Difficult Vocabulary in a Nonfiction Text (Exploring ELA)

Teaching difficult vocabulary to elementary students.

Hey readers! Back with another blog post for Explore ELA, a blog series that takes you inside each elementary reading standard and studies it closely. Last week, we explored Making Connection in an informational text, one of the hardest standards I think there is to teach. Today is all about teaching tricky words and phrases in an informational text! So on to handling difficult vocabulary in a nonfiction text!


  • 1st Grade: Ask and answer questions to help determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases in a text.
  • 2nd Grade: Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.
  • 3rd Grade: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 3 topic or subject area.
  • 4th Grade: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.

Key Words to Focus On:

  • determine
  • words and phrases
  • topic or subject area (CONTENT)
  • meaning
  • general academic
  • domain specific

5 Key Tasks for Teachers:

1. Model, model, model.

2. Teach context clues without texts.

3. Teach context clues with texts.

4. Teach dictionary and reference text skills.

5. After unit, revisit skill (at least) once a week.

1. Model, model, model.

Give students a strong idea of what it’s like to dive into text and tackle difficult vocabulary. The best way to do this is to have daily nonfiction read alouds. However, this can be difficult if you want one that isn’t too reference-y and more read-aloud based! Here are a few strong read alouds I suggest to get your unit started.

Mentor texts for unknown vocabulary

Unknown Vocabulary (RI.1.4, RI.2.4, RI.3.4)
All the book links in this blog post are affiliate Amazon links.

-Key skills to hit- new vocabulary, words and phrases, context clues

Fire! Fire! by Gail Gibbons
So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George
Rocks and Minerals by Kathleen Zohfeld
Jump into Science: Dirt by Tomecek
Frog or Toad? How Do You Know by Melissa Stewart
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston

2. Teach context clues without texts.

It’s a very strong practice to teach the skill of using context clues outside of difficult texts. For example, use a sentence and have them start there. Or maybe teach the process of determining a definition using the text around it.

(Source on L:1st Grade RI.1.4) (Source on R: 4th Grade RI.4.4)

In the picture above, there is a first grade mini-lesson that includes a couple of non-passage types of activities where the students can look at pictures and read simple sentences. This will help them to work on determining how to ask a question and use context around the word or idea.

Above, there is a fourth grade mini-lesson activity where the fourth graders are having a content lesson and learning the process of HOW to find meanings of unknown words. They’re putting together puzzles about definitions, synonyms, and explanations. In this way, they can really study and understand the ways that they’ll learn new vocabulary.

Unknown Words and Phrases- Determining the meaning of difficult vocabulary in a nonfiction text- activities and hands on reading lesson for elementary students RI.1.4 RI1.4 RI.2.4 RI2.4 RI.3.4 RI3.4 RI.4.4 RI4.4

(Source: Brain Pop Video)

If you have a subscription to Brain Pop, you should definitely check out the video that they have made for context clues. It’s an excellent overview of what they are and how to use them when you come across vocabulary that you are unsure of.

3. Teach context clues with texts.

After you teach the lessons about what context clues are and how to use them to determine difficult vocabulary in a text, you can start incorporating texts into the standard. The reason I like to start with simple sentences or paragraphs before diving into books and passages is that the strategy itself is quite difficult. So, adding in harder content makes finding vocabulary meaning even harder! So let’s dive into teaching context clues with passages.

(Source on L: 4th Grade RI4.4) (Source on R: 2nd and 3rd RI2.4RI3.4)

Above, you see a fourth grade reading a mini-lesson activity where the students read about a historical figure. Throughout their reading passage, they are going to be circling and underlining difficult text. At the bottom, they have an activity where they have to find the three words in their texts and determine the meaning. 

Above, you’ll see a first, second, and third grade reading mini-lesson. This mini-lesson is included in each of the packs, so if you buy your grade level, you’ll see this activity in there. It’s a reading passage where the students have to color-code their passage. The task cards give specific directions for each of the difficult words. For example, one task card says “use context clues to find what the word thermometer means”. Then, they’ll use their red crayon to underline where they found it in the text.

(Source: 2nd Grade RI2.4)

Post-It Notes Activities

Post-it note activities are incredibly useful for this standard. This is because you can use the post-it note in many ways. One way to use Post-it notes is for brainstorming, so while students come across difficult vocabulary, they can jot down the vocabulary to look up and study later.

Above, you see post-it notes being used for possible meanings to the first word that is covered up in the students’ text. The second picture shows a repeat activity, so you could laminate the bottom page and use it constantly throughout centers or small group. And give students new post-it notes for each story or text. The page asks them to identify the word, the clue, and what they think it means.

4. Teach dictionary and reference text skills.

Some students may try their hardest to use their comprehension and context clue skills to determine the meaning of a word. However, some students may need a step further than this. This is where we can start teaching and tying in the Language skill of the Common Core domain and teach how to use dictionaries and other reference texts.

(Source on L: 4th Grade RI4.4) (Source on R: RI2.4)

On the left, there is a fourth grade mini-lesson activity that involves the students looking words up in a dictionary and writing their definitions. This can help widen their vocabulary skills, plus it can also teach the skills of dictionary referencing when they’re reading independently. 

Another way to use dictionary skills is to give students Post-it notes and have them write down any difficult vocabulary they can’t determine using their context clues. Then, let them use a dictionary throughout their reading time to determine the words they jot down. It’s even a great way to have them self-check their guesses, too.

5. After unit, revisit skill (at least) once a week.

Now that you’ve taught your unit on context clues and difficult vocabulary, it’s time to bring in all the materials to practice. Work these into small group, independent reading time, partner reading time, center games, and more!

(Source: All RI4 sets)

Task cards and interactive notebooks are always a fantastic way to keep the student’s standards-based focused while reading independently or with a partner.

(Source: Most RI4 sets)

These vocabulary printables will work for any informational text, too. So, if you want to have them practice and review the skills, let them choose any informational text that they want, but give them these standards-based worksheets to keep them intentional about their reading.

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Need Unknown Vocabulary Resources?

Check out these full units for K, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade.

Want to read more Informational Texts blog posts?

Determining unknown words in nonfiction texts

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