context clue (vocabulary)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

context clue
Philip José Farmer, The World of Tiers: Volume Two (Doubleday, 1965). (Getty Images)




In reading and listening, a context clue is 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. However, as Stahl and Nagy point out below, there are "significant limitations on any attempt to [teach vocabulary] by focusing on context alone."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Context-Clue Quizzes

Examples and Observations

  • "So, as I heard the same words again and again properly used in different phrases, I came gradually to grasp what things they signified."
    (Saint Augustine, Confessions, 400)
  • "If your conclusion paragraph becomes lengthy, consider breaking your paragraphs into penultimate ('second to last') and final paragraphs."
    (Karen A. Wink, Rhetorical Strategies for Composition. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

  • "The image of the inscrutable Chinese runs deep in Western imagination. The inscrutable Chinese, i.e., mysterious, unfathomable, inexplicable, is a powerful image because it represents the many aspects of Chinese culture which Westerners find unaccountable and difficult to understand."
    (Linda W. L. Young, Crosstalk and Culture in Sino-American Communication. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

  • "There was the equalitarian phase, which is what is happening in the book, where boys and girls are the same."
    (Martin Amis quoted by Stephen Moss in The Guardian, February 1, 2010)
  • Types of Context Clues
    Context clues come in various forms. They may be
    • a definition of the word embedded in the text
      The factory supervisor demanded an inspection, which is a careful and critical examination of all of the meats processed each day.
    • a synonym or antonym in a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph around the word
      The boxes weren't exactly heavy, just cumbersome, unlike the easy-to-carry bags with handles.
      (Here cumbersome can be figured out from its antonym, easy-to-carry.)
    • an example that helps define the word
      The builder decided that the house could be built on a number of sites, for example, along a wooded path, near the ocean, or atop a mountain.
    • a restatement of the word or idea
      Gary Paulsen writes books that appeal, or are of particular interest, to young adult readers.
    (Content-Area Reading Strategies for Language Arts, Walch Education, 2002)
  • Limitations of Context Clues
    - "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."
    (Michael F. Graves, The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction. Teachers College Press, 2006)

    - "[T]here are significant limitations on any attempt to [teach vocabulary] by focusing on context alone. First, of all there are the limitations stemming from the uninformative nature of many contexts. Also, we are not convinced that teaching students detailed information about types of context clues (e.g., appositives) is an effective use of instructional time."
    (S. A. Stahl and W. E. Nagy, Teaching Word Meanings. Routledge, 2006)

    - "Research based on the naturally occurring prose of novels, magazines, and textbooks strongly suggests that context clues are not nearly as useful for decoding unfamiliar words as has traditionally been assumed (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986). Rather, both definitional and contextual information are crucial for learning new vocabulary along with multiple encounters with new words (Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2002)."
    (John E. Readence, Thomas W. Bean, and R. Scott Baldwin, Content Area Literacy: An Integrated Approach. Kendall/Hunt, 2004)

    - "[A]lthough readers might successfully use context clues to support comprehension as they read, they may not commit the word and its meaning to memory, and their 'store' of vocabulary knowledge may not grow. Effective teachers, then, encourage students to use context clues as a strategy for clarifying meaning of unknown words as they read, but . . . the teacher must also call upon other vocabulary learning strategies (e.g., direct instruction of words, morphological analysis) to support acquisition of deep vocabulary knowledge."
    (Jeanne R. Paratore and Dana A. Robertson, Talk That Teaches: Using Strategic Talk to Help Students Achieve the Common Core. Guilford Press, 2013)