Words from Context: of Logic & Connections

In his great taxonomy of language skills which appears in his well known book “Communicative Syllabus Design“, John Munby mentions “developing sensitivity to context clues”,  as one of the microskills of  reading. kapitzvirt

In this post, I would like to share an insight gleaned from an EST (English for Science & Techonology) series of books which was published a very long time ago and which I discovered in a second hand bookshop some years ago – and have treasured ever since. The particular reference is from “Discovering Discourse” , I believe, second in the series.

The series does not bear the names of any identifiable authors, so if you are one of them, please step forward and declare yourself, and gain my admiration! The series editor was Professor H.G.Widdowson, and, according to a friend who was then working for OUP, the publisher, the series sold about three and half copies! Or thereabouts.

Understanding Logical Relationships in text

Guessing vocabulary from context is neither novel nor unfamiliar and most good coursebooks will nowadays have an exercise or two which will encourage the students to do just that. In posts, related to vocabulary teaching and learning, I have mentioned the need for this type of exercise and some exercise types myself.

Some of the typical suggestions to help train the learner include noticing the shape of the word (internal morphological analysis), noticing and understanding the function of affixation, of collocations as well as studying the linguistic and non linguistic environment around particular lexical items, what most people would call ‘guessing from context clues’

A different idea

The book containes a fantastic idea which I haven’t seen anywhere else, and which I have used for quite a while now with teachers and learners. It’s based on the notion of understanting the logical connections between different parts of the text and exploring them in order to deduce the meaning of new and unfamiliar lexical items or phrases.

In the example below, the learners are given an example of how to make use of the logical relationships existing in texts, within and across paragraphs, which make it possible to understand lexical meaning, simply by working out the way ideas or facts related to each other. Here is the training example from the book itself.


Example of how logical relationships may help guess meaning from context

©Oxford University Press 1980

The five logical relationships mentioned are not fully analyzed in the manual; however it is not difficult to guess how they work.

What the authors are saying, at least that is my own interpretation, is that if you have unknown vocabulary in one part of the logical connection to another idea, then, it is not impossible to deduce the meaning either by contrast, analogy, etc.

In my own training of learners, I have both used this with classes high and low and have encouraged my trainees to do so as well; in fact, I once saw a great lesson taught by a Diploma trainee, in which he got an intermediate class to read a medical text and got them really impressed by the fact that they could guess all the difficult medical terminology by applying themselves to figuring out how ideas are connected within and across paragraphs.

With Lower Levels

With elementary students, it is possible to train them up by giving them simple examples and having them match up the relationship to the item guessed. E.g.

The relationships themselves can be translated as they may be too difficult to also have to juggle with while you are doing this training with your learners.

With Higher Levels

With higher levels, especially if you have also taught them some or all of the logical connectors, you can get them to match them up with the logical relationships:


©Marisa Constantinides 2010

There are various other ways in which you can use these categories, including creating a standard worksheet that your learners can use with any text in which they have a high number of unknown lexical items.

When to use this technique

Use this technique if your learners have the cognitive abilities required to identify logical connections – don’t use it with young learners because you will simply be disappointed!

Use the technique after your learners have seen a text a couple of times and it is time for some ‘bottom-up’ processing; don’t use it first thing into a text.

Finally, don’t worry if you notice that your learners have trouble articulating precisely which relationships helped them in each case. This is something I noticed myself with higher level students, even with teachers I was training in the technique. It will take some time, but the process seems to help them make better guesses, even if they get the logical relationship wrong!

If I find the lesson plan and assignment – I never throw anything away – I may be able to upload them after I have checked with my trainee.


If you decide to use this technique with any of your classes, I would appreciate your feedback, comments and any comments made by your students, if you choose to ask them to evaluate it.


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  1. Excellent tip, Marisa! I’m a big fan of guessing from context, and I’m always looking for new ways to highlight the skill to students. I haven’t attempted such a systematic approach before–mostly I try to guide them on a case by case basis when they ask for vocabulary clarification. I’d love to take a look at your trainee’s plan if you find it.

    One thing that I find that helps to create lots of opportunities for useful contextual guessing is to employ a narrow reading approach; that is, to restrict students to a single theme, genre or topic for an extended series of lessons. This allows an expanded contextual focus beyond only the immediate paragraph or essay, as well as more opportunities for recycling vocabulary items, expressions and even stylistic conventions.

  2. Anne Hodgson says:

    This is really superb, Marisa. Very nice exercise! It’s so basic, to give learners these strategic analytical tools before they can go and do the tasks we set them. They could then follow up by (re)formulating definitions and mapping out or sketching relationships to deepen their understanding.

  3. Great activity, Marisa!

    Like Marcos, I’m very much in favour of encouraging students to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words by looking at the context, & I agree with his point about narrow reading, also.

    I’ve featured this post in my “pick of the week” blog round-up.

    Sue :-)

  4. Useful technique to develop bottom up processing skills with advanced learners (FCE onwards), to prepare them for different writing genres as well as helping them develop their speaking skills.

  5. John Graney says:

    I think this is a great training for logical thinking and highlighting relationships. I think another use for this is for words that have more than one meaning such as run and could be expanded to a dictionary exercise.

    • The idea of learning and guessing vocabulary in context is a really powerful one. Although polysemy is an issue in vocabulary learning, the only use I might perhaps agree with is by using a dictionary and getting students to guess which particular meaning of the word is being used in the specific context of use.

      I don’t actually think it’s a good idea to teach all the meanings of a polysemous lexical item such as ‘run’, in your example, by showing all the meanings.

      • John Graney says:

        Thank you for your response.
        I didn’t want to suggest teaching all meanings of “run”; that would be a waste of the learners’ time since they are likely to grow increasingly overwhelmed and unlikely to meet many of the different meanings soon enough to continue the learning. Instead, I wished to suggest that polysemy and context could be used to improve dictionary skills and useful in regard to recognizing parts of speech. The activity you describe fits my idea very well.

        I don’t agree that words in context is useful for learning new vocabulary; I agree with Keith Folse. In his book, Vocabulary Myths, he concludes that words in context is a good tool for reading comprehension but is not for learning vocabulary. That is why I like your activity because it reinforces reading skills as it works at guessing meanings from context.

        • Marisa Constantinides says:

          Dear John,

          I haven’t actually read Folse’s work but I do know that as a foreign language learner I learnt a powerful amount of vocabulary through reading and noticing.

          I do agree however with your reservation as to ‘learning’ it, in that if there is to be any ‘learning’ of lexical items through contextual guesswork – a reading strategy – this probably happens after a number of encounters, which may vary from learner to learner. One encounter, one correct guess does not probably lead to full acquisition.

          Which, of course, suggests how important extensive reading is to vocabulary acquisition.

          Thank you for continuing this discussion, John.

  6. Anne Hodgson says:

    Hi Marisa,

    I’ve been writing online exercises for lower intermediate to intermediate learners of English for several years now, a sideline to my job as an English teacher in adult education, and wrote one up on guessing vocabulary for this week, based on your table of logical concepts, here: http://www.spotlight-online.de/language/grammar/making-the-logical-connection

    As I was writing I found that the way we make logical connections in language is in fact far more complex than just those five concepts. One that I find to be missing is chronology, which I use extensively in business English (learned to from Mark Powell in his LCCI Cert TEB course) and think must be very useful in linking up our students’ knowledge of the world in CLIL, as well.

    Can any of your readers share texts that contain a large number of these logical markers, for students to practice on?

    Thanks, and warm regards,

    • Thanks for comment, Anne. I looked at your write up and thanks for linking here.

      One way that you might be able to deal with chronology is to think of it as sequence, perhaps, which I find is covered by method/process, so it just might be a question of broadening the scope of this category somewhat. What do you think?

  7. Anne Hodgson says:

    Unfortunately I lost my first comment as I typed in the security word incorrectly… but the main point was:

    I do think process is a separate category from cause or method, and I’d use purely temporal markers like before, after, following, as, while, upon, subsequently etc.
    While writing up my exercise for learners I noticed that markers can be overused – just as using too many signposts can take all of the life out of a presentation.
    Regards from Munich, Anne

    • Marisa Constantinides says:

      Sure, that looks like an overdone FCE composition! I’m personally OK with the five categories and for me the concept of method covers process which by extension may cover sequence. I don’t necessarily think, Anne, that sequence in narration may always facilitate comprehension. The multiplicity of events which could follow or precede other events is highly unpredictable. Widdowson suggests these connections because of the pragmatic familiarity of method/process and the purposes of things.

      But I am not about to disagree with you further and happy to read any examples which prove your point.

  8. Anne Hodgson says:

    You know, Marisa, reflecting on my students’ writing I think they may be forcing explicit connections, and also making logical connections where none exist, simply to force their thoughts into a composition matrix, as you say, overwriting the essay. That is why this issue is bouncing round my head. Next time I do composition I’ll be paying special attention to these connectors and how to eliminate or add them as needed for better balance. BTW, Kenneth Beare has a nice series of articles on them, I’m finding it quite helpful in preparing a class today that will follow up on the five logical connections you presented and we discussed last week. Overview here: http://esl.about.com/od/writingadvanced/Writing_for_Advanced_Level_English_Learners.htm

    • Dear Anne,

      I think the best way, is to get your students to review some native speaker writing which can be linguistically accessible to them, and actually encourage them to count up the number of explicit logical connectors used. Normally, you will not find that many in evidence but other ways of linking thought which may have to do with the lexical cohesion and the balance between given and new (from a discourse point of view).

      This can also be explicitly taught – with simple metalanguage of course but most often students can ‘see’ how naive overconnected text can seem.

      Try also paring down a well written paragraph, to its consituent propositional elements and get them to connect them and reduce it to the smallest possible number of complex sentences. This is a great exercise.

      Hope this helps.


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