Although using context clues to determine vocabulary meaning is not always effective (not all sentences provide context clues), this is an important skill for students to cultivate for the occasions where authors are kind enough to include them.  We need to overtly teach students to seek out context clues the author may have provided.

Looking before and after the novel
word is a good place to start searching for clues.  Blachowicz and Fisher, authors of Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms, suggest several techniques that will help students use context clues that are present before and after the word to determine word meanings.

Sometimes authors provide definitions. For example, “The dermatologist, the skin doctor, identified the problem.”  Sometimes they provide clues about what the word is not. For example, Unlike a bicycle, a moped has a small engine. Other times there are location or setting clues, such as, “the mountaineers reached the summit after a brutal all day climb.”  Authors sometimes provide a clue when they explain how something happens, like, “She masticated her burger into tiny pieces and swallowed it.”  There can be hints within the sentence regarding the function of the word. For example, “in order to keep it from fraying, the worker placed an aglet on the end of the shoelace.”  Finally, an author might provide clues about a word by sharing related words or ideas.  For example, At the wake, mourners cried, prayed, and celebrated the life of the deceased.

Learning vocabulary requires time spent reading, review, and overt instruction. Searching for clues within a sentence will not always lead a student to understand novel words in literature. However, when clues are present, only students who realize the power of these clues will be able to successfully determine novel word meaning.