30 Using Context Clues

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the different types of context clues.
  • Practice using context clues while reading.

Context clues are bits of information within a text that will assist you in deciphering the meaning of unknown words. Since most of your knowledge of vocabulary comes from reading, it is important that you recognize context clues. By becoming more aware of particular words and phrases surrounding a difficult word, you can make logical guesses about its meaning. The following are the different types of context clues:

  • Brief definition or restatement
  • Synonyms and antonyms
  • Examples

Brief Definition or Restatement

Sometimes a text directly states the definition or a restatement of the unknown word. The brief definition or restatement is signaled by a word or a punctuation mark.

Consider the following example:

If you visit Alaska, you will likely see many glaciers, or slow moving masses of ice.

In this sentence, the word glaciers is defined by the phrase that follows the signal word or, which is slow moving masses of ice.

In other instances, the text may restate the meaning of the word in a different way, by using punctuation as a signal. Look at the following example:

Marina was indignant—fuming mad—when she discovered her brother had left for the party without her.

Although fuming mad is not a formal definition of the word indignant, it does serve to define it. These two examples use signals—the word or and the punctuation dashes—to

indicate the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Other signals to look for are the words is, as, means, known as, and refers to.

Synonyms and Antonyms

Sometimes a text gives a synonym of the unknown word to signal the meaning of the unfamiliar word:

When you interpret an image, you actively question and examine what the image connotes and suggests.

In this sentence the word suggests is a synonym of the word connotes. The word and sometimes signals synonyms.

Likewise, the word but may signal a contrast, which can help you define a word by its antonym.

I abhor clothes shopping, but I adore grocery shopping.

The word abhor is contrasted with its opposite: adore. From this context, the reader can guess that abhor means to dislike greatly.


Sometimes a text will give you an example of the word that sheds light on its meaning:

I knew Mark’s ailurophobia was in full force because he began trembling and stuttering when he saw my cat, Ludwig, slink out from under the bed.

Although ailurophobia is an unknown word, the sentence gives an example of its effects. Based on this example, a reader could confidently surmise that the word means a fear of cats.


Look for signal words like such as, for instance, and for example. These words signal that a word’s meaning may be revealed through an example.

Exercise 1

Exercise 2

On your own sheet of paper, write the name of the context clue that helps to define the underlined words.

Maggie was a precocious child, to say the least. She produced brilliant watercolor paintings by the age of three. At first, her parents were flabbergasted—utterly blown away—by their daughter’s ability, but soon they got used to their little painter. Her preschool teacher said that Maggie’s dexterity, or ease with which she used her hands, was something she had never before seen in such a young child. Little Maggie never gloated or took pride in her paintings; she just smiled contentedly when she finished one and requested her parents give it to someone as a gift. Whenever people met Maggie for the first time they often watched her paint with their mouths agape, but her parents always kept their mouths closed and simply smiled over their “little Monet.”


In addition to context clues to help you figure out the meaning of a word, examine the following word parts: prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

Also, in spoken language, jargon is a type of communication often used in the workplace. It is the technical language of a special field. Imagine it is your first time working as a server in a restaurant and your manager tells you he is going to “eighty-six” the roasted chicken. If you do not realize that “eighty-six” means to remove an item from the menu, you could be confused. You will definitely encounter jargon that will likely be foreign to you when you begin work. If you cannot understand the jargon based on the context, it is always a good policy to ask.

Key Takeaways

  • Context clues are words or phrases within a text that help clarify vocabulary that is unknown to you.
  • There are several types of context clues including brief definition and restatement, synonyms and antonyms, and example.


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College ESL Writers: Mohawk College Edition by Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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