Teacher Resources for Making Inferences, Using Context Clues

How is the process of reading like playing the board game Clue? Both involve assembling “clues” and evidence to make sense of a particular situation or puzzle. However, while the game may be played without conscious or strategic choices, making inferences while reading is a deliberate and purposeful strategy.Research tells us that proficient readers use their own experience as well as the literal text to construct meaning. Yet this process of making inferences is not an intuitive process. Students need explicit instruction and opportunities to practice this meaning-making process. Modeling, teacher think-alouds, and the use of graphic organizers support students as they learn to make inferences.

One way that readers make inferences is by using context clues to figure out the meaning of an unknown word. By first making a prediction about the unknown word’s meaning and then reading to determine if the context clues found in the text support the prediction, students can make inferences and develop vocabulary skills.

There are several types of context clues, including direct definition clues, synonym or antonym clues, and inferential clues. While direct definition clues provide an actual definition within the text, inferential clues require that the reader uses information from the text and his or her own background knowledge to make sense of the unknown word. Synonym and antonym clues can be helpful only if the clue word is familiar to the student. Often, punctuation is used within a sentence to signal a definition, or examples are listed after signal words like such as. With explicit instruction and teacher modeling, students will begin to identify these contextual clues independently.

It is important to note that the strategy of using context clues is not without limitations. Some sentences provide little context to assist readers in constructing a working definition. One often-cited example is “We heard the back door open, and then recognized the buoyant footsteps of Uncle Larry.” This sentence provides little helpful information in determining the meaning of the word buoyant. When teaching students to use context clues, it is important to discuss examples in which the context is not meaningful and provide alternative strategies, such as consulting a dictionary.

Use the following resources to build your knowledge of the process of making context clues and using inferences. Several resources are indicated as also suitable for use with your students.


Into the Book
Into the Book is a reading comprehension resource for K-4 students and teachers. It focuses on these research-based strategies: Using Prior Knowledge, Making Connections, Questioning, Visualizing, Inferring, Summarizing and Synthesizing. For this issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, we’ve highlighted the sections dedicated to the strategy of inferring. Links to teacher and student areas are discussed separately.

Into the Book – Teacher Area: Inferring
This area of the site, designed for teachers, provides background information about the strategy of inferring. Formal and informal definitions of the strategy are provided as well as five learning objectives. Each learning objective is addressed in a video clip. The Teacher Area also includes seven pages accessible from a side navigation bar: Student Interactive (a guide to the Student Area described below), Student Video (a guide to the 15-minute video for use with your students), Teacher Video (a 15-minute video showing a reading professor teach the strategy to third-grade students), Lessons, Books, Research, and Links. The wealth of information contained in this site provides a comprehensive resource about the strategy of inferring.

Into the Book – Student Area
Students must have a key to access the site. Only a first name is required to generate a key, and a key may be reused on several occasions by the same student. This part of the site is most appropriate for students to use individually, but it could be projected for group or whole class use.

Within the site, students select a tool that represents one of the reading strategies. For the strategy of inferring, students need to select the magnifying glass and drag it over the large book in the center of the screen. The book then opens to reveal an interactive site that teaches the strategy, models the process of using the strategy, and then asks students to try the skill. Audio, song, video, and interactive graphics are all part of this engaging and informative activity.

Making Inferences
This article, available from the Ohio Resource Center’s AdLIT Reading Strategies web page, discusses the process of making inferences as well as what teachers can do to support students in making inferences before and during reading. The page includes a graphic organizer template and links to two additional graphic organizers to aid students in making inferences. Using inferences to teach vocabulary and resources for further reading are also included.

Reading Strategies for the Journey North Teacher: Make Inferences and Draw Conclusions
Written for teachers, this area from the larger Journey North site discusses the reading strategy of making inferences. In addition to an overview of the strategy, there are seven guiding questions to help students learn to make inferences and draw conclusions from evidence.

Context Clues

Overlapping Vocabulary and Comprehension: Context Clues Complement Semantic Gradients
This article, from the November 2007 issue of The Reading Teacher, discusses a “vocabulary-to-comprehension disconnect” that occurs when students learn the discrete meaning of a word yet do not connect the meaning back to the text’s larger context. The authors describe an integrated teaching strategy in which context clues and semantic gradients (an array of related words placed along a continuum) are used to support students in connecting vocabulary words and passage comprehension. In addition to this innovative strategy, the article provides an introduction to context clues and the research documenting their effectiveness in vocabulary development. (Available to subscribers and others for purchase as a downloadable file.)

Cloze Activity
This article describes the use of cloze activities to help students use context clues.

Vocabulary and Word Study
This vignette describes one teacher’s experience with vocabulary development and context clues.

Text Talk: Julius, the Baby of the World
The importance of reading aloud to children is a long established tenet of reading instruction. This lesson supports the language development and reading comprehension of kindergarten through second graders. Through the use of the text talk strategy, students explain, develop, and expand upon story ideas. This lesson is designed to help students learn how to gain meaning from decontextualized language.

Acquiring New Vocabulary Through Book Discussion Groups
This lesson explores various ways in which you can foster students’ vocabulary skills through direct instruction and small-group discussions. While reading the text Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco, students identify words that are unfamiliar to them. Working collaboratively in small groups, they discuss the meaning of these new words using context clues from the text, prior knowledge, and print and online resources. They then apply their knowledge of the new vocabulary to further their understanding of the text. This particular lesson can be modified and reused for other areas of the curriculum, with moderate preparation and researching of topic-related resources. Extensions are included to further expand vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. This lesson is designed for students in grades 3-5.

Learn New Words Using Context
With guided practice students will use context clues to determine meaning of unfamiliar words in short passages. When students have completed the practice activities, they will read a newspaper or magazine article, picking out unfamiliar words and using context clues to decide what the word means. As a group activity they will share the article, the words, and their meanings with the class. This lesson is designed for students in grades 4 and up.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright April 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

One thought on “Teacher Resources for Making Inferences, Using Context Clues

  1. Fantastic article. If anyone is interested, I just recently came across a great new resource for teachers. The lesson plan shop was a godsend when I was in a time-crunch, and helped save me weeks of preparation and work.

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