Contranym Context Clues

Knowing how to use context clues is an important thing for everyone, but it is especially important for language learners. After the present tense of the verb to be, what a context clue is, and how to use one to help understand unfamiliar vocabulary, is one of the first skills I begin working on with students. Fortunately, the use of context clues is a skill that transfers between languages, and since most of my students are literate in at least one language, the skill itself is something they already possess. They need only apply the skill to English, which is where my frustration usually begins—especially for my lower proficiency students.

There is a myriad of resources available to teach and practice context clues, but those designed for beginning level students tend to have one very frustrating thing in common: they use nonsense words as the word you need to “guess” via context clues. While I can appreciate this method for native speakers, it is extremely frustrating for language learners. The other struggle I have with beginning level context clue activities is one I face quite often, the resources are designed for young children and not at all relatable to my older students. Over the years I’ve designed several different context clue activities (you can read about a couple of them in these blog posts: National Talk Like a Pirate Day, Context Clues Connect Four), but they’ve primarily been for intermediate and advanced students. Last year I was practicing context clues with high beginners again and decided enough was enough, it was past time to make a game my older beginners would actually enjoy playing. The result: Contranym Context Clues.


A contranym, if you don’t already know, is a word with contradictory definitions (i.e.: the verb seed can mean to add seeds, as in plant them, or remove them, as one might do when cooking). The only way to know which definition is correct is from the context. As these are real words and definitions, they provide perfect context clue practice.

The Game

The game board is a standard board I’ve used frequently in the past for games such as Alphabet Adjective Zig-Zag. It consists of five rows of six squares, a blank row lies between them and they are connected by a single square at alternating ends. The easiest way to create this is to make a table that is nine rows by six columns and then merge all but the end cell on every other row. Add in your borders and you are ready to go. I like to place the game title in the empty areas between rows and often include directions or other information in these areas as well. For this game, I put the title in the first three empty sections and a definition for contranym, as well as brief turn directions, in the last section. Add the words start and finish to the first and last box, and the game board is complete.

To create the cards, I first chose 24 contranyms (lists of them are easy to find on the internet) and wrote example sentences for each. I underlined the contranym and added the two opposing definitions under each sentence as choice A and B. I numbered each of the cards for two reasons: it allows students to check one another’s answers with the key I give them, and I can use them as task cards, rather than a board game, if I so choose.

Game play is relatively straight forward. The student chooses a card, reads the sentence, and decides which definition is correct. If he/she chooses the correct definition (I provide each group with an answer key), he/she rolls and moves his/her piece. I’ve mentioned it before, but popular game pieces in my classroom include plastic counters, mini erasers, and milk jug lids. Since the definitions are provided, and there are only two choices, the game is a little too easy for higher proficiency students but it has some nice support for beginning and low intermediate learners.

The Digital Version

Since all classes were online last year I needed a digital version of the game. Converting it wasn’t too difficult, and the game play remained basically the same.

I placed the game board and directions for play as the background of the first slide. Each question was given its own slide and was also placed as the background (to prevent accidental changes). To provide an answer key, I use a “magic reveal” technique that’s been quite successful in the past. You can read a full description of how to do this yourself in this blog post, but the short version is you place the answer on the slide but make it the same color as the background (for this game I put a black square on the background and made the answer black). You then add another “magic” shape (I like to use a magnifying glass) that is dragged over the answer area. The shape is ordered so it is behind the answer on the slide. Thus it “reveals” the answer by allowing it to be seen when it is placed between the answer and the background. Since the answer is on the slide, students are on the honor system as far as cheating goes, but since this is a practice game I don’t worry about that.

In order to “draw” a card and “roll” the dice, I use the “Game Play” script my husband wrote for me. This script adds a menu item entitled “Game Play” to the existing menu list. Within the drop down menu students have the choice between “Roll Dice” and “Draw Card.” The “Roll Dice” option generates a pop up window that says “You rolled a __” and generates a random number between one and six. The “Draw Card” option randomly jumps the student to one of the question slides (where there is a hyperlinked button to return them to the game board). The “Draw Card” option requires permission to run the first time it is clicked, but I provide directions for the students to follow on the game board and they’ve never had a problem. The only issue I’ve ever run into is when a student didn’t listen to my directions regarding leaving the file in edit mode, as placing it into present mode removes access to the menu items and makes the game pieces unmovable.


I’ve played the game a few times with a couple of different groups this year and the results were about what I expected. All groups found the game to be fun. My advanced students thought it was too easy (which I expected) and my beginning students found it to be more challenging than other context clue activities but still doable (also as I expected). Their final opinion was the game is a good way to practice context clues and worth playing again. I still like the fact that all of the words are real words and am admittedly a little fascinated by contranyms (which I vaguely knew about but had never consciously considered). Give a lesson on contranyms a try and see how your students respond. Happy teaching, everyone!

Don’t have time to make your own game? Interested in other context clue activities? Try one of these:

Or get a bundle of all the context clue activities at a 20% discount: