Five Fun Ways to Teach Context Clues

Been there, done that

We all know the frustration. We’re reading along, fascinated by a blog post about Taylor Swift’s newest hit or deep into the plot line of Dan Brown’s latest bestselling thriller, when we run across an unknown word. Smack! We’ve hit a brick wall. We don’t know the word, so we don’t know what the reviewer really thought about Taylor’s latest tune. Did he like it or not? Or, we’ve been pulled abruptly from that delightful fictional world that Mr. Brown was so deliciously spinning in our head. Now what? Do we look for a dictionary? Or do we just muddle on without really understanding all of what we’re reading?

Well, most adults know that the answer to that question is: neither. Most of us know that a quick re-read of the sentence or passage that contained that troublesome word will just as quickly reveal its meaning to us. How? Context clues. The other words in the sentence or paragraph literally tell us what that unknown word means. New word mastered, we quickly move on, happily re-submersed in our tabloid tale or our fictional universe.

Teaching context clues

Are you wondering how to teach this useful reading skill to a beginning reader? A reader who probably comes across many unknown words every time she sits down to practice? Or, maybe you’re trying to teach the use of context clues to a more advanced reader, one who simply hasn’t figured out its magic just yet.

Either way, read on! Below are five fun and playful everyday ways to teach the use of context clues to your elementary-aged reader.

  1. Make it a game – Whenever you are reading to – or with – your child, start the session by saying, “We are going on a treasure hunt!” Explain that while reading, your child will come across words she doesn’t know. Then go on to explain that whenever an unknown word shows up, she’ll know the game is about to begin. Tell her that the treasure you are seeking is the meaning of that unknown word, and the clues to that treasure are right there in the sentence where she found the word. You may have to take her through the process step by step at first, perhaps even finding the “clues” yourself and pointing out how you can define the unknown word using them. Once she gets the idea, however, let her seek – and find! – those treasures on her own.
  2. Use it every day – Reading material literally surrounds all of us every day. On the Internet. On cereal boxes. On advertisements plastered on the side of the bus. Use these moments to discuss context clues. Point out a sign, for example, that has a word you suspect your child doesn’t know. Let her read the sentence or phrase. Then encourage her to guess at the unknown word’s meaning. You can even point out that the pictures on the sign or cereal box give us some hints at the word’s meaning, as well.
  3. Make use of substitutions – When learning to use context clues – especially early in the learning process – you can use reading material that your child already knows well. A favorite bedtime story is a good place to start. Pick one that your child has heard many times. Now choose a sentence in that story and take one word out as you read it and substitute an appropriate replacement word. Choose a word that your child doesn’t know yet. For example, put a word like “azure” in for the word “blue.” Or use “exhausted” instead of “tired.” Then ask your child what this new and unknown word means. Since she has heard the story before and knows what word belongs in that sentence, it should be easy for her to guess at the new word’s meaning. When she does guess correctly, point out to her that she didn’t know that word before, but hearing it in a sentence allowed her to make a correct guess.
  4. Buy a game – There are some really great games out there that can help kids practice using context clues. Some of them are so artfully designed that they really do seem like a game, not just grammar practice in disguise. One of them, “Hidden Hints,” uses the theme of solving a mystery and comes packaged as a briefcase filled with sleuthing tools like flashlights, magnifying glasses and footprints. The game can be played at a variety of levels, all designed to help kids practice using context clues in a reading passage to identify new words. A quick Internet search will probably turn up many more useful games.
  5. Make it “hands on” – Young children are often very tactile learners. This means that they learn best when they can handle something during the learning process. One way to engage this hand-to-brain learning while teaching context clues is to print the “answers” to the word riddles you’ll be presenting your child on small slips of paper. Start by identifying several of the words you know she’ll struggle with in the passage she’ll be reading. Put simpler versions of those words on your slips of paper. “Mad,” for example, would be on a slip of paper if “angry” was one of the words you know will give her trouble. Make sure to include four or five new words. Then, while reading, let your child use the slips of paper to cover the unknown word she comes across. Once the word is covered with one of the slips of paper, she can read the sentence again – using the new word – and see if it makes sense. If the sentence makes sense, she’s found the meaning of her new word!

Looking for more resources?  K12reader offers thousands of worksheets around different reading topics. Here are some context clues worksheets you might like to use in your classroom or at home:

Context Clues Activity Grade Range
Pick the Meaning K – 1st Grade
Word Meaning Game K – 1st Grade
Find the Meaning With Clues 2nd – 3rd Grade
The Ugly Duckling 2nd – 3rd Grade
Word Discovery 2nd – 3rd Grade
Shakespeare’s Language 6th – 8th Grade
The Raven 6th – 8th Grade

Looking for more?  Check out all of our Context Clues Activities. Want more reading skills practice for your student?  Visit and their printable Context Clues Reading Passages.