Using Context Clues

What are context clues?

Context clues are clues to the meaning of particular words. These clues can be found in the context or surroundings of the word, ie. the words or sentences that surround a particular word. These clues may give a general idea about a word's meaning or a very specific meaning for the particular word. Therefore, finding context clues can help you understand the meaning of unfamiliar words.

How do I find context clues?

A writer uses several kinds of context clues to help his readers understand the meaning of unfamiliar words. Study the following kinds of context clues and notice the signal words and punctuation marks used in each kind.

1.       Definition

A writer may help his readers understand the meaning of an unfamiliar word by giving the definition of that word.
Signal words:
(verb to be) is, am, are; mean; define; be called

 

Examples:

  • Most banks usually have safe deposit boxes. These boxes are in the vault at the bank. The vault is a room that has a very heavy door with a very safe lock on it.
  • Some countries have developed for more and more decades. A decade means a period of time in ten years.
  • A small, reddish-brown migratory bird that sings sweetly is called a nightingale.
 

2.      Restatement

A writer may explain a word by using different words to say the same thing.
Signal words:
or, in other words, that is or that is to say; and punctuation marks like commas, dashes (-), and brackets ( )

 

Examples:

  • Some plants catch and eat insects. They are called carnivorous or flesh-eating plant.
  • Some plants go through periods of dormancy; that is to say, they appear to be dead in the winter.
  • He felt despondent, in other words, he was very sad.
  • Physical coordination - the smooth working together of parts of the body -is necessary for an athlete.
 

3.      Illustrations or Examples

A writer may use examples or pictures to explain the meaning of difficult words in the text.
Signal words: such as, for example, for instance, like, especially, including

 

Example 1:    

     Another kind of geometry is solid geometry. Solid geometry is about figures that have height, width, and depth. Examples of solid figures are Figures I, J, K, and L. Figure I is a sphere. A sphere is like a ball. Figure J is a cube. Each side of a cube is a square, and there are six sides. Figure K is a cylinder. A cylinder is the shape of a can of food in the supermarket. Figure L is a cone. This is the same shape as an ice cream cone.

 

You can understand the meanings of difficult words in this paragraph from both illustrations and examples.

 

Example 2:

     
Mrs. Smith's children usually help her with chores such as washing plates, cleaning the house, ironing clothes, etc.

 

The examples in this sentence help us guess that chores must have the same meaning as housework.

 

Example 3:

     Agents of erosions, like wind, moving water, rain, cyclone and glaciers, are always at work changing the earth's surface.

 

You can guess from the examples of agents of erosions that they must be something that gradually destroy and remove rock or soil.

 

Example 4:

     Percussion instruments, including drums, cymbals, and triangles, are used in bands.

 

You can guess from the examples that percussion instruments must be musical instruments played by striking together two objects.

 

Revision

Before studying the other types of context clues, check your understanding by writing the meaning of the highlighted words in each sentence and the signal words that help you guess the meaning of each word.



1. An archaeologist is an expert in ancient things.
     The meaning of archaeologist is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

2. Although parrots can make a good imitation, or copy, of human speech, they have no real language.
     The meaning of imitation is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

3. Marian will stop at the supermarket to buy some household utensils, such as pots, dishes, spoons, forks, knives and glasses.
     The meaning of utensils is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

Click on   to check your answers.

 

4.      Comparison and Contrast

Sometimes a writer may use comparison (one thing is like another) or contrast (one thing is different from another) to indirectly help define an unknown word. You have to notice signal words which are connectives showing comparison or contrast.

 

Signal words             
     Comparison : as if, like, too, also, similar to
     Contrast : but, however, nevertheless, while, although, even though, unlike, in contrast, conversely

 

Comparison

 

Example 1:
     Clogs are similar to shoes, but they are made of wood.

 

The word similar to and other words in the sentence tell you that clogs must mean wooden shoes.

 

Example 2:

     Most giants, thought Jack, are both tall and broad. But this giant was so spindly, he looked like a telephone pole, and there was no extra flesh on his bones.

 

You can tell that 'spindly' must mean 'long and thin' because of the comparison 'like a telephone pole'.



Contrast

 

Example 1:
     Some animals like to live alone, but most animals are gregarious.

 

The word but tells you that gregarious must mean 'don't like to live alone'. Therefore, gregarious should mean 'live in large groups'.

 

Example 2:

     He was very old and looked very feeble, in contrast, he was surprisingly active for his age.

 

The word in contrast tells you that feeble must mean 'not active'. Therefore, feeble should mean 'weak'.

5.      Synonyms

Synonyms mean words with the same or very similar meanings. Writers use synonyms to avoid repeating words. You can easily find synonyms in news stories because news writers often use synonyms to avoid boring their readers. If you know the meaning of one word in a synonym pair, you also know the other without having to use a dictionary.
Signal words
: too, also, and

 
Example 1:

     The police compelled a robber to get into the car, and they also forced another robber to face the wall.
 

The verb compel is the difficult word in this sentence. The signal word ‘also’ tells you that the writer uses the verb force as a synonym for compel. If you know the meaning of force (to make someone to do something even though they do not want to do), you will understand the word compel as well.

 
Example 2:

     The crowd gathered at the city gates and at ten o’clock it began to move. Reaching the church a half hour later, the throng stopped and waited patiently for the priests.

(This example sentence is from http://bangkokpost.net/education/context.htm. You can practise using context clues to understand unfamiliar words in the news stories from this website.)
 

Although there are not any signal words in these sentences, you can understand from the context that the words crowd and throng are synonyms. The news writer uses throng as a synonym for crowd in the second sentence to report the movement of this group of people.

6. Antonym

Antonyms are words with the opposite meanings. Recognising antonyms also helps you guess the meanings of unfamiliar words from context. You will often find antonyms in clauses or phrases that signal contrasts.
Signal words/phrase: but, yet, whereas, on the contrary

 
Example 1:

     Most students think that English is easy, but some students think it is arduous.
 

The signal word ‘but’ tells you that the adjective ‘arduous’ is opposite to the adjective ‘easy’. You can guess that arduous means ‘difficult’.

 
Example 2:

     He was not obese like his brother. On the contrary, he was quite thin.
 

The signal word ‘on the contrary’ tells you that the adjective ‘thin’ is opposite to the adjective ‘obese’. You can guess that 'obese' means ‘fat’.

7.      Situations and Explanations

A writer may use the situation and the explanation to explain the meanings of unfamiliar words. There are no signal words for this kind of context clue. You have to read other sentences which surround the unknown word.

 

Example 1:

     Before she went to see Dr. Lum, she had suffered from insomnia for several years. Every night she found it hard to fall asleep.

 

From the description in the second sentence, you can tell that insomnia must mean 'the inability to sleep'.

 

Example 2:

     The American Civil War began in 1861, when the southern states seceded from the United States. They made a new country called the Confederate States of America.

 

You can guess from the situation that secede must mean 'formally becomes a separate country'

 

Revision

Before doing the exercise, check your understanding again by writing the meaning of the highlighted words in each sentence and the signal words or context clues that help you guess the meaning of each word.



1. Mother was nervous, conversely, father was quiet and gentle.
     The meaning of nervous is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

2. Like his father, who is gregarious, he enjoys the company of others.
     The meaning of gregarious is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

3. This electronic device which can sniff the odor of illegal drugs, can also smell dynamite.
     The meaning of sniff is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

4. You can survive if you can swim but you will die if you can't swim when you fell into the water.
     The meaning of survive is
     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is

5. Some people find that peering into a video screen causes eyestrain and some do not.
     The meaning of peering is
     The context clues that help you guess the meaning are

Click on to check your answers.

 

 

Feedback 1






1. An archaeologist is an expert in ancient things.

     The meaning of archaeologist is 'an expert in ancient things'.

     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'is'.

2. Although parrots can make a good imitation, or copy, of human speech, they have no real language.

      The meaning of imitation is 'copy'.

      The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'or'.

3. Marian will stop at the supermarket to buy some household utensils, such as pots, dishes, spoons, forks, knives and glasses.

      The meaning of utensils is 'objects used for cooking or doing other tasks in home'.

      The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'such as'.


If your answers are correct, you are ready to study the fourth types of context clues.
If your answers are incorrect, it is a good idea to return to the first type of context clues.

 

 

Feedback 2






1. Mother was nervous, conversely, father was quiet and gentle.

     The meaning of nervous is 'be worried about something'.

     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'conversely'.

2. Like his father, who is gregarious, he enjoys the company of others.

     The meaning of gregarious is 'enjoying the company of others'.

     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'like'.

3. This electronic device which can sniff the odor of illegal drugs, can also smell dynamite.

     The meaning of sniff is 'smell'.

     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'also'.

4. You can survive if you can swim but you will die if you can't swim when you fell into the water.

     The meaning of survive is 'live'.

     The signal word that helps you guess the meaning is 'but'.

5. Some people find that peering into a video screen causes eyestrain and some do not.

     The meaning of peering is 'looking closely'.

     The context clues that help you guess the meaning are 'videoscreen and eyestrain'.


If your answers are correct, you are ready to go to the exercise page.
If your answers are incorrect, it is a good idea to return to the fourth types of context clues.

 

 

 

  Created: June 17,2002   Last Modified: 6 Jan 2003

  Created by: Wanida Anchaleewittayakul  Email: wanida1113@hotmail.com
  Supervised by: Dr Merle Iles, Language, Literacy & Arts Education, The University of Melbourne.  Email: m.iles@edfac.unimelb.edu.au