Using Context for Reading Literacy in an ESL Class

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One of the main challenges of any English reading skills class is that students tend to look up, or even insist on looking up, each word they do not understand. While this desire to understand everything is certainly laudable, it can be damaging in the long run. This is because students will begin to tire of reading if they are constantly interrupting the process to find another word in the dictionary. Of course, the use of e-readers might make this a little less bothersome. However, students need to realize that reading in English should be like reading in their own language.

The use of contextual clues can be one of the best ways to improve students' reading skills. Realizing that a text can be understood in a general sense by using contextual clues can go a long way towards helping students cope with increasingly difficult texts. At the same time, the use of contextual clues can also provide a means by which students can rapidly increase their existing vocabulary base.

This lesson provides a number of pointers helping students identify and use context to their advantage. A worksheet is also included which helps students recognize and develop the skill of contextual understanding.

Context Clues Reading Lesson

Aim: Increased awareness and usage of contextual reading clues

Activity: Awareness raising concerning the use of contextual clues, followed by worksheet practicing contextual reading

Level: Intermediate/upper intermediate


  • Write this example sentence on the board: "Tom decided that he desperately needed the glockum if he were to solve the problem"
  • Ask students what they do if they are reading an English text and do not understand a specific word.
  • Ask students what they do if they are reading a text in their native language and do not understand a specific word.
  • Ask students what 'glockum' means.
  • Once students have established that they don't know what a 'glockum' is, ask them to guess at what it might be.
  • Ask students what part of speech a 'glockum' is (i.e. verb, noun, preposition etc.)
  • Have students explain how they arrived at their guesses, which clues did they use?
  • Explain the concept of reading in "chunks" i.e. looking at the text surrounding the unknown word for clues.
  • Show them an article from an advanced level magazine (Wired, National Geographic, The Economist, etc.)
  • Ask students to identify the probable vocabulary areas that may be used in the example article.
  • Explain the importance of activating vocabulary by first quickly glancing at the text to be read. This idea is very important as the brain will begin to focus on related concepts thus preparing the student for what is to be read.
  • Point out that by using all of these clues (i.e. "chunking", part of speech, logical deduction, vocabulary activation), students can arrive at a much fuller understanding of difficult texts — even if they do not understand each word
  • Have students divide into small groups and complete worksheets.

Reading Clues

Deduction: What does the sentence concern? Which words does the unknown word seem to relate to? 

Part of Speech: Which part of speech is the unknown word? Is it a verb, noun, preposition, adjective, time expression or something else?

Chunking: What do the words around the unknown word(s) mean? How could the unknown word(s) relate to those words? This is basically deduction on a more local level.

Vocabulary Activation: When quickly skimming through the text, what does the text seem to concern? Does the layout (design) of the text give any clues? Does the publication or type of book give any clues to what the text might be about? Which words can you think of that belong to this vocabulary category? Make logical guesses about the meaning of the unknown words in the following paragraph.

Jack quickly entered the didot and cleaned the various misturaes he had been using to repair the wuipit. He had often thought that this job was extremely yullning. However, he had to admit that this time things seemed to be a bit easier. When he finished, he put on his redick and went back to the study to relax. He took out his favourite pipe and settled into the beautiful new pogtry. What a fantastic schnappy he had made when he had bought the pogtry. Only 300 yagmas!

  1. What could a 'didot' be?
  2. What part of speech is 'misturaes'?
  3. If Jack used the 'misturaes' to repair the 'wuipit' what do you think the 'mistraes' must be?
  4. What could 'yulling' mean? What part of speech is often used with an ending '-ing '?
  5. Which synonym could be used for ' yulling '? (fun, difficult, expensive)
  6. What type of things do you put on?
  7. Based on the above question, what kind of thing must a 'redick' be?
  8. Is a 'pogtry' used inside or outside?
  9. Which words let you know that the 'pogtry' was cheap?
  10. What must 'yagmas' be? (clothes, cigarette type, type of money)
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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Using Context for Reading Literacy in an ESL Class." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Beare, Kenneth. (2023, April 5). Using Context for Reading Literacy in an ESL Class. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "Using Context for Reading Literacy in an ESL Class." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).