Two birds with one stone: Introducing vocabulary and encouraging the guessing of meaning from context

Samuel Barclay, Ehime University

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, guessing meaning from context, synonyms
  • Learner English level: Any
  • Learner maturity: Any
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 10 minutes
  • Materials: A4 paper, dictionary

As the vocabulary knowledge of university EFL students within an institution, or for that matter a class, can differ greatly, it is difficult to select words that are unknown to all learners for direct instruction. The following activity introduces new words in a challenging manner and also engages students who are already familiar with the target lexis. It encourages students to guess meaning from context, fosters associations between words, and presents common collocations and colligations. 


Step 1: Choose words/expressions that you think warrant explicit learning (in my case, words were taken from the vocabulary section of the textbook).

Step 2: Using a dictionary, find collocations and/or colligations that are relevant to the situation in which your students will utilize these words.

Step 3: Find example sentences which contain the collocations and/or colligations you selected in Step 2. A good dictionary is usually a reliable source for this information; however, ensure that sentences contain enough disambiguating context so students can infer the meaning of target items.

Step 4: Find the meaning of the target items in either a monolingual or bilingual dictionary.

Step 5: Input the information into a table (see Appendix). Ensure that there is a border between the example and the meaning (either an L1 equivalent or an L2 definition). Please note that the collocations from Step 2 are underlined in the example sentence.

Step 6: Print.


Step 1: Distribute the paper so that two students share one copy. Remember: during the activity, the teacher monitors, offering prompts to learners who have difficulty guessing the meaning of the target words from context.

Step 2: Have students fold the paper on the vertical line so the meanings of the target items are covered.

Step 3: Ask students to read each sentence and guess the meaning of the target word. Encourage them to use the context and their knowledge of English affixes to achieve this. After a pair has agreed on the meaning, they open the paper, check the meaning, and then think of as many synonyms for the target item as possible. If a pair is already familiar with the target item, instruct them to read the sentence to check that the word has the same meaning in the given context, unfold the paper and confirm the meaning, and then discuss any synonyms they may know. 

Step 4: Finally, once the majority of students have finished, check pronunciation and elicit synonyms as a class. 


In the past, I have found that even after discussing the discovery strategy of guessing meaning from context, students quickly revert to looking up guessable words in their dictionaries. This activity encourages students to actually employ this strategy with unknown words. Furthermore, as students think of target-word synonyms, it fosters understanding of associations between previously learned lexis and target words. An introduction to guessing meaning from context may be required the first time you attempt this activity. A good starting point can be found in Clarke and Nation (1980). Finally, this activity can be adapted for an online environment. Rather than including the L1 equivalent or an L2 definition of a target item to the right of the example sentence, it could be incorporated as a popup, so that the meaning appears when the cursor hovers over the target item in the example sentence. 


Clarke, D. F. & Nation, I. S. P. (1980). Guessing the meanings of words from context: Strategy and techniques. System, 8(3), 211-220.

Appendix: Example

Instructions: Without looking at the Japanese, try to guess the meaning and word class of the words on the left from the sample sentences. Then, try to think of as many synonyms as possible.

  • factor
    The weather could be an important factor in tomorrow’s game.
  • specific
    I don’t understand what you want. Could you be more specific about what you’re looking for?
    具体的{ぐたいてき}な, 詳しい