Captain Ahab's Weird Wide World: How Many Birthday Candles?

article by Karen Jameyson , photo by Alamy

Learning intention

I am learning to use context to identify the meaning of unknown words so that I can read increasingly complex texts.

Success criteria

  • I can identify context clues.
  • I can use these to identify the meanings of unknown words.
  • I can compose sentences that feature unknown words.
  • I can incorporate context clues into my sentences.


Read Captain Ahab’s Weird Wide World: How Many Birthday Candles? or listen to the audio version. Display the following words:

  • Department
  • Extremely
  • Seychelles
  • St Helena
  • Metabolism
  • Scientists

Inform students that they will be using context clues to identify the meanings of unknown words. Instruct any students who already know the meanings of the words to keep them quiet for now. Identify the sentence the first word, department, appears in:

If tortoises had birthday cakes to celebrate birthdays, the fire department might need to drop in!

Discuss other words that appear in the sentence that provide insight into what the word ‘department’ might need, for example, fire and drop in.

Discuss students' predictions about the meaning of the word, for example that it is people who work with fire or fight fire. Inform students that they should keep reading to the end of the paragraph to search for other clues.

There would be a huge number of candles on some of those cakes.

Discuss what this sentence reveals (that the reason for calling the fire department is due to the fact the candles may cause a fire). Reflect on what this allows students to infer (that department means the organization, so in this case, the organisation of fire fighters).

Repeat this process with the next word on the list, ‘extremely’.

And one special tortoise is extremely old!

Again, discuss the other words in the sentence such as ‘special’ and ‘old’. Refer students to the next sentences in the text:

Meet Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise. There might well be other tortoises even older than Jonathan. But Jonathan, who lives on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, is the oldest one that people know about.

Draw students' attention to words such as ‘oldest’ and the fact that this reveals Jonathan is very old. Discuss the fact that this allows readers to infer that ‘extremely’ means the same as very.

Place students in pairs and instruct them to repeat this process with the remaining words. Students should note their predictions about what each of the words mean on individual whiteboards.

Discuss responses, instructing students to share the clues in the sentence that allowed them to infer what the words might mean.

Inform students that they will be composing sentences that include context clues to enable readers to make predictions about the meanings of unknown words. Tell students that first you will complete examples together.

Refer students to the list of words in Bob’s Long-necked Puzzler on page 19, including:

  • Apatosaurus
  • Banjo
  • Bouzouki
  • Cassowary
  • Clam

Note: inform students to ignore words on the list that they are familiar with, such as bottle. The goal here is to select unfamiliar words.

Use a dictionary to look up the meaning of the first word, Apatosaurus (a large, long-necked dinosaur). Collaboratively compose a sentence that provides context clues about the meaning of the word, without explicitly stating it, for example:

The long-necked Apatosaurus lived during the late Jurassic period.

Place students with a partner. Instruct them to complete the following:

  • Select words from the list (page 18)
  • Look up their meanings in a dictionary
  • Compose a sentence that features the word
  • Include context clues about the word’s meaning

Once students have completed their sentences, instruct them to swap with another pair. Tell students to use the context clues to check the meanings of the words before checking them using a dictionary.

Assessment for/as learning:

Refer students to the list of instructions provided for the independent activity. Tell them that they should reflect on which of the instructions they completed and any they did not. Provide the following sentence stems and instruct students to complete a brief self-reflection in their workbooks:

I completed the instructions where I was required to_______ (Compose sentences with the selected word)

Next time I will try to_________ (Provide more subtle context clues)

Finally, instruct students to complete an exit ticket, by completing the following sentence:

Context clues are useful because________ (They help identify the meanings of unknown words)

Next time I encounter an unfamiliar word I will______ (Read the sentences after the one it appears in, searching for clues)