Using Context Clues

Learning Objective:

  • Use context clues to define unknown vocabulary in a reading.

In this lesson, you will learn how to find the meaning of unknown words in a reading A piece of writing to be read. A reading can either be a full work (i.e., a book) or partial (i.e., a passage).by using context cluesHints that appear in a text that help readers discover the meaning of an unknown word, usually based on how it is used in a sentence or paragraph.. Context clues will expand your vocabularyAll of the words that are known by an individual or group of people. by helping you guess the meaning of a word based on how it is used in a sentenceA group of words, phrases, or clauses that expresses a complete thought. A complete sentence has these characteristics: a capitalized first word, a subject and a predicate, and end punctuation, such as a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!). or paragraphA selection of a writing that is made up of sentences formed around one main point. Paragraphs are set apart by a new line and sometimes indentation.. This allows you to keep reading an articleA non-fiction, often informative writing that forms a part of a publication, such as a magazine or newspaper. or essayA short piece of writing that focuses on at least one main idea. Some essays are also focused on the author's unique point of view, making them personal or autobiographical, while others are focused on a particular literary, scientific, or political subject. without stopping to look words up in a dictionary, which saves you time while still allowing you to understand what you are reading.

There are two advantages to using context clues to expand your vocabulary and improve your reading comprehensionThe level of understanding of a reading..

First, if you skip over words you don't understand, the meaning of what you are reading becomes a little unclear. Depending on how many words you have to skip over or how important each word is in the passage, it can seem as if you have just looked at a bunch of words on the page and have no idea what they mean.

Second, if you go to a dictionary every time you don't understand a word, it is not only frustrating to repeatedly interrupt the flow of reading, but the word might actually have many ways of being defined. This could leave you a little closer to understanding what the word means but no closer to understanding what the author is trying to say.

Fortunately, there is a four-step process for using context clues to define unfamiliar words in a reading.

Step 1: Look for examples of the unknown word in the sentence.
Writers often provide examples of words as a way of making sure people understand exactly what they mean; this is the easiest way to use context clues.


People generally use coniferous trees, such as pine, fir, and blue spruce, as Christmas trees.

You see here that "fir" and "blue spruce" are two examples of "coniferous trees." If you don’t know anything about coniferous trees – which are trees that do not lose their color and leaves – you can safely assume that they share the same characteristics as pines, firs, and blue spruces.

Step 2: If there are no examples of the word in the sentence, look for antonymsA word or phrase that has the opposite meaning from another word. Example: huge is an antonym for small. or synonymsA word or phrase that has an identical or very similar meaning to another word. Example: tiny is a synonym for small. of the word somewhere in the sentence.
Synonyms are words that share a similar meaning. For example, in a sentence, you could use the words "decrease," "reduce," "cut," or "lessen" and still make the same point.

Antonyms, on the other hand, are words that have opposite meanings. "Competent" and "inept" are examples of antonyms.

Writers use both synonyms and antonyms in their writing, so if you find an unfamiliar word in the sentence, look for a synonym or antonym that you recognize, and allow it to lead you to the definition.


I was so infuriated by the pointless, ineffectual instruction manual that my typical good humor had escaped me all day long.

Here, you see that the word "ineffectual" has the word "pointless" right before it and both are used to describe the instruction manual. It is safe to assume that "pointless" is a synonym for "ineffectual."

You can also see that "infuriated" is presented as the opposite of "good humor," which tells that the two are antonyms. You may not know the exact meaning of "infuriated," but you know that a general definition would be "bad humor."

Step 3: If the word has no examples and there are no antonyms or synonyms, try substituting a familiar word for the one you don’t know.

Riding the roller coaster was exhilarating, and my heart raced like it did when I was kid.

If you don’t know what the word "exhilarating" is, take it out of the sentence – "Riding the roller coaster was __________ and my heart raced like it did when I was kid." – and then start substituting words until you find one that fits with everything else in the sentence.

In this case, "fun" would work, but "thrilling" would work even better because it matches more closely with "my heart raced."

Step 4: Rely on your own knowledge and experience.
Your own knowledge and experience also provide clues that you can use to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.


Johnny's mom commended him for cleaning up his room without being told. 

If you do not know what "commended" means, put yourself in Johnny's or his mom's shoes. If your son cleaned up his room without your asking, what would you do? You probably wouldn't complain or criticize; instead, you would praise and applaud him. You were able to determine the meaning of the word without any examples, synonyms, or antonyms.

This step is more useful when you are reading about something that you know more about. You may find that it is not helpful when you first enter an anthropology, psychology, or sociology class and begin reading your text.