Getting Our House in Order

What is fun about homeschooling is a lot. All those lectures in the car to a captive audience? (Parents, you know what I’m talking about.) I get to make my kids take notes while I’m talking. Heheheheheheheh.


The regime schedule includes vocabulary study, a subject about which I hold strong opinions. For proficient readers, I believe vocabulary study best takes place in context, so one required activity is that the girls keep a notebook in which they write down every unfamiliar word.


Yesterday we were reading together (I was reading “The Law of Genre” by Derrida, don’t ask, because anyone who knows me knows how I feel about deconstruction, but more on that in another post; Naomi was finishing Rebecca), and I came across an unfamiliar word (“liminal”) and looked up the definition, and in so doing, we talked about what we thought it meant, both from the context and prior knowledge (“subliminal”). (In the same essay, I stumbled upon “invaginate.” Diction is so telling, is it not. Talk about subliminal. Although my French is so poor that I’m unable to tell whether the choice of “invaginate” was necessary or creative license on the part of the translator.) And yes, “liminal” meant exactly what we thought.


In addition to keeping a record of unfamiliar words, the girls must find a definition and then write a sentence with each word, a sentence that provides enough context that would allow the reader to determine the meaning of the word.


Which meant that the topic of one of our commuting lectures was context clues, and specifically how context clues provide information about word meaning:

  • restatement/definition–In which a synonym or paraphrase is provided:

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take. –Mahatma Gandi [This example also uses contrast, which is described below.]

Restatement and definition cues are sometimes cued by punctuation, such as commas or parentheses:

A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true. — Socrates 

  • example–In which one or more illustrative examples are provided. The use of example may also be cued by punctuation: 

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. — Charles Darwin

  • contrast–In which the opposite is provided:

There exists a kind of laughter which is worthy to be ranked with the higher lyric emotions and is infinitely different from the twitchings of a mean merrymaker.–Nikolai Gogol 

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. — Epictetus 

As far as I’m concerned, I prefer silent vice to ostentatious virtue. — Albert Einstein

  • restriction–In which the use of other words in the sentence limits the possible meaning of a word (some like to call this the use of key words, to which I say “tomato, tomahto”):

A high station in life is earned  by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace. — Tennessee Williams 

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the species that is the most adaptable to change. — Charles Darwin

Of these basic categories, infinite variety may exist. That is, restriction clues may indicate relationship, such as cause and effect:

As in nature, as in art, so in grace: it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones, their luster. — Thomas Guthrie

And examples may be given as part of a system of classification:

Raptors, such as hawks, eagles, kites, and falcons, are known to be diurnal.

This is a foundational concept to ELA content development, both in terms of passage and item development. Writers of passages must build in context clues for difficult words, particularly words that are above grade level or words that have specific technical meanings; item writers must be sure to select target vocabulary words for which there are sufficient clues in the text for the reader to determine meanings.


Once this is explained, it probably seems fairly basic. You may already know all of this. But given the lack of training and lack of experience (because believe me, all you have to do in order to have the importance of this concept seared into your soul is to attend one item review committee meeting attended by master teachers with a solid grasp of the underlying principles of vocabulary acquisition) we see nowadays in content developers (already deplored previously), many item writers have no clue idea about context clues. They have no understanding of what real context clues look like, how context clues are created, nor of how readers rely on context clues — these inexperienced or untrained item writers have no understanding that reading is a systematic process that relies on a variety of extremely complex skills, of which this is one, and even this one is very complex and employs different processes. Which means that the work they do is going to be fundamentally unsound.


When you go to build a house, you first make sure to lay a solid foundation. Make sure that house is built upon a rock.


More on vocabulary another time. I’m also big on word structure and derivatives, as you might have guessed.


P.S. Just for fun: a word frequency analyzer. You can see how language usage changes over time. Another way to while away the minutes.


UPDATE: Fixed a typo.
UDATE THE SECOND: And two others. Goodness gracious.

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