Teaching Idea

Vocabulary, Text, and Context in the Common Core

Brenda J. Overturf

The expectations of the Common Core Standards have a renewed focus on vocabulary -- and with good reason. Over 50 years of research demonstrates the importance of vocabulary development for effective reading comprehension and academic achievement. References to vocabulary are sprinkled throughout the ELA Standards, with the bulk found in Language Standards 4-6 under Vocabulary Acquisition and Use (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). Additionally, "regular practice with complex text and its academic language" is one of the three ELA instructional shifts being emphasized in the Standards Initiative (www.achievethecore.org). A focus on vocabulary is highlighted in close reading lessons and writing to sources.


The word context appears 59 times throughout the K-12 ELA document. Approximately 38 out of the 59 times, context is related to recognizing or determining the meaning of words. Context in relation to word knowledge appears not only in the K-12 Standards for English Language Arts, but in the Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects in Grades 6-12.

A Common Core expectation is that students are able to use sentence and passage level context with increasing sophistication to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases in texts they read from the earliest grades. The College and Career Readiness standard that lays out this expectation is Language Standard 4: "Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate" (CCR.L.4). The K-12 Standards are constructed so they each build to a correlated College and Career Readiness standard. The first indicator for Language Standard 4 in first grade is "Use sentence level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or a phrase" (L.1.4a). At Grade 5, Standard 4a says, "Use context (e.g., cause/effect relationships and comparisons in text) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase" (L.5.4a). In Grades 11-12, students should be able to "use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase" (L.11-12.4a). It is clear that determining the meanings of words and phrases by using context is an important expectation for all students.

In our book Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Overturf, Montgomery, & Smith, 2013), my co-authors and I discuss how we introduce vocabulary words through use of context for students in Grades 2-6. We have found that asking students to think about how new words might fit into sentences or cloze passages seems to help prepare them to use context to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words they encounter in text. This skill is important in taking tests, including state assessments, intelligence tests, and scholastic aptitude tests throughout their school years.


To introduce vocabulary words, we use a modified cloze procedure, as follows.

Step 1: Create pocket charts with cards for sentences, words, and definitions. We hang a pocket chart on each side of a metal stand, making sure the stand can be turned around so students can see the front or the back

  • We begin by creating sentences rich in contexts that contain clues to the meaning of the words to be studied. We write these sentences on sentence strips with a blank where the word should go, and we insert the sentences in pockets near the top of the chart on the front.

    Julia did her homework ____________ every day so she could do well in school.

    The man lost his   ________________ when the judge sent him to jail for stealing.

    The Ohio River is the ______________ between Kentucky and Indiana.
  • We write the vocabulary words that would complete each sentence on cards that would fit into the blanks, and we place the vocabulary word cards in a pocket near the bottom of the chart.

  • We then prepare a strip with the vocabulary word and a kid-friendly definition for each one. We insert the definition strips on the back pocket chart.

    freedom -- ability to do what you want to do

    border -- the edge or boundary of something

    faithfully -- to do something in a way that is always the same

Step 2: Introduce the words. After we gather our students in front of the chart with the sentence, definition, and word cards, we hold up the first vocabulary word card (e.g., the word freedom). We say, "My turn FREE-DOM," with two claps to represent the syllables. Then we pass the turn, "Your turn, FREE-DOM," as students say and clap the word with us. We explain that the word freedom has two syllables, and we clap it again. We also explain that the word freedom is a noun ("A noun is a person, place, or thing. Freedom is a thing, so it is a noun").

Step 3: Explore the meaning of each word.  Next we ask students if they know what the word means or how to use the word. As students discuss what they think the word means, we listen carefully to student responses to informally assess their knowledge and thinking. It may be that the word has multiple meanings but only one that is right for the context. After students have discussed what the word might mean, we explain what the word does mean by using a kid-friendly definition. We think it equally important to take a minute to somehow relate the word to our students' lives.

Step 4: Try the words in the contexts. After we have introduced and discussed all three words, we begin reading the sentences aloud to examine the contexts they provide for the words we have defined.

  • We read aloud the first sentence, saying "blank" where the word is missing. We read it again, asking students to read it aloud with us.
  • We then invite a student to choose one of the word cards to fit into the blank and talk about the clues that helped him choose that word for that sentence.
  • We ask the group to show us "thumbs up" if they agree, "thumbs down" if they disagree, or "thumbs sideways" if they are not sure. This informal assessment ensures that everyone is involved and helps us gauge confidence and confusion.
  • We test all the words in each blank, so that students really have to think about which word fits best in the sentence instead of just choosing the first one that seems right.
  • As we discuss the clues that help us decide how words fit into sentences, we reinforce context.

Introducing words through context is only the first step in our vocabulary cycle. We also incorporate vocabulary journals, synonyms and antonyms, and a number of activities that include games, art, music, movement, drama, and word play. We also believe in celebrating word learning!

The emphasis in the Common Core Standards on determining the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases has great potential to help students unlock academic capabilities. Learning to use context is only one piece of the vocabulary puzzle, but it makes an important contribution to developing reading, writing, and critical thinking abilities in the Common Core classroom.

Brenda J. Overturf in an independent literacy consultant. She served on the International Reading Association Board of Directors from 2009-2012.


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010a). Common Core State Standards: English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

Overturf, B.J., Montgomery, L. R., & Smith, M.H. (2013). Word nerds: Teaching all students to learn and love vocabulary. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Student Achievement Partners. (2013). Achieve the core. Retrieved from: http://www.achievethecore.org