde venden desde aretes hasta computadores, incluso cachorritos.”  This is a great example of teaching students to infer the meaning of new words by looking for smaller words in bigger words.  

Clue #1:Callejera” has the word “calle” in it, which I know means street.  
Clue #2: Looking at the illustration, I can confirm that Celia is in the street.  
Clue #3: Callejera” seems to be a word to describe “una feria.”  It’s probably an adjective. 

Inference about the meaning of “callejera.”
I think “una feria callejera” is a type of fair that takes place in the street.  It’s probably a street fair like we often have in cities like New York or Decatur. 

Next week, I’ll be presenting three more strategies on how to use context clues to figure out tricky words.  Stay tuned, and subscribe to the blog here.  

Your partner in all things dual language,
Previous article Six context clues strategies to figure out new words in authentic texts - Part 2
Next article Sign an Agreement with Your Team Teaching Partner

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields