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2.1: Words Influence Literacy

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    Vocabulary Strategies: Preparing to Comprehend What You Read

    Why do instructors insist on teaching you vocabulary? It turns out your ability to understand key vocabulary in a reading directly affects your ability to comprehend the overall text. (QUIAN)

    This section will focus upon strategies for comprehending the meanings of keywords in a text without using the dictionary unless absolutely necessary. Conversely, there will also be a focus upon the way in which you, as a writer, use words to effectively communicate your ideas.

    The Big Picture: Context Clues

    Context refers to surrounding time, place, and circumstances of a situation. We make assumptions about what happens in the world around us by observing context. Consider the following narrative in which a student observes other students in the library:

    “I was at the library at 12:30 PM and I saw a group of five girls studying. They all were wearing sweatpants, two of girls had coffees and one was eating a sandwich. It looked like they had been there for a long time because there were wrappers and crumpled paper on the table. I wasn’t sure what they were studying, but I thought it was math because they had calculators and were doing some problems, but they were engaged. After about 30 minutes of me being there, they took a break and when one of them left, they were talking and laughing and were on their phones, two of the girls left for approximately 5 minutes and came back; I assumed they went to the bathroom. They came back and continued to study for another 30 minutes and they all packed up their books and notebooks and left.”

    Homework 2: Observing Context

    Situate yourself somewhere on campus, or somewhere there are people doing activities. Observe this setting, paying special attention to the details of the situation. Answer the following questions in complete sentences and paragraphs, in no less than 250 words.

    1. Write a brief description of what you observe. Note only the raw details of the situation: time, place, and circumstances.
    2. Based on what you observe happening, explain what you think might be going on in this situation. How do you know what these people are doing?

    Context Clues are specific to reading – they are clues found in the surrounding text that help the reader to define a keyword.

    Why use context clues? This is a very effective and efficient way to get the general meaning of a word that does not interrupt the flow of your reading. You can find the meaning of a word by reading the sentence and considering the words around it

    Kinds of Context clues

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In-Class Exercise: Context Clues

    Part 1: Watch the video, Word Attack! Using Context Clues to Become a Word Ninja ( . Take careful notes while watching so you can answer the following questions. In complete sentences, define the following kinds of context clues.

    1. Definition Clues
    2. Synonym/Example Clues
    3. Antonym/Contrast Clues
    4. GIST

    Part 2: Use the SQ3R reading process to read and annotate the assigned reading provided by your instructor. Make a list of 8-10 key terms that you can define using context clues. Assume that you would need to learn this text well enough to take a quiz on it.

    1. In complete sentences, in your own words, define the key terms you listed in your notes. Be sure to tell which kind of context clue(s) you used to derive your working definition. Be sure to reference the specific text of the sentence and explain how you derived the definition.

    Bits & Pieces: Word Parts

    Your “Plan B” for determining the meaning of a key word should be using word parts, or morphemes. Word parts are exactly what it sounds like – the reader breaks the word into parts and derives meaning by using what is known about the part’s meaning. It doesn’t necessarily interrupt the flow of reading, but, depending upon the reader, it may briefly.

    There are Three Categories of Morphemes

    Root Words

    • Roots are the basis of complex words.
    • Prefixes or suffixes may be added to them to modify the meaning.


    • Prefixes are added to the beginning of a word to modify the meaning.


    • Suffixes are added to the end of a word to modify the meaning.

    Let’s try this out. Here is how word parts can be used to define the word “irreversible.”

    Break the word into syllables: ir-re-vers-i-ble

    At this point, determining which syllables make up which parts can be kind of like solving a mystery. The more word parts you are familiar with, the easier this becomes.

    • Root: verse (meaning: turning)
    • Prefix: re (meaning: again)
      • “reverse” means to turn again, to go back
    • Suffix: ible (meaning: able to)
      • “reversible” means able to turn again, or able to turn back
    • Prefix: ir (meaning: not)
      • “irreversible” means not able to turn again, or not able to turn back

    Why Would I Do This?

    Knowing word parts is efficient. It turns out that when a reader knows a set of 20 prefixes and 14 roots, and knows how to use them, they will unlock the meaning of over 100,000 words. (Imagine adding suffixes!) Would you rather learn 20 prefixes and 14 roots, or would you rather learn the individual definitions of over 100,000 words?

    If you are entering a vocational program where there is a large amount of vocabulary, such as medical fields, this is THE way to learn key vocabulary, because discipline-specific vocabulary is often based upon specific, regularly occurring word parts.

    Morphemes develop over time, so knowing the etymology, or history, of a morpheme adds to your understanding of them and their many variations.

    Tips for Working With Morphemes

    • In most cases, a word is built on at least one root.
    • Words can have more than one prefix, root, or suffix.
    • Words do not always have both a prefix and a suffix
    • Roots may change in spelling as they are combined with suffixes (arid arable)
    • Sometimes you may identify a group of letters as a prefix or root, but find that it does not carry the meaning of the prefix or root.

    When to use the Dictionary

    Stopping to look up unknown words while you are reading is highly disruptive to the flow of reading. It effectively keeps you from understanding the broader message of a text. For that reason, we try to determine meanings of key words AS we read, perhaps marking words to look up later. Then return to the reading later to try out your understanding. Using the dictionary to understand key terms should be your LAST option.

    That being said, there are many good reasons to use a dictionary. Use a dictionary to:

    • Look up key words before or after reading a text.
    • Learn how to pronounce a word correctly.
    • Find out the origins or history of a word.
    • Determine how to correctly break the word into syllables.

    Dictionaries have changed considerably over the years, making them much easier to use. You can certainly use a printed book dictionary, or an online dictionary, which are often free, and typically provide audio so you can learn to how to pronounce an unknown word.

    Look Ahead

    Check your syllabus. What assignments are coming up that you will apply your understanding of vocabulary strategies to? When will this be due?

    Keep It Interesting: Word Choice & Descriptive Writing

    Read these two passages:

    • The sun set, turning the sky red.
    • The sunset filled the sky with the deep color of rubies, setting the clouds ablaze.

    Both sentences describe a sunset, but they do so differently. Compare the two sentences.

    Descriptive writers use several tools to show rather than tell. In other words, good descriptive writing can help the reader to have a clearer understanding of what the author is trying to communicate. In this class we will work with three descriptive writing tools – vivid language, sensory details, and figurative language.

    Vivid Language

    Vivid language, unlike plain language, is used by writers to provide a very specific description. Writers choose specific words or combinations of words to clearly communicate to the reader. The sunset sentence above is an excellent example of this.

    Sensory Details

    What is the root word of “sensory?”

    Sensory details are considered to be a category of vivid language. Writers use sensory details – that is, what the way something looks, smells, sounds, tastes, or feels on our skin.

    Figurative Language Basics

    You may have heard the term “figure of speech.” We humans tend to learn about new things by comparing them to things we already understand, and that is what happens when we use figurative language.

    One way to remember “figurative language” is to remember that it is the opposite of “literal language.” Literal refers to actual, factual description of something. Figurative language compares a word to something it is not obviously like.

    For example, you could describe slow traffic:

    Literal: Cars are moving very slowly on the roads today.
    Figurative: Traffic is moving slower than a herd of turtles today.

    Understanding figurative language will help you to discover meaning and find main ideas.

    2.1: Words Influence Literacy is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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