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Common Core Standards: ELA See All Teacher Resources

Grades 11-12

Reading RI.11-12.4

Standard 4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

Breakin’ it Down:

This standard has two different skills disguised as one. The first is that students have to be able to figure out the meaning of a word using context clues. At this level, the texts will rarely define complex or technical terms outright. That means students are going to have to do a lot more digging and inferring to figure out the definitions.

The second skill needed to master this standard is the ability to trace a complicated or changing definition throughout the course of a text. For example, a president might use the term “traitor” in his speech, and give multiple examples of what make someone a traitor over the course of the speech. Students must be patient readers and recognize that a complete definition requires a complete reading of the text. No skimming here!

Example 1

Teacher Feature: Ideas for the classroom

1. UNDERSTUDY: Define a word using context clues

Once students hit high school, they have to be willing to dig deeper and read further for context clues. Give them passages where the clues to a word require reading in another paragraph or making connections between two parts of a text. In informational writing, students can’t expect the definition of a word to always be sitting right next to the word itself.

You can create multiple-choice context clue questions with any text you have in class or find plenty of released practice tests from college entrance exams.

Example 2

2. COLLEGIATE: Transformers

Your visual and artistic students will love this one. First, find a text that has a definition that transforms or builds throughout the entire piece. Push students to create a pictorial representation of the word at multiple points in the text. It’s a classic spin on an old vocab strategy but involves your students tracing a word through a complex, non-fiction text.

Quiz Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. The following is a section from the Bill of Rights:

    Amendment 1
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    In the Bill of Rights above, which definition matches the use of the word exercise?

    Correct Answer:

    To make use of one’s privileges or powers

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This is tricky! First you have to figure out: “The free exercise of what?” If you look back at the beginning, the author is talking about the free exercise of religion. So this answer about bodily movement doesn’t describe how we would exercise our freedom of religion.
    • (b) - Nope. This answer doesn’t make sense in the context of freedom of religion.
    • (c) - Nice job! It is saying we have the freedom to make use of our privilege to practice our own religion.
    • (d) - Nope. If you look back at the beginning, the author is talking about the free exercise of religion. So this definition about repeated movement or drills doesn’t describe how we would exercise our freedom of religion.

  2. Read the following excerpt from “Historical Concept of Treason: English, American” (1959) from the Indiana Law Journal. Then, answer the questions that follow:

    “Treason is essentially a violation of allegiance to the community. There have been times in the history of various legal systems when the definition of "treasonous acts" was so broad that it encompassed the whole of criminal law. In early Roman history the concept of treason was sufficiently broad to include, along with betrayal to an external enemy, any act which threatened the safety of the group. Perduellio, the earliest Roman concept of treason, was literally the act of a base or evil enemy who assumed a state of war toward his community. Perduellio, meaning “enemy," was committed by a Roman when he acted in any manner hostile to his country. […] It is generally known that perduellio was absorbed by the later law of crimen majestatis which encompassed acts injuring the honor or majesty of the Roman people. […]

    Although capital punishment was the penalty for a conviction under crimen majestatis it was not always carried out. For example, it became a common practice to give the accused a period of grace between the time of sentencing and the time of execution so that he could escape from the country. The accused could attend his trial and defend himself; but if he was convicted he could still save his own life by leaving the country.

    During the early reign of Edward III a knight forcibly held a man until he paid ninety pounds; this was held to be treason because the knight was guilty of attempting to exercise royal power. […]

    A few years later, however, the famous statute of 25 Edward III was handed down declaring what should and should not be considered treason. This statute attempted to define the law and abolish the latitude for construction which the local courts had exercised up to that time. The statute of Edward III divided breaches of this allegiance into two categories. The minor breaches of allegiance, of private and domestic faith, were denominated petit treason. But when a subject became so disloyal as to attack the majesty itself, the statute made the offender guilty of high treason.

    Which of the following is not a definition of treason mentioned in the article?

    Correct Answer:

    Escaping from your country

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - The article mentions that treason was once defined as someone ‘guilty of attempting to exercise royal power’.
    • (b) - The article mentions that someone was once accused of treason after ‘injuring the honor or majesty of the Roman people’.
    • (c) - The article mentions that treason was once defined as an ‘enemy who assumed a state of war toward his community’.
    • (d) - Good! This is not a definition of treason. Instead, the article mentions that the opportunity to escape was given to people accused of treason.

  3. Which of the following describes the evolution of the definition of treason throughout history?

    Correct Answer:

    Treason started as a word to describe almost any crime, which was used by rulers as they pleased, but then became defined more specifically by later rulers.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This answer is actually the opposite of what the article says. The earliest definitions of treason applied to harming communities or the ‘safety of the group’. It was only later that rulers defined treason as threatening their individual power.
    • (b) - Good work! The first paragraph states that the first definitions of treason were so general that it ‘encompassed the whole of criminal law’. Then in the final paragraph, we see a shift with Edward III attempting to make more specific definitions.
    • (c) - This can’t be right because the first paragraph explains that the original definition of treason was so loose that it could apply to anyone who committed almost any crime. Nowhere does it say the law only applies to soldiers.
    • (d) - The purpose of this article is to show the changes in the word over time, especially the final paragraph which explains how Edward III developed a new, refined definition of treason.

  4. Read the essay “Find Water for Survival in Extreme Cold” by Joy Montefusco, and then answer the following questions:

    Based on clues in the text, we can assume that the word porous means:

    Correct Answer:

    easily penetrated by liquids

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Well, this seems like a logical choice to describe a material, but it doesn’t make sense for this article. The author doesn’t say anything about needing to see inside the bag. Look at the next sentence for the clue: “place a container under the bag to catch the water” after it comes out of the porous material.
    • (b) - Woohoo! You connected the dots! The big clue is here: “place a container under the bag to catch the water” after it comes out of the porous material. That means the material has to have a way for the liquid to get through.
    • (c) - Even though it seems logical that the material should be clean, you can’t just assume this is right. And there is no evidence in the text to support this answer.
    • (d) - This answer doesn’t make sense for a few reasons. First, the article isn’t saying anything about burning your bag, so you probably won’t be using a flammable material. Also, this would make no sense with the line “place a container under the bag to catch the water” after it comes out of the porous material.

  5. Which list accurately defines the IDEAL survival water source over the course of the text?

    Correct Answer:

    Running water, or melted ice, kept in a container near a heat source

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This isn’t the best choice because the article says that running water is better than stagnant water and melting ice is a better choice than melting snow.
    • (b) - This isn’t the best choice because the article says that melting ice is a better choice than melting snow. Also, the last paragraph clearly instructs readers to keep the water near your body so it doesn’t refreeze.
    • (c) - Even though the second and third parts of this answer are correct, the beginning of the article states that running water is a safer choice than stagnant water.
    • (d) - Great job! This is the best choice because the article says that running water is better than stagnant water, and melting ice is a better choice than melting snow; it also states that it is important to keep the water near a warm place – your body – so it won’t refreeze.

Aligned Resources