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Does the context of a word always help?

Sometimes the misconceptions pupils encounter in their reading relate not to particularly complex vocabulary but to usual words being used in unusual combinations or challenging contexts.

‘You shall know a word by the company it keeps’ (John Firth, 1957¹)

Faced with a new word, we draw upon our knowledge of the words that attend it to help us clarify its meaning. However, Beck et al.² have shown that the context does not always help in clarifying a word.

A Table of Directive Contexts

Misdirective context i.e. those contexts that rather than helping reveal the meaning of the word, seem to direct pupils to an incorrect meaning
General context i.e. those which provide enough information to infer general meaning
Non-directive context i.e. those which have very little help in revealing the meaning
Directive context i.e. those where the surrounding description and a definitional phrase lead to the specific meaning

An example of a misdirective context for the word ‘grudgingly’ is

‘Sandra had won the dance contest, and the audience’s cheers brought her to the stage for an encore. “Every step she takes is so perfect and graceful,” Ginny said grudgingly as she watched Sandra dance.’ (Beck²)

Using the context may lead us to think ‘grudgingly’ is a positive word about the beautiful dance. The effect of this misunderstanding is that Ginny’s feelings towards Sandra will be misinterpreted.

The first quote using ‘thrasonical’ provides a context where you can infer a general meaning of the word.

‘On the other hand, the windblown deposits of mineral-rich dust and silt called loess have benefited farmers in China, the American Midwest and other parts of the world.’ World Geography : Prentice Hall, page 51.

The word ‘loess’ is defined in the sentence “windblown deposits of mineral-rich dust and silt” and is therefore in a directive context.

The chart of contexts is useful because it supports the decisions about when to intervene or not in helping a pupil with the meaning of a word. If a word meaning can be identified because the context is general or directive, our intervention, if necessary, can support the finding of clues. If the word is in a mis- or non-directive context we might use other strategies such as telling the pupil what the word means.


Work with an individual or small group of pupils on reading a text. Ask the pupils to identify words they are not sure about the meaning of as they read and list them.

Support the pupils with understanding of the words.

On your own, use the list of words the pupils identified and place them into the appropriate quarters of the directive chart (see downloads.) Use the comments to share:

• what you noticed about the words identified and their context, and

• whether the pupils were able to generate meanings that worked in the context of the text.

  1. John Rupert Firth (1957). “A synopsis of linguistic theory 1930-1955.” In Special Volume of the Philological Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Beck, Isabel & Mckeown, Margaret & S. McCaslin, Ellen. (1983). Vocabulary Development: All Contexts Are Not Created Equal. Elementary School Journal - ELEM SCH J. 83. 10.1086/461307.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Teaching Vocabulary

Babcock Education