Vocabulary and Context

Vocabulary and Context: Children may fail to use context well when attempting to understand a difficult word in a passage.

This occurs because students may not understand other words in a passage that are necessary for them to help figure out what a new and unfamiliar word means.

I'd like to spend a bit of time examining this area, because context and its relationship to reading comprehension is an important point.

Why is it children often fail to use context to comprehend difficult language?

First let's go over what context is, and how it relates to reading comprehension.


The term context relates to the parts directly before and after a word that influence its meaning. When readers do come across a new word the best method of discovering the meaning of that particular word is to note how the sentences and words, that surround the new word, relate to it.

So for instance, if we read the word cumulus without context we may have some difficulty understanding its meaning, unless we have good background knowledge. But if we were to place the word 'cumulus' in a sentence, we get...

'A fluffy summer cumulus is usually several hundred meters across. It floats in the upper atmosphere and contains enough rain water to fill several bathtubs.' (Adapted from Bill Bryson's A Really Short History of Nearly Everything .)

We can infer from the words, phrases and sentences that surround the word 'cumulus' that it refers to a type of cloud.

Of course, working out the meaning of a new word can become a problem if a student is uncertain what other words in the passage mean as well.

Vocabulary and Context cont...

Let's return to the example of the cumulus clouds. If the child has difficulty with concepts such as 'several hundred meters across' or 'upper atmosphere' then the meaning of 'cumulus' may be very difficult to work out.

A poor reader, or a child with a language impairment, may read the words well but have little understanding of what the passage means. The word 'cumulus' in this instance will be no more meaningful to the child than 'upper atmosphere.' The student will fail to understand that the passage relates to clouds, and so cumulus and other difficult words in the passage will remain meaningless.

If we place that passage within the context of a classroom exercise, we may find that when the teacher asks the student what the passage about cumulus clouds means, the student may not know how to even begin explaining what cumulus refers to.

So, as we can see, context can be problematic if the student doesn't have sufficient knowledge about other information in the passage. In this situation the teacher or clinician would need to provide much scaffolding and background knowledge about clouds and atmosphere before the student began to read the passage.

When students are provided with background knowledge about a subject, such as clouds, their ability to comprehend a difficult passage should improve.

Shared reading for language comprehension is a highly useful therapy to facilitate students' comprehension skills, because it involves large doses of learning vocabulary and context, and improves metalinguistic awareness skills.


Bryson, B. (2009) A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Fletcher, J.M., Lyon, G.R, Fuchs, L.S., & Barnes, M.A. (2007) Learning Disabilities: From Identification to Intervention. The Guilford Press

Wagner, R.K Muse, A.E & Tannenbaum, K.R. (2007)Vocabulary Acquisition: Implications for Reading Comprehension. The Guilford Press

Wallach, G.P. (2008) Language Intervention for School-Age Students: Setting Goals for Academic Success. Mosby Elsevier

Content Updated 8/11

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