Tag Archives: reading comprehension

Discourse Markers and ESL

Discourse markers are used in writing to help organize ideas. They are often those “little words” that native speakers use effortlessly as they communicate but are misunderstood by ESL speakers. This post will provide examples of various discourse markers.

Logical Sequence

Logical sequence discourse markers are used to place ideas in an order that is comprehensible to the listener/reader. They can be summative for concluding a longer section or resultative which is used to indicate the effect of something.

Examples of summative discourse markers includes

  • overall, to summarize, therefore, so far

An example of summarize discourse markers is below. The bold word is the marker.

Smoking causes cancer. Studies show that people who smoke have higher rates of lung, esophagus, and larynx. Therefore, it is dangerous to smoke.

The paragraph is clear. The marker “Therefore” is summarizing what was said in the prior two sentences.

Examples of resultative discourse markers includes the following

  • so, consequently, therefore, as a result

An example of resultative discourse markers is below. The bold word is the marker.

Bob smoked cigarettes for 20 years. As a result,he developed lung cancer

Again, the second sentence with the marker “As a result” explain the consequence of smoking for 20 years.


Constrastive markers are words that  indicate that the next idea is the opposite of the previous idea. There are three ways that this can be done. Replacive share an alternative idea, antithetic markers share ideas in opposition to the previous one. Lastly, concessive markers share unexpected information given the context.

Below are several words and or phrases that are replacive markers

  • alternatively, on  the other hand, rather

Below is an example of a replacive contrast marker used in a short paragraph. Bold word is the replacive

Smoking is a deadly lifestyle choice. This bad habit has killed millions of people. On the other hand, a vegetarian lifestyle has been found to be beneficial to the health of many people

Antithetic markers include the following

  • conversely, instead, by contrast

Below is an example of antithetic marker used in a paragraph

A long and healthy life is unusually for those who choose to smoke. Instead, people who smoke live lives that are shorter and more full of disease and sickness.

Concsessive markers includes some of the words below

  • In spite of, nevertheless, anyway, anyhow

Below is an example of a concessive marker used in a paragraph

Bob smoked for 20 years. In spite of this, he was an elite athlete and had perfect health.


Discourse markers play a critical role in communicating the  finer points of ideas hat are used in communication. Understanding how these words are used can help ESL students in comprehending what they hear and read.


Developing Purpose to Improve Reading Comprehension

Many of us are familiar with the experience of being able to read almost anything but perhaps not being able to understand what it is that we read. As the ability to sound out words becomes automatic there is not always a corresponding increase in being able to comprehend text.

It is common, especially in school, for students to be required to read something without much explanation. For more mature readers, what is often needed is a sense of purpose for reading. In this post, we will look at ways to develop a sense of purpose in reading.

Purpose Provides Motivation

Students who know why they are reading know what the are looking for while reading. The natural result of this is that students are less likely to get distract by information that is not useful for them.

For example, if the teacher tells their students to read “the passage and identifying all of the animals in it and be ready to share tomorrow.” Students know what they are suppose to do (identifying all animals in the passage) and why they need to do it (share tomorrow). the clear directions prevent students from getting distracted by other information in the reading.

Providing purpose doesn’t necessarily require the students love and enjoy the rational but it is helpful if a teacher can provide a purpose that is motivating.

Different Ways to Instill Purpose

In addition to the example above there are several quick ways to provide purpose.

  • Provide vocabulary list-Having the students search for the meaning of specific words provides a clear sense of purpose and provides a context in which the words appear naturally. However, students often get bogged down with the minutia of the definitions and completely miss the overall meaning of the reading passage. This approach is great for beginning and low intermediate readers.
  • Identifying the main ideas in the reading-This is a great way to gets students to see the “big picture” of a reading. It is especially useful for short to moderately long readings such as articles and perhaps chapters and useful for intermediate to advanced readers in particular.
  •  Let students develop their own questions about the text-By fair my most favorite strategy. Students will initial skim the passage to get an idea of what it is about. After this, they develop several questions about the passage that they want to find the answer too. While reading the passage, the students answer their own questions. This approach provides opportunities for metacognition as well developing autonomous learning skills. This strategy is for advanced readers who are comfortable with vocabulary and summarizing text.


Students, like most people,  need a raison de faire (reason to do) something. The teacher can provide this, which has benefits. Another approach would be to allow the students to develop their own purpose. How this is done depends on the philosophy of the teacher as well as the abilities and tendencies of the students

Levels of Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a key academic skill. To comprehend a reading text means to understand what the author was trying to communicate and to share the author’s intentions along with, if possible, your own perspective on the text. Doing this is not easy at all.

In general, there are three levels of reading comprehension and they are.

  1. Decoding
  2. Critical literacy
  3. Dynamic literacy

This post will discuss each of these three levels of reading comprehension.


Decoding is the most basic level of reading comprehension. At this level, a person breaking down words into there component syllables and “sounding them out.” He or she blends the words together and reads the text. This is the experience of many people who are learning to read. The focus is on learning to read and not reading to learn.

There is a minimal amount of reading comprehension at this level. The reader can recall what they read based on memory but there is often an inability to think and comprehend at a deeper level beyond memory.

For teaching, teaching decoding normal happens either with ESL students or with native speakers in early the early primary grades. This can be taught using a phonics based approach, whole reading approach or some other method.

Critical Literacy

Critical literacy assumes that decoding has already happen. At this level, the reader is actively trying to develop a deeper understanding of the text. This happens through analyzing, comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, and or evaluating. The reader is engaged in a dialog with the text in trying to understand it.

Developing critical literacy in students requires employing teaching and learning strategies from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Leading discussions that require higher level thinking and or writing assignments are some ways to accomplish this.

It is important to remember that readers should have already mastered decoding before attempting critical literacy. It is easy to cause cognitive overload by trying to have a reader decode text while trying to discuss the deeper meaning of the content. As such, critical literacy strategies should be avoid until upper primary school.

Dynamic Literacy

Dynamic literacy assumes mastery of decoding and some mastery of critical literacy. Dynamic literacy goes beyond analysis to relating the content of the text to other knowledge. If critical literacy is focused only on the text, dynamic literacy is focused on how the current text of the reading relates to other books.

For example, a reader who is reading a book about language acquisition may look for connections between acquisition of a language and grammar. Or they may be more creative and look for connections between language acquisition and music. This inter-disciplinary focus is unique to what is currently considered the highest level of reading comprehension.

A more practical approach to doing this would be to compare what several authors say about the same subject. Again, the focus is on going beyond just one book or one subject to going across different books and or viewpoints. In general, dynamic literacy is probably not possible before high school or even college.


Many people never move beyond decoding. They are content with reading a text and knowing what happen but never thinking deeper beyond that. However, for some, higher levels of reading comprehension is not a goal. For many, reading the newspaper in English is all they want to do and they have no desire for a more complex reading experience.  The challenge for a teacher is to move readers from one level to the next while keeping in mind the goals of the students

Understanding Fallacies

Fallacies are errors in reasoning. They happen in speech and in writing. The danger of fallacies is that they can deceive people into accept false ideas and claims that can lead to serious consequences. In this post we will look at several types of fallacies with examples.

Hasty Generalization

A hasty generalization happens when an individual makes a broad claim on a few instances. Below is an example

Throughout American history, military leaders who become president are terrible leaders. Consider the examples of Ulysses Grant and James Buchanan..

The problem with the reasoning in this fallacy is that it is not always true. There are many examples of military leaders who became excellent presidents. Examples include George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower.

False Cause 

A false cause fallacy is claiming that A caused B when there is no real connection. Below is an example.

When ice cream sales increase there is also an increase in homicide rates. Therefore, if we want to reduce homicides we need to reduce ice cream sales.

On the surface, such an argument makes sense. However, correlation is not causation. There are other factors that lead to homicide in addition to ice cream sales.

Invalid Analogy

An analogy is the comparison of two concepts or things for the purpose of explanation. An invalid analogy is the inappropriate comparison of two concepts. Below is an example.

  In America, the school-year is from September to May. Since this schedule works in America it will surely work in Thailand

This analogy is comparing the American and Thailand with the idea that they can both have the same academic calendar. The problem is that both countries are radical different in terms of facilities. Most American classrooms are temperature control while many in Thailand are not. Since there is a lack of air conditioning in many Thai schools the calendar has been adjusted so that teaching does not take place during the hottest time of the year.


A bandwagon fallacy is based on the premise that since so many people are doing A it serves as evidence that everyone should do it. Children are often victims of this fallacy when they try to justify why they did something. Below is an example.

 The action of the administration is appropriate. The reason being because is that 70% of the faculty support the decision of coed dormitories.

The fact that the majority support something is not the only indication of whether it is right or wrong. Other factors such as religious beliefs and even culture may need to be considered as well.


Fallacies can serve as a major tool for confusing people on different topics and ideas. The examples in this post only serve to show some of the few ways that fallacies manifest themselves. It is important for consumer of information to be able to identify fallacies when they are apparent.

Extensive and Intensive Reading

Most teachers are trying to get their students to read more. The question to ask is what kind of reading are teachers trying to get students to do. In general, there are two common ways in which students read and they are extensive reading and intensive reading.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is having students read broadly for the sake of reading in a pleasurable way. Doing so improves students word recognition and builds overall reading ability. For many students, including adult ESL, you cannot just turn them loose and say read. Rather, it is important to develop some sort of guidelines for extensive reading.

  • The books students choose to read extensively should be at their reading level so that comprehension is the primary goal.
  • The teacher needs to provide motivation. This can be done through the use of assignments, groupwork, or other activities related to the books the students are reading.
  • There must be some mechanism in which students are required to report their opinion about a book they have read.

Extensive reading is often done outside of class or as a small part of the school day. If it happens outside of class it requires the students to have some discipline to complete an assignment on their own. If it happens in class it is often used as a cool-down after an exciting activity.

Intensive Reading

Intensive reading is serious focused reading for the purpose of achieving a study goal. A common example is reading a chapter to answer questions. This requires a slightly different scaffolding in order to have success. Below are some principles to keep in mind when having students read intensively.

  • Students must know why they are reading and for how long. This helps with goal-setting and self-regulation.
  • There must be some sort of way for students to provide feedback about what they learned. It can something as simple as a discussion, or as complex as developing a presentation.
  • When discussion takes place, students must refer to the text while discussing to demonstrate their familiarity with it.

Intensive reading is often done in class. One challenge with intensive reading is vocabulary. Students often see too many words that they do not know the answer too. The constant use of dictionaries uses up all the time set aside for reading. As such, teachers need to monitor dictionary use so that the do not impede the goal of reading the text.


Reading is a skill that most would agree that students need to develop. Extensive and intensive reading provide different ways in which students can develop reading skills. Reading for pleasure or purpose is some of the primary ways in which adults read. As such, extensive and intensive reading are excellent strategies for supporting students in the development of their reading abilities.

Writing Patterns II

In this post, we conclude our discussion on writing patterns by looking at two more types. The two types of writing patterns for this post are cause and effect and comparison.

Cause and Effect

Causes are reasons and effects are the results of the reason. Causes have an effect on something or somebody. A paragraph that uses this writing pattern indicates the reason something happen and how it has an impact. Below are some common phrases and clues that indicate cause and effect writing pattern was employed.

Cause                Effect

the reason(s)     thus

the cause(s)       the result(s)  as a consequence

because, since  the effect(s)  on that account

is due to [cause]  the outcome  [effect] is/was caused by

Here is an example paragraph using this writing pattern, The cause is bold and the effect is underline.

Dogs make good pets. Since they are friendly dogs cause people happy.  In addition, because dogs love being around humans, the consequence is people often begin to love dogs.

In this paragraph, there were two cause and effect moments. The second and third sentence were both cause and effect. As you looked at the paragraph, you may have noticed that in the first example the effect came before the cause. This is common and normal in writing. The second example shares the cause before the effect. Either approach is acceptable. The goal of cause and effect or effect and cause is to show how one thing leads to another.

To determine cause and effect consider the following questions

  • What causes the “effect”? (The answer to this will be the cause.)
  • Why does “effect” happen? (The answer for this will be the cause.)
  • What is the reason for the effect? (The answer will be the cause.)
  • How can the “effect” be explained? (The answer will be the cause.)
  • What does the “cause” lead to? (The answer to this question will be the effect.)

From this list, you can see that it is more common to identify the effect first and then the cause. However, this is not always the case.


This identifies similarities, difference, or both in two or more things/concepts. Below are common words and phrases associated with compare/contrast writing pattern.

Comparison          Contrast

similarly                  in contrast  some; others

likewise                   however  nonetheless

both                         as opposed to     

same; alike              whereas

Here is an example comparison words are bold and contrast words are underlined.

Dogs are similar to cats.  Both have four legs and a tail.  However, dogs and cats are different in their behavior.  Dogs are much friendlier than cats are with people.  Though they are different both dogs and cats make good pets.

There is not much to explain. The different words employed indicate how dogs and cats are similar and different. Paragraphs can employ this mixed approach or focus completely on comparing or contrasting. What’ is best depends on the context.


Writing patterns provide ways in which to communicate ideas. There is no reason an other will limit themselves to such fix approaches when expressing their ideas. These patterns are for helping students to see how an author is trying to express themselves.

Finding the Implied Main Idea

There are at least two types of main ideas. The stated main idea, which was already discussed, is an idea that the author supplies in the paragraph. The topic of this post is the implied main idea.

An implied main idea is stated indirectly. The reader has to develop it based on the information in the paragraph. The author never provides that one single sentence that states the “point” of the paragraph. T

There are several ways to find the implied main idea. Below are just some of many strategies.

  • Strategy 1: Add necessary information (normally the topic) to a sentence in the paragraph that almost shares the main idea.
  • Strategy 2: Combine  two separate sentences in a paragraph into a one sentence to develop the main idea.
  • Strategy 3: Summarize supporting details into one general sentence to serve as the main idea.

Below is an example and explanation of each strategy

Strategy 1: Add Needed Information

Many times, the main idea is present but the topic is replaced with another noun or pronoun. Look at the example paragraph. The implied main idea is underlined and bold for you.

–Dogs are friendly. Dogs love to play. Dogs like to eat food and run. Everyone should own one.

The topic of this paragraph is dogs. The last sentence in the paragraph above is the main idea. However, the word dog is not used in the last paragraph. The author replaces the word dog with the noun one. The word one means dog in this context. In order to develop the main idea, the reader would need to know to replace the noun one with dog.

Strategy 2: Combining Separate Sentences

Sometimes them main idea is spread over two sentences. In this case, the sentences need to be combined in order to develop the main idea. Look at the example paragraph. The implied main idea is underlined and bold for you.

–It is important that people own dogs. It is also important that people love their dogs. Consider that dogs are friendly. They love to play. Finally, dogs like to eat food and run.

This paragraph has two main points in two sentence as shown above. In order to create an implied main idea, we combine these two sentences into one. Below is the answer

It is important that people own and love their dogs.

The rest of the paragraph  is supporting details that explain why people should own and love dogs.

Strategy 3: Summarize Supporting Details

In some instances, an author will develop a paragraph that is only supporting details. The author never shares nor even implies a main idea. The reader must derive the point by examining the details. Below is an example. Nothing is bold or underline because there is no answer anywhere in the paragraph.

–Dogs are cute. Dogs are funny. Dogs love to play. Dog like to eat. Why would anyone not want a dog?

In order to develop the main idea, we have to find a way to summarize this information. There are many different answers. One potential answer would be to count the number of supporting details and determine what they have in common. Look at the following potential answer.

There are at least four reasons why people should want a dog.

If you look at the paragraph there are five sentence, four sentences talk about great things about dogs. The last sentence is a question. Main ideas can never be questions but this sentence provides a clue about what the author was trying to tell us. Instead of giving us the main idea, the author gives the answers to a question and then provides the question at the end of the paragraph. Turn the question into a statement and this is one way to get the main idea.

Again, this is not the only answer. Someone might see something different in the text and derive a slightly different answer. The goals is to try to determine what you think the author is trying to say.


The implied main idea must be derived by the reader. This requires knowing the different strategies to do this. These strategies are particular useful for people who are struggling with their reading.

NOTE TO WRITERS: In most research settings it is unwise to imply the main idea. Teachers want to know what the point is and they often do not have the patience to try and guess what you are saying. It is better to state the main idea when writing academic papers. Being coy and indirect will usually harm your grade. One major exception is writing in the English department.

Searching for Supporting Details

A paragraph consist mostly of three components

The supporting details are examples, explanation, proofs, statistics, etc. that support and illustrate the point being made by the main idea of a paragraph. They are supporting because they lift up the main idea and help to make it clearer through providing deeper explanation of the author’s main point.

In order to find the supporting details, a reader needs to find the main idea and turn it into a question. The aspects of the paragraph that answers these questions are the supporting details. Let’s look at an example.


There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. Second, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Here is a breakdown of the paragraph. We know that the first sentence is the main idea.

Topic: Smoking

Main idea: There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.

Supporting Details: First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Perhaps you noticed that most of the time, everything that is not the main idea is normally a supporting detail but there are exceptions to this.

As stated earlier, in order to identify the supporting details, a reader needs to turn the main idea into a question(s). Below is an example.

Topic: Smoking

Main idea: There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.
Conversion of main idea into a question: What are the reasons that smoking is bad for you?

Supporting Details: First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.
Conversion of supporting
details into answer: 
First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
Second, smoking harms your health.
Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

Clues for Finding Main Ideas

In addition to turning the main idea into a question, there are three clues for finding supporting details.

  1. Supporting details often appear as a list of bullets, as a set of numbers, or lettered list.
  2. After the first supporting detail, additional details are introduced by words and phrases such as In addition, also, moreover, another, next, then, first, second, last, finally, etc.
  3. The main idea sentence itself often provides hints about the number or type of supporting details. Such words and phrases such as four reasons, two kinds, six types, certain ways, three categories, etc.

We will take the previous paragraph and provide examples of each.

Clue 1 List

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you.

  • It waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities.
  • It harms your health.
  • It is a bad example for children.

This is not much of paragraph but it provides reasons for the main idea.

Clue 2 Introductory Phrases

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. In addition, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

In this example, the introductory phrases are bold and it shows the addition of another supporting detail.

Clue 3 Main Idea Clue

There are several reasons why smoking is bad for you. First, smoking waste a lot of money that can be used for other activities. Second, smoking harms your health. Lastly, smoking is a bad example for children.

This example highlights how the main idea can provide the clue. The phrase “several reasons” in bold is a signal to a reader that there should be several supporting details that explain the main idea about smoking.


As you can see several clues can be used to find the supporting details in the same paragraph. It does not matter how you find the main idea as long as you separate the point from the details. For writers, it is important that there is consistency between the main idea and supporting details. Many times, writers will only have details and no main idea or the say that they have several reasons and only provide one. Understanding the importance of supporting details and their role in reading and writing will enhance reading comprehension and writing clarity.

Finding the Main Idea

After determining the topic of a reading passage. The student needs to figure out what the main idea is. The main idea is the most important statement the writer makes about the topic. There are three common characteristics of main ideas.

  • Must always have the topic (the word, name, or phrase that tells who or what the paragraph is about)
  • Must always be a complete sentence by itself (even if you were not able to read the rest of the paragraph)
  • Must be a sentence that summarizes the details of the paragraph

IMPORTANT NOTE: In many ways, the main idea and the thesis statement can be the same thing. A thesis statement is the main idea of an entire paper whereas a regular main idea is the most important statement about the topic in a particular paragraph. In other words, there are different levels of main ideas from ones that cover an entire paper to ones that only cover a paragraph. This applies to the concept of topics as well.

The main idea of a paragraph can be in one of three places.

  • The beginning
  • The middle
  • The end

We will now look at examples of each.

Main Idea at the Beginning

The main idea at the beginning is often the easiest to understand. The first sentence states clearly what the rest of the paragraph is about. The reader never has to wonder why the author is saying something because the author tells them from the beginning. Below is an example. The main idea is underlined and in bold

Dogs are good pets to have.  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.

Dogs are good pets to have is the main idea. The rest of the paragraph provides reasons and evidence for why dogs are good pets. This is deductive reasoning in which is going from a general principal (the main idea) to specific examples (the rest of the paragraph.

Main Idea at the End

The next most common place to put a main idea is at the end.

Have you ever had a dog for a pet?  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.  Dogs are good pets to have.

The writer starts with a question (a question can never be the main idea). They supply reasons for having a dog and the summarize by sharing that dogs are good pets to have. This is inductive reasoning in which the author goes from specific examples (the beginning of the paragraph) to a general principle (the main idea).

Main Idea in the Middle

The worst place to put the main idea is in the middle. This approach is neither deductive or inductive it is just confusing for many academic disciplines. Below is an example.

–Have you ever had a dog for a pet?  Dogs are fun to play with and are friendly to everyone.  Dogs are also very close to their master and obey them. Everyone should own a dog.  Dogs even love children and will protect the family.

The question to ask is “why provide another example after sharing the main idea?” This is why this approach is not always the clearest.


When reading it is important to determine what is the point and to answer why is the writer writing about this. The answer to these questions is the main idea. It is the most important idea about the topic. The main idea is what the writer wants a student to remember after he or she finishes reading. The placement of the main idea can be anywhere in the paragraph. Finding the main idea will help a student to see the big picture of what the writer was trying to say.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR WRITERS: In an academic writing, it is almost always best to put the main idea at the beginning. A student wants the reader, which is often a professor, to know exactly where the student is taking them in their text immediately. If a teacher has to try and figure what a student has to say, the teacher can often become frustrated and this could cost a student points. Scholars want to know what the point is right away, they want to see the big picture and check details as necessary. Therefore, students should tell them in the first sentence or as soon as possible what the main idea is. There are exceptions depending on discipline but this is a very safe rule for most circumstances.

The next best place to put a main idea is at the end. As mentioned, this is a sort of inductive reasoning approach. The reader wonders what the student is talking about but the get the point at the end. It’s frustrating but eventually they get the punchline. The worst place is the middle. A student give examples, state the point, and give more examples. This is totally confusing in may disciplines. Remember, main idea should be first whenever possible, last if necessary, and never in the middle.

Determining the Topic

The first step for a student to understand what they are reading is to know the topic of what they are reading. The topic is simple what the author is writing about. This sounds ridiculous but for students, especially those who are reading in a second language, it is not always easy to determine what the topic of a reading passage is. Below is a list of common characteristics of a topic.

  • The “something” an author is writing about is the topic.
  • The topic is the who or what that the author writes about.
  • The topic is always a word, a phrase, or a name and it is never written as a sentence.

In addition to these characteristics above, there are four common clues that can be used to identify the topic. Below is the list and each will be explained with an example.

  1. Look for a heading or title.
  2. Look for words in special print, such as bold, italics, or color—or some combination, such as bold italics.
  3. Look for repeated words in a paragraph.
  4. Look for something mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph and then referred to throughout the paragraph by pronouns or by other words.

Clue 1: Find the Heading

The example below gives the topic of the passage in the title. This is an obvious example, however, students often skip the title to begin reading and never know what they are reading about. This is one reason that students must be taught to read the title first, if it is available, as it provides a framework for reading the details.

Somewhere University

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University  also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

The title tells you what the topic is. This passage was about “Somewhere University.”

Clue 2: Look for Special Print 

Sometimes the topic is in the text and the writer uses special print or color to identify it. Again students run right pass such obvious information. Below is the example. The topic is in bold and italics within the paragraph.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University  also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

In this example, the text is bold and in read. This is a common approach in textbooks.

Clue 3: Look for Repeated Words or Phrases

Many times the topic can be found by looking for words and phrases that are repeated continuously within a reading passage. The more often a word or phrase is used the more likely it is the topic. Below is an example. Count how many times the word “Somewhere University” is used.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. Somewhere University offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. Somewhere University  also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

The noun Somewhere University is in every sentence as the subject. As such, it is the topic of this paragraph.

Clue 4: Find a Word or Phrase Mentioned at the Beginning and Throughout the Passage by a Pronoun

After mentioning the topic by name, many authors will refer to it by other names or pronouns. This can be especially confusing for people new to the language as they may not have mastery of the various pronouns and synonyms appropriate for the topic. Below is an example.

Somewhere University is a school in Southeast Asia. It has about 300 students. The school offers several majors that focus mainly on humanitarian service. The institute also has a diverse faculty with teacher from all over the world.

In the paragraph above, Somewhere University was referred to by the following words

  • It (2nd sentence)
  • The school (3rd sentence)
  • The Institute (4th sentence)

Remember this can be very confusing for many students when one word is referred to by several different other words.


These are some tools to help students to figure out what they are reading about. Are there other ways to do this? If so please respond in the comments section.

Part II of Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

In the last post, we discuss the first three clues that a person can use to finding the meaning of unknown words. In this post, we conclude our discussion by looking at the last two rules, which are

  • General sense of the sentence
  • Clues from another sentence

General Sense of the Sentence

This clue is really not a clue. In other words, there is nothing in the sentence that provides a hint as to what the unknown word is. Instead, the student uses their prior knowledge and personal life experience to determine the meaning of an unknown word. An example sentence is below. Keep in mind that there is no signal word or phrase for this type of clue. The unknown word is the word clumsy.

The drunken man was staggering, falling all over the place, and looked really clumsy.

Assuming a student does not know what the word clumsy means he can call on his experience to figure the word out at least partially. For example, many students know how intoxicated people act. It is not a secret that drunken people at not very careful and the sentence indicates that the person was falling down. Therefore, the word clumsy means someone who has poor control of their body.

Clues from Another Sentence

At times, the meaning of a word is not in the sentence that you find it. For many students, they stop reading until they figure out what the word means. This is often a mistake because many times the meaning of the unknown word is in the next sentence or beyond. In other words, sometimes a student needs to keep read.

Below is an example. Remember that there are no signal words or phrases for this clue.  The unknown word  is the word convoluted.

  • This book is convoluted. I cannot understand it because it is so complicated

Notice how the first sentence had the unknown word but no meaning. It is in the second sentence that the definition of the word can be extracted.


The clues shared here are only to help a student. They are not intended to replace a dictionary. There are times however, when students cannot use dictionaries such as during a test or when one is not available. It is in context such as these that these clues for finding the meaning of unknown words can be helpful.

Without a Dictionary: Finding the Meaning of Unknown Words

A common problems for students, from elementary to grad school, is figuring out the meaning of a word they do not know. Understanding the words in a reading passage is important for comprehension. Fortunately, there are several ways of determining the meaning of these unknown words. These approaches are called context clues because the context or environment in which the words are used help to explain their meaning. In this post, we will look at three context clues and they are Definition or synonym clues, Contrast  clues, and Example Clues.

Definition or Synonym Clues

The definition clue is the easiest way to determine what the meaning of an unknown word is. In this approach, the author tells the reader the meaning of the word. Below are some signals that the author uses to define the unknown word. A sentence using the signal is provided for each one and the signal is in bold. The unknown word for each sentence is the word convoluted.

–phrases such as the term, is defined as, means, is known as

  • The word convoluted is defined as something that is complex
  • The word convoluted means something that is complex

–a definition following a comma, colon, or dash, or enclosed in parentheses, brackets or dashes

  • The text is convoluted (complicated) so the students complained about reading it
  • The text is convoluted-really complicated-so the students complained about reading it

–synonyms introduced by or, in other words, that is, is also known as, by this we mean, etc.

  • The book is convoluted or complicated
  • The book is convoluted and by this we mean it is complicated.

Of course there are other ways that author defines words but this serves the purpose of providing a foundation for knowing when this happens.

Contrast Clues

Contrast clues define unknown words by providing a word that has the opposite meaning of the unknown word. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Words such as but, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, yet, in contrast, and some . . .others

  • Women are convoluted but men are simple.
  • Women are convoluted, however, men are simple.

–Opposite words (e.g., men and women; Democrats and Republicans; ancient and modern)

  • Women are convoluted and men are simple

Example Clues

An example clue illustrates a word through providing examples. Below is a list of signals with examples and the signal is in bold when possible. The unknown word again is convoluted.

–Examples are typically introduced by  for example, to illustrate, for instance, and such as

  • There are many examples of convoluted machines in nature such as the human body
  • For example, a convoluted machine would be the human body.

There are several other ways to define unknown words that have not been discussed yet. In the next post we will look at the last two clues for determining the meaning of unknown words.