Select a word with at least five meanings. list those meanings and consider how you would communicate each of them to a nonnative.

When attempting to decipher the meaning of a new word, it is often useful to look at what comes before and after that word. The surrounding words can give readers helpful context clues about the meaning and structure of the new word, as well as how it is used.

Using context clues aligns with the following ELA Common Core Standard:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.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.

Helping struggling students use context clues

There are six common types of context clues (see below), and teachers need to provide struggling students and those with learning disabilities with direct instruction in how to use these clues.

Teachers have found it effective to model a self-questioning strategy to identify the different types of context clues. You can ask questions that are designed to focus attention on the unknown word and the possible clues to its meaning, such as: What are the surrounding words? How do these offer me clues? What does this word mean in terms of the context?

It is also helpful to provide students with frequent reminders and examples of the different types of context clues. Using online tools, you can post the list of context clues (and some corresponding examples) on your class wiki, website, or blog. You can also display the list on the bulletin board in your classroom so that students can easily remind themselves about context clues. Students can also keep examples in their reading or writing portfolios.

Embedded supports in digital text

If students are reading digital texts, they can mark the text in a number of different ways to identify context clues. They can highlight, underline, bold, or vary the font (size, style, or color) of unknown words and/or the surrounding context. They can mark the clues that they believe will help them uncover a word's meaning.

Many supports can also be embedded in the digital text to help students while they are reading. For example, selected words and phrases (the unknown words as well as the surrounding context) can be linked to definitions, synonyms, antonyms, images, and audio explanations. The video, "Embedded Supports to differentiate Instruction for Struggling Students"” provides valuable ideas that can help you use embedded supports to differentiate instruction.

In addition to taking advantage of digital text, students and teachers may find it helpful to use an online dictionary and/or thesaurus. Visual Thesaurus is a dynamic "web" of words that can be expanded and reorganized by students.

In the classroom

Mr. Williams's Grade 4 class has been studying key humanists from the Middle Ages in social studies. To begin this unit, Mr. Williams wants his students to read a short text about Leonardo da Vinci from the Museum of Science website for reference and as an information-gathering exercise.

He knows that while most of his students will understand the text, his struggling readers will need differentiated support to succeed. The specific objective of the lesson is to have his students review the different types of context clue, and to practice using them to define vocabulary words. This aligns closely with two specific ELA Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.4 Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a Grade 4 topic or subject area.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.4.4c Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.

His students are able to read the digital text using a variety of devices, including tablets, e-readers, and laptops. He plans to introduce Visual Thesaurus to his students so they can practice using the relationships between words to help them define words that are unfamiliar. Some students will also need to use online dictionaries to confirm that their definitions are correct.

Below is Mr. Williams's lesson plan. Throughout the lesson (before, during, and after reading), he will engage in formative assessment by observing his students and noting areas of difficulty he can address in future lessons.

Lesson plan

Before Reading

  • Review the skill: context clues.
  • Explain the purpose of the lesson, building on past lessons using context clues.
  • Model how to find context clues.

During Reading

  • Display a short passage about da Vinci on the interactive whiteboard.
  • Have students read the passage in pairs.
  • Invite students to come up to the whiteboard and highlight unfamiliar words and surrounding context clues.
  • Have students share their thinking and discuss.
  • To confirm their thinking, have students search for words in dictionaries and other resources.
  • Repeat the process for one or two more words.
  • Have students use context clues to understand new vocabulary and track these words on the class wiki.

After Reading

  • Have students share their answers and prompt them to explain their process.
  • In pairs, have students discuss at least two ways to figure out the meaning of a new word.
  • Create a reference list of strategies.

More teacher resources for context clues

This article draws from the PowerUp WHAT WORKS website, particularly the Context Clues Instructional Strategy Guide. PowerUp is a free, teacher-friendly website that requires no log-in or registration. The Instructional Strategy Guide includes a brief overview of context clues and an accompanying slide show; a list of the relevant ELA Common Core State Standards; evidence-based teaching strategies to differentiate instruction using technology; a case story; short videos; and links to resources that will help you use technology to support instruction in context clues. If you are responsible for professional development, the PD Support Materials provide helpful ideas and materials for using the resources on context clues. Want more information? See

Communication is key to managing an efficient workforce. In a perfect world, each employee would understand your exact meaning and would follow instructions without a hitch. But in reality, you often have to clarify, elaborate or rephrase to ensure comprehension. Being aware of the different types of language barriers in the workplace is one way you facilitate more efficient communication.

Poor communication skills represent the most common type of language barrier you'll encounter in the workplace, even if you only have one employee on your payroll. But as your business grows, you're more likely to recruit a diverse workforce. As such, you'll meet people who are fluent in more than one language, who were raised in cultures different from your own or who need a little more time to comprehend written communications.

Fortunately, language barriers can be accommodated and overcome. However, don't assume that it's the employee's responsibility to seamlessly adapt to the workplace. Breaking down culture and language barriers requires the company itself to make an effort.

Your company's human resources department can spearhead the effort to make accommodations and conduct diversity training. This will bring all of your employees onto the same page and hold everyone to the same standard. As a leader in the company, you can also make a difference by setting an example with every interaction and communication.

Language barriers can exist even in a rather homogeneous workforce. Two people with poor communication skills may fail to grasp each other's intended meaning when having a conversation. Fortunately, you can help your employees be better communicators by teaching them a few tangible tips.

Communication is two-sided, with a sender and a receiver. It's the sender's responsibility to be as specific as possible. For example, the sender can name specific deadlines instead of asking for a report to be handed in "next week." Avoid using too many pronouns (such as him, her, it, that, then) as well.

On the other hand, it's the receiver's responsibility to engage in active listening. Inc. recommends that receivers avoid multitasking when listening to someone talk, for example. Be on the lookout for nonspecific language, and ask for clarification when needed. For example, if someone asks you to prepare something "ASAP," ask for a hard-and-fast deadline to potentially save yourself some undue stress.

Some of your employees may not speak English as a native language. Even with a high level of fluency in English, some phrases or words could still cause confusion to a non-native speaker. Avoid using idioms like "the early bird catches the worm" or "don't let the cat out of the bag," and be mindful of words that sound similar but have different meanings. Try to slow down your speech a little, explain what you want in several ways, and ask questions to verify the employee's comprehension.

Create an environment where employees who aren't native English speakers feel like they can ask for clarification without being ridiculed. Many people who know English as a foreign language do not have the same fluency when reading, writing, speaking or listening. Ask how they best understand and communicate in English so that you can accommodate them as needed. If possible, provide a translated version of important company documents, such as the employee handbook.

If a significant portion of your workforce speaks another native language, consider hiring a native speaker to conduct important training sessions or produce training videos. Make sure safety signs located around the workplace use visual images in conjunction with words, and make a translated version if possible. Ideally, the supervisor working with a larger group of non-native English speakers will also have some proficiency in their native language in order to help clarify instructions.

Speaking a different language isn't the only way some cultures can clash in terms of communication. For example, in some cultures it's not common to use direct language. In fact, being too direct or blunt may be considered rude, especially toward a supervisor or manager. Employees from certain cultural backgrounds may expect to be asked for their opinions and will not simply offer them up, even when their peers speak freely and directly.

Body language, gestures and symbols can all carry different meanings from culture to culture as well. Be especially mindful of these nuances when communicating with international partners. It's helpful to hire a cultural liaison to coach your employees in key cultural differences in order to avoid embarrassing faux pas in these situations. Although your international colleagues may tolerate a few blunders, it's a sign of respect to learn about their culture and communicate in a way that makes everyone comfortable.

Dyslexia affects a person's ability to read and understand words and symbols, but according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this common learning disability is not an indication of poor intelligence. Someone with dyslexia may also have dyscalculia, which can cause them to mix up numbers (reading 45 as 54, for example). Dyslexia acts as a language barrier because it can lead to misunderstandings. For example, someone with dyslexia may interpret directions backwards (such as giving someone a document instead of taking the document from them).

Because dyslexia is considered a learning disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are expected to make "reasonable accommodations" for employees who have dyslexia. People with dyslexia typically understand their own strengths and weaknesses and have developed coping strategies over the years, so start by asking them what they need to do their job. For example, if the employee is responsible for creating documents, you might identify another team member who can proofread them before publication. You could also help the employee find a spell-checking app or a speech-to-text app for email communications.

An employee with dyslexia may also use read-back software to better understand long documents. Hands-on training may prove more effective than handing an employee with dyslexia a huge training manual. Remain open-minded and encourage an employee with dyslexia to always come to you (or their manager) if additional accommodation is required.

If you're struggling with culture and language barrier problems in the workplace, consider hosting a diversity and communication specialist. Through seminars and workshops, all of your employees will get a crash-course in the benefits of diversity and how to overcome potential language barriers. You don't have to reinvent the wheel; entire companies exist to provide these training programs to your employees.

The benefit of conducting a training session with all of your employees is that it places everyone on the same page. There will be no excuses for not following the best practices, and everyone can be held accountable for upholding new standards in communication. If your business is growing rapidly, consider integrating this training into new employee onboarding procedures or hosting a refresher course every six months or so.

According to Harvard Business Review, diversity training can take many forms, so don't hesitate to hold different training sessions throughout the year. A technique that makes everything "click" for one person may not be as effective for another person, so diversifying your diversity training can have good results. Your managers and leaders should receive additional training in order to handle any conflicts that may arise due to culture or language barriers.