Context-Clue Strategy: Teaching Students Word Solving Skills-Part 1
Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA
January 2017

Note: This is part one of a two part article.

High Frequency Words

As young children learn to read words on their own, instruction usually includes memorization of high frequency words. These are common words that compose almost half of all written text, and it's crucial for students to learn them on their path of becoming effective readers. Since these words tend to be abstract in nature and not readily relatable to the surrounding text that they're embedded in, they are taught in isolation from text or individually through the use of flashcards and computer games to promote automatic memorization. Some of the high frequency words taught in this manner include the following: and, can, for, here, I, in, is, it, look, me, my, said, and to. These words are the threads that weave connected text together, but they are not concept-building words or main idea words.

Concept-Building Words

Concept-building words or main idea words are usually nouns. While it's important for students to learn how to say the words (which can be taught through spelling strategies), either out loud or with the silent voice in their heads, being able to correctly pronounce the words is not necessarily essential for understanding what the words mean. Many times accomplished readers come across words that they may not know exactly how to say, but nonetheless, can figure out what they mean within the context of what they're reading. How do they do this? It's through the automatic processes of applying context clues, meaning they automatically think about what the unknown word could mean based on the information they've read leading up to the word, along with the words before and after the unknown word, and then they quickly move ahead with their reading of the rest of the passage.

Young readers or in the case of ineffective readers, either have not learned the processes involved in figuring out unknown words using context clues, or they fail to apply them. A helpful strategy that promotes the use of context clues for solving unknown words is the Context-Clue Strategy (influenced by Taylor, 1953).

Preparing Materials for Teaching

Teachers prepare materials for teaching the Context-Clue Strategy by first selecting short written passages from the reading materials they have in their classrooms. For example, the passages could come from any of the following texts: subject area textbooks, chapter books, picture books, illustrated books, informational books, narrative books, or digital reading material from websites. The main point is for teachers to use whatever reading materials they have available in their classrooms for students to read.

Next, teachers select a short passage from a text, type it on a computer, save it, and then make a second copy of it. The first copy is saved as the answer guide, or the original text, the second copy is saved as the student worksheet. In the second copy, delete main idea or main concept words, leaving the first sentence intact if possible, and not removing more than one word for each sentence thereafter. Teachers type in blank spaces for the words deleted, large enough for students to write in, and number each blank space.

Three Versions of the Context-Clue Strategy

This article describes three versions of the Context-Clue Strategy that are described as follows:

The Plain Version. In this version, the words that are deleted from the original passage are put into a word bank at the bottom of the worksheet for students to choose from. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the deleted words and the words placed into the word bank.

Figure 1. Below is an example of the Plain Version.


Butterflies feed on liquids by sucking it up through a tube-like proboscis, which is similar to a long, flexible "tongue." Their proboscis uncoils to suck the liquids, and then coils back up again into a 1._________ when they are not feeding. Most butterflies feed on 2._________ from flowers. Some butterflies sip the 3.________ from rotting fruits.

Butterflies are found all over the world and in all kinds of 4.___________ such as deserts, grasslands, swamps, and 5.___________. The highest populations of butterflies live in the warm, wet, 6.___________ rainforests located close to the Earth's Equator.

Many butterflies that live in Northern regions fly south for the sake of avoiding harsh, cold winter temperatures. Butterfly 7.____________ is not thoroughly understood by scientists. Some butterflies like the Monarch, will migrate 8._____________ of miles.

Word Bank for Butterflies

environments, liquid, thousands, tropical, spiral, mountains, nectar, migration

Challenge Version. In this version, the deleted words from the original passage are put into a word bank at the bottom of the worksheet as they are with the Plain Version, however, in the Challenge Version, additional words are included that are similar in some way with each other, for example, beginning with the same letter. This challenges students to think more critically about choosing the appropriate word. Another difference is that in addition to the blank lines in the passage being numbered, the beginning letters or beginning cluster of letters for the missing word are included. Sometimes dashes depicting each letter of the missing word are used instead of a solid line. These practices further challenge students to pay particular attention to each letter that forms the word they are trying to match.

Figure 2. Below is an example of the Challenge Version


Earthquakes happen in the rocky, outer layer of the Earth called the 1.c_______. The crust contains seven big sections called 2.t______ ______. The plates are separated by cracks in the crust called 3.f_______.

Under the crust is a thick layer of Earth called the 4.m_________. Temperatures in the mantle are so hot that the rock melts forming 5.m________. The plates float on top of this liquid rock.

When the plates bump into or slide past each other, Earth's crust shudders and shakes, and this movement is what causes earthquakes.

Earthquakes can happen in deserts, grasslands, mountains, on ocean floors, and most any 6.e___________on the Earth. They can happen during any 7.s________such as fall, winter, or spring. There are about a 8.m_________ earthquakes all over the world each year.

Word Bank for Earthquakes

environment, encroachment, magnesium, magma, fumes, faults, crust, cake, sunshine, season, mantle, mole, tank lids, tectonic plates, mold, million

Interpretive Version. The Interpretive Version does not have a word bank and does not give letter clues for the missing words. This version more closely resembles authentic reading. It causes students to think more deeply about the overall meaning of the sentences within the context of the passage, and to use their background knowledge of the topic, together with their knowledge about language, to make an interpretation for the missing words. It's important for teachers to stress that there are no exact correct answers. As long as the words the students choose do not change the overall meaning of the sentences and the context of the passage, they will be counted as correct. Teachers should not hold fast to the original deleted words from the passage when checking students' work, but instead, consider the words that the students have interpreted.

Figure 3. Below is an example of the Interpretive Version.

A Dog's Smile (DiCamillo, 2000)

I had never before seen a dog smile, but that is what he did. He pulled back his 1._________ and showed me all his 2._________. Then he 3._________ his tail so hard that he 4.__________some oranges off a display.

Note: See Part Two for the remainder of this article.


DiCamillo, K. (2000). Because of Winn-Dixie. New York, New York: Scholastic.

Taylor, W. L. (1953). "Cloze procedure": A new tool for measuring readability. Journalism Quarterly, 30, 415-433.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA

About Author / Additional Info:
Timothy G. Weih is an associate professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, USA, and teaches elementary teaching methods courses.