Common Core Standards: ELA
L.11-12.4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11–12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
- Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
- Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., conceive, conception, conceivable).
- Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, its etymology, or its standard usage.
- Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
There’s a reason the Oxford English Dictionary is two dozen volumes long: English contains more words than any one person is likely to memorize in a lifetime. Put the words into phrases, and you have even more trouble, since English uses so many idioms. For most people, running into unknown words and phrases will happen throughout their lives, so the smart way to deal with this onslaught is to learn how to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases. This Core Standard deals with three of the most common ways to figure out what a word or phrase means: by examining its context, by identifying similar words, and by looking it up.
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Using this Standard
1. Context, Related Words, and the Dictionary I
Have students read the following monologue from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, either alone, in groups, or as a class. You may also wish to write the boldfaced words on a chalkboard, overhead projector, or other place that the class can see them. Once students have read the monologue, discuss the meaning of each of the boldfaced words. Students should base their opinions of what the words mean on the context of the speech or on words that are similar to those in boldface. To check students’ answers, have one student look up each word in the dictionary (or a glossary on Shakespeare, if available) and read the entry aloud to the class.
“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.”
2. Context, Related Words, and the Dictionary II
Give students a copy of the following additional passage from Shakespeare, along with a dictionary, thesaurus, and/or similar research resources. Students should work in groups of two to four people. For each boldfaced word in the passage, have students look up the word in their references and write down a brief definition, two synonyms, and one or two related words. Then, have the class discuss its findings. Try replacing some of the boldfaced words with a synonym or related word or phrase. Does replacing the boldfaced words with “easier” ones change the meaning or flow of the passage? If so, in what ways? Why might Shakespeare have chosen the words he used in the passage, instead of a synonym or related word?
“When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer: my next is, 'Most fair Pyramus.' Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout, the tinker! Starveling! God's my life, stolen hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was--there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,.and methought I had,.but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death. “