Definition and Examples of Context Clues

How We Infer Meaning

African man gesturing with hands
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In reading and listening, a context clue is a form of information (such as a definition, synonym, antonym, or example) that appears near a word or phrase and offers direct or indirect suggestions about its meaning.

Context clues are more commonly found in nonfiction texts than in fiction, although they are sometimes found in children's literature, often with the goal of building readers' vocabulary. Words can have multiple meanings, so being able to infer the correct definition from context is a valuable reading comprehension skill.

Types of Context Clues

One way to learn new words is through the context of the words around them. We infer the meaning of these words from what's going on or what has already been established in the text. Clues for deciphering a word's meaning can be rendered in the form of anything from a subtle hint to a straight-out explanation, definition, or illustration. Context clues can also take the form of synonyms, antonyms, word-structure clues, comparisons (such as metaphors and similes), and contrasts. For example:

Synonym context clues offer words nearby with the same meaning:

  • Synonym: The annual bazaar is scheduled for the last day of school. It's always a fun festival.
  • Synonym: "That charlatan!" he cried. "That absolute fake!"

Antonym context clues offer nearby words with opposite meanings.

  • Antonym: "You look pretty content about it, not like you're all bent out of shape at all," he noted.
  • Antonym: "No, no, that didn't literally happen," she said. "I was speaking figuratively."

Definition context clues just spell out the meaning in a straightforward manner:

  • Definition: In Britain, they call the trunk of a car the "boot."
  • Definition: "The lingerie department," she directed the confused customer, "is where you'll find the bras and panties." 

An explanation or illustration can also show the context of the word:

  • Explanation: She looked at the random collection that had been thrown in the packing box at the last minute—from toothpaste and razors to spatulas and sticky notes. "Well, that's quite a melange, isn't it?" she remarked.
  • Explanation: "No, no, that's just a crane fly, not a gigantic mosquito," he explained.

Word-structure clues are understood in two ways: a reader or listener understands a base word and a prefix (or suffix) and infers the meaning from the combination of the two, or the reader knows a word origin and upon hearing a word of similar origin, infers its meaning.

For instance, if you know that "anti-" means against, it's easy to infer the meaning of the word "anti-establishment."

  • Word-structure: The anti-establishment protesters picketed the town hall.

Likewise, if you're aware that a "memorial" is something in remembrance for a person who has died, you might readily intuit the meaning of the following sentence, even if you'd never previously heard the term "in memoriam."

  • Word-structure: The book was dedicated in memoriam of his father.

Comparison context clues show the meaning of a word through similarities to other items or elements, similies or metaphors:

  • Comparison: He looked absolutely flummoxed, like a toddler staring down at his feet on the floor who just isn't sure about this whole "walking" thing.
  • Comparison: "No," she said, "I'm as carefree about it as a bird floating among the clouds."

Contrast context clues show meaning through dissimilar elements:

  • Contrast: "It isn't exactly the melee that I expected from your description," he said. "The kids are just roughhousing a little. I expected them to be bruised and bleeding."
  • Contrast: I know she said she could reconstitute the dried fruit, but a soggy raisin just isn't a grape.

Limitations of Context Clues

In "The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction," author Michael Graves writes:

"All in all, the descriptive research on learning from context shows that context can produce learning of word meanings and that although the probability of learning a word from a single occurrence is low, the probability of learning a word from context increases substantially with additional occurrences of the word. That is how we typically learn from context. We learn a little from the first encounter with a word and then more and more about a word's meaning as we meet it in new and different contexts."

Learning new words from context alone does have its limitations, as this method is not always definitive. Often, context may give a reader a general idea of a word, but not a full meaning. If the sentences in which an unknown word appears don't clearly spell out it's meaning, that meaning may be lost. For long-term retention, readers need to see a word multiple times. The more often an inferred definition is included, the more likely the reader will retain and understand a new word.

Sources

  • Graves, Michael F. "The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction." Teachers College Press, 2006