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What Does It Mean to Learn Vocabulary in Context?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Learning vocabulary in context typically means that students learn new words and vocabulary through actual passages of reading, rather than as standalone lessons. A teacher using context to teach vocabulary might choose vocabulary words for a class lesson that are found in an assignment the students are expected to read that evening. Teachers can also use context to allow students to highlight or identify words they are unfamiliar with, and then use those words for the basis of a vocabulary lesson. Learning vocabulary in context can also allow students to practice context clue skills often helpful in identifying the meaning of unknown words based on surrounding information.

Vocabulary in context typically refers to words that are found in their “natural environment” rather than isolated on a page and devoid of purpose. While vocabulary lessons that consist of lists of words students have to memorize can be useful, they are also not indicative of how people encounter new words. This is why it can be more useful to allow students to deal with vocabulary in context to recognize and come to understand the meaning of new words.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

There are a number of different ways in which a teacher can utilize vocabulary in context. In general, however, these methods typically go beyond simply providing a sentence or paragraph including the vocabulary word. Instead, most teachers utilize reading being done for another part of a class as the environment in which students encounter and come to understand the new words.

A teacher, for example, might provide students with a list of vocabulary words and ask them to identify each word that evening by going through an assigned reading and writing down the sentence it is found in. This ensures more active and critical reading by students, and also serves to reinforce the idea that the vocabulary words are not simply an assignment, but are words used in writing. Teachers can also utilize vocabulary in context by allowing students to indicate words they are unfamiliar with in a piece of writing and then using those words as the foundation for a vocabulary lesson.

Lessons that utilize vocabulary in context can also help students learn to use context clues to identify the meaning of unknown words. These clues are methods that readers can use to determine the meaning of a word by using the language and other words found around it. Context clues are often used by adult readers and can help a student learn to read more critically and better prepare students for the realities of higher education and further reading outside of a classroom environment.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - I guess I think that the test is the problem though. A vocabulary in context quiz is one thing, but when in real life is a student going to need to be able to list off a bunch of words without context?

I do think students should be encouraged to learn the definitions of words they don't know, but they should be encountering those words in other subjects. There is no need to have lessons specifically on learning new words.


@pastanaga - The only problem is that putting things in context takes a lot longer if it is done properly and organically. If you are trying to improve vocabulary in young students and you give them a list of twelve words they will be able to learn that much faster than if you give them a book that contains the twelve words.

Maybe they will learn the words more solidly by reading the book, but in the time it takes for them to read it they could have learned several lists of words.

Ideally you would have a mixture of different kinds of learning, of course, but in the real world there are a lot of times when knowing particular words from particular lists is helpful, because they expect you to know textbook definitions for tests. And I don't want to be cynical, but learning how to pass a test is the whole point.


I've always thought this should be how people learn foreign languages as well. I mean, as toddlers we learn our first language almost entirely in context, because most parents aren't going to make their children learn lists of words before they hit school.

I just think our brains are wired to take in and retain information better if it is well connected to other bits of information.

Vocabulary is always going to be used in context, so it should be learned in context as well.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books