3 Vocabulary Strategies Help Decipher Unknown Words

brenda-overturfby Brenda J. Overturf

How powerful can one word be?

Jacob, a seventh grader, sits staring at a challenging text he has tried to read. He knows the other words in the paragraph but is stuck on a multisyllabic word he has never seen before. Jacob sounds out the word, but because he has also never heard it, it still doesn’t make sense.

Finally, he just gives up and moves on. Yet the one word Jacob doesn’t know holds the key to comprehending the entire passage. Sound familiar? Kids like Jacob occupy many middle level classrooms, and they are not necessarily struggling readers.

Deciphering tools are essential to lifelong learning

Vocabulary knowledge is the heart of comprehension and academic achievement, and it means way more than just learning words. Don’t get me wrong – learning a lot of words is incredibly important. Kids have to acquire and understand a multitude of words to read and learn in and out of school.Overturf Vocabularians Cover.indd

But we couldn’t teach students every word or phrase they might encounter in text even if we had time to introduce them within our tightly packed schedules. Although knowing high-utility words and phrases is vital for comprehension, to be lifelong learners kids also need to have strategies at their fingertips to decipher unfamiliar words.

Vocabulary researchers often point to three strategies that learners apply in order to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words independently (Graves, 2006; 2007):

(1) use of context,

(2) use of word parts, and

(3) use of reference materials.

For those teachers implementing the Common Core State Standards, these three strategies make up Language Anchor Standard 4. They can lead students across content areas to understand words in text and make a big difference in comprehension and subject matter learning. If kids don’t know how to use word-learning strategies, we have to teach them.

Strategy 1: Use of Context

One strategy is that of using sentence or passage-level context to infer the meaning of a word or phrase. Although some researchers feel that use of context, which is an “around-the-word” strategy, is not always reliable (that is, the context may not be rich enough to help students actually understand the meaning of a word or may lead them to a wrong conclusion), others have found that most new words are learned from context.

Also, increasingly, standardized assessments require students to read a passage with an underlined word, answer a multiple choice question with four possible definitions of the word, and then answer a second related multiple choice question where the object is to provide evidence from the passage that supports the chosen definition.

Students may struggle with context

In a vocabulary test question, context equals evidence. But deciding what constitutes context is not always easy for students. When Trish, a seventh grade English language arts teacher, began asking her students to indicate the parts of a passage that provided context clues to an underlined word, she was astonished.

As Trish put it, “I was shocked! This is the hardest thing in the world for them to do. The clue is blatantly there, and they don’t see it.”

Other teachers feel that some students may not even understand the term context. One sixth grade teacher had this to say: “It’s almost like the phrase context clues is something they have just never heard before. We have to teach them how to look for clues so they can figure out word meanings.”

One way teachers have found to emphasize context is to introduce selected vocabulary within cloze sentences – a sentence with a blank where the word should go.

Cloze-example(Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo)

Tonie, an English language arts teacher, pulled sentences from a short story that students were preparing to read and wrote the sentences on paper strips which she attached to her bulletin board. She also wrote the seven vocabulary words she planned to introduce on word cards.

After introducing the words, Tonie asked students to work in groups to decide which word went into a particular blank. They then had to justify their answers by describing the context clues that helped them make a decision. This not only helped them become more familiar with important vocabulary and how to use context, it also served as a predictive activity that piqued student interest but did not reveal too much of the story.


A Social Studies example using slides

In social studies, Stephen introduced the word interdependence, a powerful concept word for his seventh graders. To begin, he created a series of five simple PowerPoint slides. The first slide contained a sentence with a blank where the word should go. The next three slides contained clues to lead students to the word interdependence.

For example, Stephen displayed a diagram of a car with parts made in several different countries, a quote from The Lion King about the circle of life, and the dictionary definition of interdependence. With each slide, he engaged students in a lively discussion about the information on the slide and what the word might be.

On the last slide, Stephen showed students the sentence with the word included. By asking them to predict the word that would go in the blank and think about clues along the way, he was also teaching his students in a way that guaranteed they would remember the word as they learned social studies content.

Overturf-image-walmartStrategy 2: Use of Word Parts

Imagine a fifth grade class where a teacher can hold up a card with a word like abolitionist written on it, and within a minute small groups of students have figured out the meaning of the word—without the teacher uttering one sound.

This is not an imaginary classroom. Leslie Montgomery, who teaches in a high poverty public elementary school, regularly witnesses this phenomenon. Her students have learned the power of using the meanings of prefixes, roots, and suffixes (especially common Greek and Latin roots) to figure out the meanings of words.

As they talk through their reasoning, it is clear her students are developing “morphological awareness,” or understanding about the structure and origin of words. This skill can often seem like magic to kids, but is really sophisticated vocabulary knowledge that they need in order to learn at higher levels.

Going down to the roots

Using the meanings of word parts to determine the meaning of a multisyllabic word is an “in-word” strategy that can open the doors to thousands of new words. More than 60 percent of words in an English dictionary stem from Greek and Latin roots, and in science and technology, it is more like 90 percent (Moats, 2000).

Most researchers agree that middle level students need to develop morphological awareness to comprehend challenging texts across the curriculum. Yet research shows that many students reach middle school without this crucial skill (Graves, 2006).

greekandlatinrootsAlso see: How to Rock Greek and Latin Roots

When I asked a group of middle school teachers about their students’ use of word parts, most were convinced that their students did not know the meanings of the simplest affixes like un- and im- (not), much less Greek and Latin roots like graph (to write), therm (heat), or port (to carry). The performance of their students did not do much to persuade them otherwise.

Tonie taught her seventh grade students that there is a small list of affixes that can be found in most words with prefixes or suffixes. This knowledge was powerful for her students and made the job of become morphologically aware a lot easier. Tonie also emphasized morphological knowledge as students read passages in her class.

For example, Tonie selected the word undisciplined, a word that was important for comprehension in the Pandora myth her students read and discussed. She then invited kids to infer the definition of the word based on the meanings of the parts. An animated conversation ensued as students used both context and word parts to determine the meaning of the word as it was used in the myth.


Content area teachers have also found that teaching students the meanings of common word parts can help students learn more. Stephen taught his seventh graders that the suffix -ism indicates social, political, or religious beliefs or ways of behaving.

Because of the knowledge of this suffix and other word parts, his students were excited to predict and discuss the meanings of words like monotheism, polytheism, and colonialism–important words for the social studies unit of study.

Strategy 3: Use of Reference Materials

The third word-learning strategy I want to suggest is that of using reference materials, which is a “beyond-the-word” technique.

Of course we need to teach students to use dictionaries, glossaries, and thesauruses to verify an inference and check the meaning of a word. But we can also teach students how to expand vocabulary into semantic networks by finding synonyms and antonyms in these reference materials as part of their word exploration.

For example, Susan invited her eighth graders to use a variety of digital sources to explore selected words. Students were astounded to find numerous definitions, synonyms, and antonyms for these words in different sources, leading to a natural discussion of multiple meanings and the context in which the word was introduced.

Because middle school students often just choose the shortest definition for a word, this type of investigation emphasized the importance of using multiple sources and considering the most accurate meaning in the context of the text.


Teaching kids to use word-learning strategies

Effective vocabulary instruction is not a solemn and silent endeavor! Each teacher I have described above, even though they work with students in very different schools and in varied subject areas, has discovered that a student-centered classroom is the key to effective vocabulary teaching and learning.

We want middle school students to be excited about new words and how to figure them out in text. We want them to become vocabularians, who anticipate learning new words instead of shutting down when they encounter them.

When students discuss vocabulary knowledge and engage in active vocabulary exploration, they also learn take an academic risk with words. That’s incredibly important now and in the future.


• Graves, M. (2006). The vocabulary book. New York: Teachers College Press.
• Graves, M. (2007). Vocabulary instruction in the middle grades. Voices in the Middle 15(1): 13-19.
• Moats, L. C. (2000). From speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.


For more ideas, visit MiddleWeb reviews of Word Nerds and Vocabularians.

Dr. Brenda J. Overturf was an award-winning classroom teacher for 18 years in Kentucky public schools before serving six years as the Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY) District Reading Coordinator. In 2005, Overturf joined the faculty of the University of Louisville to lead the graduate program in Reading Education. She has been an elected member of the ILA Board of Directors (2009-2012) and is now a full-time literacy consultant. She is the co-author of Word Nerds and the new Stenhouse book, Vocabularians.


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1 Response

  1. Interesting for teaching Vocabulary for AFL and ESL as well.

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