Teaching Vocabulary in Context

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  • 0:02 Why Context Matters
  • 1:15 Finding Clues in Sentences
  • 2:25 Making Connections
  • 3:41 Interactive Strategies
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Ryan Hultzman
Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

Learning vocabulary in context helps people make connections for better comprehension. We'll look at a variety of learning strategies that can help students understand and incorporate new words effectively. After the lesson, test your new knowledge with our quiz questions!

Why Context Matters

Imagine yourself facing forward, repeatedly bending your knees, and then jumping as you extend your arms, pushing upward at a 45 degree angle. This might seem to be a pointless exercise until you are handed a basketball and learn that this motion prepares you to make foul shots and earn your team points.

Or, imagine yourself viewing a screen on which a woman has tears streaming down her face. You would likely wonder why she is crying. Are her tears from the loss of someone? Are they tears of joy or relief? Is she in physical pain? Until you see the full situation that explains her tears, you do not understand the reason for them.

As these examples show, a person's limited knowledge prevents one from fully understanding how a single aspect of the situation functions within the framework of the scene. Likewise, learning vocabulary words outside of the context in which they are used prevents a person from fully understanding how the word functions within the framework of our language. To best understand a word, knowing its context, or circumstances, is key.

Finding Clues in Sentences

When determining the meaning of an unfamiliar word, it is often helpful to see the word used in a sentence and to find clues within the sentence that suggest the word's meaning. For example, consider this sentence:

The radiance of the electric light display almost blinded the audience.

To determine the meaning of the word 'radiance,' one can identify other words such as 'electric,' 'light,' and 'blinded' as clues. Considering the word's part of speech, a noun, also helps to determine meaning.

Avid reading is probably one of the larger determinants of vocabulary success. The more often you see a word in context, the more likely the word will find its way into your internal lexicon. Based on the context of the previous sentence, can you determine the meaning of 'lexicon?' If you thought 'dictionary' or 'word list,' that is correct. As people build up their vocabulary banks, they will encounter many unknown words, so to help make those meanings stick, there are some key methods for successful comprehension and retention.

Making Connections

A crucial tactic in effectively learning vocabulary is finding a personal, relevant connection to words. When people can make a clear link between a word's definition and something familiar to themselves, they will be able to remember and use the word more readily.

Take the word 'ambivalent.' It means 'undecided' or 'unsure.' To remember this meaning, you could connect the first syllable to another word with the same first syllable, i.e., Amherst, Massachusetts. Making the connection that your friend was ambivalent about accepting a job in Amherst would help you recall the word even when it was used in a different context.

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Additional Activities

Create Your Own Vocabulary Challenge

Now that you've completed this lesson, you have plenty of strategies for absorbing and understanding new vocabulary words. These strategies are applicable no matter what context you're learning in; whether you're learning English as a second language, studying for the SATs, trying to learn new vocabulary for your biology test, or even learning a new language besides English. For this assignment, you can use any vocabulary lists that you're currently working on, or if you want a challenge, choose a few words from this list of SAT vocabulary: https://www.vocabulary.com/lists/191545


Now that you have a list of words to learn, what kinds of strategies do you want to use? Remember the list of interactive methods listed in this lesson. You can also expand that list by considering your own learning style. Would it be helpful for you to incorporate games into your learning? What about discussing words with a partner?


Using your list of words and your chosen strategies for introducing context, create a vocabulary challenge for yourself. That might look like a list of words that you have to put into sentences or define in your own words, or maybe a set of words that you have to use in an essay. Maybe you will pull words out of a hat and use mnemonic devices to remember the context for the words, and then draw visual representations of each one. Get creative! Use whatever strategies help you to learn.


Now that you have prepared the challenge, try it out! Have a classmate or parent quiz you on the definitions of some of the words you've learned. Which strategies worked for you, and which ones didn't? Use your new understanding of vocabulary-building exercises and the importance of context to your learning in the future.

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