Standard Lesson

Solving Word Meanings: Engaging Strategies for Vocabulary Development

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 45-minute sessions plus extensions
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Students learn the meanings of new words by engaging in a wide array of reading. However, the chances of learning a new word from a single exposure in a naturally occurring context are slim. This lesson provides sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade students with the opportunity to practice using context clues that are purposefully manipulated. Context clues are then combined with semantic gradients, requiring students to both select and generate related words along continuums. Students work in groups and are required to verbalize their thinking. Additionally, they apply their learning by creating context clues and semantic gradients of their own.

From Theory to Practice

  • Learning words via naturally occurring context is important but not terribly efficient (Stahl & Nagy, 2006).

  • Students need instruction and practice using context clues including repeated, meaningful encounters with new words.

  • Words are learned best when associations bridge from the known to the new (Bromley, 2007).

  • Semantic gradients (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2006) provide opportunities for students to discern shades of meaning by building on what they already know.

  • In this article, context clues and semantic gradients are combined to help students reconnect individual word meanings and bridge the divide between vocabulary and comprehension.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.




1. Throughout many of the sessions, it is recommended that students work in heterogeneous pairs or groups of four. Think about your range of learners and how best to group them for each of the sessions. Students can be paired by strengths, common needs, or interest. You can monitor and adjust pairings as students progress and gain experience. You'll need to model and work with students on the requisite group expectations and skills.

2. Use these lesson activities as an introduction to the strategies of context clues and semantic gradients. Once you and your students are comfortable with the concepts, you will want to customize further activities that relate to content area vocabulary and authentic readings. By reinforcing use of these strategies and engaging students in meaningful vocabulary activities, new words will be more easily learned and remembered.

3. Reproduce the Student Handouts (see Printouts), one for each student in your class.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Develop inferential comprehension skills by "solving" unknown words using context clues

  • Enhance their word knowledge by selecting and generating words for semantic gradients (i.e., groupings of related words placed along a continuum)

  • Develop appropriate group processing skills as they verbalize their thinking and create new semantic gradients and contexts

Session 1: Introducing Context Clues

1. Ask students what context clues are. Remind them that some authors "leak" information on the page and that it sometimes requires detective work to "solve" word meanings. Remind students also that context clues are helpful for learning new words and better understanding what they read.

2. Prepare students to work as detectives, using clues to figure out what an unfamiliar word means. Divide students into pairs (see Preparation, Step 1). Write the following sentence on the board or overhead: "The vixen was not as fortunate." Ask students to define the word vixen. At the middle level, most students will need to guess its meaning. Have them share their definitions with their partners. Discuss with students how there is not enough context in the sentence to infer the meaning of the word vixen.

3. Write the following sentence: "The vixen was not as fortunate as her mate, and was caught in the steel-jawed trap. Her red pelt would bring a good price." Model for students your reasoning as you think aloud how to infer the meaning of the word vixen from the context of the sentence (e.g., must be an animal, definitely female, has red fur, must be a female fox). Note: This is a fairly challenging first example. If students are not familiar with the word pelt, you may need to provide another sentence with context clues to help them figure out its meaning.

4. Introduce the LPR3 mnemonic as a useful aid for figuring out unknown words from context.
Look-before, at, and after the new word

Predict-quickly predict the word's meaning, remembering that a wrong prediction is often a good start

Reason-think more carefully about the word's meaning, trying to be as precise as the context clues permit

Resolve-recognize that you may need to take other steps (e.g., look it up, ask someone)

Redo­-go through the steps again if necessary
5. Write the following sentence on the board or overhead:
"Billy's reply was incoherent."
Model through a think-aloud process the LPR3 mnemonic to solve the meaning of the word incoherent as follows: "First, I need to look before, at, and after the unfamiliar word incoherent. Then I need to predict what the word might mean by substituting other words that could make sense in the sentence, like funny, stupid, clever, or wrong. When I try to reason or look more closely at the context, all I know is that incoherent is being used to describe Billy's reply. I think I need more help to resolve the meaning of this word."

6. Next write the following sentence on the board or overhead:
"Due to a severe lack of sleep and extreme nervousness, Billy's reply was incoherent."
Think aloud while modeling the LPR3 mnemonic again. "When I look this time, there are no words after incoherent, but I can figure out a lot from what's before the word. I'm going to predict that it means ‘does not make any sense.' My reason is that it says ‘severe lack of sleep and extreme nervousness.' I think I can resolve the meaning based on this context because I know what it's like when I'm overtired and nervous." Discuss as a class how the context clues in the sentence and the LPR3 mnemonic helped to solve the meaning of the word incoherent.

7. Have students work in pairs to practice applying the LPR3 mnemonic with a few unfamiliar words found in a text they are reading in class. Make sure they are able to explain their thought process as they work through each step. (You might also assign this activity for homework if time in class is limited.)

8. Distribute the Types of Context Clues handout, and introduce the four different types of context clues. After discussing the examples on the handout, have students work with their partners to write two sentences, each exemplifying one of the types of context clues just introduced. Have dictionaries and thesauri available or encourage students to access the online versions at and

9. Take time at the end of the session for pairs to share their sentences with other pairs or the whole class. Collect the sentences and check for understanding.

Session 2: Practicing Context Clues

1. Begin this session by reviewing a few of the student-generated sentences from Session 1, Step 8 showing examples of the four types of context clues. Reinforce how the meaning of an unknown word can be solved by identifying the type of context clue in the sentence. Review also the LPR3 mnemonic-students do not need to follow the mnemonic slavishly, but remind them that it is a good starting point. You may also wish to promote the mnemonic as a bookmark or wall chart.

2. Write the following sentence on the overhead or board:
"They ___________ across the street."
Have students fill in plausible answers. Make it clear that there are many good action verbs that may fit, but that students need more information, particularly what or who "they" refers to, to identify the unknown word.

3. Next, add to the context by writing:
"Kelly dropped her can of tennis balls. They ____________across the street."
Discuss how the context helps to narrow the words that would make sense in the sentence.

4. Demonstrate another example:
"They are still seeing the optimistic, charmingly loquacious teenager."
As opposed to filling in a blank, in this example, students are encountering a genuine word in an authentic context. Think aloud while you model the LPR3 mnemonic one more time. "I have no idea what loquacious means, but I'm going to try to figure it out. First, I need to look before, at, and after the word. I know the words charming and optimistic are positive traits, and that loquacious is another adjective describing the teenager. I predict that it will also be a positive trait...I'm going to say that it means pretty, just as a guess. Now, I'm going to reason a little more, but I'm not sure I'll be able to resolve the meaning from this sentence alone. Let me look at the next sentence."
"She was constantly on the phone for hours at a time."
"This is a huge clue-I'm going to redo my prediction and resolve that loquacious must mean really talkative-a motormouth-but not in an obnoxious way."

5. Distribute the Context Clues handout for guided practice. Have students complete the examples provided. Then, allow students time to add to the contexts. For example, in sentence 4, a student could have written, "Charlie was exhausted." The objective in this second part of the exercise is for students to enrich the context so that exhausted is explicitly called for in the sentence. An example would be, "After working a double shift, Charlie was exhausted." Collect the handouts and check for understanding.

Session 3: Introducing Semantic Gradients

1. Tell students that in this session they will be learning a new strategy called semantic gradients, which are a sequential array of words organized according to a meaningful set of criteria. In Sessions 4 and 5, they will combine this new strategy with what was learned about context clues in the first two sessions.

2. Ask students whether angry and furious are synonyms. Then, try cool and frigid. Try to elicit from them the notion of degree and shades of meaning-that furious is a stronger, more intense word for angry and that frigid is a more intense word than cool.

3. Write the following example on the overhead or board, explaining that the words frigid and scorching are called anchor words on the gradient.
frigid scorching
Word Bank: warm, hot, cool, cold
4. Thinking aloud, work with the class to place the four words in the Word Bank along the gradient. Remind students to justify their placements. Again, help students focus on shades of meaning as they place the words.

5. Distribute the Semantic Gradients handout for guided practice. Remind students to use the anchor words as reference points in placing the Word Bank words. Circulate around the classroom and assist students who are struggling.

6. Have students work in pairs to create their own original semantic gradient. They will need to choose two anchor words and then identify 4 to 5 Word Bank words. They should also work together on an answer key. Stop and recognize publicly when a pair develops a particularly cogent or creative gradient.

7. Have pairs exchange their semantic gradient with another pair to place the Word Bank words. Encourage the two pairs (or group of four) to discuss the words and the thought process that went in to placing them. Circulate while students are working to check group-work behaviors and assist struggling students. Collect the handouts and check for understanding.

Session 4: Semantic Gradients Combined With Context Clues

1. Review with students what was learned in the first three sessions. Remind students that writers choose their words carefully. Remind them also of the LPR3 mnemonic.

2. Put the following model sentence on the board or overhead, referring to the Semantic Gradients Plus Contexts handout:
"Jimmy _________ home."
As in previous sessions, note that the possibilities for words that fit in the blank are numerous. Ran? Hurried? Walked?

3. Then, strengthen the context by adding to the sentence:
"Jimmy __________ home. He couldn't wait to see the new puppy."
4. Supply the semantic gradient included in the Semantic Gradients Plus Contexts handout, which matches the above context. First, have students fill in the gradient. Second, discuss with students which words from the gradient are most plausible to fill in the blank.

5. Next, provide students with the following sentences from the handout:
1. "Jamon's team ________ their opponents."

2. "Jamon's mom _________during the movie."

3. Jamon felt __________ when he got the test back."

4. Jamon was dressed properly for the __________ weather."
6. Delve for possible words to fill in the blank in each sentence, having a scribe keep a list of the responses (e.g., for sentence 1, possible words could include beat, killed, crushed, clobbered). This list will be needed for Session 5.

Session 5: Semantic Gradients Combined With Context Clues (Continued)

1. Review what was covered during the previous session. Students should be able to verbalize the importance of context clues, the shades of meaning of words, the fact that they can learn a lot from each other, and that vocabulary can be like solving a mystery or puzzle.

2. Discuss the list of responses from the Jamon sentences from Session 4, Step 6, writing them on the board or overhead.

3. Next, distribute the Semantic Gradients Plus Contexts (Continued) handout. Explain that the original Jamon sentences have been given more of a context. The range of words that can possibly fit in the blanks is thus narrowed.

4. Ask students to generate words that are good fits along the semantic gradients and then select the best answer for each sentence.


As noted in Preparation, Step 2, the activities in this lesson are intended as an introduction to context clues and semantic gradients. Students will need repeated and meaningful practice with these strategies to become comfortable using them independently and to understand how they can help them solve unknown words when reading texts in class or at home. Revisit these strategies whenever possible to reinforce the concepts and provide authentic practice.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Collect the completed handouts at the end of each session to check for understanding of the concepts. Note also how well students work in pairs or groups. Make sure to revisit these vocabulary strategies when students encounter unknown words in authentic readings, and ask them to reflect on how the strategies are useful to them.